Murder of a Lady: A British Library Crime Classic

Murder of a Lady: A British Library Crime Classic

Duchlan Castle is a gloomy, forbidding place in the Scottish Highlands. Late one night the body of Mary Gregor, sister of the laird of Duchlan, is found in the castle. ...

About The Author

Anthony Wynne

Anthony Wynne is a pseudonym of Robert McNair-Wilson (1882–1963), who wrote twenty-seven detective novels featuring Eustace Hailey, a physician and ...

Read an Excerpt

Chapter I

Murder at Duchlan

Mr. Leod McLeod, Procurator Fiscal of Mid-Argyll, was known throughout that county as “the Monarch of the Glen”. He deserved the title, if only because of the shape and set of his head and the distinction of his features. A High- lander, full length, in oils, dignified as a mountain, touchy as a squall, inscrutable, comic in the Greek sense. When  at ten o’clock at night he came striding in, past the butler, to the smoking-room at Darroch Mor, even Dr. Eustace Hailey gasped, giving, by that, joy to his host, Colonel John MacCallien. “I must apologize, gentlemen, for disturbing you at this unseasonable hour.” Mr. McLeod bowed as he spoke, like a sapling in a hurricane. “Won’t you sit down?” “Thank you. Yes. Yes, I will. Dear me, is it ten o’clock?” John MacCallien signed to his butler, who moved a table, furnished with decanters and siphons, closer to his visitor. He invited him to help himself. “That’s too kind of you. Well, well…” Mr. McLeod poured what seemed to Dr. Hailey a substantial quantity of whisky into a tumbler. He drank the whisky, undiluted, at a gulp. A sigh broke from his lips. “Believe me, gentlemen,” he said in solemn tones, “it is not lightly that I have troubled you. I heard that Dr. Hailey was staying here. It seemed to me that the gravity of the case and our remoteness from help gave me title to lay his skill under contribution.” He moved uneasily as he spoke. Dr. Hailey observed that his brow was damp. “There’s been murder,” he said in low tones, “at Duchlan Castle. Miss Mary Gregor has been murdered.” “What!” “Yes, Colonel MacCallien, it’s too true. Murdered, poor lady, while sleeping in her bed last night.” The Procurator Fiscal’s hand was raised in a gesture which expressed condemnation as well as horror. “But, it’s impossible. Mary Gregor hadn’t an enemy in the world.” John MacCallien turned to Dr. Hailey. “Even tramps and tinkers turned to bless her as she passed them, and with good reason, for she was constantly helping them.” “I know, Colonel MacCallien, I know,” Mr. McLeod said. “Who is there in Argyll who does not know? But I state the fact, there she lies, murdered.” The man’s voice fell again. “I have never seen so terrible a wound.”    

Chapter II

A Fish’s Scale

Mr. McLeod wiped his brow, for his habit was sudorific. His nostrils expanded. “It was no ordinary knife which made that wound,”  he declared in hoarse tones. “The flesh has been torn.” He turned and addressed himself to Dr. Hailey. “Miss Gregor was lying crouching beside her bed when they found her.” He paused: the blood diminished in his face. “The door of that room was locked on the inside and the windows of that room were bolted.” “What, a locked room?” John MacCallien exclaimed. “That’s it, Colonel MacCallien. Nobody can have gone into that room and nobody can have come out from it. I have examined the windows myself, yes, and the door, too. You could not close these windows from the outside if you tried. And you could not unlock the door from the outside.” He shook his head, closing his eyes, meanwhile, as though he had entered into communion with higher powers. After a moment he turned to Dr. Hailey. “The wound,” he stated, “is in the left shoulder, near the neck. So far as I could judge it is three or four inches deep, a gash that looks as if it had been made with an axe. And yet, strange to say, there seems to have been little bleeding. Dr. McDonald of Ardmore, who examined the body, says that he thinks death was due to shock more than to the wound itself. Miss Gregor, it appears, has suffered for many years from a weak heart. There would not be much bleeding in that case, I suppose?” “Possibly not.” “There’s a little blood on the nightdress, but not much. Not much.” Mr. McLeod gulped his whisky. “I telephoned to Police Headquarters in Glasgow,” he stated, “but this being the Sabbath day I don’t look to see Inspector Dundas, who is coming, until tomorrow morning. I said to myself, when I heard tonight that you were staying here: if Dr. Hailey will be so good as to examine the room and the body immediately, we shall have something to go upon in the morning.” He rose as he spoke: “I have a car waiting at the door.” John MacCallien accompanied his guest to Duchlan. They were greeted in the hall of the Castle by the dead woman’s brother, Major Hamish Gregor, whom Mr. McLeod called “Duchlan”. Duchlan looked like an old eagle. He shook Dr. Hailey’s hand with sudden and surprising vigour but did not speak a word. Then he conducted John MacCallien to a room adjoining the hall, leaving Mr. McLeod to take the doctor upstairs. “Who knows, this blow may be mortal,” the Procurator Fiscal confided to his companion in a loud whisper as they ascended the oak staircase. “Duchlan and his sister were all things to each other.” The stair ended in a gallery; from this several passages radiated. They passed along one of these and came to a door from which the lock had been cut away. Mr. McLeod paused and turned to the doctor. “This is the room; nothing but the lock of the door has been disturbed. I had a great shock myself when I entered and I would therefore prepare your mind.” Dr. Hailey inclined his head, responding to the High- lander’s gravity with a reserve which gave nothing away. The door moved noiselessly open. He saw a woman in a white nightdress kneeling beside a bed. The room was lit by a paraffin lamp which stood on the dressing-table; the blinds were drawn. The kneeling figure at the bed had white hair which shone in the lamplight. She looked as if she was praying. He glanced about him. There were framed samplers and pieces of fine needlework on the walls, and many pictures. The furniture was old and heavy; a huge four-poster bed in mahogany with a canopy, a wash-stand that looked as if it had been designed to accommodate a giant, a wardrobe, built like a feudal castle, and, scattered about among these great beasts, the small deer of tables and chairs, smothered, all of them, in faded and tarnished upholstery. He walked across the room and stood looking down at the dead woman. Mr. McLeod had not exaggerated; the weapon had cut through her collar-bone. He bent and drew back the nightdress, exposing the whole extent of the wound. The look of pity on his face changed to surprise. He turned and signed to Mr. McLeod to approach. He pointed to a pale scar which ran down the breast from a point slightly above and to the inside of the end of the wound. The scar ended near the upper border of the heart. “Look at that.” Mr. McLeod gazed for a moment and then shook his head. “What does it mean?” he asked in a whisper. “It’s a healed scar. So far as I can see it means that she was wounded long ago nearly as severely as she was wounded last night.” “May it not have been an operation?” “There are no marks of stitches. Stitch marks never disappear.” Mr. McLeod shook his head. “I never heard that Miss Gregor had been wounded,” he declared. He watched the doctor focus his eyeglass on the scar and move the glass up and down. Sweat broke anew on his brow. When an owl screeched past the window he started violently. “This old wound,” Dr. Hailey announced, “was inflicted with a sharp weapon. It has healed, as you see, with as little scarring as would have occurred had it been stitched. Look how narrow and clean that scar is. A blunt weapon would have torn the flesh and left a scar with ragged edges.” He pointed to the new wound. “There’s an example of what I mean. This wound was inflicted with a blunt weapon. Offhand, I should say that, at some early period of her life, Miss Gregor was stabbed by somebody who meant to murder her. It’s common experience that uninstructed people place the heart high up in the chest whereas, in fact, it’s situated low down.” He had been bending; he now stood erect. His great head, which excellently matched his body, towered above that of his companion. Mr. McLeod looked up at him and was reminded of a picture of Goliath of Gath which had haunted his childhood. “I never heard,” he said, “that anybody ever tried to murder Miss Gregor.” “From what John MacCallien said I imagine that she was the last woman to attempt to take her own life.” “The last.” The doctor bent again over the scar. “People who stab themselves,” he said, “strike one direct blow and leave, as a rule, a short scar; whereas people who stab others, strike downwards and usually leave a longer scar. This scar, as you see, is long. And it broadens as it descends, exactly what happens when a wound is inflicted with a knife.” He moved his eyeglass to a new focus over the recent wound. “The blow which killed, on the contrary, was struck with very great violence by somebody using, I think, a weapon with a long handle. A blunt weapon. The murderer faced his victim. She died of shock, because, had her heart continued to beat, the wound would have bled enormously.” The screech owl passed the window again and again Mr. McLeod started. “Only a madman can have struck such a blow,” he declared in fervent tones. “It may be so.” Dr. Hailey took a probe from his pocket and explored the wound. Then he lighted an electric lamp and turned its beam on the woman’s face. He heard Mr. McLeod gasp. The face was streaked in a way which showed that Miss Gregor had wetted her fingers in her own blood before she died. He knelt and took her right hand, which was clenched so that he had to exert force to open it. The fingers were heavily stained. He looked puzzled. “She clutched at the weapon,” he declared; “that means that she did not die the moment she was struck.” He glanced at the fingers of her left hand; they were unstained. He rose and turned to his companion. “Her left hand was helpless. She grasped the weapon with her right hand and then pressed that hand to her brow. Since there was little bleeding, the weapon that inflicted the wound must have remained buried in it until after death. Perhaps, before she collapsed, she was trying to pluck the weapon out of the wound. The murderer was a witness of this agony for he has taken his weapon away with him.” Mr. McLeod was holding the rail at the foot of the bed; it rattled in his grasp. “No doubt. No doubt,” he said. “But how did the murderer escape from the room? Look at that door.” He pointed to the sawn part of the heavy mahogany. “It’s impassable; and so are the windows.” Dr. Hailey nodded. He walked to the window nearest the bed and drew back the curtain which covered it. Then he opened the window. The warm freshness of the August night entered the room astride a flood of moonlight. He relit his lamp and examined the sill. Then he closed the window again and looked at its fastenings. “It was bolted, you say?” “Yes, it was. The other window is bolted too.” Mr. McLeod wiped his brow again. He added: “This room is directly above Duchlan’s study.” Dr. Hailey moved the bolt backwards and forwards. The spring which retained it in position was not strong and seemed to be the worse of wear. “Did Miss Gregor sleep with her windows open?” he asked. “I think she did in this weather. I’ve ascertained that the windows were open last night.” The doctor turned the beam of his lamp on to the floor below the window and immediately bent down. There were drops of blood on the floor. “Look at these.” “Was  she wounded on this spot, do you think?” Mr. McLeod asked in hushed tones. “Possibly. If not she must have come here after she was wounded. Notice how small the quantity of blood is. Only a drop or two. The weapon was in the wound.” He bent again and remained for a moment looking at the stains. “The odds, I think, are that she was wounded here. When a blade remains in a wound it takes a second or two for the blood to well up and escape. No doubt she rushed back to her bed and collapsed just when she reached it.” “The murderer didn’t escape by the window,” Mr. McLeod declared in positive tones. “There’s no footmark on the border below, and the earth is soft enough to take the prints of a sparrow. If you’ll look to-morrow you’ll see that no human being could climb up or down those walls. They’re as smooth as the back of your hand. You would need a scaffolding to reach the windows.” He had evidently considered all the possibilities and rejected them all. He wiped his brow again. Dr. Hailey walked to the fireplace where a fire was laid and scrutinized it as he had scrutinized the window. “At least we can be sure that nobody entered by the chimney.” “We can be quite sure of that. I thought of that. The chimney-pot would not admit a human body. I’ve looked at it myself.” It remained to examine the place where the body was kneeling. There was a quantity of blood on the floor there but much less than must have been found had the wound not been kept closed until after death. Dr. Hailey moved the beam of his lamp up and down the little, crouching figure, holding it stationary for an instant, here and there. He had nearly completed his search when a gleam of silver, like the flash of a dewdrop on grass, fixed his attention on the left shoulder, at the place where the neck of the nightdress crossed the wound. He bent and saw a small round object which adhered closely to the skin. He touched it; it was immediately dislodged. He recognized a fish’s scale.

Reviews of

Murder of a Lady: A British Library Crime Classic

“First published in 1931, this reissue in the British Library crime classics series brings back what some consider a more innocent era, when psychology seemed simpler and no one ever used terms like sociopath or psychopath.”

Publishers Weekly

“This classic British mystery has enough complex plotting and red herrings to win a new generation of fans for the largely forgotten Wynne.”

Kirkus Reviews

“This 1931 novel, now republished as part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series, is a cunningly concocted locked-room mystery, a staple of Golden Age detective fiction.”

Booklist (starred review)