The Almost Perfect Murder. A Case Book of Madame Storey - Hulbert Footner - ebook

The Almost Perfect Murder. A Case Book of Madame Storey ebook

Hulbert Footner

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„Beyond the City” explores the relationships between the residents of three adjoining homes. The cast of characters includes a widowed doctor with two daughters, a retired admiral with a wife and son, and a feminist living with her nephew. Destiny brings these three peculiar households together in the placid English countryside. The desire for money and romance drive these Victorians beyond the natural boundaries of their middle-class lives. As the web of lust and deceit draws these accidental neighbors ever closer, a financial scandal befalls one of them. An outside „rank pirate” is linked somehow to one of the neighbors. Who could it be? In this work, Conan Doyle exhibits the practiced subtlety and complexity for which he has become so well known.

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Liczba stron: 497

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Contents

I. THE ALMOST PERFECT MURDER

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

II. MURDER IN MASQUERADE

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

III. THE DEATH NOTICE

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

IV. TAKEN FOR A RIDE

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

V. IT NEVER GOT INTO THE PAPERS

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

X

XI

XII

XIII

XIV

XV

XVI

I. THE ALMOST PERFECT MURDER

I

Fay Brunton was one of those stars who suddenly shine out on Broadway in full effulgence, and are almost as quickly darkened. Most people will remember her name, but I doubt if many could name the parts in which she appeared. But to those of us who knew her, she remains a vivid and lovely memory; she was so beautiful! And that was not all of it; beauty is not uncommon on Broadway: it was her great sweetness of nature that endeared her to us; her girlishness; her simplicity. She was not a great actress; her smile was her passport to popular favour.

My employer, Madame Storey, who knows everybody in the great world, had become acquainted with Fay, and through her I had met the girl. By degrees, I can hardly say how, Fay and I had become intimate friends. She brought colour and incident into my life. To a plain Jane like me, she was marvellous. I was the recipient of all her charming confidences–or nearly all; and as well as I could, I steered her with my advice amongst the pitfalls that beset a popular favourite. For one in the limelight she was incredibly ignorant of evil. And you could not bear to show her the ugly side of life.

How bitterly I regretted that I had not warned her against Darius Whittall in the beginning. But I had thought that her natural goodness would protect her. Goodness, however, is apt to be blind. Whittall’s name had been connected with Fay’s for several months, but he was only one of many. I had hoped that one of the young men would win out; particularly one who was called Frank Esher, a fine fellow. I banked on the fact that Fay had been shy about mentioning his name in her confidences. As for Whittall, he was a notorious evil-liver. His wife had committed suicide some weeks before. To me he was no better than a murderer.

How well I remember the morning that Fay came to our offices to tell us. It must have been November, for the trees in Gramercy Park had shed their leaves, though the grass was still green. This was during Fay’s second season when she was appearing with huge success in Wild Hyacinth. She came in beaming, and I marked the gleam of a new pearl necklace under her partly-opened sables. What a vision of youthful loveliness she made, sparkling with a childlike excitement!

She had Mrs. Brunton with her. This lady was not her real mother, but an ageing actress whom Fay had rescued from a cheap boarding-house, and set up as her official chaperone. Such an arrangement is not unusual on the stage. Mrs. Brunton was a typical stage mamma; over-dressed, over-talkative; a foolish woman, but devoted to Fay, and people put up with her on that account.

When Fay came to call, business was dropped for the time being. I took her in to my mistress. What a complement they made to each other! the one so dark and tall and wise; the other simple, fair and girlish. Alongside my mistress, the girl looked the least bit colourless, but that was inevitable. There is only one Madame Storey. Fay was not aware that she suffered by comparison with the other, and if she had known, I doubt if she would have minded.

Mrs. Brunton was in a great flutter. “Oh, I hope we’re not interrupting anything important! Fay couldn’t wait a minute! What I have been through since last night you wouldn’t believe! I didn’t sleep a wink! And then to be hauled out of my bed at eight o’clock! Eight o’clock! And dragged here half-dressed. Is there a mirror anywhere? I know I’m a sight…!”

And so on; and so on. The exasperating thing about that woman was that her talk never meant anything. She surrounded herself with a cloud of words. Nobody ever paid any attention to what she said. Talk with her was a sort of nervous habit, like biting the fingernails.

Meanwhile Mme. Storey was gazing into Fay’s face with searching kindness. Nervously pulling off one of her gloves, the girl mutely exhibited the third finger of her left hand. I caught a glimpse of an emerald that took my breath away.

“Who is it?” asked Mme. Storey.

“Darius Whittall,” she murmured.

It was a horrible shock to me. Fortunately none of them was looking at me at the moment. The thought of seeing my friend in all her youth and loveliness handed over to that murderer–for such he was in all essentials–was more than I could bear. The bottom seemed to drop out of everything.

Mme. Storey’s face showed no change upon hearing the announcement, though she must have known Darius Whittall better than I did. She enfolded the girl in her arms, and murmured her good wishes.

Meanwhile Mrs. Brunton in the background was talking away like steam puffing out of a boiling kettle. I perceived a certain glint of anxiety in the old lady’s eye; she knew that Darius Whittall was no paragon for a husband. But he was so rich! so rich! who could blame a mother? She was relieved when Mme. Storey appeared to make no difficulties about the match.

“Well, I never thought he’d be the one!” said Mme. Storey with an appearance of great cheerfulness.

“Neither did I,” said Fay, laughing.

“Are you dreadfully in love with him?”

“I suppose so…I don’t know…Don’t ask me to examine my feelings!”

“Look at her!” cried Mrs. Brunton. “Isn’t that enough? Radiantly happy!”

“But if you’re going to marry the man,” said Mme. Storey, laughing, “surely you must know the state of your feelings!”

“I want to marry him,” said Fay quickly. “Very much. I suppose it’s because he needs me so.”

Mme. Storey’s expression said: Hum! But she did not utter it. She asked when it was going to be.

“Soon,” said Fay. “There’s no reason for delay. It will be very quiet, of course.”

“Of course,” said Mme. Storey.

Fay seemed to feel that some further explanation was required. “It’s true his wife has only been dead two months,” she said. “But as Darius pointed out, she had not been a real wife to him for years before that.”

“Poor woman!” said Madame Storey.

We all echoed that. “Poor woman!”

By this time I was aware that my mistress was not any better pleased with Fay’s announcement than I had been; but she was too wise to burst out with objections as I might have done.

“Why do you suppose she killed herself?” she said thoughtfully.

“Oh, don’t you know?” said Fay. “She was in love with somebody else. Darius talks about her so nicely. He offered to let her divorce him, but she wouldn’t because of her religion. A Catholic, you know. I suppose she could see no way but to end it all. Darius honours her for it.”

“Oh, don’t talk about it!” cried Mrs. Brunton. “Don’t let that cloud darken this happy day! How that poor man has suffered! And such a gentleman with it all. Such delicacy! I could tell you things about him! But never mind!”

What has he given her? I thought.

Fay and Mme. Storey ignored her interruption. “But I think,” the former went on with gentle censure, “that she ought to have considered what a dreadful blow it would be to her husband.”

“Still,” said Mme. Storey dryly, “if she had not done it, you would not be marrying him now.”

“No-o,” said Fay innocently. “I suppose not…Of course Darius is going to sell the house at Riverdale,” she continued with an involuntary shiver. “I shouldn’t care to live there where it happened.”

Mme. Storey struck out on a new line. “Well! Well!” she said, “what a poor guesser I am! Frank Esher was the one I backed.”

I saw a spark of animosity leap out of the old woman’s eye. I suppose it occurred to her, too, that my seemingly candid mistress was trying to gum her game.

“Oh, Frank Esher!” said Fay pettishly. “Don’t speak of him!”

“He was so good-looking!” said Mme. Storey dreamily.

“Good-looking, yes,” said Fay with some heat. “But impossible. You don’t know! Oh, impossible!”

“I liked him,” said Mme. Storey, “because there seemed to be a genuine fire in him. Most young fellows are so tame! I should have thought he would make a wonderful lover.”

Fay, silenced, looked at her with rather a stricken expression in the candid blue eyes.

Mrs. Brunton rushed in to fill the breach. “Fire!” she snorted. “Preserve us from that kind of fire. That’s all I have to say. I don’t speak of his rudeness to me. I am nobody. He treated Fay as if she was just an ordinary girl. No sense of the difference in their positions. A dreadful young man! He spoiled everything. So different from Mr. Whittall. He is such a gentleman. You never catch him making a vulgar display of his feelings!”

Fay had recovered her speech. “That incident is closed,” she said. “Frank was simply a thorn in my side.”

But Mme. Storey would not let Frank drop. “By the way, what has become of him?” she asked. “I haven’t seen him for ages.”

“We quarrelled,” said Fay with an impatient shrug. “He Was always quarrelling with me. He said that would be the last time, and he went away somewhere. Peru or China or somewhere. Nobody knows where he’s gone. Now I have a little peace.”

But the look in her eyes belied her words.

There was a lot more talk. Like every young girl when she first gets herself engaged, Fay could hardly speak a sentence without bringing in the name of her lover. One would have thought Darius was the Oracle. Considering the manner of man he was, it was absurd and it was piteous.

Darius had no objection to her finishing out the run of Wild Hyacinth. But after this season, of course, she would retire. Darius had bought a town house. No, not a big place on the Avenue; Darius hated show. A dear little house in the East Seventies; Darius had said that was the smartest thing now. Very plain outside, and a perfect bower within. Like a French maisonette. Darius had such original ideas. And so on.

When they got up to go, Fay said to me wistfully: “You haven’t congratulated me, Bella.”

What was I to say? The tears sprang to my eyes. Fortunately she considered that the emotion was suitable to the circumstances. “Oh, I want you to be happy! I want you to be happy!” I stammered.

The words did not please her. She withdrew herself from my arms somewhat coldly.

II

When the door closed behind them I broke down. Mme. Storey looked at me sympathetically. “Ah, Bella, you are very fond of her, aren’t you?” she murmured. “This is damnable!”

In my eagerness I involuntarily clasped my hands. “Ah, but you won’t…you won’t let it go on!” I implored her.

“I?” she said in great surprise. “How on earth could I stop it, my dear?”

“Oh, but you could! you could!” I wailed. “You can do anything!”

She shook her head. “As an outsider I have no business to interfere. And, anyhow, my better sense tells me it would be worse than useless. If I said a word to her against her Darius, she’d rush off and marry him the same day. You saw how she looked at you just now…No! it’s a tragedy, but it’s beyond our mending. If I have learned anything it is that we cannot play Providence in the lives of others. We can only look on and pity her…”

“That’s what your head says,” I murmured. “What about your heart?”

She rose, and began to pace the long room. “Ah, don’t drag in heart,” she said, almost crossly one would have thought; “I can’t set out to save every foolish girl who is determined to make a mess of her life!”

“I can’t bear it!” I said.

She continued to walk up and down the long room. That room had been expressly chosen for its length, so that she could pace it while she was thinking. How well it suited her! the bare and beautiful apartment, with its rare old Italian furnishings and pictures. She herself was wearing a Fortuny gown adapted from the same period; and when you turned your back to the windows which looked out on matter-of-fact New York, you were transported right back to sixteenth century Florence.

I felt that anything more I might say would only damage my suit, so I remained silent. But I couldn’t stop the tears from running down. Mme. Storey looked at me uneasily every time she turned.

“We must get to work,” she said crossly. I obediently took up my note-book. “Oh, well,” she said in a different tone. “For your sake, Bella…” She returned to her desk, and took the telephone receiver off its hook. “We’ll see if we cannot dig up something in the circumstances surrounding Mrs. Whittall’s death that will give this foolish girl cause to stop and think what she is doing.”

She called up Police Headquarters. “Rumsey,” she said, “do you remember the case of Mrs. Darius Whittall who killed herself about two months ago?…Well, I suppose there was an inquest or investigation of some sort, and that the findings are on file somewhere. Come and see me this afternoon, will you? and bring the papers with you. I want to go over them with you…I’ll tell you when I see you…Thanks, at four then. Good-bye.”

Our worthy friend arrived promptly to his hour. Inspector Rumsey was not a distinguished-looking man, but he was true-blue. He owed part of his reputation, perhaps, to his friendship for my mistress, who often helps him with the more subtle points of his cases. He in return, I need hardly say, is able to render us invaluable assistance.

The papers he laid before my mistress told a simple and straightforward tale. On the night of Sunday, September 11th, Mrs. Whittall had dined alone at their place in Riverdale. Her husband was dining with friends in the city. After dinner, that is to say about nine-thirty, she had complained of the heat, and had asked her maid, Mary Thole, for a light wrap, saying that she would walk in the grounds for a few minutes. Almost immediately after she left the house, the sound of a shot was heard. Everybody in the house heard it, since the windows were all open.

The butler and the second man rushed out to the spot whence it came, a little pavilion or summer-house placed on a slight knoll overlooking the river, about two hundred yards from the house. They found the body of their mistress lying at full length on the gravel outside the entrance to the pavilion. She had evidently fallen with considerable force, for her hair was partly down, the hairpins lying about. An ornamental comb which she wore was found about four feet from her body. One of her slippers was off. So it was judged that she had shot herself within the pavilion, and had fallen backwards down the steps. There were three steps. There was a bullet hole in her right temple, and so far as the servants could judge she was already dead. The revolver was still lying in her partly opened hand. Upon a microscopic examination of the gun later, the prints upon it were found to be those of Mrs. Whittall’s fingers.

The body was immediately carried into the house and laid upon the bed. The family physician was telephoned for. The powder marks around the wound could be seen by all. In his confusion and excitement, the butler felt that he ought to notify his master of what had happened before sending for the police. Nobody in the house knew where Mr. Whittall was dining that night, and the butler started telephoning around to his clubs, and to the houses of his most intimate friends in the endeavour to find him. He could not get any word of him. He was still at the telephone when Mr. Whittall returned home. This would be about eleven. Mr. Whittall’s first act was to telephone to the local police station. He upbraided the butler for not having done so at once. A few minutes later the police were in the house.

Mrs. Whittall’s own maid had identified the revolver as one belonging to her mistress. She had testified that she had seen nothing strange in the behaviour of her mistress before she left the house. So far as she could tell, there was nothing special on her mind. She was a very quiet lady, and saw little company. She had left no letter in explanation of her act. Not more than a minute or so could have elapsed between the time she left the house and the sound of the shot, so she must have proceeded direct to the pavilion and done the deed. Indeed, it happened so quickly it seemed as if she must have run there.

The doctor testified that Mrs. Whittall was dead when he saw her. Death must have been instantaneous. The bullet had passed through her brain and was lodged against the skull on the other side from the point of entrance. Questioned as to her possible reasons for the deed, he said he knew of none. The dead woman was in normal health, and though he had known her for many years, and was a friend, she did not often have occasion to send for him in a professional capacity. She seemed normal in mind. He admitted though, that she might have been seriously disturbed without his knowing anything of it, since she was a very reticent woman, who spoke little about her own affairs.

Mr. Whittall testified that the revolver found in the dead woman’s hand was one which he had given her some three months previously. It was a Matson, 32 calibre, an automatic of the latest pattern. She had not asked for a gun. He had given it to her of his own motion, believing that every woman ought to have the means of defending herself at hand. He did not know for sure if she had ever practised shooting it, but he believed not. Only one shot had been fired from it. He understood that she had kept it in the top drawer of the chiffonier in her room, but he had never seen it there. He had not noticed anything unwonted in her behaviour on that day, or he would never have left her alone. It was true, though, that she had suffered from periods of deep depression. She brooded on the fact that she had no children, and looked forward with dread to a childless old age.

Such, in effect, were the contents of the papers which Inspector Rumsey spread before us. Tea and cigarettes followed. Mme. Storey looked disappointed at the outcome.

“Merely a perfunctory investigation, of course,” said Inspector Rumsey. “Nobody suspected there might be something peculiar in the case. Nobody wished to turn up anything peculiar.”

“I had hoped that there would be enough in these papers to accomplish my purpose,” said Mme. Storey gravely. “By showing them to a certain person, I mean. But there is not. So we must dig further into this business. It is not a job that I look forward to!”

“What can you expect to do now, after two months?” said the Inspector.

“Oh, there are plenty of leads. Firstly: if Mr. Whittall was dining in New York that night, it is strange that he should have arrived home in Riverdale as early as eleven.”

“Right!”

“Secondly: if it was such a hot night, why should Mrs. Whittall have called for a wrap? When one steps outside to cool off, one doesn’t wrap up. It is indicated that she meant to stay out awhile.”

“Right!”

“Thirdly: Whittall’s explanation of his wife’s alleged depression is mere nonsense. It is a simple matter for a rich woman to adopt a child if she is lonely.”

The Inspector nodded.

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