Rough House by Berkeley Gray
Amateur Sleuth

Rough House

by Berkeley Gray


He was warned ... by Conquest. He took no notice until Rubber Face came. — Then, it was TOO LATE!


Table of Contents
  1. The Man Who Liked Spinach
  2. Toowoomba Dick's Secret
  3. Death At Bishop's Weald
  4. Snags in the Path
  5. Shaft of Death
  6. Sweet William Takes a Hand
  7. The Living Waxwork
  8. Strength Through Joy!

Chapter 1

The Man Who Liked Spinach

Mr. Theodore Smyth, M.P., stood in front of the mirror in his study at Bishop’s Weald and gave a passable impression of a Napoleon. He held his fat and pompous figure very upright, and postured with self-important arrogance. He even made grimaces at himself, and stood the strain gamely. Looking at his reflection in the mirror must have been an ordeal at the best of times.

“Ha!” he said with intense satisfaction. “Hum! Capital!”

Mr. Smyth was evidently a man who was very easily pleased. He stood sideways with his shoulder to the mirror and took another look. No doubt about it, he possessed a lordly bearing. More pleased than ever, he dragged himself away from his reflection and strolled to the open french windows. Well, it wasn’t so much a stroll as a strut. Having arrived, he looked out into the dusk over the mathematically arranged and spotless gardens, and frowned. Until yesterday he had regarded Bishop’s Weald as the apple of his eye, but this evening he realised that it wasn’t much of a place, after all. Not in the same street as Chalston Park.

Bishop’s Weald was more or less his own creation. He had bought the old Sussex property many years earlier, against all the wishes of his town-loving wife, and he had made so many alterations and additions to the once-mellow old house that the original structure was scarcely recognisable. He had laid out the gardens with geometrical exactitude, in conformity with the workings of his businesslike mind. If a daisy on one of the lawns chanced to come out for a bit of sun during Mr. Smyth’s absence, it would instinctively curl up and hide on his approach.

There was a good deal of land attached to the Bishop’s Weald property, and most of this land was devoted to the high-pressure production of spinach; and this wretched vegetable, having grown to maturity, was thereupon gathered in vast quantities and shot into Mr. Smyth’s canning factory — mercifully hidden from the house by the undulating downs. Mr. Smyth had made a lot of money out of his spinach, and he professed to like the stuff. Plenty of other people liked it, too, apparently, for “Smyth’s Succulent Spinach” was a best seller in the canned vegetable line.

With the passing of years, Mr. Smyth had blossomed out into a self-made country squire. He had been able to send his two sons to the famous Public school of St. Frank’s, and later to Oxford; his wife, having suffered the soul-stifling effects of a machine-made life, in which her husband ordered her every trifling movement, had finally thrown in the sponge and died. Roderick and Hilary had been motherless for over five years.

Mr. Smyth’s frown deepened. In the gathering dusk he beheld a weedy figure in white flannels cutting across the corner of the bottom lawn. His elder son Roderick had been giving him a lot of trouble, the lazy young hound! Roderick would have new responsibilities from now on!

This thought, while giving rise to fresh problems, was nevertheless a highly satisfying thought. It reminded Mr. Smyth that his elder brother had unexpectedly died, and that he was now the twelfth Earl of Chalston, lord of all the rolling Chalston estates in Kent, including the considerable rent-roll. A bit of a shock, the eccentric Richard pegging out so suddenly, when everybody in the family had given him another forty years, but it was the foolish man’s own fault for neglecting a simple leg-cut, sustained in a trifling fall from his horse. Mr. Smyth sniffed. No such fate could ever befall him. If he so much as scratched his finger, he had the family doctor rallying round in less than half an hour.

Yes, he would have to give Roderick a good talking to. The fellow was nothing but a slacker. No good in the office, no good anywhere. All he thought of was tennis in the summer and rugger in the winter. And one day he would be Earl of Chalston.

Roderick, unconscious of his father’s unkindly meditations, ambled through the open front doorway and found Travers, the butler, in the spacious oak-raftered hall.

“Guv’nor anywhere about?” he asked, as he tossed his tennis racket into a chair.

“His lordship is in the study, sir,” said Travers, gliding forward to retrieve the carelessly flung racket. “I think you know, Mr. Roderick, that his lordship is always in the study at this hour of the evening.”

Roderick grinned rather fatuously.

“Okay, Travers, old boy! I only wanted to hear you trot out that ‘his lordship’ stuff,” he explained. “It gets me every time. You’re much better than you were this afternoon.”

He slouched off to the study and found that his father had just turned the lights on.

“Isn’t it a bit thick, guv’nor,” he said protestingly, “getting the bally servants to call you ‘lordship’? Dammit, Uncle Richard’s hardly cold! Funeral isn’t until to-morrow. Might at least have waited until he was buried “

“Don’t be ridiculous, Roderick!” interrupted his father sharply. “I am the Earl of Chalston, am I not? The moment your uncle died I succeeded to the title — since he was childless, and I am the next in the line of succession. Naturally, I am not formally assuming my title until — er — after the funeral. I cannot help what the servants do.”

“No, I suppose not,” murmured Roderick, with a covert grin. “When’s Hilary coming down from London? This evening? He was frightfully excited when I spoke to him over the ‘phone this morning. I mean, all this makes a difference — what — You can’t get away with it, guv’nor, it’s a priceless piece of luck.”

“There is no need, Roderick, to be so callous about your uncle’s death!”

“Come off it, guv!” protested the young man. “I only saw Uncle Richard once in my life, and that was when I was seven. He never cared tuppence about any of us, and I don’t see why we should shed crocodile’s tears because he’s pegged out. You often told me there was no reasonable chance of our branch of the family ever getting our hooks into the title. With Uncle Richard hale and hearty, and on the right side of middle age Well, I mean, always the chance that he’d marry and have kids of his own “

“This discussion, Roderick, like most of your discussions, is merely idle,” interrupted Mr. Smyth impatiently. “Go and get into some manly clothing and then take the car and meet your brother at the station. He’s coming by the evening train.”

Roderick ambled out, shrugging, and nearly collided with Travers in the doorway.

“A gentleman to see your lordship,” said Travers, who was looking slightly flustered. “He insists that his name is Mr. Norman Conquest, sir — er — my lord! I asked him for a card, but he informed me that the only cards on his person at the moment bear the names of several justices of the peace and a magistrate. A strange young gentleman, my lord!”

“A lunatic, I should think! “frowned the master of Bishop’s Weald. “Conquest? Did you say Conquest? Norman Conquest? Good heavens! I wonder if he’s the impudent rascal I believe he is? What would a man of his stamp want in this house?”

“Not your valuables, Brother Theodore,” came a drawling voice from behind Travers. “Move aside, serf, and then beat it.”

There was something irresistible in the tall, lithe young man who entered. He took Travers gently by the shoulders, propelled him out of the room, and shut the door. Then he faced about, took a couple of strides forward, and seated himself easily on a corner of the big mahogany desk.

“I just dropped in, Brother Theodore, to collect a little information — and perhaps to put you wise to a spot of danger that’s likely to crop up,” said the Gay Desperado, proffering his cigarette-case.

“No?” He lit one himself, and cocked it at an acute angle in his mouth. “What, if anything, do you know of your late brother’s life in Australia?”

“Well, upon my soul!” Mr. Smyth fairly goggled, and he swelled inches in every direction. “Of all the infernal impertinence! Are you aware, sir, that you are sitting on my desk?”

He fairly spluttered.

“As for my brother’s life in Australia, I only know that he spent a few years there in his early manhood. Not that I can see that it is any business of yours!”

“Patience, brother — patience,” said Norman Conquest, making himself more comfortable. “Perhaps you have heard the names of Rafael Cuffe, Miles Murchison, and Crowther Day?”

Mr. Smyth was so startled that he forgot the angry sentence of dismissal which had been on the tip of his tongue.

“Cuffe — yes!” he said sharply. “Wasn’t Rafael Cuffe murdered outside a London restaurant last night, or the night before? And there’s a report that Murchison and Day, who witnessed that crime, have mysteriously disappeared!”

He took a step nearer to his visitor, his fat, florid face stern with inquiry. “Why do you ask me such questions, young man?”

“Because I’ve every reason to believe that these three blighters, now dead — yes, they’re all dead — had been steadily blackmailing the late Earl of Chalston for twenty-five years.”

Mr. Theodore Smyth suddenly sat down. He forgot all his anger. Norman Conquest’s unique methods were strikingly effective. Formalities were dispensed with at a stroke, and no man in England was a greater stickler for formalities than Mr. Theodore Smyth.

“Blackmailing my brother!” he ejaculated. “Ridiculous! Preposterous! My brother lived the life of a recluse. Cuffe and these other men were denizens of London’s Bohemia — theatrical people and such like. My brother and they lived in worlds apart. You’re talking sheer nonsense!”

“You think so?” drawled Norman, a grim note creeping into his voice. “Listen, brother. The Earl of Chalston dies in the early evening, and that same night Rafael Cuffe is murdered! It’s a special night for Cuffe and his pals — a twenty-fifth annual celebration dinner. That annual dinner, I believe, was to celebrate the original year of the squeeze.”

“Of the what?”

“The blackmail.”

“In all my life,” said Mr. Smyth, his colour purple, “I have never heard such a tissue of scandalous rubbish as this!”

He rose majestically to his feet. “How dare you?”

“How dare I what?” asked Norman, in surprise.

“How dare you make these vile suggestions?” Mr. Smyth, now thoroughly enraged, had lost control of his voice, and his words boomed out noisily. “Blackmailing a man implies that he holds a guilty and disgraceful secret — “

“Not always — “

“Always!” thundered Mr. Smyth imperiously. “No man would pay blackmail for twenty-five years unless his secret was as shady as hell itself. And you dare to sit there and tell me that my brother, the late Earl of Chalston — “

“I wonder,” said Norman mildly, “what it feels like to burst a blood vessel?” He eyed his host’s ample figure speculatively. “In your case, I imagine, pretty painful — to say nothing of being messy! “

Mr. Theodore Smyth regained some measure of control.

“You had better go, young man,” he said thickly. “You had better go before I call my servants to have you thrown out.”

“That’s no way to talk to a man who has come here to do you a good turn” retorted Norman, sliding easily from the desk and pushing Mr. Smyth back into his chair. “There’s a queer rock formation at Chalston Park known as Roger’s Peak, and on the very summit of this, reached by an interior lift, is an observatory built by your brother. Correct?”

“Yes, quite correct; but I don’t see — “

“The steward of this eyrie is an Australian aboriginal called Toowoomba Dick, and imported by Lord Chalston in his early boyhood,” continued the Trouble Hunter, lighting a fresh cigarette. “Now, don’t go off the deep end again, Popeye!”

“Popeye! “bellowed Mr. Smyth.

“Aren’t you fond of spinach?”

“Of all the insolent young dogs — “

“Let it go!” said Norman, with a wave of his hand. “Forget the spinach. Now, it’s my theory that the black bloke, Toowoomba Dick, murdered Rafael Cuffe — “


“And the point is this: What is the tie — “

“I don’t want to hear any of your crazy theories, Mr. Conquest!” interrupted the other dangerously. “The very suggestion that this faithful black servant should have gone to London and killed a man is too ludicrous for serious discussion.”

“On the face of it, yes,” agreed Norman Conquest, his quartz-grey eyes glinting coldly. “But listen, Mr. Smyth! I was on the scene a few seconds after Cuffe was murdered. I chased the murderer and actually caught him. He was far too agile and slippery to be an ordinary white man, and he wore a rubber mask which completely concealed his features. He could have been a black man.”

“Tchah!” exploded the Spinach King.

“I know, in fact, that he was Toowoomba Dick,” continued the Desperado easily. “Better hold tight to your chair, brother, because I’m now going to give you an earful. Murchison and Day disappeared this afternoon. I was in Murchison’s flat when they were kidnapped and taken away. I raced down to Chalston Park and somehow — never mind how — I got up to Roger’s Peak. In a dark chamber I found six wax-work figures, in addition to the body of Rafael Cuffe.”

“Go on! “said Mr. Smyth ominously. “The waxwork figures represented Cuffe, Murchison, Day, yourself, and your two sons.”

“Good heavens! “

“Yes, it’s a nasty one,” admitted Norman, “But more of this presently. Toowoomba Dick surprised me at the top of the peak, and we had a bit of a scrap. I got away, and I found the bodies of Murchison and Day in a neighbouring wood.”

This time Mr. Smyth merely made gargling noises.

“Buried in a shallow pit, covered with dead leaves — placed there temporarily,” said Norman Conquest tensely, his every word frosted. “Placed there until they could be carried up to the peak under the cover of darkness. Incidentally, I carried those bodies to Scotland Yard. You see, Mr. Smyth, I know that Toowoomba Dick did these three killings. And I’m asking you — why?”

“You’re asking me!” gasped the other.

“As Lord Chalston’s nearest relative, yes,” retorted Norman swiftly. “What is the enormously strong tie which existed between your brother and Toowoomba Dick which urged the black steward to kill his master’s enemies after his master’s death? Why not before? Why not years ago? That’s the riddle. There’s one answer, of course. Lord Chalston was too fine a man to countenance any violence, and Toowoomba Dick knew it. The shock of your brother’s death affected the blackie in a queer way, and he went berserk. But it’s not good enough, Mr. Smyth. It doesn’t explain why you and your sons are on the death list.”

"I came here to warn you," said Conquest, "that you are next on the death list!"

“Th — the death list!” stammered Mr. Smyth.

“What else? Six waxwork figures — yes, and a chunk of wax on a seventh stand, probably reserved for me,” said the Desperado. “I’m here, Mr. Smyth, because you’re the one man who might be able to help me. This thing is serious. It’s packed with high voltage danger. Three men are dead. You are next! I’m trying to warn you, Lord Chalston. Don’t forget, you are Lord Chalston now. I’m here to help you, but I can’t help you unless you help me. You’ve got to tell me everything you know about your brother’s early life in Australia — “


“Now, don’t go haywire again — “

“Damn you, stop!” thundered Mr. Theodore Smyth, his whole pompous person bristling with outraged indignation. “I have heard more than enough, Conquest! I know something of your reputation, and I know that you are a barefaced adventurer, quick to seize upon any chance of making easy money.”

“Up to a point, true,” admitted Norman readily. “But at the moment I’m thinking only of preserving your life. Not,” he added reflectively, “that I can see any particular reason why it should be preserved! Frankly, Mr. Smyth — or Lord Chalston — I don’t like you. You’re too big and important to learn anything, aren’t you? You know all the answers.”

“I know that you have got hold of some ridiculous fable about my family, and that you have invented this tissue of nonsense in order to frighten me!” shouted the other furiously. “A pretty game, Conquest! You’d like me to buy your silence, eh? And you’re clever enough to veil your words in a cloud of meaningless rigmarole, so that I shall find it difficult to bring any charge against you.”

He laughed scornfully, his fat and magisterial figure quivering with arrogance and fury.

“You’ve picked a loser this time, Conquest. I’m too clever for you!”

“Too clever! Good heavens! “Norman sprang to his feet like something made of spring steel and grasped his host by the shoulders. “Listen, mug! Your life’s in danger! Unless you heed my warning, you’re likely to be dead before midnight to-morrow. I fancy Toowoomba Dick is too busy this evening — “

“Take your hands off me, you impudent rogue!” shouted Mr. Smyth. “Travers!”

He went suddenly frantic.

“Walter! George! Come in here at once! Travers I “There was no need to ring. Various members of the household had heard the fierce altercation in the library, and Travers had apparently been outside the door. For the door opened at once, and the butler stood there, frightened-looking.

“Shall — shall I call Mr. Roderick?” he faltered. “Mr. Roderick is upstairs, my lord, and I don’t think he has heard — “

“Never mind Mr. Roderick!” snapped Mr. Smyth. “Get George and Walter, and throw this impudent young hound out of the house!”

George and Walter were two menservants of such weedy physique that Norman Conquest laughed scornfully when they appeared and advanced upon him.

“Apparently you don’t feed spinach to your household staff. Brother Theodore,” said the Desperado, seizing George with one hand and hitching him by the coat-collar on to a picture-hook. “You didn’t expect these weaklings to chuck me out, did you?” He tossed Walter on to the desk and strode for the door.

“Better watch out that your next visitor isn’t the undertaker!”

“You heard him!” screamed Mr. Smyth shrilly. “That was a threat — a direct threat of murder!”

“Your mistake, Popeye!” retorted Norman. “It was just a warning for you to surround yourself with bodyguards — and I mean bodyguards!”

He took long strides through the hall and down the drive in the dusk. Joy Everard, his game little partner, was waiting in the sleek Hispano.

“Well?” she murmured. “You don’t look very pleased.”

“No wonder Brother Theodore has his effigy in the waxwork show,” said Norman Conquest, almost savagely. “Our pal, Toowoomba Dick, is evidently a bloke who knows his onions!”


The story continues … buy it today and find out if Norman Conquest can save Smythe from Toowoomba Dick’s death threat!

Additional Info

  • MBIN No: 1234
  • Length: ~ 61 pages (depending on ereader font and font size)
  • Original Publication: The Thriller Library | May 31, 1941 | No. 561
  • Republication Date: Aug 22, 2018