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Chapter Eighteen

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« on: August 14, 2023, 12:50:58 pm »


“A CURIOUS case,” observed the Assistant Commissioner when Chief Inspector Macdonald made his report on the Farrington case.

“And an unexpectedly interesting one, sir,” rejoined Macdonald. “To my mind, there was never any doubt at all as to who was responsible for Mrs. Farrington’s death, but the ‘build-up,’ the accumulation of detail concerning human behaviour, made it much more interesting than many of the more spectacular cases we’ve had.”

The A.C. pushed his chair back to a more comfortable angle after a glance at the clock. “I’ve got half an hour, or if I haven’t I propose to take it,” he said; “so lay on. I find your details interesting, Macdonald, and I’m always game for an argument.”

“I’m afraid there’s not much room for argument, sir,” responded Macdonald, a smile lighting his eyes. “Here was the setup, as I saw it through the evidence of those who lived or worked in that house: first Madge, then the charwoman, then Paula, then Anne Strange and her husband. It was these who provided the evidence which they sought, desperately, to conceal.”

“You think they guessed?” asked the A.C.

“Yes, I’m sure of it. Madge knew all the time. Paula tumbled to it. Mrs. Pinks knew. Anne Strange guessed. Tony Strange tried to persuade himself---and me---otherwise, but he knew. The other married couple---the Duncans---were negligible, and Peter avoided trouble by an overdose of dope.” He paused and took a cigarette from the case the A.C. held out to him.

“Deceased must have been a deplorable woman,” went on Macdonald. “She was selfish to an abnormal degree; she was possessive, dominating, and tyrannical. And mean with it. The old man must have had some sort of inkling of all this for years, but he was a peace-loving old chap. He made the best of her, until the worst obtruded itself so clearly that he felt he’d got to put a stop to it, not for his own sake, but for the children’s. He listed his reasons perfectly clearly in the document he left for us, beginning with Madge. Madge was his first-born child, the daughter of his first wife. Farrington married again chiefly in order to get a home and a mother for Madge. He was a kindly, simple, affectionate man, prepared to offer complete devotion to the woman whom he married. He never dreamt of criticising her, and she dominated him completely, so that he accepted her at her own estimate, as a self-sacrificing wife and mother to whom duty meant everything and self nothing. In my own view, this state of affairs might have gone on all their lives but for the upheaval of the war. Between 1940 and 1945, Edward Farrington was away from home, away from the domination of his wife, and he began to look at life from another angle. In other words, he began to think.”

The A.C. nodded. “You obviously found him an interesting study, Macdonald.”

“I did, sir; very interesting. He was a man with a strong sense of duty, also a sense of detail, but he was, as Reeves observed, very limited. He could see so far and no farther. Well, when he was demobilised and came back to live with his wife and family at Windermere House, the old comfortable days had gone---the days of a cook and three good maids. Madge was keeping house. The twins, whom he still thought of as school children, had developed into queer modern eccentrics, living a life of their own in the attics. Tony brought his wife to live at Windermere House, and Joyce brought her husband, and throughout the house, from kitchen to attics, tension grew. Everyone was unhappy---save Muriel. Everyone was embittered---save Muriel. She was the centre and focus point of discontent, and she was dominating Madge by the implied threat of proving that Madge was of unsound mind---bats, crackers, as Mrs. Pinks put it.”

The A.C. moved irritably. “I see what you’re driving at, Macdonald, but damn it, the thing’s unreasonable. It’s plain stupid. Madge was a very competent woman. She could have walked out, couldn’t she?”

“Certainly she could,” rejoined Macdonald; “but what I am trying to do is to reconstruct the situation from Farrington’s point of view. You say it was plain stupid. So was he, if you like to use those words. I prefer the word simple. Reeves prefers the word limited. They amount to very much the same thing.”

“Have it your own way,” said the A.C., “but is Madge stupid?”

“No, sir, she isn’t stupid, but she had been dominated and made wretched as a child, and she had had a very severe nervous breakdown. Madge resembles her father inasmuch as she also is limited in certain respects, particularly in her affections. She adored her father. She knew that if she did leave home her father would have a particularly poor time. It was improbable that any charwoman would put up with Mrs. Farrington for very long, and Madge foresaw that her father, when she left home, would gradually be forced into the role of head cook and bottle washer. Nevertheless, Madge had made up her mind to go. She had got a job, and she was going to America as nurse-companion. And that brings us to the state of affairs in the Farrington household on the Monday morning, when Mrs. Farrington came down to see Madge in the kitchen to ask for a dinner party for eight with all the family silver and glass, four courses, soup, fish, bird, and sweet---all to be cooked and served by Madge.”

The Assistant Commissioner chuckled. “Give me all the details, I enjoy the details,” he murmured.

“That projected dinner party proved to be the final detail, the last straw,” said Macdonald meditatively. “Colonel Farrington had been considering things for a long time. He saw Peter, who had been forced into a job which he loathed and for which he was totally unfitted, going to the bad steadily. He saw Paula lying and cheating to help her twin. He saw Anne Strange being discredited to her husband and growing increasingly bitter. He saw Philip Duncan in a financial mess. And above all, he saw Madge being jockeyed into the position of a mental defective. Tony Strange told the exact truth about the journal his mother kept, listing Madge’s departures from the normal. The book existed all right, and the Colonel knew all about it. He destroyed it, of course. He had read every word. To his simple mind, it was a dangerous document, it might cause Madge to be certified as insane. That was too much for the Colonel. Thinking the matter out carefully, he thought that if Muriel passed out painlessly---her heart was very weak, after all---he might help his demoralised family back to normal happiness. We have his own word for it that he had been considering this for some time. Now, before we get to the method he thought out, just consider the scene in the kitchen that Monday morning---when the Colonel stood outside the door and listened in to the conversation. He knew that Madge had got this American job and he was wholeheartedly delighted for her sake. He heard Mrs. Farrington say, ‘But, Madge, it’s impossible. The doctors would never sign the necessary papers . . . you would never be allowed to go to America.’ And the Colonel said to himself, ‘This thing has got to stop and I am going to stop it.’ ”


“Now, with regard to the method,” went on Macdonald. “The Colonel, like many men of his type, took a vague interest in diseases and medical matters. He talked to Mrs. Pinks and knew about her husband’s diabetes. He talked to Madge and learnt about the properties of insulin and its use in inducing a state of coma for nerve cases. He doubtless talked to Baring, who had suggested a course of inoculation for Mrs. Farrington’s colds. This last point is particularly interesting, because it shows a vein of real cunning in the old man’s make-up. Every time he mentioned those inoculations to me he spoke of the idea with extreme reprobation. But Baring had actually shown the Colonel himself how to give an injection. Madge knew this, though nothing would have induced her to tell me so until after her father’s death. Muriel was so sensitive to pain, she felt it less if her husband gave the injection.”

“I see,” said the A.C. “Did you think that one out for yourself, Macdonald?”

“It seemed to me quite a possibility,” replied Macdonald; “but I will enlarge on that idea later. At the moment I want to tell you about the Colonel’s ideas, which showed careful forethought. He had decided on insulin as his medium, knowing it would bring about a painless death. He knew that he could obtain this substance from Dr. Baring’s medical case, and he knew also that Baring, who was old and shaky, was also forgetful and unobservant. When Colonel Farrington made up his mind to put his carefully prepared plan into operation on the Monday, he reviewed every circumstance and contingency, as a soldier should before committing himself to any strategy. There was one extraneous circumstance which he thought he might use to his own advantage. On the Monday morning, between the time that Mrs. Pinks had finished cleaning the bedroom and the time the Colonel went downstairs to listen in at the kitchen door, he had had his Darts Club friend, old Bill Preston, in the house to examine the fastenings on the bedroom window, with a view to putting a burglarproof catch on the window. Now, the Colonel knew all about fingerprints. If things went wrong, as they might do, it occurred to him that it might be useful to have some unidentifiable fingerprints in the room. He was much too ignorant of police investigations to imagine that we should ever track down his Darts Club acquaintances.”

“Just one query here,” put in the A.C. “At what stage in the inquiry did you come to the conclusion that you couldn’t afford to believe anything the old man said?”

“Pretty early on,” said Macdonald. “After I had talked to Madge, I was fairly certain that Colonel Farrington had given his wife the insulin, but I also believed that he would stick to the truth as far as he was able. He had plenty of common sense and realised how much wiser it was to stick to facts as far as possible. For my part, it was a matter of sorting out what was possible to corroborate and what wasn’t; without corroboration, I couldn’t afford to believe a word he said. He gave me a most careful and detailed description of his wife’s movements on the Monday morning, all calculated to fit in with his own scheme, but since I had already come to the conclusion that he must have given the insulin injection himself, his description was only of interest to me in the academic sense---the way in which it revealed his own careful but limited mind.”

“It’s a fascinating story,” observed the A.C. “As you say, the old chap must have done some careful thinking.”

Macdonald nodded. “Perfectly true,” he replied. “Now, as to the actual events. By persistent telephoning, the Colonel at length got Dr. Baring to the house on Monday evening and doubtless primed him with a long story of Muriel’s fainting fits and heart pains, to prepare the ground for the eventual death. Baring, between old age, flu, quinine, and whisky, was probably in no state to tell a sound heart from a bad one. When he had seen the patient, the Colonel took him to the drawing room and, being genuinely sorry for the doctor’s obvious exhaustion, gave him a double whisky. I think this was the factor that shipwrecked the scheme. It was true that Baring forgot his medical case---or assumed that Farrington had put it in the car: this was according to plan, but Baring was now as near drunk as makes no difference. He probably got muddled between the brake and the accelerator and charged a lamp standard on his homeward way. Farrington, having given his wife some hot milk, read to her for a little and said he would then give her her hypodermic inoculation according to the doctor’s orders. He did so, using the insulin he found in Baring’s case. The remainder of the evening was spent as described by the various witnesses.”

The A.C. put a word in here: “Aren’t you surprised that Farrington asked Madge in to see her mother that evening, Macdonald?”

“No, sir. That was his careful mind again. You must remember that he counted on Dr. Baring coming in the morning. He wanted to be able to say, with corroboration, ‘I was worried about her last night.’ It was one of those little details which appeal to the simple mind. He knew quite well that Madge didn’t take Mrs. Farrington’s ailments seriously, and Madge was already much too tired and upset to start being alarmist that evening. The only other event of the night was Paula’s doing. Paula, who had managed to possess herself of the key of the safe when she went to ask for the key of the glass cupboard, did go into her mother’s bedroom and did take some of her diamonds from the safe, hoping to sell them for Peter’s benefit. And Paula realised that her mother was no longer breathing normally---which perhaps accounts for the state she got into afterwards, when Scott refused to sign a death certificate. Paula knew that to have stolen the diamonds from Mrs. Farrington’s room that night put both her and Peter in a very unpleasant position.”


“But why were you so certain that Farrington himself did the job?” inquired the A.C. “There was motive enough among the other members of the household, particularly in Madge’s case.”

“Yes, sir. I quite agree. There was motive. One has to remember that Mrs. Farrington had the money, and at her death the children---all save Madge---stood to profit. They could have acquired the means, for old Baring was not too careful over that medical case of his, but I did not believe they could have done it. Consider it carefully. It meant giving a hypodermic injection without waking the patient. Now it might conceivably be possible in the case of a child, for young children sleep very soundly. A child can sleep when a bomb explodes across the way, but elderly people do not sleep like that. In order to have given a hypodermic injection to Mrs. Farrington as she slept, it was necessary to go right up to her bed, to draw back the bedclothes so as to bare the arm, to get a grip on that arm, and finally to drive the needle home and keep it in place while the plunger was pressed down and the liquid forced in. It is true that Mrs. Farrington had had a mild barbiturate, but I did not believe, and I utterly refuse to believe, that the thing could have been done without waking her.”

“Yes. I see your point. You’re probably right,” agreed the A.C.; “but was it essential not to wake her? Couldn’t Madge have said it was doctor’s orders?”

“Not if you realise the attitude of the one woman to the other, sir. Mrs. Farrington knew perfectly well that Madge hated her and that she had every reason to hate her. Madge had threatened her that morning. If Mrs. Farrington had woken up and found Madge beside her with a hypodermic. Mrs. Farrington would have created a scene which the whole house would have heard. Mrs. Farrington was afraid of Madge. When Mrs. Pinks plucked up her courage and told me how Mrs. Farrington both hated and feared Madge, she proved conclusively to my mind that Madge could never have done it, though I was certain of it before. And if not Madge, who else could have? Peter or Paula? Anne Strange? Joyce Duncan, who avoided her mother at all costs? It didn’t make sense, because Mrs. Farrington would have made a scene. Insulin doesn’t put a patient under at once. She would have had plenty of time and energy to ‘create,’ as they say.”

“Yes---well, I suppose you were right,” said the A.C. “You got to know the household. Yes, you had a point there all right, Macdonald.”

“Then there was the time element,” said Macdonald. “The probability was that the injection was given between eight-thirty and ten o’clock. Colonel Farrington was with his wife until after the nine o’clock news. He then went upstairs to ask Anne to come down to sit in the drawing room. Mrs. Farrington was then alone, and Madge could have had three or four minutes to do the job, but my objection still held: Mrs. Farrington would have made a scene which would have brought her husband and Anne Strange running to her room. Colonel Farrington then went out, and Anne Strange sat in the drawing room. Could she have done it? Would Mrs. Farrington have gone quietly to sleep again after Anne---who hated her---had used a hypodermic on her? No. It just didn’t make sense. It was obviously the one person in the house whom she trusted---namely, her husband.”

The A.C. nodded. “I’m surprised the old boy didn’t shoot himself straight away, though. You say he was a decent old chap in most ways.”

“Colonel Farrington’s motive throughout was to help his children, but above all to help Madge. Madge got nothing under Mrs. Farrington’s will. If he could have inherited, he could have saved a bit for her out of income. When he planned his scheme it must have looked pretty safe. He counted on Baring coming and signing a death certificate without hesitation.”

“But when Scott refused a certificate, he must have realised the game was up.”

“A more intelligent and better-informed man would have realised it, but the Colonel went on hoping. To do him justice, I think he wanted to see how the case would go before he threw up the sponge. I don’t think he feared anything for himself, but he did fear for Madge. A police inquiry was an unknown quantity to him: he had no experience of detectives, and he was afraid at first that Madge might be accused. He actually put on record his gratitude to Reeves and myself for being so unbiased and fair in our investigation. There was one set of circumstances which he thought gave him a chance to win through. He knew that Preston’s fingerprints were on the window ledges in the bedroom. He knew that Preston had waited outside the house on Monday evening---though the Colonel did not see him that evening. In his simple way Farrington said to himself: ‘These chaps are very thorough. They’ll find the fingerprints, they’ll hear of a loiterer outside; Muriel’s diamonds have disappeared. The burglar must have been responsible for the murder.’ He was as simple as that.”

“And his children realised he must have done it?”

“I think so. Madge, of course, would have argued exactly as I did. She would have known it was impossible for anybody else to have given Mrs. Farrington that injection. Rather than see him accused, Madge tried to take the guilt on her own shoulders and jump under a tube train to end the whole thing. I remember saying to her as I caught her back from the train. ‘You can’t do things like that.’ I felt several times that I should have liked to say the same thing to her father---you can’t settle things like that.”

The A.C. nodded. “Yes,” he said slowly. “I think I see your other point. He was a very simple man. He could only see one step at a time.”

“There was a lot that was honestly kind and unselfish in him,” said Macdonald; “but he did the one thing which no man may do---took the law into his own hands without any realisation of the forces which move behind the law. He found that out. But even so. I shall always remember him with some degree of liking. He was very devoted to Madge.”

“And what will Madge do now?”

“Go to America. The offer still holds, I hear. So it’s back as they were, so to speak, before Mrs. Farrington came down to the kitchen to order dinner for eight.”

A grim little smile curled round the A.C.’s firm mouth.

“Settled her own hash, eh, Macdonald?”

The Chief Inspector nodded. “That’s about it,” he agreed.


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