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Title: My Adventure at Chiselhurst
Author: A. J. Alan
eBook No.: .html
Date first posted: 2022
Most recent update: 2022
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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 eight.
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 guesses.
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