A Caribbean Mystery

A Caribbean Mystery

A Caribbean Mystery 47

  ‘It is about ten or fifteen years ago now, and happily it is all over and done with, and everyone has forgotten about it. People’s memories are very short – a lucky thing, I always think.’

  Miss Marple paused and murmured to herself:

  ‘I must just count this row. The decreasing is a little awkward. One, two, three, four, five, and then three purl; that is right. Now, what was I saying? Oh, yes, about poor Mabel.

  ‘Mabel was my niece. A nice girl, really a very nice girl, but just a trifle what one might call silly. Rather fond of being melodramatic and of saying a great deal more than she meant whenever she was upset. She married a Mr Denman when she was twenty-two, and I am afraid it was not a very happy marriage. I had hoped very much that the attachment would not come to anything, for Mr Denman was a man of very violent temper – not the kind of man who would be patient with Mabel’s foibles – and I also learned that there was insanity in his family. However, girls were just as obstinate then as they are now, and as they always will be. And Mabel married him.

  ‘I didn’t see very much of her after her marriage. She came to stay with me once or twice, and they asked me there several times, but, as a matter of fact, I am not very fond of staying in other people’s houses, and I always managed to make some excuse. They had been married ten years when Mr Denman died suddenly. There were no children, and he left all his money to Mabel. I wrote, of course, and offered to come to Mabel if she wanted me; but she wrote back a very sensible letter, and I gathered that she was not altogether overwhelmed by grief. I thought that was only natural, because I knew they had not been getting on together for some time. It was not until about three months afterwards that I got a most hysterical letter from Mabel, begging me to come to her, and saying that things were going from bad to worse, and she could-n’t stand it much longer.

  ‘So, of course,’ continued Miss Marple, ‘I put Clara on board wages and sent the plate and the King Charles tankard to the bank, and I went off at once. I found Mabel in a very nervous state. The house, Myrtle Dene, was a fairly large one, very comfortably furnished. There was a cook and a house-parlourmaid as well as a nurse-attendant to look after old Mr Denman, Mabel’s husband’s father, who was what is called “not quite right in the head”. Quite peaceful and well behaved, but distinctly odd at times. As I say, there was insanity in the family.

  ‘I was really shocked to see the change in Mabel. She was a mass of nerves, twitching all over, yet I had the greatest difficulty in making her tell me what the trouble was. I got at it, as one always does get at these things, indirectly. I asked her about some friends of hers she was always mentioning in her letters, the Gallaghers. She said, to my surprise, that she hardly ever saw them nowadays. Other friends whom I mentioned elicited the same remark. I spoke to her then of the folly of shutting herself up and brooding, and especially of the silliness of cutting herself adrift from her friends. Then she came bursting out with the truth.

  ‘“It is not my doing, it is theirs. There is not a soul in the place who will speak to me now. When I go down the High Street they all get out of the way so that they shan’t have to meet me or speak to me. I am like a kind of leper. It is awful, and I can’t bear it any longer. I shall have to sell the house and go abroad. Yet why should I be driven away from a home like this? I have done nothing.”

  ‘I was more disturbed than I can tell you. I was knitting a comforter for old Mrs Hay at the time, and in my perturbation I dropped two stitches and never discovered it until long after.

  ‘“My dear Mabel,” I said, “you amaze me. But what is the cause of all this?”

  ‘Even as a child Mabel was always difficult. I had the greatest difficulty in getting her to give me a straightforward answer to my question. She would only say vague things about wicked talk and idle people who had nothing better to do than gossip, and people who put ideas into other people’s heads.

  ‘“That is all quite clear to me,” I said. “There is evidently some story being circulated about you. But what that story is you must know as well as anyone. And you are going to tell me.”

  ‘“It is so wicked,” moaned Mabel. ‘“Of course it is wicked,” I said briskly. “There is nothing that you can tell me about people’s minds that would astonish or surprise me. Now, Mabel, will you tell me in plain English what people are saying about you?”

  ‘Then it all came out.

  ‘It seemed that Geoffrey Denman’s death, being quite sudden and unexpected, gave rise to various rumours. In fact – and in plain English as I had put it to her – people were saying that she had poisoned her husband.

  ‘Now, as I expect you know, there is nothing more cruel than talk, and there is nothing more difficult to combat. When people say things behind your back there is nothing you can refute or deny, and the rumours go on growing and growing, and no one can stop them. I was quite certain of one thing: Mabel was quite incapable of poisoning anyone. And I didn’t see why life should be ruined for her and her home made unbearable just because in all probability she had been doing something silly and foolish.

  ‘“There is no smoke without fire,” I said. “Now, Mabel, you have got to tell me what started people off on this tack. There must have been something.”

  ‘Mabel was very incoherent, and declared there was nothing – nothing at all, except, of course, that Geoffrey’s death had been very sudden. He had seemed quite well at supper that evening, and had taken violently ill in the night. The doctor had been sent for, but the poor man had died a few minutes after the doctor’s arrival. Death had been thought to be the result of eating poisoned mushrooms.

  ‘“Well,” I said, “I suppose a sudden death of that kind might start tongues wagging, but surely not without some additional facts. Did you have a quarrel with Geoffrey or anything of that kind?”

  ‘She admitted that she had had a quarrel with him on the preceding morning at breakfast time.

  ‘“And the servants heard it, I suppose?” I asked. ‘“They weren’t in the room.”

  ‘“No, my dear,” I said, “but they probably were fairly near the door outside.”

  ‘I knew the carrying power of Mabel’s high-pitched hysterical voice only too well. Geoffrey Denman, too, was a man given to raising his voice loudly when angry.

  ‘“What did you quarrel about?” I asked. ‘“Oh, the usual things. It was always the same things over and over again. Some little thing would start us off, and then Geoffrey became impossible and said abominable things, and I told him what I thought of him.”

  ‘“There had been a lot of quarrelling, then?” I asked. ‘“It wasn’t my fault –”

  ‘“My dear child,” I said, “it doesn’t matter whose fault it was. That is not what we are discussing. In a place like this everybody’s private affairs are more or less public property. You and your husband were always quarrelling. You had a particularly bad quarrel one morning, and that night your husband died suddenly and mysteriously. Is that all, or is there anything else?”

  ‘“I don’t know what you mean by anything else,” said Mabel sullenly. ‘“Just what I say, my dear. If you have done anything silly, don’t for Heaven’s sake keep it back now. I only want to do what I can to help you.”

  ‘“Nothing and nobody can help me,” said Mabel wildly, “except death.”

  ‘“Have a little more faith in Providence, dear,” I said. “Now then, Mabel, I know perfectly well there is something else that you are keeping back.”

  ‘I always did know, even when she was a child, when she was not telling me the whole truth. It took a long time, but I got it out at last. She had gone down to the chemist’s that morning and had bought some arsenic. She had had, of course, to sign the book for it. Naturally, the chemist had talked.

  ‘“Who is your doctor?” I asked.

  ‘“Dr Rawlinson.”

  ‘I knew him by sight. Mabel had pointed him out to me the other day. To put it in perfectly plain language he was what I would describe as an old dodderer.
I have had too much experience of life to believe in the infallibility of doctors. Some of them are clever men and some of them are not, and half the time the best of them don’t know what is the matter with you. I have no truck with doctors and their medicines myself.

  ‘I thought things over, and then I put my bonnet on and went to call on Dr Rawlinson. He was just what I had thought him – a nice old man, kindly, vague, and so short-sighted as to be pitiful, slightly deaf, and, withal, touchy and sensitive to the last degree. He was on his high horse at once when I mentioned Geoffrey Denman’s death, talked for a long time about various kinds of fungi, edible and otherwise. He had questioned the cook, and she had admitted that one or two of the mushrooms cooked had been “a little queer”, but as the shop had sent them she thought they must be all right. The more she had thought about them since, the more she was convinced that their appearance was unusual.

  ‘“She would be,” I said. “They would start by being quite like mushrooms in appearance, and they would end by being orange with purple spots. There is nothing that class cannot remember if it tries.”

  ‘I gathered that Denman had been past speech when the doctor got to him. He was incapable of swallowing, and had died within a few minutes. The doctor seemed perfectly satisfied with the certificate he had given. But how much of that was obstinacy and how much of it was genuine belief I could not be sure.

  ‘I went straight home and asked Mabel quite frankly why she had bought arsenic.

  ‘“You must have had some idea in your mind,” I pointed out. ‘Mabel burst into tears. “I wanted to make away with myself,” she moaned. “I was too unhappy. I thought I would end it all.”

  ‘“Have you the arsenic still?” I asked.

  ‘“No, I threw it away.”

  ‘I sat there turning things over and over in my mind.

  ‘“What happened when he was taken ill? Did he call you?”

  ‘“No.” She shook her head. “He rang the bell violently. He must have rung several times. At last Dorothy, the house-parlourmaid, heard it, and she waked the cook up, and they came down. When Dorothy saw him she was frightened. He was rambling and delirious. She left the cook with him and came rushing to me. I got up and went to him. Of course I saw at once he was dreadfully ill. Unfortunately Brewster, who looks after old Mr Denman, was away for the night, so there was no one who knew what to do. I sent Dorothy off for the doctor, and cook and I stayed with him, but after a few minutes I couldn’t bear it any longer; it was too dreadful. I ran away back to my room and locked the door.”

  ‘“Very selfish and unkind of you,” I said; “and no doubt that conduct of yours has done nothing to help you since, you may be sure of that. Cook will have repeated it everywhere. Well, well, this is a bad business.”

  ‘Next I spoke to the servants. The cook wanted to tell me about the mushrooms, but I stopped her. I was tired of these mushrooms. Instead, I questioned both of them very closely about their master’s condition on that night. They both agreed that he seemed to be in great agony, that he was unable to swallow, and he could only speak in a strangled voice, and when he did speak it was only rambling – nothing sensible.

  ‘“What did he say when he was rambling?” I asked curiously. ‘“Something about some fish, wasn’t it?” turning to the other. ‘Dorothy agreed. ‘“A heap of fish,” she said; “some nonsense like that. I could see at once he wasn’t in his right mind, poor gentleman.”

  ‘There didn’t seem to be any sense to be made out of that. As a last resource I went up to see Brewster, who was a gaunt, middle-aged woman of about fifty.

  ‘“It is a pity that I wasn’t here that night,” she said. “Nobody seems to have tried to do anything for him until the doctor came.”

  ‘“I suppose he was delirious,” I said doubtfully; “but that is not a symptom of ptomaine poisoning, is it?”

  ‘“It depends,” said Brewster.

  ‘I asked her how her patient was getting on.

  ‘She shook her head.

  ‘“He is pretty bad,” she said. ‘“Weak?”

  ‘“Oh no, he is strong enough physically – all but his eyesight. That is failing badly. He may outlive all of us, but his mind is failing very fast now. I have already told both Mr and Mrs Denman that he ought to be in an institution, but Mrs Denman wouldn’t hear of it at any price.”

  ‘I will say for Mabel that she always had a kindly heart.

  ‘Well, there the thing was. I thought it over in every aspect, and at last I decided that there was only one thing to be done. In view of the rumours that were going about, permission must be applied for to exhume the body, and a proper post-mortem must be made and lying tongues quietened once and for all. Mabel, of course, made a fuss, mostly on sentimental grounds – disturbing the dead man in his peaceful grave, etc., etc. – but I was firm.

  ‘I won’t make a long story of this part of it. We got the order and they did the autopsy, or whatever they call it, but the result was not so satisfactory as it might have been. There was no trace of arsenic – that was all to the good – but the actual words of the report were that there was nothing to show by what means deceased had come to his death.

  ‘So, you see, that didn’t lead us out of trouble altogether. People went on talking – about rare poisons impossible to detect, and rubbish of that sort. I had seen the pathologist who had done the post-mortem, and I had asked him several questions, though he tried his best to get out of answering most of them; but I got out of him that he considered it highly unlikely that the poisoned mushrooms were the cause of death. An idea was simmering in my mind, and I asked him what poison, if any, could have been employed to obtain that result. He made a long explanation to me, most of which, I must admit, I did not follow, but it amounted to this: That death might have been due to some strong vegetable alkaloid.

  ‘The idea I had was this: Supposing the taint of insanity was in Geoffrey Denman’s blood also, might he not have made away with himself? He had, at one period of his life, studied medicine, and he would have a good knowledge of poisons and their effects.

  ‘I didn’t think it sounded very likely, but it was the only thing I could think of. And I was nearly at my wits’ end, I can tell you. Now, I dare say you modern young people will laugh, but when I am in really bad trouble I always say a little prayer to myself – anywhere, when I am walking along the street, or at a bazaar. And I always get an answer. It may be some trifling thing, apparently quite unconnected with the subject, but there it is. I had that text pinned over my bed when I was a little girl: Ask and you shall receive. On the morning that I am telling you about, I was walking along the High Street, and I was praying hard. I shut my eyes, and when I opened them, what do you think was the first thing that I saw?’

  Five faces with varying degrees of interest were turned to Miss Marple. It may be safely assumed, however, that no one would have guessed the answer to the question right.

  ‘I saw,’ said Miss Marple impressively, ‘the window of the fishmonger’s shop. There was only one thing in it, a fresh haddock.’

  She looked round triumphantly.

  ‘Oh, my God!’ said Raymond West. ‘An answer to prayer – a fresh haddock!’

  ‘Yes, Raymond,’ said Miss Marple severely, ‘and there is no need to be profane about it. The hand of God is everywhere. The first thing I saw were the black spots – the marks of St Peter’s thumb. That is the legend, you know. St Peter’s thumb. And that brought things home to me. I needed faith, the ever true faith of St Peter. I connected the two things together, faith – and fish.’

  Sir Henry blew his nose rather hurriedly. Joyce bit her lip.

  ‘Now what did that bring to my mind? Of course, both the cook and house-parlourmaid mentioned fish as being one of the things spoken of by the dying man. I was convinced, absolutely convinced, that there was some solution of the mystery to be found in these words. I went home determined to get to the bottom of the matter.’

  She paused.

bsp; ‘Has it ever occurred to you,’ the old lady went on, ‘how much we go by what is called, I believe, the context? There is a place on Dartmoor called Grey Wethers. If you were talking to a farmer there and mentioned Grey Wethers, he would probably conclude that you were speaking of these stone circles, yet it is possible that you might be speaking of the atmosphere; and in the same way, if you were meaning the stone circles, an outsider, hearing a fragment of the conversation, might think you meant the weather. So when we repeat a conversation, we don’t, as a rule, repeat the actual words; we put in some other words that seem to us to mean exactly the same thing.

  ‘I saw both the cook and Dorothy separately. I asked the cook if she was quite sure that her master had really mentioned a heap of fish. She said she was quite sure.

  ‘“Were these his exact words,” I asked, “or did he mention some particular kind of fish?”

  ‘“That’s it,” said the cook; “it was some particular kind of fish, but I can’t remember what now. A heap of – now what was it? Not any of the fish you send to table. Would it be a perch now – or pike? No. It didn’t begin with a P.”

  ‘Dorothy also recalled that her master had mentioned some special kind of fish. “Some outlandish kind of fish it was,” she said.

  ‘“A pile of – now what was it?”

  ‘“Did he say heap or pile?” I asked.

  ‘“I think he said pile. But there, I really can’t be sure – it’s so hard to remember the actual words, isn’t it, Miss, especially when they don’t seem to make sense. But now I come to think of it, I am pretty sure that it was a pile, and the fish began with C; but it wasn’t a cod or a crayfish.”