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Title: My Adventure at Chiselhurst
Author: A. J. Alan
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eBook No.: 0609241.txt
Language:  English
Date first posted: December 2006
Date most recently updated: December 2006

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Title: My Adventure at Chiselhurst
Author: A. J. Alan

Towards the end of last September I went to the Radio A Exhibition at
Olympia, and very fine it was, too. I drifted about, and after I'd, so
to speak, "done" the ground floor and was going up the stairs to the
gallery, I ran into a man I knew. Just at the moment it wouldn't do at
all for me to mention his name, so I'll merely call him James, but
there's no harm in saying that he was a retired stockbroker and he lived
near Chiselhurst.

Anyhow, there he was, and he hailed me with glee and insisted on our
walking round together. I was rather sorry about this because it's so
much more fun wandering about exhibitions by oneself, and not only that,
he was evidently starting a bad cold which didn't attract me
particularly, but there was no getting out of it without offending him,
so I didn't try.

After all, he was by way of being a friend of mine and I'd known him for
ages, but we hadn't come across each other for some months, and during
this time he'd gone and got married again, unexpected-like. I mean,
everyone had come to look on him as a chronic widower, and he'd have
probably stopped so if the daughter who kept house for him hadn't got
married herself and gone to live in Birmingham. You must excuse these
details, but I want you to understand exactly what the position was. At
things were, he hadn't seen the catch of running an enormous great house
all by himself, so Mrs. James the Second had come to the throne as a
matter of course. I had never actually met her, but from all accounts
she was a great success.

James was so keen on telling me about how happy he was, and so on, that
it was quite a job to make him take any interest in the show, but
whenever he did deign to look at or listen to anything he merely said it
wasn't a patch on some rotten super-het he'd brought back from the
United States. (They'd spent their honeymoon there for some unknown
reason.) I naturally wasn't going to stand this sort of thing for long,
so I upped and made a few remarks about American super-hets which were
very well received by adjacent stall-holders. The remarks themselves
weren't, perhaps, of general interest, but they landed me with a
challenge. This was to dine with him that evening, hear his set, and
incidentally, meet his new wife. I hadn't got an excuse ready, so I said
that I should be charmed to meet his wife and, incidentally, hear his
new set.

It so happened that my car was in dock for two days and James said he'd
call for me at home and run me down. The question then arose as to
whether I should dress first or take a bag down with me. That doesn't
sound important, I know, but it had a good deal to do with something
that happened afterwards. As a matter of fact I decided to change at
home. I left James at the Exhibition during the afternoon, he duly
picked me up at my place at half-past six or thereabouts, and we got
down to Chiselhurst just before seven.

We were met by the news that Mrs. James wasn't in. She'd apparently
taken out her own car during the morning and gone off to see her mother
who lived at Worthing and was a bit of an invalid. As this was a thing
she'd been in the habit of doing every two or three weeks it was nothing
out of the way, but she usually got back earlier.

At all events, pending her return, we went through the hall into the
lounge, where people generally sat, and James began mixing cocktails.
While he was doing this I had a look round to see how much had been
altered under the new management, as one would. The only unfamiliar
object in the room seemed to be a large picture hanging over the
mantelpiece. I was just strolling across to get a better view (it was
getting a bit dark by this time), when James said: "Half a sec," and he
switched on some specially arranged lights round the frame which showed
it up, properly. Then he said: "What do you think of my wife?"

Well, I looked at it and said: "Gosh! If that's at all like her she must
be one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen," and that's saying a
lot. The portrait was by quite a well-known man and he'd painted her
exactly full face and looking straight at you. You don't often see that
because so few people can stand it. The general effect was so realistic
that one almost felt one was being introduced and ought to say
something. She was fair rather than dark, a little bit Scandinavian in
appearance, and I put her down as a shade over thirty.

James finished mixing the cocktails and gave me mine, and then he took
his up with him to dress, leaving me sitting in an arm-chair facing the
fireplace--and the picture.

He couldn't have got further than the top of the stairs when the
telephone bell in the hall rang and he came running down to answer it.
It was evidently his wife at the other end, and judging from what he
said, she was explaining that she was stuck at Worthing for the night
owing to some trouble with the car. Nothing serious.

(He told me afterwards that she'd first of all had a bad puncture and
then found that the inner tube of the spare wheel was perished. The
delay would have meant her driving part of the way home in the dark,
which she didn't like.)

After that the question of his cold cropped up. She must have asked
after it because I heard him say it wasn't any better. They talked about
it for a bit and then lapsed into the sloppy type of conversation which
one sort of expects between newly married people, but which is none the
less averagely dull for anyone else to listen to.

It may have been more than averagely dull in this case because it almost
sent me off to sleep. It didn't quite, but I got as far as the moment
when the sub-conscious side of the brain begins to take control and you
sometimes get entirely fantastic ideas. (Either that or you try to hoof
the end of the bed off.) Anyhow, if you remember, I was sitting looking
at this brightly illuminated picture of Mrs. James. Well, for an
incredibly short space of time, I mean, you've no idea how short, the
whole character of it seemed to change. Instead of an oil painting in
rather vivid colours it suddenly looked like a photograph, or, to be
strictly accurate, a photograph as reproduced in a newspaper. Try
looking at one through a magnifying glass (not now--sometime), and
imagine it to be four feet by three, and you will get the same effect
that I did. There was a name printed under this photograph and my eyes
certainly read it, but before my mind could take in what it was the
illusion was gone and I was wideawake again.

It was all over so quickly that I just said: "Um, that's funny," and
didn't pay much attention to it.

When James came in after a lengthy and idiotic good-bye on the telephone
I didn't even tell him. He'd have only made some fatuous joke about the
strength of his cocktails.

He was full of apologies about his wife not being able to get home and
so forth, and he explained what had happened with yards of detail. I'd
gathered most of it already but I had to pretend to listen with interest
so as to make him think I hadn't heard some of the other things that had
been said. He then went up finally to dress and again left me alone with
the picture, but although I tried from every angle, both with and
without the lights, I couldn't manage to recapture the peculiar
"half-tone" effect, neither was I able to remember the name which had
appeared underneath. By the way, it is worth noting that if I'd decided
to dress at Chiselhurst instead of at home I probably shouldn't have
been left alone with the picture at all, and got the jim-jams about it.

James came down in due course and we had a most elaborate dinner. He
always did things very well and there was no reason why he shouldn't.
People with five thousand a year often do.

At the end of dinner we carted our coffee and old brandy into the
lounge, and then he introduced me to his unspeakable wireless set. I
hadn't spotted it earlier because it was housed in a tall-boy which had
always been there.

Needless to say, the tall-boy was far and away the best thing about it.
When he switched it on the volume of distorted noise was so appalling
that I can't think why the ceiling didn't come down.

There was a long and terrible period during which we could only converse
by means of signs, and then to my great relief one of his transformers
caught fire and we had to put it out with a soda-water syphon.

By then it was getting on for eleven and I said it was time to go. That,
of course, meant a final whisky, and he was just starting on his, which
he'd mixed with milk, by the way, when he put it down and said: "My word
I I shall hear about it if I don't take my aspirin," and he went
upstairs to fetch some. He was gone three or four minutes, and when he
came down he said he'd had the devil's own hunt, as he couldn't find any
of his own and he'd been obliged to bag his wife's last three. These he
proceeded to take, and then I really had to go as there was only just
time to catch my train, and that was that.

Next morning, during breakfast, there was a ring at the bell, and they
came and told me that Inspector Soames of Chiselhurst wanted to see me,
so I went out and interviewed him.

He seemed quite a decent fellow, and he led offby enquiring how I was. I
thanked him and said I was very well indeed. He next wanted to know if
I'd slept well, and I told him that I had, but even then he wasn't
happy. Was I sure I'd felt no discomfort of any kind during the night? I
said: "None whatever, but why this sudden solicitude about my health?"

He then said: "Well, you see, sir, it's like this. Last night you dined
with Mr.--er--(well--James, in fact). You left him round about 11 p.m.,
and he presumably went straight to bed. However, at three o'clock this
morning groans were heard coming from his room, and when the servants
went in they found him lying half in and half out of bed, writhing with
pain and partially unconscious. Doctors were immediately called in and
they did all they could, but by six o'clock he was dead." Well, this was
naturally a great shock to me. It always is when you hear of people whom
you know going out suddenly like that, especially when you've seen them
alive and well such a little time before.

I asked the Inspector what James had died of, and he said: "Oh, probably
some acute form of food poisoning," but it wouldn't be known for certain
until after the post-mortem. In the meantime, would I mind telling him
everything we had had to eat and drink the night before? Which I did.
Actually it was only a check, because he'd already got it all down in
his notebook. I dare say he'd been talking to the cook and the maids
who'd waited on us. He even knew that I hadn't had any fish, whereas
James had, but there was nothing wrong with that as it had all been
finished downstairs. I was able to be more helpful in the matter of
drinks afterwards, and I didn't forget to mention the final whisky and
milk and the three aspirins, all of which he carefully wrote down.

I next enquired after Mrs. James. It had apparently been rather
distressing about her. They'd telephoned to Worthing as soon as they'd
found how gravely ill James was, and she'd arrived home just as he was
dying. No one had had the nous to be on the look-out for her at the
front door, and she'd got right up into the room and seen how things
were before they could stop her. She had then completely collapsed,
which was only natural, and they'd had to carry her to her room and put
her to bed. Things were so bad with her that there was talk of a nurse
being sent for.

My inspector friend then went away, but he warned me that I should have
to appear at the inquest, which would probably be three days later.

I duly turned up but wasn't called. They only took evidence of
identification and the proceedings were adjourned for three weeks to
await the result of the post-mortem.

I wrote to Mrs. James soon afterwards asking if there was anything I
could do, but she sent back a rather vague note about being too ill to
see anyone, so we didn't meet.

I had another interview with the police after that, but they didn't ask
me any more questions about food, and when the adjourned inquest came on
it was perfectly obvious why. The cause of James's death wasn't food
poisoning at all. It was fifty grains of perchloride of mercury. In case
you don't know, perchloride of mercury is also called corrosive
sublimate (it's used in surgical dressings), and fifty grains taken
internally is a pretty hopeless proposition. In fact, according to what
the very eminent pathologist person said in the witness-box, it must be
about as good for your tummy as molten lead. This great man went on to
give it as his opinion that the poison must have been administered not
more than eight hours before death had taken place. This was allowing
for the milk which would have a retarding influence. As James had died
at six in the morning it meant that he must have taken his dose sometime
after ten o'clock the previous night. As I had been the last person to
see him alive, or at any rate conscious, it made my evidence rather
important, especially as it covered the first hour of the material

When my turn came I told the Court almost word for word what I'd told
the Inspector, right down to the three aspirins.

The Coroner asked me a whole lot of questions about James's manner and
health, and I could only say that he had seemed normal, cheerful, and,
bar his cold, healthy.

When they'd done with me, Mrs. James was called, and I was able to see
her properly for the first time. She was even better looking than her
portrait, and black suited her. One could tell that she had the sympathy
of everyone. She would. She was popular in the district, and the court
was packed with her friends. The Coroner treated her with the utmost
consideration. She said that her relations with her husband had always
been of the very best and there had never been the ghost of a
disagreement. She also stated that as far as she knew he had no worries,
either financial or otherwise, and that he could have had no possible
reason for taking his life.

After that the Coroner became even more considerate than ever. One could
see what he was after; he clearly had the fact in mind that when a rich
man dies in mysterious circumstances there are always plenty of people
who seem to think that his widow ought to be hanged "on spec," so,
although their evidence was hardly--what shall I say?--germane to the
enquiry, witnesses were called who proved, in effect, that she had been
at Worthing from lunch-time on the one day right up to four in the
morning on the next, and there was no getting away from it. Even the
mechanic from the Worthing garage was roped in (in his Sunday clothes).
He described the trouble with her tyres and the discussion as to whether
she could or could not have got home to Chiselhurst before dark.

There was a good deal more evidence of the same kind, and it all went to
establish that whatever else had happened, Mrs. James couldn't possibly
have murdered her husband, and as it seemed unlikely that he had
committed suicide the jury returned an open verdict.

Now what was I to do? On the face of it, and knowing what I did, it was
my duty to get up and say something like this: "You'll pardon me, but
that woman did murder her husband and, if you like, I'll tell you
roughly how: She waits till he has a cold coming on and then decides to
pay one of her periodical visits to her mother at Worthing. She arranges
to get hung up there for the night, but she telephones at dinner-time
and, I suggest, makes him promise to take some aspirin and whisky before
he goes to bed--a perfectly normal remedy. She naturally takes jolly
good care before starting in the morning that there are only three
tablets of aspirin that he can get at and these are the--er--ones. The
bottle they have been in is certainly a danger if the police get hold of
it, but they don't get hold of it because she arrives home in plenty of
time to change it for another.

"If things had gone entirely right for her, and I hadn't happened to be
dining there that evening, no one would have known about James's dose of
aspirin at all, but her technique is so sound that I'm able to watch him
take it, and talk about it afterwards without it mattering. I don't
suppose she liked it, but it didn't do her any appreciable harm. Then
again, even if he forgets to take his tablets she runs no risk. She
merely has to wait till he gets another cold. In fact the whole thing is
cast iron."

Now supposing, for the sake of argument, that I'd got up, and been
allowed to say all this, what would have happened?

I should have had to admit straight off that I couldn't produce a scrap
of evidence to support any of it, at least not the kind of evidence that
would wash with a jury.

There certainly was James's remark: "I shall bear about it if I don't
take my aspirin." That satisfied me who he expected to hear about it
from, but there was only my bare word for it that he'd put it that way,
and you know what lawyers are. They mightn't have believed me.

Then again, the Coroner was a doctor. He would have asked me how it was
possible to fake up perchloride of mercury to look like aspirin, and I
should have had to agree that it wouldn't be at all easy. It happens to
be a poison which the general public practically can't get, and even if
they could, the tablets in which it is sold are carefully dyed blue.
Besides which they aren't the right shape. If you walked into a
chemist's and asked him to bleach some of them white and make them to
look like aspirin he might easily think it fishy, and I doubt whether
you would set his mind at rest by saying that you only wanted them for a
joke, or private theatricals.

All of this I knew quite well, having taken the trouble to enquire, but
there was another fact which I didn't get to know till afterwards which
might have made a difference. It was rather strange. For a certain time
during the War the French Army medical people had put up their
perchloride of mercury in white tablets, not blue, and these did in
fact closely resemble the present-day aspirin. Moreover, each tablet
contained seventeen grains. Now three seventeens are fifty-one, or
almost exactly what James was reckoned to have taken. But all this would
have gone for precisely nothing (even if I'd known it and said it),
unless any of these convenient tablets could be traced to Mrs. James,
and they most definitely couldn't.

The police had searched the house as a matter of routine and analysed
every bottle whether empty or full. One might also safely conclude that
they had made enquiries at all the chemists where the lady might have
dealt. I know they went to mine.

Then there was another thing which made it difficult to accuse Mrs.
James, and that was the absence of motive, because the obvious one,
money, was practically ruled out. It transpired that she had twelve
hundred a year of her own, and the average woman with as much as that
isn't likely to marry and then murder some wretched man for the sake of
another five thousand. She wouldn't take the trouble. In fact, what with
one thing and another, my theory didn't stand a hope, so I thought I'd
let it stew a little longer.

The lady left the court without a stain on her character and later on
went to live in the Isle of Wight. For all I know she is still there,
enjoying her twelve hundred plus five thousand a year, but whether she
will go on doing it is quite another thing, because:

A short time ago I was just finishing a pipe before going to bed, when
suddenly, apropos of nothing, there came into my head the name I had
seen under her picture at the instant it had looked like a photograph.
It was a somewhat peculiar name and not the one under which she had
married James.

All the same, one doesn't imagine a name for no reason at all, so I
worked it out that at some time or other I must have actually seen a
published photograph of Mrs. James, and that staring at the picture down
at Chiselhurst had brought it back to me.

Anyhow, the following day I got my literary agent to send round to all
the newspaper offices in Fleet Street and enquire whether a photograph
of anyone of this name had appeared during the last few years. They all
said "No."

However, my agent is of a persevering nature (he has to be). He went on
and tackled the illustrated weekly papers and he struck oil almost at
once. About eight years ago one of them had apparently brought out what
it called a "Riviera Supplement," and in it was the photograph. I went
along and recognised it immediately, but what interested me most of all
was the paragraph that referred to it. It said that this Miss
What's-her-name had been acting as companion to an old lady who had a
villa at Cannes. One day she, the companion, had gone across into Italy
to see her mother who lived at Bordighera and was a bit of an invalid.

For some reason or other she missed the last train back and had to spend
the night at Bordighera, but when she did arrive back at Cannes next day
she was shocked to find that her employer had poisoned herself during
the night.

The paper didn't say what poison the old lady took or how much money she
left her companion, but I've found out since and I'll give you two


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