As a Thief in the Night - R. Austin Freeman - ebook

As a Thief in the Night ebook

R. Austin Freeman



R. Austin Freeman was one of the best mystery writers ever and this book is one to prove it. Harold Monkhouse is a very sick man but no one including his doctor seems to know what is wrong with him. When he is found dead of arsenic poisoning, his brother demands an investigation and everyone in the household is a suspect. Who was behind this cruel death; the loving wife, Barbara; her friend, Madeline or Wallingford, the rather eccentric secretary? They all inherit something when Harold Monkhouse dies. Rupert, their loyal friend enlists the help of Dr. Thorndyke who with a lot of twists and turns solves the case. In researching the crime, Thorndyke and his charming assistant Polton do some fascinating analyses with X-rays. And the reader learns a lot about the versatility of arsenic in the hands of a creative murderer.

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LOOKING back on events by the light of experience I perceive clearly that the thunder-cloud which burst on me and on those who were dear to me had not gathered unseen. It is true that it had rolled up swiftly; that the premonitory mutterings, now so distinct but then so faint and insignificant, gave but a brief warning. But that was of little consequence, since whatever warnings there were passed unheeded, as warnings commonly do, being susceptible of interpretation only by means of the subsequent events which they foreshadowed.

The opening scene of the tragedy–if I had but realized it–was the arrival of the Reverend Amos Monkhouse from his far-away Yorkshire parish at the house of his brother Harold. I happened to be there at the time; and though it was not my concern, since Harold had a secretary, I received the clergyman when he was announced. We knew one another well enough by name though we had never met, and it was with some interest and curiosity that I looked at the keen-faced, sturdy, energetic-looking parson and contrasted him with his physically frail and rather characterless brother. He looked at me, too, curiously and with a certain appearance of surprise, which did not diminish when I told him who I was.

“Ha!” said he, “yes, Mr Mayfield. I am glad to have the opportunity of making your acquaintance. I have heard a good deal about you from Harold and Barbara. Now I can fit you with a visible personality. By the way, the maid tells me that Barbara is not at home.”

“No, she is away on her travels in Kent.”

“In Kent!” he repeated, raising his eyebrows.

“Yes, on one of her political expeditions; organizing some sort of women’s emancipation movement. I dare say you have heard about it.”

He nodded a little impatiently. “Yes. Then I assume that Harold is not so ill as I had supposed?”

I was inclined to be evasive; for, to be quite candid, I had thought more than once that Barbara might properly have given a little less attention to her political hobbies and a little more to her sick husband. So I replied cautiously:

“I really don’t quite know what his condition is. You see, when a man has chronically bad health, one rather loses count. Harold has his ups and downs, but he always looks pretty poorly. Just now, I should say he is rather below his average.”

“Ha! Well, perhaps I had better go up and have a look at him. The maid has told him that I am here. I wonder if you would be so kind as to show me the way to his room. I have not been in this house before.”

I conducted him up to the door of the bedroom and then returned to the library to wait for him and hear what he thought of the invalid. And now that the question had been raised, I was not without a certain uneasiness. What I had said was true enough. When a man is always ailing one gets to take his ill-health for granted and to assume that it will go on without any significant change. One repeats the old saying of “the creaking gate” and perhaps makes unduly light of habitual illness. Might it be that Harold was being a little neglected? He had certainly looked bad enough when I had called on him that morning. Was it possible that he was really seriously ill? Perhaps in actual danger?

I had just asked myself this question when the door was opened abruptly and the clergyman strode into the room. Something in his expression–a mingling, as it seemed, of anger and alarm–rather startled me; nevertheless I asked him calmly enough how he found his brother. He stared at me, almost menacingly, for a second or two; then slowly and with harsh emphasis he replied: “I am shocked at the change in him. I am horrified. Why, good God, Sir! the man is dying!”

“I think that can hardly be,” I objected. “The doctor saw him this morning and did not hint at anything of the sort. He thought he was not very well but he made no suggestion as to there being any danger.”

“How long has the doctor been attending him?”

“For something like twenty years, I believe; so by this time he ought to understand the patient’s–”

“Tut-tut,” the parson interrupted, impatiently, “what did you say yourself but a few minutes ago? One loses count of the chronic invalid. He exhausts our attention until, at last, we fail to observe the obvious. What is wanted is a fresh eye. Can you give me the doctor’s address? Because, if you can, I will call on him and arrange a consultation. I told Harold that I wanted a second opinion and he made no objection; in fact he seemed rather relieved. If we get a really first-class physician, we may save him yet.”

“I think you are taking an unduly gloomy view of Harold’s condition,” said I. “At any rate, I hope so. But I entirely agree with you as to the advisability of having further advice. I know where Dr Dimsdale lives so if you like I will walk round with you.”

He accepted my offer gladly and we set forth at once, walking briskly along the streets, each of us wrapped in thought and neither speaking for some time. Presently I ventured to remark:

“Strictly, I suppose, we ought to have consulted Barbara before seeking another opinion.”

“I don’t see why,” he replied. “Harold is a responsible person and has given his free consent. If Barbara is so little concerned about him as to go away from home–and for such a trumpery reason, too–I don’t see that we need consider her. Still, as a matter of common civility, I might as well send her a line. What is her present address?”

“Do you know,” I said, shamefacedly, “I am afraid I can’t tell you exactly where she is at the moment. Her permanent address, when she is away on these expeditions, is the head-quarters of the Women’s Friendship League at Maidstone.”

He stopped for a moment and glowered at me with an expression of sheer amazement. “Do you mean to tell me,” he exclaimed, “that she has gone away, leaving her husband in this condition, and that she is not even within reach of a telegram?”

“I have no doubt that a telegram or letter would be forwarded to her.”

He emitted an angry snort and then demanded: “How long has she been away?”

“About a fortnight,” I admitted, reluctantly.

“A fortnight!” he repeated in angry astonishment. “And all that time beyond reach of communication! Why the man might have been dead and buried and she none the wiser!”

“He was much better when she went away,” I said, anxious to make the best of what I felt to be a rather bad case. “In fact, he seemed to be getting on quite nicely. It is only during the last few days that he has got this set-back. Of course, Barbara is kept informed as to his condition. Madeline sends her a letter every few days.”

“But, my dear Mr Mayfield,” he expostulated, “just consider the state of affairs in this amazing household. I came to see my brother, expecting–from the brief letter that I had from him–to find him seriously ill. And I do find him seriously ill; dangerously ill, I should say. And what sort of care is being taken of him? His wife is away from home, amusing herself with her platform fooleries, and has left no practicable address. His secretary, or whatever you call him, Wallingford, is not at home. Madeline is, of course, occupied in her work at the school. Actually, the only person in the house besides the servants is yourself–a friend of the family but not a member of the household at all. You must admit that it is a most astonishing and scandalous state of affairs.”

I was saved from the necessity of answering this rather awkward question by our arrival at Dr Dimsdale’s house; and, as it fortunately happened that the doctor was at home and disengaged, we were shown almost at once into his consulting room.

I knew Dr Dimsdale quite well and rather liked him, though I was not deeply impressed by his abilities. However, his professional skill was really no concern of mine, and his social qualities were unexceptionable. In appearance and manner he had always seemed to me the very type of a high-class general practitioner, and so he impressed me once more as we were ushered into his sanctum. He shook hands with me genially, and as I introduced the Reverend Amos looked at him with a politely questioning expression. But the clergyman lost no time in making clear the purpose of his visit; in fact he came to the point with almost brutal abruptness.

“I have just seen my brother for the first time for several months and I am profoundly shocked at his appearance. I expected to find him ill, but I did not understand that he was so ill as I find him.”

“No,” Dr Dimsdale agreed, gravely, “I suppose not. You have caught him at a rather unfortunate time. He is certainly not so well today.”

“Well!” exclaimed Amos. “To me he has the look of a dying man. May I ask what, exactly, is the matter with him?”

The doctor heaved a patient sigh and put his fingertips together.

“The word ‘exactly’,” he replied, with a faint smile, “makes your question a little difficult to answer. There are so many things the matter with him. For the last twenty years, on and off, I have attended him, and during the whole of that time his health has been unsatisfactory–most unsatisfactory. His digestion has always been defective, his circulation feeble, he has had functional trouble with his heart, and throughout the winter months, more or less continuous respiratory troubles–nasal and pulmonary catarrh and sometimes rather severe bronchitis.”

The Reverend Amos nodded impatiently. “Quite so, quite so. But, to come from the past to the present, what is the matter with him now?”

“That,” the doctor replied suavely, “is what I was coming to. I mentioned the antecedents to account for the consequents. The complaints from which your brother has suffered in the past have been what are called functional complaints. But functional disease–if there really is such a thing–must, in the end, if it goes on long enough, develop into organic disease. Its effects are cumulative. Each slight illness leaves the bodily organs a little less fit.”


“Well, that is, I fear, what is happening in your brother’s case. The functional illnesses of the past are tending to take on an organic character.”

“Ha!” snorted the Reverend Amos. “But what is his actual condition now? To put it bluntly, supposing he were to die tonight, what would you write on die death certificate?”

“Dear me!” said the doctor. “That is putting it very bluntly. I hope the occasion will not arise.”

“Still, I suppose you don’t regard his death as an impossible contingency?”

“Oh, by no means. Chronic illness confers no immortality, as I have just been pointing out.”

“Then, supposing his death to occur, what would you state to be the cause?”

Dr Dimsdale’s habitual suavity showed a trace of diminution as he replied: “You are asking a very unusual and hardly admissible question, Mr Monkhouse. However, I may say that if your brother were to die tonight he would die from some definite cause, which would be duly set forth in the certificate. As he is suffering from chronic gastritis, chronic bronchial catarrh, functional disorder of the heart and several other morbid conditions, these would be added as contributory causes. But may I ask what is the object of these very pointed questions?”

“My object,” replied Amos, “was to ascertain whether the circumstances justified a consultation. It seems to me that they do. I am extremely disturbed about my brother. Would you have any objection to meeting a consultant?”

“But not in the least. On the contrary, I should be very glad to talk over this rather indefinite case with an experienced physician who would come to it with a fresh eye. Of course, the patient’s consent would be necessary.”

“He has consented, and he agreed to the consultant whom I proposed–Sir Robert Detling–if you concurred.”

“I do certainly. I could suggest no better man. Shall I arrange with him or will you?”

“Perhaps I had better,” the parson replied, “as I know him fairly well. We were of the same year at Cambridge. I shall go straight on to him now and will let you know at once what arrangement he proposes.”

“Excellent,” said the doctor, rising with all his suavity restored. “I shall keep tomorrow as free as I can until I hear from you, and I hope he will be able to manage it so soon. I shall be glad to hear what he thinks of our patient, and I trust that the consultation may be helpful in the way of treatment.”

He shook our hands heartily and conducted us to the street door, whence he launched us safely into the street.

“That is a very suave gentleman,” Amos remarked as we turned away. “Quite reasonable, too; but you see for yourself that he has no real knowledge of the case. He couldn’t give the illness an intelligible name.”

“It seemed to me that he gave it a good many names, and it may well be that it is no more than he seems to think; a sort of collective illness, the resultant of the various complaints that he mentioned. However, we shall know more when Sir Robert has seen him; and meanwhile, I wouldn’t worry too much about the apparent neglect. Your brother, unlike most chronic invalids, doesn’t hanker for attention. He has all he wants and he likes to be left alone with his books. Shall you see him again today?”

“Assuredly. As soon as I have arranged matters with Detling I shall let Dr Dimsdale know what we have settled and I shall then go back and spend the evening with my brother. Perhaps I shall see you tomorrow?”

“No. I have to run down to Bury St Edmunds tomorrow morning and I shall probably be there three or four days. But I should very much like to hear what happens at the consultation. Could you send me a few lines? I shall be staying at the Angel.”

“I will certainly,” he replied, halting and raising his umbrella to signal an approaching omnibus. “Just a short note to let you know what Sir Robert has to tell us of poor Harold’s condition.”

He waved his hand, and stepping off the kerb, hopped on to the foot-board of the omnibus as it slowed own, and vanished into the interior. I stood for a few moments watching the receding vehicle, half inclined to go back and take another look at the sick man; but reflecting that his brother would be presently returning, I abandoned the idea and made my way instead to the Underground Railway station and there took a ticket for the Temple.

There is something markedly infectious in states of mind. Hitherto I had given comparatively little attention to Harold Monkhouse. He was a more or less chronic invalid, suffering now from one complaint and now from another, and evidently a source of no particular anxiety either to his friends or to his doctor. He was always pallid and sickly-looking, and if, on this particular morning, he had seemed to look more haggard and ghastly than usual, I had merely noted that he was “not so well today.”

But the appearance on the scene of the Reverend Amos had put a rather different complexion on the affair. His visit to his brother had resulted in a severe shock, which he had passed on to me; and I had to admit that our interview with Dr Dimsdale had not been reassuring. For the fact which had emerged from it was that the doctor could not give the disease a name.

It was very disquieting. Supposing it should turn out that Harold was suffering from some grave, even some mortal disease, which ought to have been detected and dealt with months ago. How should we all feel? How, in particular, would Barbara feel about the easygoing way in which the illness had been allowed to drift on? It was an uncomfortable thought; and though Harold Monkhouse was really no concern of mine, excepting that he was Barbara’s husband, it continued to haunt me as I sat in the rumbling train and as I walked up from the Temple station to my chambers in Fig Tree Court.

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