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18. An English Murder

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Author Topic: 18. An English Murder  (Read 140 times)
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« on: April 16, 2023, 11:50:54 am »

WHEN Briggs, Dr. Bottwink and Susan reached the hall, Sergeant Rogers was already in possession of the telephone. Julius was at his elbow. The three newcomers grouped themselves close behind him. A moment later, Camilla appeared on the staircase above and stood, leaning over the banister rail, watching the scene from above. Everybody was staring at the speaker and listening in a hushed silence, as though the spectacle of a man using the telephone was something so extraordinary that not a detail of it was to be missed. The conversation took some time, for the connection was imperfect, and Rogers had to repeat himself over and over again before he could make himself understood; but during it all, the little group remained motionless and intent. Only when it ended did they relax and become individuals again.

Hoarse and sweating, the sergeant put down the receiver and turned to face his audience.

"They will be here within a few hours, if all goes well," he announced. "At dawn tomorrow, at the latest. The road is clear as far as Warbeck village, and they are arranging for a ferry across the river. If there is no more rain, they should be able to take us out tomorrow."

"Thank God!" murmured Julius. He was not normally a devout man, but he sounded as though he meant it.

Nobody else seemed to have anything to say at first. The prospect of release had apparently found them at a loss. They stood about irresolutely, shifting uneasily on their feet. Then Camilla from her post on the stairs made the obvious suggestion.

"Briggs," she said, "I think it would be a good idea if you brought us all drinks in the library."

"Very good, my lady." He turned to go and automatically beckoned Susan to accompany him.

"That includes your daughter, of course," said Camilla in a clear, high voice. "And bring some for yourself."

"Yes, my lady."

Briggs disappeared in haste. As he went, Camilla could see that the top of his bald head had flushed to a warm pink. She misinterpreted his emotion. It was inspired simply by the sudden realization that he had allowed himself to appear before company in his shirt-sleeves and apron.

Invested once more in his tail-coat, he returned a few minutes later to the library, bearing a tray laden with a decanter and glasses. He dispensed the drinks with grave ceremony, and then, taking his own glass, retired to a discreet distance near the door. With a fine sense of the appropriate, he had selected an old brown sherry of the type usually served at Warbeck Hall on the occasion of family funerals. The rest of the little assembly, grouped round the fire, sipped in silence. An air of anxious expectancy hung over the room.

It was Dr. Bottwink who spoke first.

"So, Sergeant Rogers," he said, in a loud voice that seemed to be addressed to the company at large, "they will be here in a few hours' time, you say. The 'they' you speak of are the police, I presume?"

"That is so, sir."

"And when they come, what do you propose to tell them, may I ask?"

From his superior height, Rogers looked down on the squat figure with a weary air.

"I have already told you, sir," he said patiently. "I do not consider myself as being in charge of this case any longer. I shall simply place my report in their hands and leave the matter to them."

"Your report---just so. It is in a state of completion, your report?"

Rogers emptied his glass and glanced at the clock.

"It is not altogether complete," he said, "but it will be very shortly. I have only a few additional facts to add so as to bring it up to date."

Dr. Bottwink also emptied his glass, but unlike Rogers he did not set it down. Instead he strolled over to the decanter and poured himself out another.

"I do not understand," he observed, "why these Markshire police---excellent fellows though they are, no doubt---should be in any better position than you in finding an answer to this problem."

The sergeant shrugged his shoulders.

"That is not for me to say," he said shortly. "It doesn't happen to be my job, that's all."

"I really think, Dr. Bottwink," put in Julius heavily, "that it is hardly your place---the place of any of us, I may say---to dictate to the sergeant what he should or should not do. He knows his duty, and I am sure he requires no assistance in carrying it out."

"As you please, Sir Julius. I am well aware of the importance in this country of knowing one's place. And my place has certainly never been one in which I was in a position to dictate to anyone. Simply, it occurred to me that it might be of professional advantage to the sergeant if, when his colleagues arrived here, he was able not only to report the facts but to explain them. But if I have put myself forward improperly, I say no more."

It took a little time for the significance of the stiff, pedantic sentences to sink into minds already dulled by emotion and fatigue. Camilla caught his meaning first.

"Dr. Bottwink," she said bluntly, "do you know who killed Robert?"

"Of course." He sipped his sherry and added, "And Lord Warbeck. And Mrs. Carstairs. It was all one and the same person."

There was a sudden, sharp sound. Susan's sherry glass had slipped from her fingers and lay broken at her feet. Briggs came forward from his place by the door and impassively gathered up the fragments. Nobody else moved. Dr. Bottwink did not so much as turn his head in the direction of the interruption. He was turning his own half-empty glass in his hand and looking down at it with a meditative smile. He showed no disposition to speak again.

"Go on, Dr. Bottwink!" Camilla urged him. "Go on!"

"What do you say, Sir Julius? Is it my place to speak? Or, rather," he turned to Rogers, "since this is essentially a police affair, perhaps you will advise me, Sergeant? Should I not, strictly speaking, reserve my confidences for the proper authorities when they get here?"

Sergeant Rogers had turned a bright red, and he spoke with difficulty.

"I understood you to say, sir," he said, "that you had already told me all that you knew. If you have any further information, you may reserve it until you make your statement to the officer who takes charge of this case. But you will have to explain to him why you thought fit to conceal it in the first place."

"There is no question of concealment, Sergeant. I shall tell him just what I have told you. I shall tell him to read the life of William Pitt." He glanced over towards one of the bookshelves and added, "You have not, I perceive, taken my advice in the matter? You have not consulted that little work by the late Lord Rosebery?"

"No," said Rogers, shortly. "I have not."

"A pity. But it is not too late. You have still time."

"What is all this nonsense about William Pitt?" said Julius. "I understood you to say that you had some theory about the death of my unfortunate relative who died last night. Now you run away from the point and start talking about someone who died a hundred years ago."

"A good deal more than a hundred years ago. In 1806, to be precise. But that is a short time in the history of a country like England, where relics of the past are permitted not only to exist but to influence the present to a wholly lamentable degree."

"If you think that, you know nothing whatever about modern England, sir!"

"Is that so? Then let me say that you know nothing about English history. Moreover, it is because of the indifference of you and your like to the lessons of your own past that your modern England is left riddled with antiquarian anachronisms. As an antiquarian myself, perhaps I should rejoice at such things, but when I find that the neglect of a simple reform, the necessity of which has been obvious and glaring since the year 1789---if not earlier---has just now cost this country three lives, I think that as a nation you carry your conservatism too far!"

Quite plainly, Dr. Bottwink felt that with his last resounding period he had completely crushed his adversary; and further, that, having crushed him, there was nothing more to be said. He turned his back on Sir Julius, replaced his glass on the tray, and was actually making for the door when Camilla intercepted him. She laid her hand on his arm and steered him back to the middle of the room, a look of patient determination on her face.

"Please don't be angry with us, Dr. Bottwink," she said. "We aren't as clever as you, and we none of us know any history. We are all very tired and very frightened---at least, I know I am. Will you please, please put us out of our misery and explain what you have been talking about? You can start in 1789 if you really must, but do tell us something."

Dr. Bottwink was quite incapable of resisting such an appeal to his vanity.

"If you wish it, my lady," he said, with a stiff little continental bow. He took up a position in the exact centre of the carpet, his legs apart, his hands clasped behind his back, raised his chin and began in the clear, high tone of a lecturer:

"I have been invited to begin my exposition with the year 1789. In fact, I introduced the events of that year merely for the purpose of illustration or analogy. When, this morning, I invited Sergeant Rogers to consult the biography of the younger Pitt, I did so simply to bring to his attention a state of affairs which, it seemed to me, offered a ready-made explanation of the crime that he was investigating. I did not wish to push myself forward. I thought that by accepting my hint he would be able to solve the problem for himself. I thought that he would see---as I saw---that this case was a remarkable example of history repeating itself. I have to admit that subsequent events led me to doubt the validity of my own hypothesis. In the stress of the moment, I hastily assumed that my diagnosis was incorrect. Further enquiry, however, satisfied me that the error lay in this latter assumption and not in the original theory. In short, I had been perfectly right from the beginning. History had repeated itself---and to an even more remarkable degree than I had at first supposed."

Dr. Bottwink paused. He drew his handkerchief from his pocket, carefully polished his spectacles and readjusted them on his nose before proceeding: "Sir Julius has characterized the events which we have recently witnessed as un-English. Respectfully, I beg to differ. This could only have happened in England. It is, indeed, an essentially English crime. I am a little astonished that he, of all persons, should have considered it otherwise. You may object," the historian went on, though his audience, stunned by the flow of words, displayed not the slightest disposition to object, "that crime---or at all events murder---is essentially a supra-national phenomenon; that consequently there can be no distinction between an English murder and an un-English one. But this is a fallacy. In investigating a crime we have to consider it in two aspects---the act itself, which is basically identical in all lands and under all systems of jurisprudence, and the social and political framework in which it occurs. To reduce the matter to the simplest possible terms, we must examine the motive for the crime. A motive that is valid for one form of society may be totally non-existent in another. And once the motive is determined, the identification of the criminal becomes a mere matter of simple deduction."

Dr. Bottwink removed his spectacles again. This time he folded them up and, retaining them in his hand, wagged them fiercely at his audience to drive home his points.

"Why, then, do I maintain that this was an English crime?" he demanded. "Because the motive was English. Because it was made possible by a political factor that is peculiar to England." He paused in momentary confusion. "Perhaps I should have said 'Britain'," he observed. "Forgive me. I desire to offend nobody's susceptibilities. I am used to saying 'England', and with your permission I shall continue to do so. To resume: this crime---and, for reasons which will become obvious, I use the singular and not the plural---this crime, then, could not have occurred but for the fact that England, alone of all civilized countries, retains in its constitution an hereditary legislative chamber. And its motive was quite simply to procure a seat in that chamber for one person by removing the two individuals who stood between him and the right to occupy it."

"I have never heard such a pack of nonsense in my life!" Sir Julius, white with rage, advanced upon Dr. Bottwink. Shaking his fist under the historian's nose, he spluttered, "Do you dare to suggest, sir, that I----? Do you dare to suggest----?" The sentence trailed away into inarticulate sounds of anger.

Dr. Bottwink remained literally and metaphorically unmoved. He did not budge an inch from his position, and he continued to speak without taking the smallest notice of the interruption.

"So far," he proceeded in the same didactic manner, "so far we have been considering what would appear at first sight to be a simple case of dynastic assassination. But the matter is a little more complicated than that. If it were not so, I should have hardly been justified in characterizing it as I have ventured to do. The destruction of a reigning family in the interests of a cadet branch is a practice common to all nations and all ages. In order to comprehend this incident in its true light, it will be useful to revert once more to a consideration of the biography of William Pitt and the events of the year 1789."

The lecture was at this point again interrupted, this time by Camilla. She had begun to take a cordial dislike to William Pitt, and at the renewed mention of his name she groaned aloud. But Dr. Bottwink went remorselessly on.

"The year in question was one of many vicissitudes for this country and for Europe, but, interesting as they are in themselves, they are not relevant to this enquiry, for they were caused in the main by economic and constitutional factors here and abroad which are not now operative. As I ventured to point out to Sergeant Rogers this morning, its importance for our purposes lies precisely in an event which did not happen. Because it did not happen, it has been forgotten, except by historians, who unfortunately are not permitted to exercise much influence in current English politics. The event to which I allude---and which for some days appeared quite inevitable---was none other than the death, at that particular juncture, of the second Earl of Chatham. He had no son. His heir was none other than his brother, William Pitt, then Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. One can but speculate on what would have ensued; but this much is certain: the great man's administration depended uniquely upon his personal ascendancy in what is still quaintly called the Lower House of Parliament. Had he been, in your own expressive phrase, kicked upstairs, the result would have been a major political crisis. Perhaps it is not too much to say that not only the career of a great statesman but the whole history of Europe turned upon the life or death of a totally undistinguished nobleman. Sir Julius," he turned abruptly to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, still glowering at him within arm's length, "does the parallel appeal to you?"

Sir Julius stared at the speaker in silence. His angry expression had been succeeded by one of unwilling admiration. Then, slowly and emphatically, he nodded his head.

"Your position is more vulnerable even than that of your illustrious predecessor, since constitutionally a Prime Minister may sit in the House of Lords. A Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the other hand, may not. Should it ever be your lot to succeed to the family peerage, you will be able to serve your country in any one of a variety of distinguished offices, but you will be for ever incapable of holding your present one. This fact must have been very much on your mind during the last twenty-four hours, must it not?"

Sir Julius nodded again.

"Why then," the historian went on in an accent of gentle reproach, "why did it never occur to you to reflect on who would be the obvious successor to that position when and if what Lord Rosebery has called 'the grim humour of our constitution' compelled you to relinquish it? I am no student of contemporary politics, but I am sure that since I have been in this house I have heard the name mentioned a dozen times at least. Or was Mrs. Carstairs wrong in her estimate of her husband's prospects?"

"She was perfectly right," said Julius huskily. "He is the obvious man."

"Precisely." Dr. Bottwink threw out his hands in an expressive gesture. "There is the case in a nutshell. Need I insult your intelligence by saying any more?"

"I think I owe you an apology," said Julius, speaking with some difficulty.

"Not at all, Sir Julius. It was your innate modesty, no doubt, that clouded your vision, and prevented you from seeing that you were the person aimed at by the criminal all the time."

It was a long time since Julius had been commended for this particular quality, and he flushed with pleasure.

"In conclusion," Dr. Bottwink went on, "I think it will not be inappropriate if I express my sympathy with Sergeant Rogers. His primary function, as he has more than once emphasized, is to protect Sir Julius. He has performed it, no doubt, with assiduity and efficiency. But there was one danger against which he was powerless to protect his charge---the danger of an unwelcome elevation to the House of Lords. Sir Julius owes his escape from that, not to Scotland Yard, but to the happy circumstance that there existed, unknown to us all, an infant Lord Warbeck, upon whose birth I should like to tender to the Honourable Mrs. Warbeck my belated but sincere congratulations."

The lecture was over. Dr. Bottwink stepped down from an imaginary rostrum, put away his spectacles and became human once more. But at least one of his auditors was still unsatisfied.

"Dr. Bottwink," said Rogers. "Do I understand you to suggest that Mrs. Carstairs murdered Mr. Robert Warbeck?"

"I deprecate the word 'suggest', Sergeant. But I say she did."

"And Lord Warbeck?"

"Certainly. That is to say, I have little doubt that it was she who broke to him the news of his son's death with the intention of hastening his own. It was hardly necessary for her purposes to precipitate the end of a dying man, but no doubt she was impatient."

"Then will you tell me," said Rogers heavily, "who in your view killed Mrs. Carstairs?"

"But I have answered that question already. Did I not say at the outset that one person was responsible for all three deaths? Mrs. Carstairs, of course, killed herself."

"I don't see any 'of course' about it. Why should she do that?"

"But it is obvious, is it not? No, I have forgotten---you have not yet had the opportunity of investigating further the little episode that immediately preceded her suicide. I am referring to her interview with Mrs. Warbeck outside the door of Lady Camilla's bedroom. Had you done so, as no doubt you would in the normal course, you would have learned that at that interview Mrs. Warbeck informed her, in terms which were perhaps excusable in the circumstances but which I do not hesitate to describe as brusque, that the object for which she had just committed a daring crime had been wholly frustrated. Sir Julius was, after all, still a commoner, still standing between her husband and the post which she so ardently coveted for him. The heir to the honours of the house of Warbeck was beyond her reach. The reaction to this news was too much for a nervous system which must have been already strung nearly to breaking point. I need hardly elaborate what followed. The mechanics of the suicide are matters for you and your colleagues of the police. But I would suggest that the state of her shoes and the marks upon the carpet indicate that the poison was secreted in the snow, which until this afternoon was deep upon the balcony of her room. She recovered the bottle, emptied it into her tea, and then, as a final gesture of contempt---or perhaps---who knows?---in the hope of casting suspicion upon Sir Julius that would blast his career as effectively as would a peerage---deposited it in his wardrobe. That done, she returned to her room, poured out the tea and so performed the last act of despair."

He stopped abruptly and silence fell upon the room. Then Briggs stepped forward from his corner and said something to Camilla in a low tone. She nodded and he left the room.

"Dinner will be ready in twenty minutes," she said. "It will only be cold scraps, so nobody need dress. Susan, you will dine with us, won't you? I want to hear all about Robert's boy."

"So do I, by Jove!" exclaimed Sir Julius. "He's a very important person now, as I hope you realize."

"I know that, thank you," said Susan pertly. "It isn't every baby as is a lord at his age."

"It isn't every baby," he rejoined, "that has the political career of a man like me dependent on him."

"Would it not be an additional safeguard," suggested Dr. Bottwink, "if the British constitution were rationalized to some degree? You have had a close squeak, like William Pitt before you. The next man may not be so lucky."

"I shall speak to the Prime Minister about it," said Sir Julius Warbeck.


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