The Mystery of Chenholt
Alice and Claude Askew
Alice and Claude Askew formed a writing partnership that proved highly productive before it was tragically cut short. Alice (1874–1917) and Claude (1865–1917) were married in 1900; their first co-authored novel, The Shulamite, appeared four years later and was subsequently adapted both for stage and film. Once they hit their stride as writers, there was no stopping them, and they are said to have written over ninety novels and serials. During the First World War, they worked as special correspondents for the Daily Express, and also helped with relief efforts in Serbia. In October 1917, they were travelling on an Italian steamer when it was torpedoed by a German submarine. The couple drowned, and Claude’s body was never recovered.
This story is taken from The Adventures of Police Constable Vane M.A., on Duty and off, which was published in 1908 with a sub-title: “recounting the startling incidents in the career of a gentleman of birth and education who joined the London Police”. The Askews’ emphasis in a prefatory note on the fact that some officers in the Metropolitan Police “have had University training” indicates that this would have come as a surprise to some readers, a generation before the emergence of Oxbridge-educated police officers such as Henry Wade’s John Poole and E.R. Punshon’s Bobby Owen. The stories are quaint, the book exceedingly rare: even the British Library does not have a copy.
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It was many weeks after his terrible night in the “mummy house” that Reggie, still feeble from his illness, his broad shoulders a little bent and rounded, was able to resume his duties. It was evident that he was unfit for active work, that change of air and scene was necessary for him, so the police authorities decided to transfer him temporarily to the country. I think I have made it clear that Reggie was a favourite both with his superiors and his subordinates, all of whom showed real sympathy for him during his illness.
Well, Reggie was given charge of the police-station of a small Surrey town, the name of which it is not necessary to mention. It is sufficient to say that it stood on high ground, and in the neighbourhood of the fragrant pine woods. Under these cheerful auspices, his health improved wonderfully; he soon held himself erect once more, and resumed the favoured cigar, a habit which he had not indulged since his convalescence. I had missed that long cigar during his visits to me at this period; Reggie was not the same man without it.
He soon became as popular at X— as he was in London. In so small a town it may easily be imagined that his duties were not very exciting; there were no thrilling adventures to report to me—luckily, considering all he had gone through. One experience, however, is worth recording, though, as a matter of fact, it concerned Violet Grey almost more than her fiancé.
Reggie’s one trouble in his new position was that he saw so little of Violet, so he was naturally delighted when an opportunity presented itself of summoning her in her professional capacity to his neighbourhood. This is how it happened.
Reggie was requested one day to see a gentleman at the police-station on a private matter. There was a good deal of mystery about the letter which requested an appointment; it stated that the writer would call at a certain hour on a matter of vital importance, but gave no name or address. Reggie examined the letter with curiosity; he did not like anonymous epistles, and he had had some experience of “cranks.”
The handwriting, too, seemed a trifle shaky. “Statements to be received with caution,” was Reggie’s decision as to the manner in which he should treat his intending visitor.
When, in due course, the stranger put in an appearance, my cautious friend was more favourably impressed. The ill-written letter was accounted for by an admitted lack of education, an admission made with peculiar frankness. Frankness, indeed, appeared to be the chief characteristic of Mr Grimsby, the name by which the visitor announced himself. It seemed impossible to doubt his word. He was a tall, clean-shaven man of forty or thereabouts, soberly dressed in black, a trifle nervous, perhaps—a nervousness indicated by twitching fingers—but otherwise straightforward in manner. He was the very type of his profession, which it required no detective instinct to guess.
“I am butler, sir, to Mr and Mrs Darrell,” he said; “they live just outside Chenholt, a village about a couple of miles from here. I expect you know it.” He spoke with peculiar precision, accenting his words carefully—a strange contrast to his badly expressed letter.
“Yes?” queried Reggie.
“I have been with Mr Darrell for three months now,” continued Grimsby, “and I have noticed something which has alarmed me considerably. I have thought it over day and night, it has been an oppression to my mind. So I decided at last to come and ask your advice.”
He paused. “What have you noticed?” asked Reggie.
The butler approached a little closer to my friend. His fingers twitched nervously, but his voice was steady enough as he whispered rather than spoke: “I fear that Mr Darrell is poisoning his wife.” He raised his blue eyes—weak eyes they were—with evident sincerity. The man believed what he said.
Reggie knew the Darrells of Chenholt by repute. A young couple, not long married, who had settled in Surrey during the last year. The wife was popularly supposed to have provided the money of the ménage, but, for the rest, they were considered a happy and loving pair.
“This is rather a startling statement, you know,” said Reggie, “and one that you should not make without very definite grounds for suspicion. Have you got these?”
“Grave suspicions, yes,” answered the man. “I am sure of it in my own mind. Mrs Darrell has been in ill-health for the past three weeks—ever since Mr Darrell took to dosing her. He always gives her the medicine himself, and she seems to get worse after it. I have seen him over and over again tampering with the bottles. And I have heard him talking—talking to himself, as he does it. I have seen him give her the medicine, and noticed his face as he hands it to her. At meals, too, he has furtively added something to her wine, drops from a bottle or powder from a paper—many times I have seen this, but, of course, I couldn’t interfere.”
Reggie knit his brows. “But there’s nothing in all this to go upon,” he said, “there’s not the smallest proof even of anything wrong—”
Grimsby interrupted sharply. “Proof, no,” he said; “but what’s the good of proof when the woman’s dead? I tell you I’m sure of what I say. That man is poisoning her—very slowly, so as not to arouse suspicion. He does it all so carefully, with such fiendish thought—but he doesn’t know that I’m on the watch, that I’ll put a stop to it, somehow.”
The words were wild, quietly as they were spoken. Reggie glanced up sharply. The man stood steady and self-possessed before him.
“What do you wish me to do?” asked Reggie; “I can’t act upon such vague information. You are probably wholly mistaken.”
“I’m not mistaken,” answered the butler, with conviction. “I haven’t watched day after day for nothing. To anyone in the place the thing must be clear—he must think that I’m blind.”
Grimsby spoke very earnestly. His manner impressed Reggie, even against his judgment. “I want to save my mistress, sir; that is why I have come to you. In a little while it may be too late. What do you advise?”
Reggie rapidly thought out a plan, one that could do no harm, whatever the true facts of the case might be.
“Is there any way of getting a detective in the house?” he asked, “a woman, for choice, to be with Mrs Darrell? Are any of the servants leaving?”
The idea seemed to strike Grimsby as feasible. “Yes,” he replied eagerly, “Mrs Darrell is on the look-out for a new maid, and there is great difficulty of getting one in the country. She has applied at the registry office here several times, I know. Anybody that came through them—”
Reggie stopped the flow of words. “I doubt very much if there is anything in what you have told me, Mr Grimsby,” he said, “but there can be no harm in supplying Mrs Darrell with a new maid. I will see to this, but, remember, I will accept her report as absolute, however contrary it may be to yours.”
Mr Grimsby was in nowise nonplussed. “By all means, sir, let it be so,” he said. “I am convinced that the lady will see the truth of my statement. Believe me,” he added, “it is a case of life or death, and, if we act at once, we may save Mrs Darrell.”
With these words the butler took his leave, leaving Reggie distinctly impressed by the evident sincerity of his intentions.
Violet had no particular case on hand just then; so much Reggie knew. She would not mind spending a few days in Mrs Darrell’s service to confirm or refute the accusations of the butler. It was an irregular proceeding, quixotic, perhaps—but there was the outside possibility that the life of a woman might be at stake. And Reggie decided that if he took the only other course, that of communicating directly with the Darrells, the result might be merely that of postponing the evil day for the proposed victim.
Violet, communicated with by telegram, fell in with her lover’s views, and arrived hurriedly at X—, prepared to undertake her new duties should she be accepted. I must admit that in all this I could see rather more than professional zeal, and, when Reggie told me the story, I was inclined to laugh at him. “That’s all very well, old fellow,” he answered, “but if we did work things in, conveniently to ourselves, remember there was a very serious motive behind it all.”
It was useless my pointing out that Reggie hadn’t much faith in his own motive. He wouldn’t admit that for a moment.
So it came about that Violet entered the service of Mrs Darrell as lady’s-maid. There was very little difficulty to be overcome. The registry office at X—recommended her highly, and Mrs Darrell, considering the difficulty she had met with in finding a maid at all, was not particular about references. Besides, as Reggie pointed out, anybody would have engaged a girl like Violet as soon as she presented herself.
“Report to me fully anything you notice,” Reggie had told her, “never mind how trivial it is. Nor do I mind how often you come to make your reports.”
“Certainly, Inspector Vane,” she answered, laughing; “but isn’t it a new thing for you to teach me my business?”
For the first few days the reports, generally received through the post, were negative.
“I can’t say I see anything wrong as yet,” wrote Violet; “the Darrells seem the most devoted couple on the face of the earth. Certainly she is a bit of an invalid, but then she is such a soft, delicate little person that you could well imagine a breath of wind blowing her away. I can’t see how she could stand even three weeks of slow poisoning. I have never surprised a sharp word between the two, and he looks as if he positively adored her. It is quite true about her having the money, which, of course, he would come in for on her death—so there’s a motive, if that goes for anything. Then it’s true, also, that Mr Darrell physics her; she takes a tonic which he gives her three times a day. I haven’t succeeded in getting a sample of it yet, but I will before long, and that’ll be the great test. I don’t see how they behave at meals, as, naturally, I don’t have access to the dining-room. Mr Grimsby is always on the watch; I believe the man is quite genuine, but I think he is disposed to make much of trifles, and to allow his suspicions to dominate everything. As for Mr Darrell, I can’t say I like the man, but between that and suspecting him of murder there is a great difference.”
After a matter of ten days or so Violet’s communications altered somewhat in their tone.
“There is a mystery of some sort in this house,” she wrote, “but where it is I can’t quite make out. Twice already I have heard footsteps wandering about at night-time. I must tell you that at the end of the passage where I have my room there is a large cupboard in which I know Mr Darrell keeps his chemicals. This cupboard is always locked. There is a staircase close by which leads to a kind of laboratory, where Mr Darrell experiments when the fancy seizes him. He is by way of being a chemist, you know. Well, in the dead of the night I have heard footsteps mounting the main staircase, and going towards that cupboard, then the sound of bottles being moved about, and finally the returning footsteps. Somehow it has seemed to me that after these events Mrs Darrell has been worse. Do you think it possible, Reggie, that there can be something in this poisoning story after all? That this man is killing his wife so slowly and so skilfully as to avoid all breath of suspicion? I don’t quite know what to think as yet—but I’m sure I don’t like Mr Darrell. One thing, however: if it is he, why should he go to his cupboard at night? He might have it open all day without exciting alarm—but this is certain: he never does go there by day.”
The next letter recounted a peculiar experience. “I couldn’t stand the mystery of those footsteps any longer, Reggie, so I lay awake last night listening for them. I knew they would come. When I heard them passing close to my door I slipped into a dressing-gown and went out. It was rather weird somehow, and I believe I was a little frightened. There is a large window at the end of the passage, near the cupboard, and, as it is without a blind, the moon shone in, making long, eerie shadows on the walls. Everything else in the house was so still, too; there was nothing but those muffled footsteps. Peeping out of my door, I could see a dark figure at the end of the passage, so, plucking up all the courage I could muster, I advanced. I got quite close to the night wanderer before he heard me; he was standing in irresolute attitude at the foot of the stairs leading to the laboratory. The cupboard door was ajar. He wore a heavy dressing-gown and carpet slippers, and, when he turned to me, I saw, to my surprise, that it was not Mr Darrell, as I expected, but the butler, Grimsby. His face was very pale, almost blue in the moonlight. When he saw me he put his finger to his lips. ‘Hush!’ he said.
“‘What is it?’ I asked. ‘Why are you here at this time of night?’
“‘So you are on the watch, too?’ he whispered. ‘I have followed him tonight—as I have followed him many times before. He has been at the cupboard again. Don’t you see it is open?’
“‘Do you mean Mr Darrell?’ I asked. ‘Where is he?’
“‘He went upstairs to the laboratory. He is there now.’ The face of the man was perfectly ghastly in its pallor. ‘Soon he will come down again and lock the cupboard, then make his way softly, softly to his own room. We must not let him catch us here, Miss Grey; that will never do. You must go back—go back to your room.’
“I suppose I ought to have stayed where I was, Reggie, but do you know what it is to be overtaken by sudden panic? I fancied sounds descending the staircase, I saw that tall man with his ghastly face gesticulating in front of me, the pale moonlight just caught the edge of a mysterious-looking row of bottles in the half-open cupboard—I couldn’t stand it, and literally turned round and flew back to the protection of my own room, where I locked the door and stood holding the handle trembling with fear. Wasn’t it silly of me? I didn’t think I was so emotional, but that man in his long dressing-gown, and with his swinging arms, frightened me. Will you forgive me for not finding out anything? And what do you make of it all? I have never heard the footsteps of two people, but then Mr Darrell might reach the laboratory from his room without coming up the main staircase.”
It was the day following this that Reggie received a letter which filled him with alarm. This is what it said:
“I am not very well, Reggie. I don’t think it is much, and I don’t want you to be alarmed; but the fact is, I have taken a dose of Mrs Darrell’s medicine. I am afraid there can be no doubt that there is something wrong with it, or I should not feel so ill now. It happened like this. The day after the experience of which I spoke in my last letter I thought I had better say something to Mrs Darrell—to warn her of possible danger. It was just before lunch, and she was about to take her tonic—her husband had just brought it in to her. She is a dear little woman, and always talks familiarly to me, so I had no hesitation in speaking.
“‘Do you think it wise to take all these medicines without the advice of a doctor?’ I asked.
“She laughed heartily—though I thought her looking very ill. ‘Why, this is the most simple of tonics,’ she answered, ‘I take it three times a day. It picks me up wonderfully.’ She looked at me sympathetically. ‘You are pale this morning, Violet,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you a dose of it, and you’ll see what a good doctor my husband is.’ She poured out a dose and handed it to me.
“Well, Reggie, I decided to take it. I concluded that if Mrs Darrell swallowed three doses a day, it could not hurt me much, and its effect upon me might decide a very vexed question. I took it, and now, as I am writing, an hour after my lunch, I feel horribly ill. I suppose the effect will soon pass off, but oh, Reggie, I fear there is no doubt of the poisoning. Poor little Mrs Darrell, it is too wicked.”
It is needless to capitulate all that Reggie wrote in answer to this letter. His forcible expressions may be imagined. Shortly his instructions were that Violet was not to touch another drop of medicine in the Darrells’ house, but that if she could get a sample of it for analysis so much the better. And very soon afterwards she contrived to do this, giving it personally to Reggie one day when they contrived to meet. “And oh, Reggie,” she said, “I still feel so ill, though it is days since I took the nasty stuff.” Her pale face did not belie her words.
Reggie looked at her anxiously. “We shall have to get out of this, dear,” he said. “In the meanwhile you will be very careful, won’t you?”
He did not delay in getting an analysis of the medicine which he had obtained. It proved to be perfectly innocuous.
When he learnt the result Reggie tugged at his moustache dubiously. “It’s a rummy go altogether,” he pondered, “and I can’t make head or tail of it. The one thing is, Violet must be got away.”
And, indeed, this course soon became imperative, for Violet’s health gave real cause for alarm. Without perceptible reason, she became weaker, though she was loath to acknowledge it even to herself.
“You must tell Mrs Darrell that you are obliged to leave her service because of ill-health,” Reggie urged one evening when he had walked over to Chenholt to visit Violet. Mrs Darrell saw no objection to her maid receiving occasional visits from her friends. “Leave tomorrow, if possible, Violet. This sort of thing mustn’t go on. I don’t know where the mischief is, but I’m not going to have you submitted to it, anyhow.”
Violet promised obedience, sorry as she felt for Mrs Darrell. “I would give a lot to know who is injuring her,” she said.
“It’s much more important that someone is trying to injure you,” growled Reggie. “You will leave tomorrow, Violet?”
“Yes, I’ll leave tomorrow,” she answered, steadily, and with that assurance Reggie bade her good-night.
It was about nine o’clock when Reggie left the house to walk back across the fields to X—. It was a warm night, and as he descended the broad stone steps of the front door, he noticed that the blind of the dining-room close by him was up, and the window open. Mr and Mrs Darrell had just finished dinner, and were chatting gaily over dessert. She was lying at full length on a sofa drawn up to the table—a concession to her delicate health. It was quite a pretty, home-like scene, suggestive of anything but that which was uppermost in Reggie’s mind at the moment.
As he was about to pass on, the door opened, and Grimsby entered. Mr and Mrs Darrell looked up in evident surprise, not expecting interruption at that hour. There was an expression in the butler’s face which made Reggie draw back into the shadow of the doorway, where he could see without being seen, and hear without giving indication of his presence. He could not have explained what it was, but somehow he sniffed danger with that indefinable feeling which is rare in man, unless he has trained his senses to the appreciation of it.
“What do you want, Grimsby?” asked Mr Darrell, with some show of annoyance.
The butler advanced silently to the table, standing with his back to Reggie, and fronting his master. In this way his face was hidden from the watcher’s view, but the twitching of his fingers, as his hands were alternately raised and then dropped to his side, was very evident. His voice when he spoke was frank and easy, as it had been on his visit to the police-station.
“I have come to tell you, Mr Darrell, that I have found you out.”
“What do you mean?” cried Darrell, rising. “You must be drunk, Grimsby. Leave the room immediately.”
“I have found you out, sir,” repeated the man. “After many days and nights of watching, you stand convicted, to my mind.” His hands clutched the side of the table, and he fixed his eyes upon Mr Darrell. “Murderer!” He brought out the word with a jerk, and then stood silent.
Darrell was a big man, muscular and active. He turned to his wife: “Don’t be frightened, dear. I’m afraid Grimsby has been drinking. I will take him off to bed.” Master advanced upon man only to be confronted by the muzzle of a revolver presented at him by the butler. Reggie’s hand was on the sash of the partially open window, but, seeing Grimsby’s movement, he paused. Precipitate action meant danger.
“You are a murderer, Mr Darrell,” continued the butler, calmly, “and I propose to shoot you. You see quite well that you can’t escape, for I hold you covered by my revolver. It is loaded in six chambers, and I bought it on purpose to shoot you with.”
Darrell resumed his seat with splendid sang-froid. “Very well, Grimsby,” he said, “you propose to shoot me, and, as you say, I cannot escape. But you won’t mind telling me first whom I have murdered?”
“You are murdering your wife, poisoning her by degrees.” The man spoke slowly, deliberately, to all appearance sane, yet his action was that of a madman. “And you must die for it.”
Mrs Darrell gave a sharp cry. She had risen to a sitting position on her sofa, and had been staring at the scene in helpless terror.
“No, no, Grimsby,” she cried; “what are you thinking of? My husband is very good to me.”
“I am certain of what I say, madam,” returned the man, without relaxing a muscle; “and in your interests I propose to shoot your husband.” With his disengaged hand he drew out his watch and laid it on the table. “I give you two minutes more, Mr Darrell. It will be good for your soul if you confess before you die.”
Darrell looked at his wife, and his face was very pale and set. He was evidently meditating a sudden dash, Reggie outside was preparing to climb in by the window as quickly as he could, when he was arrested by Mrs Darrell’s voice.
“Grimsby,” she said, and her voice had the calmness of despair in it, “what you say is true. I have known for some time that my husband was poisoning me.” Darrell looked at her sharply; then he understood, and held his peace. She rose very quietly, and went to the butler’s side. “It is very just that he should die, but it is not you who should take the vengeance.” Her voice hardly faltered. “Give me the revolver, and let me kill him.”
This was a new development, and it seemed to impress the butler. But the hand which held the revolver did not flinch, had it done so Darrell would have immediately seized his chance. Facing the window as he did, he now saw help approaching in the person of Reggie, but with splendid courage he gave no sign. With a caution remarkable in a man of his inches, Reggie scaled the sill and stood on the floor of the room.
“No, stand where you are, Mrs Darrell,” cried the madman; “if you move another step I fire. It is not right that a woman should kill her husband. Fate has made me your avenger.” He glanced at his watch as the poor little woman stopped, gazing spellbound at the scene. “Now, Mr Darrell, one—two—”
He got no further, for the next second Reggie’s arms were round him. The weapon exploded harmlessly, and the monomaniac was thrown to the ground, struggling, kicking, and biting, but helpless in the grip of the two men. Mrs Darrell staggered back to the sofa, and fell in a dead faint.
“So the whole story of secret poisoning was pretty quickly exploded,” concluded Reggie, “and I felt a shocking fool ever to have been taken in by a madman’s yarn. But you have no idea, Arthur, how rational a monomaniac of this sort can be, and how often evidence lends itself to his tale. Would not anyone have been suspicious under the circumstances I have told you? We found out subsequently that Grimsby’s wife had been accidentally poisoned by a dose of oxalic acid, taken by mistake for Epsom salts, and he had been accused of causing her death. He was acquitted, but the thing weighed so much on his mind that it sent him off his head. He was reasonable enough in every other way, but on the subject of poisoning—well, you know what mischief he brought about. As fate would have it, Mr Darrell happened to dabble in chemistry, and that cupboard full of chemicals probably started Grimsby’s suspicions. He managed to obtain a key of it, and he knew all that it contained. Of course, he imagined Mr Darrell’s nightly visits to it. After all, the worst sufferer was poor Violet, who was really ill from some nasty stuff he mixed with her food, under the impression, of course, that he had found Mr Darrell’s poison, and would try its effect upon a third person. But she’s all right now, thank Heaven, and Grimsby, I believe, is in the county asylum, where he fancies everybody is trying to poison him.”