A Caribbean Mystery 56
?One couldn’t be sure that way,’ said Miss Marple. ‘No, I think that the warnings and the blue flowers were, if I may use a military term,’ she laughed self-consciously – ‘just camouflage.’
Sir Henry was frowning.
‘No additional details?’
Colonel Bantry shook his head, but Mrs Bantry spoke quickly.
‘What about the gas?’ asked Sir Henry. ‘When the doctor arrived there was a slight smell of gas, and sure enough he found the gas ring in the fireplace very slightly turned on; but so little it couldn’t have mattered.’
‘Did Mr Pritchard and the nurse not notice it when they first went in?’
‘The nurse said she did notice a slight smell. George said he didn’t notice gas, but something made him feel very queer and overcome; but he put that down to shock – and probably it was. At any rate there was no question of gas poisoning. The smell was scarcely noticeable.’
‘And that’s the end of the story?’
‘No, it isn’t. One way and another, there was a lot of talk. The servants, you see, had overheard things – had heard, for instance, Mrs Pritchard telling her husband that he hated her and would jeer if she were dying. And also more recent remarks. She had said one day, apropos of his refusing to leave the house: “Very well, when I am dead, I hope everyone will realize that you have killed me.” And as ill luck would have it, he had been mixing some weed killer for the garden paths the day before. One of the younger servants had seen him and had afterwards seen him taking up a glass of hot milk for his wife.
‘The talk spread and grew. The doctor had given a certificate – I don’t know exactly in what terms – shock, syncope, heart failure, probably some medical terms meaning nothing much. However the poor lady had not been a month in her grave before an exhumation order was applied for and granted.’
‘And the result of the autopsy was nil, I remember,’ said Sir Henry gravely. ‘A case, for once, of smoke without fire.’
‘The whole thing is really very curious,’ said Mrs Bantry. ‘That fortune-teller, for instance – Zarida. At the address where she was supposed to be, no one had ever heard of any such person!’
‘She appeared once – out of the blue,’ said her husband, ‘and then utterly vanished. Out of the blue – that’s rather good!’
‘And what is more,’ continued Mrs Bantry, ‘little Nurse Carstairs, who was supposed to have recommended her, had never even heard of her.’
They looked at each other.
‘It’s a mysterious story,’ said Dr Lloyd. ‘One can make guesses; but to guess –’
He shook his head.
‘Has Mr Pritchard married Miss Instow?’ asked Miss Marple in her gentle voice.
‘Now why do you ask that?’ inquired Sir Henry.
Miss Marple opened gentle blue eyes. ‘It seems to me so important,’ she said. ‘Have they married?’ Colonel Bantry shook his head.
‘We – well, we expected something of the kind – but it’s eighteen months now. I don’t believe they even see much of each other.’
‘That is important,’ said Miss Marple. ‘Very important.’
‘Then you think the same as I do,’ said Mrs Bantry. ‘You think –’
‘Now, Dolly,’ said her husband. ‘It’s unjustifiable – what you’re going to say. You can’t go about accusing people without a shadow of proof.’
‘Don’t be so – so manly, Arthur. Men are always afraid to say anything. Anyway, this is all between ourselves. It’s just a wild fantastic idea of mine that possibly – only possibly – Jean Instow disguised herself as a fortune-teller. Mind you, she may have done it for a joke. I don’t for a minute think that she meant any harm; but if she did do it, and if Mrs Pritchard was foolish enough to die of fright – well, that’s what Miss Marple meant, wasn’t it?’
‘No, dear, not quite,’ said Miss Marple. ‘You see, if I were going to kill anyone – which, of course, I wouldn’t dream of doing for a minute, because it would be very wicked, and besides I don’t like killing – not even wasps, though I know it has to be, and I’m sure the gardener does it as humanely as possible. Let me see, what was I saying?’
‘If you wished to kill anyone,’ prompted Sir Henry. ‘Oh yes. Well, if I did, I shouldn’t be at all satisfied to trust to fright. I know one reads of people dying of it, but it seems a very uncertain sort of thing, and the most nervous people are far more brave than one really thinks they are. I should like something definite and certain, and make a thoroughly good plan about it.’
‘Miss Marple,’ said Sir Henry, ‘you frighten me. I hope you will never wish to remove me. Your plans would be too good.’
Miss Marple looked at him reproachfully.
‘I thought I had made it clear that I would never contemplate such wickedness,’ she said. ‘No, I was trying to put myself in the place of – er – a certain person.’
‘Do you mean George Pritchard?’ asked Colonel Bantry. ‘I’ll never believe it of George – though – mind you, even the nurse believes it. I went and saw her about a month afterwards, at the time of the exhumation. She didn’t know how it was done – in fact, she wouldn’t say anything at all – but it was clear enough that she believed George to be in some way responsible for his wife’s death. She was convinced of it.’
‘Well,’ said Dr Lloyd, ‘perhaps she wasn’t so far wrong. And mind you, a nurse often knows. She can’t say – she’s got no proof – but she knows.’
Sir Henry leant forward.
‘Come now, Miss Marple,’ he said persuasively. ‘You’re lost in a daydream. Won’t you tell us all about it?’
Miss Marple started and turned pink.
‘I beg your pardon,’ she said. ‘I was just thinking about our District Nurse. A most difficult problem.’
‘More difficult than the problem of the blue geranium?’
‘It really depends on the primroses,’ said Miss Marple. ‘I mean, Mrs Bantry said they were yellow and pink. If it was a pink primrose that turned blue, of course, that fits in perfectly. But if it happened to be a yellow one –’
‘It was a pink one,’ said Mrs Bantry.
She stared. They all stared at Miss Marple.
‘Then that seems to settle it,’ said Miss Marple. She shook her head regretfully. ‘And the wasp season and everything. And of course the gas.’
‘It reminds you, I suppose, of countless village tragedies?’ said Sir Henry.
‘Not tragedies,’ said Miss Marple. ‘And certainly nothing criminal. But it does remind me a little of the trouble we are having with the District Nurse. After all, nurses are human beings, and what with having to be so correct in their behaviour and wearing those uncomfortable collars and being so thrown with the family – well, can you wonder that things sometimes happen?’
A glimmer of light broke upon Sir Henry.
‘You mean Nurse Carstairs?’
‘Oh no. Not Nurse Carstairs. Nurse Copling. You see, she had been there before, and very much thrown with Mr Pritchard, who you say is an attractive man. I dare say she thought, poor thing – well, we needn’t go into that. I don’t suppose she knew about Miss Instow, and of course afterwards, when she found out, it turned her against him and she tried to do all the harm she could. Of course the letter really gave her away, didn’t it?’
‘Well, she wrote to the fortune-teller at Mrs Pritchard’s request, and the fortune-teller came, apparently in answer to the letter. But later it was discovered that there never had been such a person at that address. So that shows that Nurse Copling was in it. She only pretended to write – so what could be more likely than that she was the fortune-teller herself?’
‘I never saw the point about the letter,’ said Sir Henry. ‘That’s a most important point, of course.’
‘Rather a bold step to take,’ said Miss Marple, ‘because Mrs Pritchard might have recognized her in spite of the disguise – though of course if she had, the nurse could have pretended it was a joke.’
‘What did you mean,’ said Sir Henry, ‘when you said that if you were a certain person you would not have trusted to fright?’
‘And the real thing?’
‘I know,’ said Miss Marple apologetically, ‘that I’ve got wasps on the brain. Poor things, destroyed in their thousands – and usually on such a beautiful summer’s day. But I remember thinking, when I saw the gardener shaking up the cyanide of potassium in a bottle with water, how like smelling-salts it looked. And if it were put in a smelling-salt bottle and substituted for the real one – well, the poor lady was in the habit of using her smelling-salts. Indeed you said they were found by her hand. Then, of course, while Mr Pritchard went to telephone to the doctor, the nurse would change it for the real bottle, and she’d just turn on the gas a little bit to mask any smell of almonds and in case anyone felt queer, and I always have heard that cyanide leaves no trace if you wait long enough. But, of course I may be wrong, and it may have been something entirely different in the bottle; but that doesn’t really matter, does it?’
Miss Marple paused, a little out of breath.
Jane Helier leant forward and said, ‘But the blue geranium, and the other flowers?’
‘Nurses always have litmus paper, don’t they?’ said Miss Marple, ‘for – well, for testing. Not a very pleasant subject. We won’t dwell on it. I have done a little nursing myself.’ She grew delicately pink. ‘Blue turns red with acids, and red turns blue with alkalis. So easy to paste some red litmus over a red flower – near the bed, of course. And then, when the poor lady used her smelling-salts, the strong ammonia fumes would turn it blue. Really most ingenious. Of course, the geranium wasn’t blue when they first broke into the room – nobody noticed it till afterwards. When nurse changed the bottles, she held the Sal Ammoniac against the wall-paper for a minute, I expect.’
‘You might have been there, Miss Marple,’ said Sir Henry. ‘What worries me,’ said Miss Marple, ‘is poor Mr Pritchard and that nice girl, Miss Instow. Probably both suspecting each other and keeping apart – and life so very short.’
She shook her head. ‘You needn’t worry,’ said Sir Henry. ‘As a matter of fact I have something up my sleeve. A nurse has been arrested on a charge of murdering an elderly patient who had left her a legacy. It was done with cyanide of potassium substituted for smelling-salts. Nurse Copling trying the same trick again. Miss Instow and Mr Pritchard need have no doubts as to the truth.’
‘Now isn’t that nice?’ cried Miss Marple. ‘I don’t mean about the new murder, of course. That’s very sad, and shows how much wickedness there is in the world, and that if once you give way – which reminds me I must finish my little conversation with Dr Lloyd about the village nurse.’
‘The Companion’ was first published as ‘The Resurrection of Amy Durrant’ in Storyteller, February 1930, and then in the USA as ‘Companions’ in Pictorial Review, March 1930.
‘Now, Dr Lloyd,’ said Miss Helier. ‘Don’t you know any creepy stories?’
She smiled at him – the smile that nightly bewitched the theatre-going public. Jane Helier was sometimes called the most beautiful woman in England, and jealous members of her own profession were in the habit of saying to each other: ‘Of course Jane’s not an artist. She can’t act – if you know what I mean. It’s those eyes!’
And those ‘eyes’ were at this minute fixed appealingly on the grizzled elderly bachelor doctor who, for the last five years, had ministered to the ailments of the village of St Mary Mead.
With an unconscious gesture, the doctor pulled down his waistcoat (inclined of late to be uncomfortably tight) and racked his brains hastily, so as not to disappoint the lovely creature who addressed him so confidently.
‘I feel,’ said Jane dreamily, ‘that I would like to wallow in crime this evening.’
‘Splendid,’ said Colonel Bantry, her host. ‘Splendid, splendid.’ And he laughed a loud hearty military laugh. ‘Eh, Dolly?’
His wife, hastily recalled to the exigencies of social life (she had been planning her spring border) agreed enthusiastically.
‘Of course it’s splendid,’ she said heartily but vaguely. ‘I always thought so.’
‘Did you, my dear?’ said old Miss Marple, and her eyes twinkled a little.
‘We don’t get much in the creepy line – and still less in the criminal line – in St Mary Mead, you know, Miss Helier,’ said Dr Lloyd.
‘You surprise me,’ said Sir Henry Clithering. The ex-Commissioner of Scotland Yard turned to Miss Marple. ‘I always understood from our friend here that St Mary Mead is a positive hotbed of crime and vice.’
‘Oh, Sir Henry!’ protested Miss Marple, a spot of colour coming into her cheeks. ‘I’m sure I never said anything of the kind. The only thing I ever said was that human nature is much the same in a village as anywhere else, only one has opportunities and leisure for seeing it at closer quarters.’
‘But you haven’t always lived here,’ said Jane Helier, still addressing the doctor. ‘You’ve been in all sorts of queer places all over the world – places where things happen!’
‘That is so, of course,’ said Dr Lloyd, still thinking desperately. ‘Yes, of course . . . Yes . . . Ah! I have it!’
He sank back with a sigh of relief. ‘It is some years ago now – I had almost forgotten. But the facts were really very strange – very strange indeed. And the final coincidence which put the clue into my hand was strange also.’
Miss Helier drew her chair a little nearer to him, applied some lipstick and waited expectantly. The others also turned interested faces towards him.
‘I don’t know whether any of you know the Canary Islands,’ began the doctor.
‘They must be wonderful,’ said Jane Helier. ‘They’re in the South Seas, aren’t they? Or is it the Mediterranean?’
‘I’ve called in there on my way to South Africa,’ said the Colonel. ‘The Peak of Tenerife is a fine sight with the setting sun on it.’
‘The incident I am describing happened in the island of Grand Canary, not Tenerife. It is a good many years ago now. I had had a breakdown in health and was forced to give up my practice in England and go abroad. I practised in Las Palmas, which is the principal town of Grand Canary. In many ways I enjoyed the life out there very much. The climate was mild and sunny, there was excellent surf bathing (and I am an enthusiastic bather) and the sea life of the port attracted me. Ships from all over the world put in at Las Palmas. I used to walk along the mole every morning far more interested than any member of the fair sex could be in a street of hat shops.
‘As I say, ships from all over the world put in at Las Palmas. Sometimes they stay a few hours, sometimes a day or two. In the principal hotel there, the Metropole, you will see people of all races and nationalities – birds of passage. Even the people going to Tenerife usually come here and stay a few days before crossing to the other island.
‘My story begins there, in the Metropole Hotel, one Thursday evening in January. There was a dance going on and I and a friend had been sitting at a small table watching the scene. There were a fair sprinkling of English and other nationalities, but the majority of the dancers were Spanish; and when the orchestra struck up a tango, only half a dozen couples of the latter nationality took the floor. They all danced well and we looked on and admired. One woman in particular excited our lively admiration. Tall, beautiful and sinuous, she moved with the grace of a half-tamed leopardess. There was something dangerous about her. I said as much to my friend and he agreed.
‘“Women like that,” he said, “are bound to have a history. Life will not pass them by.”
‘“Beauty is perhaps a dangerous possession,” I said. ‘“It’s not only beauty,” he insisted. “There is something else. Look at her again. Things are bound to happen to that woman, or because of her. As I said, life will not pass her by. Strange and exciting events will surround
her. You’ve only got to look at her to know it.”
‘He paused and then added with a smile: ‘“Just as you’ve only got to look at those two women over there, and know that nothing out of the way could ever happen to either of them! They are made for a safe and uneventful existence.”
‘I followed his eyes. The two women he referred to were travellers who had just arrived – a Holland Lloyd boat had put into port that evening, and the passengers were just beginning to arrive.
‘As I looked at them I saw at once what my friend meant. They were two English ladies – the thoroughly nice travelling English that you do find abroad. Their ages, I should say, were round about forty. One was fair and a little – just a little – too plump; the other was dark and a little – again just a little – inclined to scragginess. They were what is called well-preserved, quietly and inconspicuously dressed in well-cut tweeds, and innocent of any kind of make-up. They had that air of quiet assurance which is the birthright of well-bred Englishwomen. There was nothing remarkable about either of them. They were like thousands of their sisters. They would doubtless see what they wished to see, assisted by Baedeker, and be blind to everything else. They would use the English library and attend the English Church in any place they happened to be, and it was quite likely that one or both of them sketched a little. And as my friend said, nothing exciting or remarkable would ever happen to either of them, though they might quite likely travel half over the world. I looked from them back to our sinuous Spanish woman with her half-closed smouldering eyes and I smiled.’
‘Poor things,’ said Jane Helier with a sigh. ‘But I do think it’s so silly of people not to make the most of themselves. That woman in Bond Street – Valentine – is really wonderful. Audrey Denman goes to her; and have you seen her in “The Downward Step”? As the schoolgirl in the first act she’s really marvellous. And yet Audrey is fifty if she’s a day. As a matter of fact I happen to know she’s really nearer sixty.’
‘Go on,’ said Mrs Bantry to Dr Lloyd. ‘I love stories about sinuous Spanish dancers. It makes me forget how old and fat I am.’