Lord Hillary Evenshot would never forget the look on Lady Sissingholm’s face the instant she dropped dead at his feet. It was an inexpressible combination of shock and disappointment but what made it memorable was the flash of pure vexation he saw as her last emotion.
The look on his face was no less remarkable because the moment before she toppled sideways like a poplar, the two of them had drunk to each other’s health with their sherry. Lord Hillary stood transfixed for several moments, mouth agape, while his train of thought brought him to the conclusion that he should have wished her a long life as well.
Upon coming to himself and throwing the brake on the train that was taking him to a consideration of ossuaries, he bent down to see if indeed the rather grotesque heap at his feet were really deceased.
“Cyrus!” he bellowed. “There’s a dead woman on the carpet and it’s Lady Sissingholm.”
Cyrus materialized at his employer’s side as silently as a good butler cum valet does. Lord Hillary did not need to hear him to know he was there.
“It does indeed seem as though your guest has expired, sir,” Cyrus intoned. “I shall call the constables immediately.”
He left as wraithlike as he had come, and Lord Hillary remained transfixed to his spot, unable to take his eyes off the remarkable addition to the library’s décor.
“Darling!” Hermione’s sweet voice had an uncharacteristic shrillness, excusable given the circumstance of hearing her normally even-keeled fiancé bellowing.
“What happened? I heard you just as I was coming back from the village.” She clamped a hand over her mouth when she realized that Hillary was not alone in the room, or rather, he was the only living soul in the room.
“Ye gods and little fishes,” Hermione whispered. “Is that Lady Sissingholm under that tumble of cloth? Has she fallen and can’t get up? Help her, Hillary, for heaven’s sake.” Hermione stopped herself abruptly. She knew she was babbling.
“I fear help is beyond my meager talents, my dear. She won’t need my assistance to resurrect.” Hillary’s train of thought went straight down the track to a contemplation of 14th century murals of Madonnas and weeping saints. “Giotto might be the better choice.”
As usual Hermione followed her fiancé’s train of thought and realized that she was now among the ladies of the club whose aged relations had reached their sell-by dates in the middle of their libraries.
“What happened? She was perfectly fine when she arrived today. Heart? A stroke? Aneurysm?” Again, Herminone stopped herself. Babbling was not going to do anything for the old girl.
“My lord,” intoned Cyrus. “I called both the police and Doctor Cranbrook. I thought it best to have a medical opinion as soon as possible.”
Hardly had Cyrus stopped speaking when the three people in the library who could hear did hear the singsong siren of the officials.
Detective Inspector Moreland West was the first to arrive, accompanied by two constables whose damp patches behind their ears were only too obvious. Bloody nuisances was what DI West would have called the two had his thoughts been audible. The two young constables would have called themselves “keen.”
Cyrus left to meet the policemen in the hall and escort them to the library. Hillary and Hermione stood paralyzed by the oddity of it all.
The gravel drive crunched again signaling the advent of Dr. Cranbrook. Almost as elderly as Lady Sissingholm, who was rumored to be over 90, the good doctor (they all are good apparently) had treated nearly everyone in the surrounding towns over the years and had known the now-ex Lady well. If anyone knew of a fatal weakness, it would be he.
Hillary and Hermione had sufficiently recovered their wits to greet the doctor in the hall themselves.
“I couldn’t believe my ears when your man rang me,” said Dr. Cranbrook. He worried his aged black Gladstone bag, moving it from hand to hand. Clearly the death of one of his long-time patients, and one only slightly older than himself, had affected him deeply.
“Please allow me to see her first and then I want the full details of what happened,” he requested. His consternation was evident.
They joined the police in the library. DI West had ordered the two juniors to stand by the desk, well away from the body. He knew in their “keenness,” they would have made a hash of observing the room and the remains. It would have been too tempting to touch something interesting or even poke the old girl just to see if she were really dead.
Dr. Cranbrook moved smartly over to DI West and began comparing notes. He then bent and gently touched Lady Sissingholm’s face. To Hillary’s eye, that expired visage still wore the look of surprise and vexation he had seen in the instant before the day went pear-shaped. Hermione thought she detected more than just professional concentration in the tightness of the doctor’s lips.
The doctor began his initial examination. Detective Inspector West followed his moves with an experienced eye.
Hillary and Hermione stood off a respectful distance and Hillary’s train of thought, looking at the tableau of doctor, detective and deceased, raced down the track to Hamlet, and he muttered, “Alas, poor Chastity, I knew her, Westmorland.”
Hermione looked up in surprise. “Chastity? That was her name? How ironically correct for a spinster.”
Hillary snapped back from his contemplation of the Bard and replied softly, “She never used it and I doubt many know it. I found out inadvertently when I was leafing through a genealogy in the front of one of the bibles. She was my second cousin thrice removed. We weren’t terribly close as you can imagine given the age difference, but we always tried to include her in big family affairs and holidays. I gather she was quite fond of my grandfather. He was at school when she was young, but the families lived close enough for them to see each other more than we do now. In fact, remember how we thought she was beginning to slip a bit lately because the past couple of times she was here, especially today, she called me by his name, Hubert.”
The good doctor rose and motioned Hillary, Hermione and DI West toward him.
“This is very strange, Lord Hillary. Most strange indeed. Lady Sissingholm has been murdered.” He whispered the last word much like members of his generation did for the dreaded C-word, cancer.
Lord Hillary gaped like a stunned mullet for the second time that afternoon.
“Murdered? You can’t be serious,” he exclaimed. “I was the only one with her this afternoon, apart from Hermione for a few moments and of course Cyrus, who oversaw luncheon.”
DI West peered at Hermione. “Why were you not at luncheon?”
Hermione paused a moment, trying to come to terms with the knowledge that she just went up in status to join the more exclusive club of ladies who have had a genuine aged relative murdered in their libraries. Rare air, to be sure.
“I had already made an appointment to have my hair done for today. Lady S told me to go ahead as she really wanted to talk to Hillary.”
DI West turned his bent eye to Lord Hillary. “Was it odd for her to come to Hillmione Wold just to see you, sir?”
Hillary’s train of thought was sufficiently derailed by the thought of murder for him to actually answer the question directly. “Yes, today was odd. She had just come for a visit last week but had left abruptly a day later. It was a very precipitous departure, really. Just stood up suddenly when we were in the library, just here in fact, with the afternoon sunlight streaming in the window as it is now, and demanded that Cyrus call her car. She left without her overnight case. When she rang again so soon, I thought it was to apologize and pick up her things. Are you sure it was murder, doctor?”
“Most assuredly, yes, sir. I detect the particular odour of tomato ketchup on her lips.”
Hillary and Hermione looked at the doctor blankly. “Catsup?” said Hermione. “We have a variety of catsups in the house. Doesn’t everyone?”
“Ah, not catsup, m’am. Tomato ketchup, an oddly American sauce, but in this case, the odour is the distinctive telltale of a specific poison from a leaf native to the Amazon. It’s so distinctive I’m surprised that the Heinz company hasn’t sued Brazil for industrial theft of their recipe.”
“Good lord, we don’t have anything remotely like that in the kitchen,” gasped Hermione.
“I should expect not,” the doctor sniffed. “It can only have been the sherry.”
“Catsup in the sherry?” mused Hillary. “Strange combination.”
“No, no,” the doctor interrupted, “the poison that smells like American ketchup.”
“But who would have wanted to poison the old girl?” asked Hermione, derailing that whole train of thought. “She led such a quiet life, she couldn’t have made any enemies and as far as I know, she never stole anyone’s husband or had all that much money to leave her heirs. Aren’t those the motives for murder, especially at a country house?”
DI West suggested they all sit down by the fireplace, at a slight remove from the body and go over the details of the day.
Cyrus entered at that moment with the tea tray, much to the delight of the two young officers who had dutifully not moved a muscle during the previous exchanges.
The group settled into the sofas surrounding the massive fireplace. Hermione offered to be “mother” and began to pour: the doctor who took tea, milk with no sugar; the detective who took tea, no milk, two sugars; the blond young officer who took tea, a great deal of milk and one sugar; and the darker haired boy policeman who took his tea with a touch of milk but still a good dollop, thank you, and three sugars. The resulting confusion of cups passing around coupled with plates of biscuits was punctuated with such insightful comments as “You have my cup,” “No, you have yours, I have the doctor’s,” “But there’s too much sugar in mine.”
Only DI West was above the fray, being the only one who took no milk. He cleared his throat and began. “Now we will end this kerfuffle, gentlemen,” he growled at his two young bloody nuisances. “Please continue, Lord Hillary, and be as detailed as possible.” He instantly regretted those words when he realized how many side tracks the Evenshot train of thought had.
“Well, as I said, I was surprised when she rang to say she wanted to return, but I confess to wanting to learn why she had bolted. She arrived later than expected and after a very brief chat, we went in to luncheon. We dined lightly and chatted about a variety of topics such as mussels, silted rivers, dwindling habitat for grebes, ladies’ hats with feathers, changing hairstyles, and hat pins…”
DI West held up his hand, “I gather she was quite voluble.”
“Actually, I don’t remember her saying a word. I may possibly have dominated the conversation. I do that occasionally, I’m told,” Hillary confessed. Hermione and Cyrus raised eyebrows in unison.
“Well, after we’d finished, she did suggest a glass of sherry here in the library. I knew she liked this room because she always sat in the exact same place, just there. She took her accustomed place and I poured the sherry at the sideboard. I placed the glasses on the table before us and she suddenly pointed out the window saying, “Oh look, isn’t that a blue crested warbler?”
“I turned and agreed it was and said how lovely to see they had returned. Then I turned back, and she was smiling contentedly. We raised our glasses, but then I remembered the copy of the 18th c. treatise on ornithology and beckoned her to join me at the desk as I went to fetch it. We paged through the exquisite illustrations for a bit before I thought of the large work of aerial photos of the county I have. We moved to the far shelves over there. Next, we went out to the terrace to discuss the distinction between a weald and a wold and finally returned to the fireplace.”
DI West interrupted, “You are sure you and she were alone the whole time? Where were the glasses of sherry while you were making your lengthy circumnavigation of the library and environs?”
Lord Hillary blinked for a moment recalling the itinerary and replied, “Do you think there would have been a point when someone unknown could have slipped something into her glass? But I do believe she carried our glasses with her as we moved about. When we finally returned to the fireplace, I picked up the glass nearest me. She smiled, said “At last, Hubert”, drank and dropped dead.”
“She called you by your grandfather’s name,” the doctor murmured. “You said she had begun doing that of late?”
“Yes, we thought she was beginning to slip.”
The doctor hesitated and looked up at the portrait of Hubert Evenshot that hung over the mantle, the late afternoon sun casting a faint, golden light full upon it.
“Did you know how very attached she was to your grandfather?” he said softly. “She had wanted to marry him desperately, but he considered her just a young cousin. She however was adamant that he would come to his senses eventually. I tried to be a stalwart friend to her after he wed your grandmother. He never knew that she was besotted with him. She took it very hard, and I, always just the stalwart friend, was the only one to really know the full extent of it.”
Hillary slowly stood up, trying to absorb this intimate detail of his distant cousin’s life. He leaned against the mantle, staring out over the terrace and the lawns.
Suddenly Hermione gasped, jerking back in her seat. Trembling, she pointed at Hillary. “You, it was you!”
Five pairs of eyes were riveted on her as the entire group tried to grasp the import of what she said. Hillary was struck dumb. His beloved had just accused him of murder!
DI West recovered first. “Are you saying Lord Hillary is the murderer?”
Hermione shook her head violently. “No, no, no. There was a murderer here today and it was Lady Sissingholm!”
She stood up still pointing at Hillary. “Look at him, in this light. He’s the living image of his grandfather. You would think the portrait were of him!”
Everyone turned to Hillary and instantly saw the uncanny resemblance with the man in the painting above him.
“Don’t you see?” Hermione cried. “At her last visit, she was clearly beginning to fail. We thought it odd but cute that she had begun occasionally calling Hillary by his grandfather’s name. But she was sitting right here, at this very moment of the day, when she suddenly bolted from the house during that last visit. She must have looked up and seen Hillary at the mantle and became convinced he really was Hubert. Those years of deep resentment and hidden heartache must have finally snapped her mind and she conceived a plan to get her revenge for being what she considered jilted.”
Hermione looked at Hillary. “Didn’t you tell me that her brother was a botanist who had trekked through the Amazon? She must have remembered his stories of the poisons he’d found. She was the one bent on murder! The murder of the man who’d spurned her.
“Hillary, you said that she distracted you after you poured the sherry. That’s when she must have put the poison in your glass. But you didn’t drink right away. In fact, you led her a merry chase around the room, onto the terrace and back. She kept following you, picking up and putting down the glasses. Just now, we had the same confusion over the tea cups. She must have gotten the glasses switched and when you finally drank, she had the deadly glass.”
Doctor Cranbrook quickly moved back to the body. Gently he patted the pockets of her dress and drew out a glassine envelope. “Here it is, here’s the poison,” he said sadly.
A simple phone call from DI West to the morgue took the earthly remains of Lady Sissingholm away. Lord Hillary and Hermione, still dazed at what the day had become, stood silently at the door as the departed finally departed. Cyrus stood discreetly behind.
“For a moment, my darling, I thought you were convinced I had done my poor cousin in. That would have put a crimp in our wedding plans,” Hillary said.
“Had she succeeded in her plans, it would have been a rather larger crimp,” she replied.
Hermione glanced sideways at Cyrus and smiled. “Now that I have joined the Murder at the Manor House set, I’m just glad that in solving the mystery we did not find out that the butler did it.”
E.E. Whiting, a Princeton resident and retired lawyer, is now a ghostwriter, specializing in family and personal memoirs. She has been screening submissions to the Summer Fiction issue for many years.