FROM the triple gallows three figures swung lazily, one woman and two men.

Only a gentle creaking of their ropes sounded in the quiet night. A horn lantern, perched above the triangle of the crosspieces, swayed in the slight wind, causing the three shadows to leap and prance on the ground in a grotesque dance of death, like some macabre travesty of a slow - motion film in silhouette.

'Very nice,' said Roger Sheringham.

'It is rather charming, isn't it?' agreed his host.

'Two jumping jacks, I see, and one jumping jenny.'

'Jumping jenny?'

'Doesn't Stevenson in Catriona call them jumping jacks? And I suppose the feminine would be jumping jenny.'

'I suppose it would.'

'Morbid devil, Ronald,' Roger said curiously, 'aren't you?'

Ronald Stratton laughed. 'Well, I thought at a murderer - and - victim party the least one could have was a gallows. It took me quite a long time to stuff those chaps with straw. Two of my suits, and an old dress dug up from goodness knows where. I may be morbid, but I am conscientious.'

'It's extremely effective,' Roger said politely.

'It is, rather, isn't it? You know, I should hate to be hanged. So very ignominious, to say the least. Really, Roger, I don't think murder's worth it. Well, let's go down and have a drink.'

The two men went towards the door, in a little gable of its own, which led from the big flat roof on which the gallows had been erected into the house. The little gable carrying the door projected at right angles from a larger one, and almost in the angle was a short flight of iron steps leading over the tiles and ending apparently in nothing. The glint of the bright moonlight on the metal caught Roger's eye, and he jerked his head towards it. 'What's up there? Not another flat roof?'

'Yes, a small one. I ran a flat across the top of those two parallel gables. They used to be an awful nuisance when there was any snow or stormy weather. I thought the flat would be rather pleasant as an observation point; one gets a big view from it. But I don't suppose I go up there once a year.'

Roger nodded, and the two passed through the doorway and down the flight of stairs which led from the roof. They crossed the top landing of an ancient well staircase, passed the open door of a very large room full of oak beams and dim corners in the gabled ceiling, where a dozen murderers and murderesses were dancing on a parquet floor to a very modern radio - gramophone, and walked into another room, scarcely less large, at the end of the landing.

As they stepped into the lighted area, it could be seen that Roger's companion was picturesquely dressed in a black velvet suit and knee breeches; he and his younger brother, David Stratton, represented the Princes in the Tower. Roger himself, clinging, like most of the men present, to the conventional dinner jacket and black tie, had announced that he was Gentleman George Joseph Smith, of Brides - in - the - Bath fame, who did not know that he ought to have come in a white tie and tails.

Stratton looked hospitable with bottles. 'What will you have?'

'What have you got?' asked his guest cautiously.

Roger having been furnished with a tankard of old ale, and his host with a whiskey - and - soda, the two men leaned their backs against the heavy oak crossbeam of the wide open fireplace and, warming themselves pleasantly in the traditional masculine regions, continued to chat lightly upon sudden death.

Roger did not know Ronald Stratton particularly well. Stratton was something of a dilettante: a man in young middle age, comparatively wealthy, who wrote detective stories because it amused him to do so. His detective stories were efficient, imaginative, and full of a rather gruesome humour. The idea of this party exactly carried out the light - handed treatment of death in his books. There were about a couple of dozen guests, certainly not more, and each one was supposed to represent a well - known murderer or his victim. The idea was not strictly original, but the embellishment of a gallows on the flat roof was, typically so.

The party was nominally in honour of Roger, who, with half a dozen others, was staying in the house for the week - end; but Roger himself was not at all sure that he was not an excuse rather than a cause.

Still he was not disposed to worry about that. He liked Stratton, who amused him; and the party, not yet an hour old, promised to be a good one. His eye wandered across the room to a far corner, where an exquisitely polished sofa table, loaded with decanters and glasses, was doing somewhat vulgar duty as a bar. Most of the other guests were dancing to the wireless in the adjoining ballroom, but by the bar Mrs. Pearcey was telling Dr. Crippen the story of her life.

It was not the first time that Roger's eye had lingered on Mrs. Pearcey. Mrs. Pearcey seemed to invite the eyes of others to linger upon her: not indeed through her good looks, for she had few, nor through anything so coarse as ogling, but simply because she appeared determined that wherever she might be, she should be noticed.

Roger, always on the lookout for types, was interested. He felt too that it was probably significant that the lady should have chosen the dowdy but undoubtedly striking role of Mrs. Pearcey rather than the showier costume part of Mary Blandy. There was a Mary Blandy, and undoubtedly Mrs. Pearcey was the more effective.

He turned to Stratton. 'Mrs. Pearcey over there ... I don't believe I've met her yet ... it is your sister - in - law, isn't it?'

'It is.' Ronald Stratton's voice had lost - its usual humorous tone and become flat and expressionless.

'I thought so,' Roger said carelessly and wondered why Stratton's voice should have changed like that. It was plain that he did not very much like his sister - in - law, but Roger thought that was hardly sufficient reason for such a very blank tone. However, it was obviously impossible to probe further.

Stratton began to ask questions about the cases with which his guest had been connected. Roger replied without his customary enthusiasm. His ears were directed towards the low conversation on the other side of the room, which was not so much a conversation as a monologue. It was impossible to hear the words through the music which came from the ballroom, but the tone was eloquent; it meandered on and on, and Roger thought he could detect in it a note of noble endeavour thwarted, mingled with a deeper undercurrent of Christian resignation. He wondered what on earth the woman was talking about so interminably. Whatever it was, Dr. Crippen was plainly bored by it. Roger wished unblushingly that he could hear what it was all about.

The dance came to an end, and some of the dancers drifted in to the bar. A large man, with one of those pleasant, nobbly faces, strolled up to Stratton and Roger. 'Well, Ronald, my man . . .'

'Hullo, Philip. Been doing your duty?'

'No, yours. I've been dancing with your young woman. Perfectly charming, my dear fellow,' said the newcomer, with an air of naive sincerity which was in itself charming.

'That's rather what I think,' Ronald grinned. 'By the way, have you met Sheringham? This is Dr. Chalmers, Sheringham.'

'How do you do?' said the doctor, shaking hands with obvious pleasure. 'Your name's very familiar to me.'

'Is it?' said Roger. 'Good. It all helps sales.'

'Oh, I didn't say I'd gone so far as to buy one of your books. But I have read them.'

'Better and better,' Roger grinned. Dr. Chalmers stayed for a few moments and then moved off to the bar to get his late partner a drink.

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