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7: Chemical Reaction

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Author Topic: 7: Chemical Reaction  (Read 39 times)
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« on: April 27, 2023, 01:09:02 pm »

“WHY didn’t you tell me anything about this before?”

“My dear, I didn’t want to worry you.”

“Worry me!” Hilda’s laugh was always an exceptionally pleasant and musical one, but on this occasion it seemed a little forced. “My dear William, what extraordinary ideas you have! You nearly caused us both a good deal more than worry this evening.”

“I am sorry, Hilda,” said the Judge humbly, “but I really could hardly have expected such a thing to follow on an ordinary anonymous letter. And, after all, it was your suggestion that we should have the chocolates for dinner.”

“That is simply childish of you, William. Do you imagine that I should have dreamed of letting you or anyone else touch a box of sweets arriving in this mysterious way if I had had any idea that your life was being threatened?”

“But it wasn’t a threat to my life, exactly,” the Judge objected. “And after all, there’s no evidence that the two were in any way connected.”

“Evidence!” said her ladyship in a tone of scorn that showed that for once the woman in her had got the better of the lawyer. “It’s perfectly obvious. There must have been.” She switched suddenly to another line of attack. “Now is there anything else about Markhampton that you haven’t told me?” she demanded.

“No, no!” Barber replied a little testily. “Really, Hilda, anyone would think I spent my life keeping secrets from you. I repeat, it was merely out of a very natural desire to save you anxiety----”

“You say the police at Markhampton arranged to give you special protection?”


“Then why haven’t the police here in Southington done the same?”

“I understand that they were informed of the position and didn’t think it necessary to do more than keep a special look out for---for the fellow.”

“What fellow are you talking about?”

“Oh! Didn’t I tell you? Well, the fact is, Hilda, the Chief Constable at Markhampton seemed to have an idea that this fellow, the one who wrote the letters, I mean----”

“I knew there was something else you were hiding!” said Hilda triumphantly. “Go on---was who?”

“It was only a theory of course, but he had a notion that it was Heppenstall. He is out, you know.”

“Heppenstall! But you gave him five years.”

“I know I did.” The Judge’s tone was sombre. “But there’s always remission for good conduct and so on, you know.”

Hilda was silent for a moment.

“I wish you hadn’t tried the case,” she said finally.

“My dear Hilda, I had no option but to try it.”

She shook her head.

“It was at the Old Bailey,” she reminded him. “There are four Courts there. There was no reason why it shouldn’t have been tried by the Recorder. I’ve never mentioned this before, William, but people said you had Bob---Heppenstall’s case put into your list on purpose. Was that true?”

Barber waved a deprecating hand.

“It is no good going back on these things now,” he murmured.

“And I wish you hadn’t given him five years.”

“I did my duty,” said the Judge. And seeing that this assertion produced no response, he added, with a certain sense of bathos, “And the Court of Criminal Appeal declined to interfere with the sentence.”

Her ladyship interjected a comment upon the Court of Criminal Appeal which, in deference to that august institution, may here be omitted.

“They didn’t know him and you did, that’s the point,” she added. “Has it ever occurred to you that he may have thought he was going to get off lightly because you were trying him?”

“It would be highly improper----” Barber began.

“I know, I know,” said his wife impatiently. “And that’s the very reason why I wish---- But as you say, it’s no good going back on things. Heppenstall is at large, and trying to kill you----”

“But I repeat, Hilda, there is no evidence----”

“. . . And we must protect ourselves in every way until the police lay him by the heels. And now I’m going to bed, and so are you. You’re trying the libel action to-morrow, aren’t you? On the pleadings it looks to me like an undefended case. Ten to one you’ll find that the defendant has paid something into Court.”

“I’m inclined to agree with you, my dear. Good night.”


The inquest on the Bechamel chocolates, to which this conversation formed a pendant, had been a lively, but unprofitable affair. The closest of inquiries entirely failed to clear up the mystery of their origin. Savage, Beamish and Greene were all appealed to in vain. Savage, who was sent for first, merely said that the parcel in which they were contained had been handed to him by Beamish. Beamish was summoned and somewhat sulkily reminded her ladyship that she had given him a number of packages which had arrived for her by that morning’s post. He understood that they were different things which she had ordered in London the day before. He had, naturally, given them in his turn to the butler. It was not the place of the Judge’s clerk, he implied, to attend to such things. One of the bones of contention between the two was that Hilda persisted in regarding him as a species of superior domestic servant and he was not sorry to remind her of the fact. Any knowledge of, or responsibility for the chocolates, he loftily repudiated. There were some parcels which had been put into his hands. No, he could not trust his memory to say how many. He had, he hinted, disembarrassed himself of them as soon as possible by passing them to the proper quarter. And now, if his lordship would excuse him, he had some rather pressing work to do. . . .

Savage gloomily took up the tale again. He had unpacked the parcels given him, he explained in an injured tone. He thought he had been doing the right thing and he was sure he had no reason to suppose there was anything wrong. In all his experience, nobody had ever suggested. . . . Reassured on this point, he went on to say that the parcels which he had opened, besides the chocolates, had contained two books from the library, a pair of gloves for her ladyship, and a bottle of preserved plums. He had disposed of all these goods in the appropriate manner. The books he had put in the drawing-room, the gloves he had handed to the maid to be bestowed in her ladyship’s bedroom, the plums went into the kitchen and the chocolates into the dining-room. That was all that he could say and he humbly suggested that he had done his duty.

It was Pettigrew who had raised the next point.

“The most important evidence is the wrapping the things came in,” he remarked. “Where is that?”

Savage could not say. He had done his unpacking in his pantry. He had hardly finished before it had been time to robe his lordship for Court. He had left it to Greene to clear up the mess. Perhaps Greene could help.

Greene was an expressionless manservant, who carried taciturnity to the verge of dumbness. Derek, who, with memories of Dumas, had long since privately christened him Grimaud, had been interested to see whether even such an emergency as this could induce him to utter more than two words together. As it proved, the examination of Greene rather resembled the kind of Christmas game in which questions may only be answered “Yes” or “No”. Little by little, the facts were dragged from him that he had removed the wrappings from the pantry, that while some of these survived, those which had contained the chocolate box had not, that he thought he must have used them to relight the Marshal’s fire which had gone out and that he could not remember what they were like, but fancied that the paper was thin and brown. He could not say whether it had a label on it or not, or whether the address was written or typed. And there the evidence ended.

“Really, Hilda,” Barber had said, “I think you are properly the next witness. After all, you handled this mysterious consignment. Didn’t you take any notice of it?”

“No. I saw there were three or four parcels, and as I had ordered a lot of things over the telephone in London, I thought they were them. I didn’t bother to look at them at all closely. But I think I should have noticed Bechamel’s name on the outside if the chocolates had come direct from them.”

“Obviously they didn’t,” Pettigrew put in. “But weren’t you surprised when you found that somebody had sent you such a welcome present?”

“More pleased than surprised. People do still send me presents sometimes, you know, Frank.”

Pettigrew wrinkled his nose in acknowledgement of the thrust and the talk then turned to what action should be taken.

“Obviously, we must tell the police,” said Hilda. “Put it straight into the hands of Scotland Yard, William. These country people won’t be the least good.”

“The first thing to do will be to get the chocolates analysed.” Flack made his first contribution to the discussion.

“Of course. The police will have that done. Then I suppose they can make inquiries at Bechamel’s and try and trace the recent purchasers of these chocolates. That’s all a matter for them.”

“I should like to avoid bringing the police into this, if possible,” said the Judge.

“My dear William, why? When an attempt is made on your life----”

“It is a little difficult to explain, but at this stage at all events, I should rather favour some private inquiry.”

“But William----”

“The first thing to do is to get the chocolates analysed.”

Dear Mr. Flack, you have said that once already. The police will know just how that should be done.”

“. . . And I should very much like to perform the analysis myself.”

“You perform it?”

“I am interested in chemistry in a mild way, you know, Lady Barber. In fact, I have quite a well fitted-up little laboratory at home. My ‘stinks room’, my wife calls it---she has a great sense of humour, I should so like you to meet her----”

“She sounds delightful,” Hilda murmured with a shudder.

“. . . And I should be delighted to try my hand at a piece of detective research for once. It is an opportunity one could hardly expect to recur.”

In spite of his wife’s obvious disapproval, Barber had eagerly accepted the offer. The evening ended with Flack departing in triumph bearing the box of chocolates and the two half-eaten ones, carefully wrapped in an envelope. He promised to call at the lodgings the next morning with what he described as his “preliminary observations”.

“I can get some simple reagents in the town, I expect,” were his parting words. “Most poisons are of a fairly ordinary character and easily detectable. I can do a little investigation in my bedroom at the hotel. Anything more elaborate will have to wait till I get back to town.”

No sooner were husband and wife alone together than Hilda said challengingly:

“And now, William, perhaps you will explain why you prefer to leave things in the hands of that ridiculous creature than to call in experts?”

And from the Judge’s consequent denials, evasions and confessions ensued the scene already described.


True to his promise, Flack was round at the lodgings next morning. He was early. Indeed, the Judge was still at breakfast when he was shown in, looking extremely pleased with himself.

“I must apologise for this unseasonable intrusion, Judge,” he said. “But I am catching the ten o’clock train up, and I wanted to make my report at the earliest opportunity.”

He produced with great solemnity a small brown paper parcel, which he handed to Barber.

“I return the exhibits,” he said. “With the exception, that is, of one half chocolate, which I fear has perished in my experiment.”

“But I thought you were taking them up to London with you?” the Judge said in surprise.

“That has proved to be unnecessary. The resources of my---ah!---stinks room will not have to be called upon. My investigations were completed last night before I went to bed. They proved very simple---very simple indeed,” he added with a touch of disappointment.

“Indeed?” said Barber.

“Are you quite sure, Mr. Flack?” Hilda put in. “Don’t you think that if the police were to send them to a proper---I mean, their laboratories must be so very well equipped, they might perhaps find something you had overlooked.”

“Possibly, Lady Barber, possibly, though I do not think it very probable. In any case, the exhibits are here at the service of the police or anybody else, quite intact---subject, as I said just now, to one half chocolate, which I do not think they will grudge me. Their disposition is entirely a matter for you---and for the Judge, of course.”

“Don’t you think, Hilda,” said Barber, swallowing the last of his coffee, “that it would save time if Mr. Flack were allowed to tell us, quite briefly, what he has discovered so quickly?”

Without waiting for her ladyship’s approval, Flack proceeded to unburden himself of his views.

“Last night,” he said, “in the privacy of my own apartment, I dissected one of the chocolates which you handed to me. In point of fact, I chose the very one, I think, which had been, ah! extracted from your mouth, Judge, if you will excuse my mentioning it. With the aid of a safety razor blade I removed the outer coating of chocolate, which as you may readily imagine, had already been worn to approximately one half of its original thickness (not more, I should judge, than one and a half millimetres) by the ordeal to which it had been subjected. Within this covering, I discovered a hard white substance. To this, I applied the commonest and most readily available form of reagent, namely ordinary tap-water----”

He paused for dramatic effect.

“. . . With immediate, and, I may say, startling results.”

Another pause, which was evidently designed to be broken by the excited ejaculations of his audience. As these, however, were not forthcoming, he went on:

“The substance hissed, sizzled and disintegrated before my eyes! A pungent and unmistakable odour arose. The application of water to the substance had produced no other than acetylene gas. In other words, the contents of this sweetmeat proved to be----”

“Carbide?” said the Judge.

Flack beamed. His audience, though less responsive than the chocolate, had at last shown signs of reaction.

“No less,” he said. “Ordinary, or, as my dear wife would put it, common or garden carbide.”

“But how very extraordinary,” said Hilda.

“Remarkable, is it not? But naturally my researches did not stop there,” Flack went on hastily, determined to finish his story. “I proceeded to examine the remaining contents of the box (taking pains, needless to say, to avoid obliterating any finger-prints there might be upon them) with a view to ascertaining (a) the modus operandi of the individual who had tampered with them in this extraordinary fashion, and (b) the number which had been so treated. Taking (b) first---if I may be excused the departure from chronological order---I found that of the three layers contained in the box the uppermost alone had apparently been touched by any hand since they left the shop. I can guarantee that you will be perfectly safe, Lady Barber, in indulging your taste for confectionery so long as you confine your attentions strictly to what I may describe as the ground and first floors.”

He smacked his lips in appreciation of his own witticism and continued:

“It is in the attics alone that danger resides. Close examination---and this is not a matter demanding any chemical knowledge---it is perfectly visible to the unaided eye of Scotland Yard, or if you will, of a High Court Judge (which, personally, I should, if I may say so, rate far the higher of the two) close examination, I repeat, shows quite clearly---I am dealing with (a) now, Judge---that each of these chocolates has at some time been neatly bisected at the circumference by some sharp instrument (such as, for example, the humble but efficient razor blade which I employed myself) and that thereafter the two halves have been replaced, the resulting point of junction being secured by the application of sufficient heat at that point to make the union (or reunion, rather) binding. Do I make myself clear?”

Silence being traditionally taken to mean consent, he went on.

“When I say that the chocolate had been bisected, I must not be taken as meaning more than I literally say. I do not mean that the original interior---which was, I understand, of a hard and brittle nature, had also been divided. That would have been to impose upon the operator an arduous and unnecessary labour, besides entailing the risk of blunting the delicate instrument which I premise as having been employed. No! It was merely the carapace (if I may use the term, somewhat inaccurately, I admit, to describe a soft covering to a hard interior) that had in all probability been severed, thus reversing the operation of the original craftsman, who doubtless imposed upon his filling---as I believe it is termed---two hemispheres of chocolate, which, pressed together, united with each other to produce the complete article of commerce. The irresistible inference, in short, is that the malpractor in this case, having removed one half of the external covering in the way that I have described, extracted the edible core, and replaced it with the noxious substance which I have identified.”

Flack mopped his brow, and bobbed to the Judge in the manner in which he invariably concluded his address in Court.

Derek was the first to break the restful silence that succeeded Flack’s flow of words.

“But why carbide?” he said. “It seems an odd choice for a poisoner.”

“Why indeed? Odd, my young friend, is the word. So odd indeed, that we find ourselves confronted with the problem---which, I admit, is not strictly one for me, but perhaps I may be permitted to speak in this matter as amicus curić---is this a poisoner at all? Does this not rather bear the stigmata of a rather cruel and stupid practical joke?”

“A joke?” said Hilda angrily.

“Consider,” Flack went on, wagging a fat forefinger in her direction. “Consider. It is perhaps a matter for an expert toxicologist, such as I do not claim to be, to decide, but I should judge that swallowed whole, in the fashion of a pill taken medicinally, a quantity of carbide such as this might be attended with disagreeable, possibly even fatal results. I cannot say, but it is possible. I do not seek to put it higher than that. But who ever heard of anyone ingesting chocolates in this manner? The very raison d’etre of such articles is the pleasure to the palate, which would be wholly circumvented by such a procedure. No! There are two methods only of consuming sweets. One, the procedure which I fancy you favour, Lady Barber, that of biting and munching---I apologise for the crudity of the phrase but I know no other way of expressing it---the other, the slower and gentler technique adopted by the Judge, namely that of sucking and slow absorption. Now it is clear from your own very unpleasant experience of last night (I trust you are quite recovered by the way? Forgive me for not having made the inquiry sooner) it is clear that at the very first moment of biting, the contact of the saliva with the carbide releases acetylene gas, the fraud is exposed and the intruder summarily ejected. On the sucking principle, on the other hand, discovery is slower, but none the less----” he shook his head solemnly “---none the less sure. Possibly before the moment of revelation and repudiation there would be time for a minute quantity of carbide to be absorbed into the system---enough I dare say to set up very unpleasant internal reactions, but not, I am convinced, sufficient to be a lethal dose. I repeat, as a medium for what is so strangely and inaptly termed a practical joke, carbide is all that could be desired. As a poison, it is simply not in the picture.”

As though taken aback by his descent into colloquial English, Flack stopped abruptly, murmured, “I shall miss my train, I must be off,” and vanished.

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