The Incredible Crime: A British Library Crime Classic

The Incredible Crime: A British Library Crime Classic

Prince’s College, Cambridge, is a peaceful and scholarly community, enlivened by Prudence Pinsent, the Master’s daughter. Spirited, beautiful, and thoroughly unconventional, Prudence is a remarkable young woman. One fine morning ...

About The Author

Lois Austen-Leigh

Lois Austen-Leigh was the author of four mystery novels published in the 1930s, which have been out of print for ...

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Chapter I

“She kicked the corpse fretfully with her delicately-shod foot and, staggering dizzily against the bloody lintel of the door, looked fearfully over her shoulder. ‘God!’ she hissed, ‘shall we ever clean our souls of this ghastly crime?’ Her companion spoke not. Rage, pleading, lust, and pride, struggled for the mastery in his hot eyes!”…

“What im-possible…in-credible…unutterable bilge; and that,” said Prudence Pinsent, pitching the book across the room, “is modern detective fiction!”

“There is nothing stranger in fiction than there is in real life,” said a sententious voice.

“Rot! When you go to stay in a country-house, you don’t step on corpses or meet blood trickling down the front stairs.”

“No, but what with ‘complexes,’ ‘unconscious urges,’ and ‘compensations,’ the people in the country-house may be up to any devilment you like.”

“Rot again.”

“No, Prudence,” said Mrs. Skipwith, “there really is something in it; the tricks heredity can play—and the fact that the lengths of self-deception are endless; it’s always possible your friend may be an undiscovered lunatic or criminal.”

“Rot again, but I wish you wouldn’t all talk when we are playing bridge.”

“Well, I do like that, and you began by reading aloud when you were dummy.”

Four people were seated playing bridge in the comfortable house in Cambridge of Susan Skipwith, wife of the Dolbey Professor of Entomology. They were four friends who met regularly once a week to play what they called bridge, but what others might have been tempted to describe as cards and chatter. The rubber concluded, they cut afresh for another.

“Yes,” said Prudence, in her soft, refined voice, answering a question, “I love watching a good rugger match, but some blasted wife always gets between me and the realization of my desire.”

“What do you mean?”

“Why, you know as well as I do that a member may only take one woman into the pavilion—and whenever I suggest to a friend that he should take me, why, his…wife wants to go!”

“Your father is not a member, I suppose?”

“No, and would not go to a rugger match if he were.”

The chatter ceased for a short time, while a hand was played. Mrs. Skipwith, Mrs. Gordon whose husband had come up to Cambridge a few years earlier with a great reputation from some Scottish University, Mrs. Maryon, a smart young woman recently married to a young Fellow of Prince’s College, and Prudence Pinsent, the only child of the Master of Prince’s College, a retired bishop. The Pinsents had been connected with their college for some generations, and the present Master was a perfect specimen of that fast disappearing genus, the courtly divine. His daughter was singularly good-looking—she had a face that should have adorned, and would have been a valuable asset to, a saint in a stained-glass window, surmounted by a head of glorious red-brown hair, and when on duty in Cambridge she comported herself with the utmost dignity, though she reserved to herself the right to swear like a trooper when she chose.

Susan Skipwith, her great friend, attributed this weakness to the overpowering effect of the background of awful respectability which surrounded her. Prudence herself was more inclined to lay it at the door of a far-back buccaneering ancestor.

“I always think, Prue, you know,” said Susan Skipwith, “that on the whole you are singularly untroubled with wives.”

“How you can have the barefaced immorality to make a statement of that kind I cannot think,” said Prudence, and in her indignation she laid her cards on the table; “you who know what my life is—Fellows’ wives that are, and Fellows’ wives to be, and the Lodge run like a private hotel for them all.”

“Yes, yes,” said Mrs. Gordon soothingly, “we all have our bit of that. Why, is it true—”

“Yes,” interrupted Prudence, “but you haven’t just been told by your best friend that you are untroubled by wives; why, d—it all, after the war even undergraduates had wives!”

“Prudence,” said Susan firmly, “if you don’t pick up your hand and go on with the game I shall—” Silence reigned for a short time, broken only by the assertion from Susan that the rest were hers; this was met with a unanimous denial on the part of her opponents; finally, when with the air of a maligned martyr she succeeded in making the rest, Mrs. Gordon pointed out to her that it was only done owing to a slip on the part of Marcella Maryon.

“As I was going to say before when Prudence interrupted me,” said Mrs. Gordon, “is it true that there are some eminent foreigners coming to Cambridge specially to see your Thomas about some discovery of his?”

“Yes,” said his wife. “Thomas, I would have you all know, says every fly carries some disease; they have long located special diseases to each fly, all except the old bluebottle, and though they all entertained the very darkest suspicions about the bluebottle, no one knew for certain what mischief it was he was promulgating. Now Thomas has discovered it, and I expect the other entomologists are coming up to say he’s wrong! However, whatever they say, he is now set on getting some plutocrat to start a world crusade against all bluebottles and exterminate the lot.”

“Oh, dear,” said Mrs. Gordon, “I do hope not that. I love the buzz of a bluebottle fly, it’s one of the sounds of summer, and think of how many of the associations of one’s youth are connected with it!”

“Yes, my dear,” said Prudence, “but the associations of your misdirected youth are all being weeded up in this enlightened spot. All the old hymn tunes are gone, and ones that are better for your education and not your sentiments substituted. Now the bluebottles are following suit. I met our Dean after chapel on Armistice Day,” said she, laughing, “and I said, ‘Mr. Dean, how is this, we have had the National Anthem to the original tune, it must have been an oversight!’”

“What did he say to that?”

“He went off growling that if he had his way we shouldn’t ever have it at all in chapel.”

The pretence of playing bridge finally came to an end, and Mrs. Gordon and Mrs. Maryon took their departure. The husband of the latter had only recently become a Fellow of Prince’s College. He had spent a good many years in the East, was learned in Sanskrit, and was popularly supposed to speak seventeen Eastern dialects. His wife was rather flattered at being admitted to play bridge regularly with the three ladies, who were old friends. She entertained a great admiration for Miss Pinsent, which she began expressing as they left the house.

“Yes,” said Mrs. Gordon, “she is beautiful as you say, and reliable—and kind—yes, and clever—yes, I quite agree with you, she is not a snob as so many people say, she’s very fastidious, and I love her, but I should never be quite surprised if one day she kicked over the traces altogether.”

“But what do you mean by that, Mrs. Gordon…she’s most conventional, except that perhaps she uses rather strong language sometimes.”

“Yes, my dear, I know she appears to be conventional, indeed she is; but, I don’t know, I have known Prudence for years, and I somehow have always felt I don’t trust her.”

“Don’t trust her!” exclaimed Mrs. Maryon.

“I don’t mean that, I only mean I don’t trust her conventionalism. I would trust her with any secret. Why, you know there was a don up here once who posed as a bachelor for twenty years, and all the time he was married. Even his best friends had no idea of it, but Prudence got to know of it by an accident, and she never, never let slip that she knew it. I would trust that woman with anything after that.”

“Then what do you mean?” pursued Mrs. Maryon in some distress; “do you mean you think she might suddenly go off with someone else’s husband?”

“Yes, I think I do mean that sort of thing, though it will never take that actual form with Prudence, she is too independent now to want a man, or to marry; but at bottom she is completely indifferent to public opinion, and if she wanted to flout it, she would do so without hesitation.”

“It’s comparatively easy to be indifferent to public opinion when you have so assured a position as she has,” remarked Mrs. Maryon shrewdly.

“Yes,” said Mrs. Gordon with a laugh, “but with her it goes deeper than that. I tell you what I should have expected of her. I always thought she would have been a militant suffragette and gone to prison, and I don’t understand now why she wasn’t; perhaps she was too academic in her point of view.”

“She was brought up with boys, wasn’t she? Some cousins—that might make her character more masculine.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Gordon, “I believe she lived a good deal with some Temple cousins in Suffolk, relations of the great Professor Temple.”

Meanwhile at the Skipwiths Prudence resettled herself into a comfortable chair. “I am not going yet, Sue,” said she. “I am going to stop and see Thomas. When does he come in from the Labs.?”

“Oh, any time about now, indeed I fancy I hear him slamming the front door,” and a moment later into the room came Professor Thomas Skipwith with an evening paper tucked under his arm. About the last thing in the world that Skipwith looked like was what he was, an eminent scientific professor. He was not only washed, he was even shaved.

At first glance you would have taken him for an amiable farmer, at second, for there was something distinctly arresting in his face, you would have put him down as a naval officer.

“Did you see in the morning paper that there had been another murder with arsenic?” said he, as he came and warmed himself by the fire.

“I simply cannot understand the crude stupidity of anyone using it now. Why, look at the amount written about it in fiction; you would have thought that alone would have prevented anyone using it seriously.”

“I suppose it’s the easiest of all to get hold of,” said Prudence.

“It seems to me they always succeed in tracing whoever does get hold of it,” retorted Susan.

“Ah, but you’ve no idea how many may get away with it successfully!”

“Don’t be gruesome, Prue. Wasn’t Professor Temple holding forth on poisons the other evening in the Combination Room—didn’t you say, Thomas?”

“Yes, yes, he was,” said Thomas slowly, as he rubbed his back appreciatively in the warmth of the fire. “By Jove, and he said some things, too, which I don’t believe he would ever have let out if he hadn’t been filled up with our best college port; he’s a taciturn beggar as a rule”—here he paused—“let me see, he’s not a cousin of yours, Prue, is he?”

“Yes, but a very distant one—I call him a kinsman; but go on with what you were saying.”

“Well, he was holding forth on poisons generally; then he told us he had one himself, it is tasteless, and after swallowing, acts almost immediately. It just stops the heart beating, so that the victim dies of heart failure, and there is no trace whatever left in the body. You could never catch a fellow out using that,” said Thomas with an amiable smile.

“How ghastly!” exclaimed Susan, “and the man is mad already, he ought never to have such stuff in his possession.”

“His isn’t the sort of madness that turns to murder,” replied Thomas; “besides, he isn’t mad, it’s genius with him.”

“Bosh, Thomas—he’s mad all right, and you can never tell what madness will turn to.”

“How does he get hold of this drug?” asked Prudence, “is it imported?”

“No, I understand that it is a vegetable poison and he makes it himself; more than that, mark you—he says if you take small doses at regular intervals, you become immune to the poison; so you see, Sue, he could give you a dose of it, then finish the tumblerful himself and say to the police, ‘there couldn’t be poison in the cup because I have drunk the rest!’”

“The idea of it seems to amuse you,” said his wife frigidly.

“The most interesting part,” said Thomas with a laugh at his wife, “was that I had the feeling that afterwards he wished he hadn’t said so much, and tried to laugh it away.”

“Really, Thomas,” said Prudence, “you don’t think Professor Temple wants to murder?”

“No, I don’t, but he undoubtedly could if he did want, and would certainly never be found out.” Thomas piled some more wood on the fire, then he said, “Temple had a queer guest, for him, up to the last College Feast—the young Duke of Banbury. I can’t think what they had in common, because the Duke hasn’t an idea beyond hunting, has he?”

“No,” said Prudence, “it was an odd guest for Professor Temple to entertain, and no less odd that the Duke should come away just as the hunting is beginning.”

“Is it the hunting season?”

“Now, Thomas, pull yourself together and answer that question yourself. It’s November.”

“Well, I should say it probably was, as I know hunting goes on through the winter, but ’pon my word, I wouldn’t be certain.”

“No,” replied Prudence with some bitterness, “I can well believe you really don’t know for certain—for sublime ignorance on general topics, ignorance that would shame a preparatory schoolboy—give me the expert.”

Thomas shouted with laughter—“Never mind, Prue,” he said, “when will you come for a run in my new car?” The Skipwiths had recently acquired a 6-cylinder Bentley. Susan considered this a piece of unnecessary extravagance for people in their position, but motoring was Thomas’s greatest relaxation, and a lucky gamble on the Stock Exchange had made him feel extravagant, so he asserted, and he went a splash.

“Drive me down to Suffolk on the 8th,” said Prudence. “I am going off for a bit of hunting till Christmas, and you can stay the night; it’s a place well worth seeing, I can tell you.”

“What day of the week would it be?”

“Tuesday.”

“No, I can’t. I am lecturing at twelve on Tuesday and Wednesday, but I should simply love to see your cousin’s place. It’s famous, isn’t it?”

“Yes, and I mean Susan and you to come some time; you’ve just no notion what it is after the strenuous up-to-date life of Cambridge. Get into your car and drive a hundred miles east and you come to Wellende Old Hall, seven miles from a station, seven miles from a shop, seven miles from anywhere; the Temples have lived there for nearly eight hundred years, and Ben has managed to remain feudal—no, that doesn’t quite describe it, there has been no ‘management,’ he just is feudal. The old butler once summed it up very well, when he said to me, ‘as it was in the beginning, miss, is now—and h’always shall be, that’s the motto for this ’ouse.’”

“It sounds simply entrancing,” said Susan.

“Come out for a drive to-morrow after my lecture, Prue. I’ll have the car at the Labs., and it’s only a step for you along from Prince’s.” And so they settled it, and Prudence rose to depart.

“Wait a moment,” said Thomas, “there’s a story going its round about you, that someone stepped off the pavement just in front of your car, and you swore so lustily at him that the Vice-Chancellor, who was coming along and overheard you, nearly fainted, and said he wouldn’t have you inside the precincts of St. Benedict’s.”

“It’s one long lie,” replied Prudence, “but it may have its origin in the fact that his wife stepped on my toe the other day and I dropped a mild oath, at which she said she shouldn’t ask me to dinner to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury, I wasn’t fit to meet him.”

Thomas threw himself back in his chair and laughed.

“I really must go now,” said Prue, and with that she was off. Thomas came back into the room after sending off Prue; as he gazed into the fire he said, “That cousin of Prue’s she goes to so regularly for hunting is unmarried, isn’t he?”

“Yes,” said Susan.

“It’s unusual for a man in his position, unless there’s something wrong with him—do you suppose there was ever anything between them?”

“No,” said Susan. “I am sure she never has been in love with him; she was brought up very largely with him and his brother, and I am sure all her affection for him is fraternal. I can’t quite imagine Prudence in love with anyone, you know. I wouldn’t criticize her to anyone but you, but there’s something hard about her.” Thomas assented.

“She’s too independent for a woman,” he said.

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The Incredible Crime: A British Library Crime Classic

Austen-Leigh, the great-great niece of Jane Austen who is said to have used Aunt Jane’s writing desk to write four mysteries, provides fascinating details of what British high life was like at the time.”

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