Tuesday, 30 June 2015
I cribbed this from the Yahoo group 'fictionmags' chums. It's a cute short mystery./drf
Lord Allerfield, as the bulletins in the leading morning papers told their readers, having been dangerously ill, and literally at death’s door for days, had suddenly taken a turn for the better.
For the last week, he had been allowed to sit up for a few hours each day, and even to receive short visits from is intimate friends A man of great vitality and recuperative powers—though well past his prime—his complete recovery was confidently expected.
Major Derwent Duff was an intimate friend of the Allerfields of many years standing so, after a late lunch on a sunny spring afternoon, he looked in at Melford House, in Kensington Gore, to pay a visit of congratulations.
He was shown up to the rooms Lord Allerfield had been moved into for the sake of quietness during his illness.
They were at the end of a long corridor and consisted of a large outer room, half sitting room half library, which connected directly with the passage, with windows facing west and south , and to the left of this, and accessible only by a door in the dividing wall, an almost equally large bed-room, with two windows facing south, and overlooking the garden.
Lord Allerfield, tall and gaunt, was seated in a deep armchair in front of a log fire in this inner room in his dressing-gown and slippers, and the two windows were wide open, admitting a flood of sunshine.
His wife and two other visitors were there when Duff was show in, and his confidential secretary Viner, was busy with some papers at a big writing-table.
Lord Allerfield, though drawn and wasted by his illness, was much stronger than Duff had expected to find him. At times there was quite a gleam of the old humour in the sunken eyes; though every now and again the light faded, and he seemed drowsy and lethargic, and his head would nod a little.
Duff had scarcely been in the room ten minutes when a pretty-faced nurse slipped quietly in from her own room, which was just across the corridor, and, after a quick glance at her patient, drove them all out.
‘It’s high time for his afternoon’s nap,’ she said in an undertone to Lady Allerfield, ‘so you must all run away, please. He is to have his beef-tea at five, and until them he mustn’t be disturbed.’
Lady Allerfield nodded, patted her husband’s sleeve, and led the way out.
Viner gathered up his papers, pausing for a moment to speak to the nurse in the corridor, and then they all trooped downstairs to the drawing-room, with the exception of the nurse, who returned to her own room, which was opposite those occupied by the invalid.
When they were downstairs, a couple more visitors came in to make inquiries, and close on their heels came tea.
Duff, happening to glance at the clock, realised with something of a start that it was already ten minutes past five, and was rising to go when he saw the nurse open the door at the far end of the room and beckon to Viner, who had just been handing round some cakes. Something in her face made Duff suddenly change his mind and stay. She was evidently both startled and scared, and after exchanging a few whispered sentences with Viner, the latter nodded and followed her out.
From where he sat, Duff had had a clear view of her face, and also of Viner’s, as they spoke together, and he felt a conviction that something had happened. No one else in the room, however, seemed to have noticed the incident.
He sat on, paying little heed to the flow of general conversation going on round about him—and he had not long to wait.
In less than ten minutes Viner, obviously terribly upset, and with a face nearly as white as his collar, burst into the room.
‘Lord Allerfield—’ he said shrilly. And then stopped.
All in the room sprang to their feet.
‘What?’ demanded someone sharply.
‘He’s dead!’ said Viner hoarsely. ‘The nurse came for me here a few minutes ago and beckoned me out. She was taking him his beef-tea at five, as ordered, and, to her amazement, found the sitting-room door locked. She knocked and knocked and, getting no answer, she became alarmed. The door had never been locked before during the whole time of his illness; so, feeling sure there was something amiss, she ran down here for me. We ran up together, and being unable to get in any other way, I broke a panel in the door, through which I was able to reach my arm. The key was there right enough on the inside, and the door was locked. I unlocked it, and went in. Feeling certain there must be something seriously wrong, I told the nurse—she’s only a girl after all—to wait on the threshold of the sitting-room whilst I went into the bed-room beyond. I was afraid that Lord Allerfield might have had a fit or a collapse of some sort. But—but it was worse than that. He was lying huddled up in the chair before the fire, and when I tried to rouse him I saw.
‘He had an old Indian knife which he used as a paper-cutter. He always kept it lying about somewhere handy—generally on the writing-table or the table by his bedside. It was buried to the hilt in his chest, and beside him, on the table, was a piece of paper with some scribbled words on it: “I can’t stand this any longer,” or “I can’t bear it.” I was too horrorstruck to read clearly. I gave the nurse the key as I came out and told her to stay on guard outside the door in case of the servants or anyone, and came—’ His voice broke suddenly and he stopped.
Lady Allerfield had mercifully fainted quietly away before he finished. Duff had seen her sway, and caught her in the nick of time. After laying her gently on a sofa in charge of two of the other women, he nodded grimly to the two men in the room he knew well, and they filed quietly out after him in silence, together with Viner.
‘Good Heavens!’ said one of the men, in an awed whisper as the door closed behind them. ‘Allerfield of all people! The last man I should have expected it of! Fine sportsman and all that. But I believe he suffered terrible pain during the first few days of his illness. He must have felt—or fancied—that he had a relapse coming on or another attack.’
‘Someone must telephone to the doctor at once. Viner, you do it,’ said Duff. ‘Tell him it’s urgent. And then, if you take my advice, you’ll have a stiff drink, or something, before you come upstairs; but be as quick as you can.’
‘I’ll telephone to Sir James McAskie at once, and take your advice. I’m sorry I made such a fool of myself by blurting out the news like that in front of everyone, but it was all so sudden and so ghastly.’
The three others went upstairs in silence, and found the nurse waiting outside. She was very pale, but quite self-possessed, and handed Duff the key even before he asked for it. The four of them went in and through to the bed-room.
It was just as Viner had said. The fire was still burning in the grate, and the sunshine and the twittering of birds came through the open window. But the owner of the room, lying huddled up in his chair, would never be conscious of either again.
The knife had been driven in with a firm, upward thrust below the breastbone into the heart, and only the dulled brass hilt of it was visible protruding from the bright-coloured silk pyjama-jacket. The right hand, thin and sinewy, lay limply on the dead man’s lap, curved palm uppermost directly beneath the knife-hilt. The wound had bled a little—not much—but a few splashes of blood had trickled down and stained the curved palm.
Major Duff, after one quick, comprehensive glance at the body of his friend, turned to the pathetic note on the table near by. It was written in the dead man’s handwriting, a little shaky from illness:
‘I can bear this no longer. Good-bye. --
Lord Allerfield’s fountain-pen lay near it, and the words had been carefully blotted. That was all.
With a pensive frown, Duff regarded the piece of paper, the pen, and the blotting-pad on the table. Then he turned to the nurse, who was leaning against the foot of the bed, and looking rather faint. He led her out into the sitting-room beyond.
‘I want you to tell me in your own way exactly what happened when you were up here alone?’ he said, having settled her in an armchair. ‘Don’t hurry yourself,’ he added kindly. ‘I just want you to try and remember, that’s all.’
‘You remember when I came into the room there and asked you all to leave earlier this afternoon?’ she said, a little wearily. ‘Well, I stood for a moment or two after that in the passage, talking to Mr. Viner about some business trifle—the payment of a chemist’s account, I think it was. Then he went away and joined the rest of you, and I went to my room, which is just opposite here, and sat down to read. There was nothing for me to do until five, when I was to take in the beef-tea, but I kept my sitting-room door open, as I always do, in case Lord Allerfield should need me. There is a bell always left on the table just beside him, or within reach, and if he presses that I can hear him at once with my door open.
‘At five one of the servants came up with the beef-tea on a salver, brought it into my room, and took away the tray that had been used at luncheon-time, and which I had brought in here. The servants were not allowed n the sick-room; they were apt to irritate the patient.
‘I took up the salver and went to the door over there with it. To my astonishment, it was locked. I have been nursing here ever since the illness started, and neither I, nor, as I feel sure, the night nurse either, has ever known that door locked. Certianly neither of us has ever locked it.
‘I was puzzled at first. Then I became alarmed, especially when, after knocking loudly and repeatedly, I got no answer. Lord Allerfield might have had sufficient strength to move slowly across to the door and lock it; but why should he have done so, unless—. It was that thought which frightened me and sent me hurrying downstairs for Mr. Viner.
‘He came back with me and tried the door himself, and finally he put his shoulder against it, and managed to splinter a panel; but there was no sound from inside. I think we were both thoroughly scared by that time; at any rate, I know I was, for there were several bottles of dangerous drugs in the room—sleeping draughts and so forth, and veronal tabloids—made up in accordance with Sir James McKascie’s special prescriptions. By themselves, properly administered, of course, they were harmless enough, but a large overdose, taken accidentally or deliberately, might have easily produced coma, and then proved fatal.’
‘Quite so,’ said Duff thoughtfully. ‘And then?’
‘Mr. Viner managed to make a hole in the panel big enough to get his arm through, and unlocked the door from the inside. He opened it and told me to wait where I was, whilst he went into the bed-room. He saw I was very frightened, of course. In about a couple of minutes he came out again looking as white as a ghost and shaking. He locked the door of the sitting-room behind him, and gave me the key.
‘“Don’t go in,” he told me. “It’s worse even than we feared. Stay therefore a few moments. I must go and tell the others; and don’t let anyone in on nay excuse until we come back.” So I stayed there until you came,’ she added lamely.
Duff nodded gravely.
‘You behaved very well, nurse,’ he said. ‘Now, go and have a bit of rest in your own room. I’ll see to everything here.’
He helped her to her own door, and then, returning to that of the sitting-room, he stood on the threshold, staring vacantly about him.
He had been there a very short time when the sound of hurried footsteps mad him turn sharply. Two men were coming towards him—Viner and the doctor, Sir James McKaskie.
‘I missed Sir James on the telephone,’ explained Viner, ‘but learnt that he was already on his way here, so I waited to bring him up.’
Sir James, a small, wiry man with very shaggy eyebrows, nodded to Duff, whom he knew, and the three passed into the inner room.
Sir James, after a single exclamation of alarm and dismay, immediately set about his gruesome task. Viner, looking dazed, stared out of the window, while Derwent Duff fiddled about with things on the table, even examining the medicine-bottles, smelling the contents of some, and tasting others by moistening the tip of his finger with the liquid inside.
At last, as Sir James rose from making his preliminary examination, Duff said tentatively:
‘The police ought to be informed as soon as possible. There’s bound to be an inquiry, and if things could be kept as quiet as possible, for Lady Allerfield’s sake—.’
‘Sir James nodded briskly.
‘Of course!’ he said. 'The sooner it’s done the better. Viner, you are an intimate member of the household. You’d better go. Mention my name if you like, and try and persuade them to hush things up as much as possible.’
‘Very well,’ said Viner tonelessly, and he and Duff left the room.
In a few minutes Duff came back and faced Sir James.
‘McKaskie,’ he said, ‘I want a word or two with you. You see that medicine-bottle there? It contains a sleeping draught of some sort, presumably of your prescribing. The date on the label shows it was only made up and delivered by the chemist yesterday. Yet I notice that there are seven doses missing. Is that in accordance with your orders?’
Sir James glanced at the bottle and raised his eyebrows.
‘Certainly not! I prescribed one dose at bedtime, to be repeated in an hour if the patient seemed restless. It is a powerful narcotic and sedative, but it is quite harmless. Even if Allerfield had swallowed the whole lot by mistake, it would only have sent him into a deep sleep for a certain number of hours.’
‘Quite so,’ said Duff. ‘Supposing, then, that he had two doses—the maximum prescribed by you last night. This graduated bottle shows that there are five doses unaccounted for, which have evidently been given to him, or taken by him, today.’
‘He would never have taken them!’ said Sir James sharply. ‘He had an old-fashioned loathing of drugs, a sort of morbid horror. It was most difficult to induce him to take even his ordinary dose.’
‘It is colourless and practically tasteless, quite unnoticeable in, say, a cup of beef-tea.’
Sir James darted a sharp look at him from under his shaggy eyebrows, and his face grew hard about the jaw.’
‘That is so,’ he replied curtly.
‘Its effect would not be immediate?’ persisted Duff.
‘No. Under normal circumstances, and in complete quiet, sleep would be induced in about an hour. With any disturbing elements in the room—such as people moving about and talking—sleep, even with such a dose, might be delayed for a couple of hours, possibly a little longer. But it would come in the end, and then it would be both deep and heavy.’
Major Duff drummed thoughtfully on the table with his fingers.
‘Allerfield had his last cup of beef-tea at two o’clock,’ he said quietly. I learnt that from his nurse. At a quarter past three his wife, myself, and a couple of other people were in the room talking to him. He was quite sensible, but then he grew drowsy and began to nod. The nurse came in and turned us out as it was time for his afternoon sleep. He was practically asleep as we left the room.
‘At five she returned, found the door locked on the inside, and was unable to make him hear or rouse him, so she went for help. He had had five doses of that sleeping draught, remember. At half past three he was virtually asleep under the influence of the draught. Yet apparently between that time and the time the door was forced—shortly after five—he roused himself sufficiently to write that note on the table there, replace that cap neatly on the pen, having previously locked the door in the outer room, mark you—blot his farewell message carefully, and then thrust that knife upwards into his heart, an action requiring a man’s utmost determination and considerable physical strength. Strange, isn’t it?’
Sir James sprang to his feet.
‘In Heaven’s name, what do you mean?’ he said hoarsely.
‘Wait a moment,’ said Duff, and, selecting a clean sheet of writing-paper, he laid it on the table.
‘Please take that fountain-pen there and write something—your signature—anything will do.’
The doctor took up the pen, pulled off the cap, and then put it down again with a gesture of disgust. The thing was leaking badly, the nib-point was corroded, and his own fingers were smeared with ink.
‘I knew that would happen,’ said Duff. ‘I tried it myself a little while ago, with the same result. That pen hasn’t been used for days. It leaks when you try to use it, and the ink has clotted round the point. Yet there are no blots or smears on this note, nor is there any other pen of any description in the room.
‘Now look at the blotting pad. There are the impressions of a few addresses of envelopes in Viner’s handwriting. Any letters he takes down he takes in a notebook is in pencil shorthand and transcribes in his own room. The pad is otherwise clean.
‘This brief farewell note was never written with that pen. With a similar one—yes; but not with that. It was never blotted on this pad—the only one in the room—and there isn’t a trace of an ink-smear on Allerfield’s fingers, because I looked for one. That note was written and prepared elsewhere beforehand, and is a passable forgery, neither more nor less. You see it has been folded in two. What on earth for? There are plenty of envelopes in the rack there. Allerfield could have used one of those, or left the note lying open on the table. It was folded for one reason only—to go into a man’s pocket or pocket-book.’
Sir James’ grim face hardened even more.
‘You mean murder?’ he said harshly.
‘But the door was locked on the inside!’
‘Come with me,’ said Duff shortly. ‘Viner will be back soon with the police.’
He led the way out, locked the sitting-room door carefully behind him, and pocketed the key. They went down the long corridor, and stopped at the third door on the right, which appeared to be a small study.
Duff switched on the light, for it was getting dark, and closed the door.
‘You remember I was some little time on returning, after sending Viner off for the police? Well, I was here and this is what I found.’
He took from beneath a diary a sheet of blotting-paper which had once been crumpled up, but since then carefully smoothed out.
‘That was in the wastepaper-basket,’ he said. I flattened it out as best I could. Hold it up to the mirror there under the light, and tell me what you see.’
Sir James did so, and saw a criss-cross impression of neat, slanting handwriting—Viner’s; and then a few words in a crabbed handwriting stood out.
‘“Bear—bear this no longer,” repeated several times, and in another place “I—I—I” followed by a succession of “
Duff, stretching out a finger over Sir James’ shoulder, pointed to one particular part of the reflection, showing an almost complete silence.
‘“… bear this no longer. Goodbye.—
‘There are many repetitions of that sort of thing,’ said Duff quietly. ‘The man had been practising, you see. And that left-hand corner of the blotting-paper which is torn has an edge corresponding exactly to the edge of the portion left in the corner-piece of the blotters on the desk there. Also, it is evident that there has been no fire in the room for days, yet the grate has a dozen or more charred wisps of paper in it, crumpled up and burnt most carefully with matches—the results of the previous trials. The pen with which they were written is presumably in its owner’s pocket—similar to that one you picked up just now; and filled with the same kind of ink. So now you know where that farewell message was really written.’
‘But where are—’
‘We’re in Viner’s private work-room.’
Sir James started and Duff lit a cigarette
‘You can see what happened,’ he said. ‘Just about two o’clock the nurse brought Allerfield’s soup. Viner was busy at work in the room. She put the soup down on the tray and went out. A moment or so later Viner got up to go down to luncheon. He knew exactly what he wanted to do, and where that bottle of sleeping-mixture was. It would be the work of seconds to slip, say, four or five doses into the soup, and replace the bottle unobserved.
‘After luncheon he returned to his work. Possibly Lady Allerfield and the others went up with him. I was shown in later, and left at three-thirty with the rest. Allerfield, having drunk his soup and a large dose of the draught and hour and a half earlier, was already sleepy.
‘Viner made an excuse to speak to the nurse in the passage on some trivial matter, and whilst doing so he held the key behind him, with his back to the door, which he locked and then took away the key. No one, humanly speaking, would attempt to go near that room again till five. Then the nurse would go, in the ordinary course of her duties, find the door fastened, and naturally come to him before anyone else, as he was Allerfield’s confidential secretary. Even if she hadn’t, there would have been no danger. There would have been a hunt for the key. It would have been found under the mat, placed there by Viner in helping to search, and the patient would have been found sleeping comfortably.
‘But she did come to him, as it was a hundred to one she would, and beckoned him out of the room. I remember now that I was sitting, close to him, and noticed a curious, fidgety, expectant look on his face before her arrival at the drawing-room door, but that the moment she began speaking to him he became as expressionless and impassive as a Red Indian. He went upstairs with her, and splintered a panel of the door. Having got his arm through, he found that it was locked on the inside. As the key was in his hand when it passed through that hole in the panel, it is not surprising. He opened the door and made her wait on the threshold. From there it is quite impossible to see into the inner room. He went swiftly in. Allerfield was in state of stupor.
‘Viner pulled that note out of his pocket—he shouldn’t have folded it—laid it on the table with the pen handy. The knife was in readiness. He had seen to that. One swift blow, and everything was done in a matter of seconds. He placed the dead man’s hand beneath the knife and rushed out. Even a stray blood-splash on his own cuff or hand could have been easily explained away.’
‘But the motive?’ said Sir James.
‘Allerfield was a very rich man,’ said Duff. ‘he had many secret enterprises in which he probably held shares in a name not his own. Viner’s, as his confidential man, seems a likely one. Also, I expect Viner had been speculating on his own account with money certainly not his own, especially during Allerfield’s illness. He was empowered to sign cheques, and it was a golden opportunity for him. Had Allerfield’s illness carried him off, a whole staff of accountant’s and family solicitors couldn’t have found out a thing.
‘But when you got him on the road to health again Viner saw his danger. Allerfield was an uncommonly shrewd man and he knew, as no one else did, how affairs should stand. With the recovery of his health, Viner’s discovery was inevitable, and Viner most effectually prevented that recovery.’
Duff paused and stood listening.
‘I think I hear him coming up the stairs with the police,’ he said quietly. They will be most useful. Shall we go and meet them, Sir James?’
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.