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A Caribbean Mystery
A Caribbean Mystery 57
‘I’m sorry,’ said Dr Lloyd apologetically. ‘But you see, as a matter of fact, this story isn’t about the Spanish woman.’
‘No. As it happens my friend and I were wrong. Nothing in the least exciting happened to the Spanish beauty. She married a clerk in a shipping office, and by the time I left the island she had had five children and was getting very fat.’
‘Just like that girl of Israel Peters,’ commented Miss Marple. ‘The one who went on the stage and had such good legs that they made her principal boy in the pantomime. Everyone said she’d come to no good, but she married a commercial traveller and settled down splendidly.’
‘The village parallel,’ murmured Sir Henry softly. ‘No,’ went on the doctor. ‘My story is about the two English ladies.’
‘Something happened to them?’ breathed Miss Helier. ‘Something happened to them – and the very next day, too.’
‘Yes?’ said Mrs Bantry encouragingly. ‘Just for curiosity, as I went out that evening I glanced at the hotel register. I found the names easily enough. Miss Mary Barton and Miss Amy Durrant of Little Paddocks, Caughton Weir, Bucks. I little thought then how soon I was to encounter the owners of those names again – and under what tragic circumstances.
‘The following day I had arranged to go for a picnic with some friends. We were to motor across the island, taking our lunch, to a place called (as far as I remember – it is so long ago) Las Nieves, a well-sheltered bay where we could bathe if we felt inclined. This programme we duly carried out, except that we were somewhat late in starting, so that we stopped on the way and picnicked, going on to Las Nieves afterwards for a bathe before tea.
‘As we approached the beach, we were at once aware of a tremendous commotion. The whole population of the small village seemed to be gathered on the shore. As soon as they saw us they rushed towards the car and began explaining excitedly. Our Spanish not being very good, it took me a few minutes to understand, but at last I got it.
‘Two of the mad English ladies had gone in to bathe, and one had swum out too far and got into difficulties. The other had gone after her and had tried to bring her in, but her strength in turn had failed and she too would have drowned had not a man rowed out in a boat and brought in rescuer and rescued – the latter beyond help.
‘As soon as I got the hang of things I pushed the crowd aside and hurried down the beach. I did not at first recognize the two women. The plump figure in the black stockinet costume and the tight green rubber bathing cap awoke no chord of recognition as she looked up anxiously. She was kneeling beside the body of her friend, making somewhat amateurish attempts at artificial respiration. When I told her that I was a doctor she gave a sigh of relief, and I ordered her off at once to one of the cottages for a rub down and dry clothing. One of the ladies in my party went with her. I myself worked unavailingly on the body of the drowned woman in vain. Life was only too clearly extinct, and in the end I had reluctantly to give in.
‘I rejoined the others in the small fisherman’s cottage and there I had to break the sad news. The survivor was attired now in her own clothes, and I immediately recognized her as one of the two arrivals of the night before. She received the sad news fairly calmly, and it was evidently the horror of the whole thing that struck her more than any great personal feeling.
‘“Poor Amy,” she said. “Poor, poor Amy. She had been looking forward to the bathing here so much. And she was a good swimmer too. I can’t understand it. What do you think it can have been, doctor?”
‘“Possibly cramp. Will you tell me exactly what happened?”
‘“We had both been swimming about for some time – twenty minutes, I should say. Then I thought I would go in, but Amy said she was going to swim out once more. She did so, and suddenly I heard her call and realized she was crying for help. I swam out as fast as I could. She was still afloat when I got to her, but she clutched at me wildly and we both went under. If it hadn’t been for that man coming out with his boat I should have been drowned too.”
‘“That has happened fairly often,” I said. “To save anyone from drowning is not an easy affair.”
‘“It seems so awful,” continued Miss Barton. “We only arrived yesterday, and were so delighting in the sunshine and our little holiday. And now this – this terrible tragedy occurs.”
‘I asked her then for particulars about the dead woman, explaining that I would do everything I could for her, but that the Spanish authorities would require full information. This she gave me readily enough.
‘The dead woman, Miss Amy Durrant, was her companion and had come to her about five months previously. They had got on very well together, but Miss Durrant had spoken very little about her people. She had been left an orphan at an early age and had been brought up by an uncle and had earned her own living since she was twenty-one.
‘And so that was that,’ went on the doctor. He paused and said again, but this time with a certain finality in his voice, ‘And so that was that.’
‘I don’t understand,’ said Jane Helier. ‘Is that all? I mean, it’s very tragic, I suppose, but it isn’t – well, it isn’t what I call creepy.’
‘I think there’s more to follow,’ said Sir Henry. ‘Yes,’ said Dr Lloyd, ‘there’s more to follow. You see, right at the time there was one queer thing. Of course I asked questions of the fishermen, etc., as to what they’d seen. They were eye-witnesses. And one woman had rather a funny story. I didn’t pay any attention to it at the time, but it came back to me afterwards. She insisted, you see, that Miss Durrant wasn’t in difficulties when she called out. The other swam out to her and, according to this woman, deliberately held Miss Durrant’s head under water. I didn’t, as I say, pay much attention. It was such a fantastic story, and these things look so differently from the shore. Miss Barton might have tried to make her friend lose consciousness, realizing that the latter’s panic-stricken clutching would drown them both. You see, according to the Spanish woman’s story, it looked as though – well, as though Miss Barton was deliberately trying to drown her companion.
‘As I say, I paid very little attention to this story at the time. It came back to me later. Our great difficulty was to find out anything about this woman, Amy Durrant. She didn’t seem to have any relations. Miss Barton and I went through her things together. We found one address and wrote there, but it proved to be simply a room she had taken in which to keep her things. The landlady knew nothing, had only seen her when she took the room. Miss Durrant had remarked at the time that she always liked to have one place she could call her own to which she could return at any moment. There were one or two nice pieces of old furniture and some bound numbers of Academy pictures, and a trunk full of pieces of material bought at sales, but no personal belongings. She had mentioned to the landlady that her father and mother had died in India when she was a child and that she had been brought up by an uncle who was a clergyman, but she did not say if he was her father’s or her mother’s brother, so the name was no guide.
‘It wasn’t exactly mysterious, it was just unsatisfactory. There must be many lonely women, proud and reticent, in just that position. There were a couple of photographs amongst her belongings in Las Palmas – rather old and faded and they had been cut to fit the frames they were in, so that there was no photographer’s name upon them, and there was an old daguerreotype which might have been her mother or more probably her grandmother.
‘Miss Barton had had two references with her. One she had forgotten, the other name she recollected after an effort. It proved to be that of a lady who was now abroad, having gone to Australia. She was written to. Her answer, of course, was a long time in coming, and I may say that when it did arrive there was no particular help to be gained from it. She said Miss Durrant had been with her as companion and had been most efficient and that she was a very charming woman, but that she knew nothing of her private affairs or relations.
‘So there it was – as I say, nothing unusual,
really. It was just the two things together that aroused my uneasiness. This Amy Durrant of whom no one knew anything, and the Spanish woman’s queer story. Yes, and I’ll add a third thing: When I was first bending over the body and Miss Barton was walking away towards the huts, she looked back. Looked back with an expression on her face that I can only describe as one of poignant anxiety – a kind of anguished uncertainty that imprinted itself on my brain.
‘It didn’t strike me as anything unusual at the time. I put it down to her terrible distress over her friend. But, you see, later I realized that they weren’t on those terms. There was no devoted attachment between them, no terrible grief. Miss Barton was fond of Amy Durrant and shocked by her death – that was all.
‘But, then, why that terrible poignant anxiety? That was the question that kept coming back to me. I had not been mistaken in that look. And almost against my will, an answer began to shape itself in my mind. Supposing the Spanish woman’s story were true; supposing that Mary Barton wilfully and in cold blood tried to drown Amy Durrant. She succeeds in holding her under water whilst pretending to be saving her. She is rescued by a boat. They are on a lonely beach far from anywhere. And then I appear – the last thing she expects. A doctor! And an English doctor! She knows well enough that people who have been under water far longer than Amy Durrant have been revived by artificial respiration. But she has to play her part – to go off leaving me alone with her victim. And as she turns for one last look, a terrible poignant anxiety shows in her face. Will Amy Durrant come back to life and tell what she knows?’
‘Oh!’ said Jane Helier. ‘I’m thrilled now.’
‘Viewed in that aspect the whole business seemed more sinister, and the personality of Amy Durrant became more mysterious. Who was Amy Durrant? Why should she, an insignificant paid companion, be murdered by her employer? What story lay behind that fatal bathing expedition? She had entered Mary Barton’s employment only a few months before. Mary Barton had brought her abroad, and the very day after they landed the tragedy had occurred. And they were both nice, commonplace, refined Englishwomen! The whole thing was fantastic, and I told myself so. I had been letting my imagination run away with me.’
‘You didn’t do anything, then?’ asked Miss Helier. ‘My dear young lady, what could I do? There was no evidence. The majority of the eye-witnesses told the same story as Miss Barton. I had built up my own suspicions out of a fleeting expression which I might possibly have imagined. The only thing I could and did do was to see that the widest inquiries were made for the relations of Amy Durrant. The next time I was in England I even went and saw the landlady of her room, with the results I have told you.’
‘But you felt there was something wrong,’ said Miss Marple.
Dr Lloyd nodded.
‘Half the time I was ashamed of myself for thinking so. Who was I to go suspecting this nice, pleasant-mannered English lady of a foul and cold-blooded crime? I did my best to be as cordial as possible to her during the short time she stayed on the island. I helped her with the Spanish authorities. I did everything I could do as an Englishman to help a compatriot in a foreign country; and yet I am convinced that she knew I suspected and disliked her.’
‘How long did she stay out there?’ asked Miss Marple. ‘I think it was about a fortnight. Miss Durrant was buried there, and it must have been about ten days later when she took a boat back to England. The shock had upset her so much that she felt she couldn’t spend the winter there as she had planned. That’s what she said.’
‘Did it seem to have upset her?’ asked Miss Marple.
The doctor hesitated.
‘Well, I don’t know that it affected her appearance at all,’ he said cautiously.
‘She didn’t, for instance, grow fatter?’ asked Miss Marple. ‘Do you know – it’s a curious thing your saying that. Now I come to think back, I believe you’re right. She – yes, she did seem, if anything, to be putting on weight.’
‘How horrible,’ said Jane Helier with a shudder. ‘It’s like – it’s like fattening on your victim’s blood.’
‘And yet, in another way, I may be doing her an injustice,’ went on Dr Lloyd. ‘She certainly said something before she left, which pointed in an entirely different direction. There may be, I think there are, consciences which work very slowly – which take some time to awaken to the enormity of the deed committed.
‘It was the evening before her departure from the Canaries. She had asked me to go and see her, and had thanked me very warmly for all I had done to help her. I, of course, made light of the matter, said I had only done what was natural under the circumstances, and so on. There was a pause after that, and then she suddenly asked me a question.
‘“Do you think,” she asked, “that one is ever justified in taking the law into one’s own hands?”
‘I replied that that was rather a difficult question, but that on the whole, I thought not. The law was the law, and we had to abide by it.
‘“Even when it is powerless?”
‘“I don’t quite understand.”
‘“It’s difficult to explain; but one might do something that is considered definitely wrong – that is considered a crime, even, for a good and sufficient reason.”
‘I replied drily that possibly several criminals had thought that in their time, and she shrank back.
‘“But that’s horrible,” she murmured. “Horrible.” ‘And then with a change of tone she asked me to give her something to make her sleep. She had not been able to sleep properly since – she hesitated – since that terrible shock.
‘“You’re sure it is that? There is nothing worrying you? Nothing on your mind?”
‘“On my mind? What should be on my mind?” ‘She spoke fiercely and suspiciously. ‘“Worry is a cause of sleeplessness sometimes,” I said lightly. ‘She seemed to brood for a moment. ‘“Do you mean worrying over the future, or worrying over the past, which can’t be altered?”
‘“Only it wouldn’t be any good worrying over the past. You couldn’t bring back – Oh! what’s the use! One mustn’t think. One must not think.”
‘I prescribed her a mild sleeping draught and made my adieu. As I went away I wondered not a little over the words she had spoken. “You couldn’t bring back –” What? Or who?
‘I think that last interview prepared me in a way for what was to come. I didn’t expect it, of course, but when it happened, I wasn’t surprised. Because, you see, Mary Barton struck me all along as a conscientious woman – not a weak sinner, but a woman with convictions, who would act up to them, and who would not relent as long as she still believed in them. I fancied that in the last conversation we had she was beginning to doubt her own convictions. I know her words suggested to me that she was feeling the first faint beginnings of that terrible soul-searcher – remorse.
‘The thing happened in Cornwall, in a small watering-place, rather deserted at that season of the year. It must have been – let me see – late March. I read about it in the papers. A lady had been staying at a small hotel there – a Miss Barton. She had been very odd and peculiar in her manner. That had been noticed by all. At night she would walk up and down her room, muttering to herself, and not allowing the people on either side of her to sleep. She had called on the vicar one day and had told him that she had a communication of the gravest importance to make to him. She had, she said, committed a crime. Then, instead of proceeding, she had stood up abruptly and said she would call another day. The vicar put her down as being slightly mental, and did not take her self-accusation seriously.
‘The very next morning she was found to be missing from her room. A note was left addressed to the coroner. It ran as follows:
‘I tried to speak to the vicar yesterday, to confess all, but was not allowed. She would not let me. I can make amends only one way – a life for a life; and my life must go the same way as hers did. I, too, must drown in the deep sea. I believed I was justified. I see now that that w
as not so. If I desire Amy’s forgiveness I must go to her. Let no one be blamed for my death – Mary Barton.
‘Her clothes were found lying on the beach in a secluded cove nearby, and it seemed clear that she had undressed there and swum resolutely out to sea where the current was known to be dangerous, sweeping one down the coast.
‘The body was not recovered, but after a time leave was given to presume death. She was a rich woman, her estate being proved at a hundred thousand pounds. Since she died intestate it all went to her next of kin – a family of cousins in Australia. The papers made discreet references to the tragedy in the Canary Islands, putting forward the theory that the death of Miss Durrant had unhinged her friend’s brain. At the inquest the usual verdict of Suicide whilst temporarily insane was returned.
‘And so the curtain falls on the tragedy of Amy Durrant and Mary Barton.’
There was a long pause and then Jane Helier gave a great gasp.
‘Oh, but you mustn’t stop there – just at the most interesting part. Go on.’
‘But you see, Miss Helier, this isn’t a serial story. This is real life; and real life stops just where it chooses.’
‘But I don’t want it to,’ said Jane. ‘I want to know.’
‘This is where we use our brains, Miss Helier,’ explained Sir Henry. ‘Why did Mary Barton kill her companion? That’s the problem Dr Lloyd has set us.’
‘Oh, well,’ said Miss Helier, ‘she might have killed her for lots of reasons. I mean – oh, I don’t know. She might have got on her nerves, or else she got jealous, although Dr Lloyd doesn’t mention any men, but still on the boat out – well, you know what everyone says about boats and sea voyages.’
Miss Helier paused, slightly out of breath, and it was borne in upon her audience that the outside of Jane’s charming head was distinctly superior to the inside.
‘I would like to have a lot of guesses,’ said Mrs Bantry. ‘But I suppose I must confine myself to one. Well, I think that Miss Barton’s father made all his money out of ruining Amy Durrant’s father, so Amy determined to have her revenge. Oh, no, that’s the wrong way round. How tiresome! Why does the rich employer kill the humble companion? I’ve got it. Miss Barton had a young brother who shot himself for love of Amy Durrant. Miss Barton waits her time. Amy comes down in the world. Miss B. engages her as companion and takes her to the Canaries and accomplishes her revenge. How’s that?’