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5. THE AVENGING CHANCE (1)


THE AVENGING CHANCE. Anthony Berkley.

 

Roger Sheringham was inclined to think afterwards that the Poisoned Chocolates Case, as the papers called it, was perhaps the most perfectly planned murder he had ever encountered. The motive was so obvious, when you knew where to look for it but you didn’t know; the method was so significant when you had grasped its real essentialsbut you didn’t grasp them; the traces were so thinly covered, when you had realised what was covering them but you didn’t realise. But for a piece of the merest bad luck, which the murderer could not possibly have foreseen, the crime must have been added to the classical list of great mysteries.

This is the gist of the case, as Chief Inspector Moresby told it one evening to Roger in the latter’s rooms in the Albany a week or so after it happened:

 

On the past Friday morning, the fifteenth of November, at half past ten o’clock, in accordance with his invariable custom, Sir William Anstruther walked into his club (1) in Piccadilly (2), the very exclusive Rainbow Club, and asked for his letters. The porter handed him three and a small parcel. Sir William walked over to the fireplace in the big lounge hall to open them.

A few minutes later another member entered the club, a Mr. Graham Beresford. There were a letter and a couple of circulars for him, and he also strolled over to the fireplace, nodding to Sir William, but not speaking to him. The two men only knew each other very slightly, and had probably never exchanged more than a dozen words in all.

Having glanced through his letters, Sir William opened the parcel and, after a moment, shorted with disgust. Beresford looked at him, and with a grunt Sir William thrust out a letter which had been enclosed in the parcel. Concealing a smile (Sir William’s ways were a matter of some amusement to his fellow members), Beresford read the letter. It was from a big firm of chocolate manufacturers, Mason & Sons, and set forth that they were putting on the market a new brand of liqueur chocolates designed especially to appeal to men; would Sir William do them the honour of accepting the enclosed two-pound box and letting the firm have his candid opinion on them?

«Do they think I’m a blank (3) chorus girl?», fumed Sir William. «Write ’em testimonials about their blank chocolates, indeed! Blank ’em! I’ll complain to the blank committee. That sort of blank thing can’t blank well be allowed here».

«Well, it’s an ill wind (4) so far as I’m concerned», Beresford soothed him. «It’s reminded me of something. My wife and I had a box at the Imperial last night. I bet her a box of chocolates to a hundred cigarettes that she wouldn’t spot the villain by the end of the second act. She won. I must remember to get them. Have you seen it The Creaking Skull? Not a bad show».

Sir William had not seen it, and said so with force.

«Want a box of chocolates, did you say?», he added, more mildly. «Well, take this blank one. I don’t want it».

For a moment Beresford demurred politely and then, most unfortunately for himself, accepted. The money so saved meant nothing to him for he was a wealthy man; but trouble was always worth saving.

By an extraordinarily lucky chance neither the outer wrapper of the box nor its covering letter were thrown into the fire, and this was the more fortunate in that both men had tossed the envelopes of their letters into the flames. Sir William did, indeed, make a bundle of the wrapper, letter and string, but he handed it over to Beresford, and the latter simply dropped it inside the fender. This bundle the porter subsequently extracted and, being a man of orderly habits, put it tidily away in the waste paper basket, whence it was retrieved later by the police.

Of the three unconscious protagonists in the impending tragedy, Sir William was without doubt the most remarkable. Still a year or two under fifty, he looked, with his flaming red face and thickset figure, a typical country squire of the old school, and both his manners and his language were in accordance with tradition – the tradition of the bold, bad baronet which he undoubtedly was.

In comparison with him, Beresford was rather an ordinary man, a tall, dark, not handsome fellow of two-and-thirty, quiet and reserved. His father had left him a rich man, but idleness did not appeal to him, and he had a finger in a good many business pies (5).

Money attracts money. Graham Beresford had inherited it, he made it, and, inevitably, he had married it, too. The daughter of a late ship-owner in Liverpool, with not far off half a million in her own right. But the money was incidental, for he needed her and would have married her just as inevitably (said his friends) if she had not had a farthing. A tall, rather serious-minded, highly cultured girl, not so young that her character had not had time to form (she was twenty-five when Beresford married her, three years ago), she was the ideal wife for him. A bit of a Puritan perhaps in some ways, but Beresford, whose wild oats, though duly sown, had been a sparse crop, was ready enough to be a Puritan himself (6) by that time if she was. To make no bones about it (7), the Beresfords succeeded in achieving that eighth wonder of the modern world, a happy marriage.

And into the middle of it there dropped with irretrievable tragedy, the box of chocolates.

Beresford gave them to her after lunch as they sat over their coffee, with some jesting remark about paying his honourable debts, and she opened the box at once. The top layer, she noticed, seemed to consist only of kirsch (8) and maraschino (9). Beresford, who did not believe in spoiling good coffee, refused when she offered him the box, and his wife ate the first one alone. As she did so she exclaimed in surprise that the filling seemed exceedingly strong and positively burnt her mouth.

Beresford explained that they were samples of a new brand and then, made curious by what his wife had said, took one too. A burning taste, not intolerable but much too strong to be pleasant, followed the release of the liquid, and the almond flavouring seemed quite excessive.

«By Jove (10)», he said, «they are strong. They must be filled with neat (11) alcohol».

«Oh, they wouldn’t do that, surely», said his wife, taking another. «But they are very strong. I think I rather like them, though».

Beresford ate another, and disliked it still more. «I don’t», he said with decision. «They make my tongue feel quite numb. I shouldn’t eat any more of them if I were you. I think there’s something wrong with them».

«Well, they’re only an experiment, I suppose», she said. «But they do burn. I’m not sure whether I like them or not».

A few minutes later Beresford went out to keep a business appointment in the City. He left her still trying to make up her mind whether she liked them, and still eating them to decide. Beresford remembered that scrap of conversation afterwards very vividly, because it was the last time he saw his wife alive.

That was roughly half past two. At a quarter to four Beresford arrived at his club from the City in a taxi, in a state of collapse. He was helped into the building by the driver and the porter, and both described him subsequently as pale to the point of ghastliness, with staring eyes and livid lips, and his skin damp and clammy. His mind seemed unaffected, however, and when they had got him up the steps he was able to walk, with the porter’s help, into the lounge.

The porter, thoroughly alarmed, wanted to send for a doctor at once, but Beresford, who was the last man in the world to make a fuss, refused to let him, saying that it must be indigestion and he would be all right in a few minutes. To Sir William Anstruther, however, who was in the lounge at the time, he added after the porter had gone:

«Yes, and I believe it was those infernal chocolates you gave me, now I come to think of it. I thought there was something funny about them at the time. I’d better go and find out if my wife –». He broke off abruptly. His body, which had been leaning back limply in his chair, suddenly heaved rigidly upright; his jaws locked together, the livid lips drawn back in a horrible grin, and his hands clenched on the arms of his chair. At the same time Sir William became aware of an unmistakable smell of bitter almonds.

Thoroughly alarmed, believing indeed that the man was dying under his eyes, Sir William raised a shout for the porter and a doctor. The other occupants of the lounge hurried up, and between them they got the convulsed body of the unconscious man into a more comfortable position. Before the doctor could arrive a telephone message was received at the club from an agitated butler asking if Mr. Beresford was there, and if so would he come home at once as Mrs. Beresford had been taken seriously ill. As a matter of fact she was already dead.

Beresford did not die. He had taken less of the poison than his wife, who after his departure must have eaten at least three more of the chocolates, so that its action was less rapid and the doctor had time to save him. As a matter of fact it turned out afterwards that he had not had a fatal dose. By about eight o’clock that night he was conscious; the next day he was practically convalescent.

As for the unfortunate Mrs. Beresford, the doctor had arrived too late to save her, and she passed away very rapidly in a deep coma.

The police had taken the matter in hand as soon as Mrs. Beresford’s death was reported to them and the fact of poison established, and it was only a very short time before things had become narrowed down to the chocolates as the active agent.

Sir William was interrogated, and the letter and wrapper were recovered from the waste paper basket, and, even before the sick man was out of danger, a detective inspector was asking for an interview with the managing director of Mason & Sons. Scotland Yard moves quickly.

It was the police theory at this stage, based on what Sir William and the two doctors had been able to tell them, that by an act of criminal carelessness on the part of one of Mason’s employees, an excessive amount of oil of bitter almonds had been included in the filling mixture of the chocolates, for that was what the doctor had decided must be the poisoning ingredient. However, the managing director quashed this idea at once: oil of bitter almonds, he asserted, was never used by Mason’s.

He had more interesting news still. Having read with undisguised astonishment the covering letter, he at once declared that it was a forgery. No such letter, no such samples had been sent out by the firm at all; a new variety of liqueur chocolates had never even been mooted. The fatal chocolates were their ordinary brand.

Unwrapping and examining one more closely, he called the Inspector’s attention to a mark on the underside, which he suggested was the remains of a small hole drilled in the case, through which the liquid could have been extracted and the fatal filling inserted, the hole afterwards being stopped up with softened chocolate, a perfectly simple operation.

He examined it under a magnifying glass and the Inspector agreed. It was now clear to him that somebody had been trying deliberately to murder Sir William Anstruther.

Scotland Yard doubled its activities. The chocolates were sent for analysis, Sir William was interviewed again, and so was the now conscious Beresford. From the latter the doctor insisted that the news of his wife’s death must be kept till the next day, as in his weakened condition the shock might be fatal, so that nothing very helpful was obtained from him.

Nor could Sir William throw any light on the mystery or produce a single person who might have any grounds for trying to kill him. He was living apart from his wife, who was the principal beneficiary in his will, but she was in the South of France, as the French police subsequently confirmed. His estate in Worcestershire, heavily mortgaged, was entailed and went to a nephew; but as the rent he got for it barely covered the interest on the mortgage, and the nephew was considerably better off than Sir William himself, there was no motive there. The police were at a dead end.

The analysis brought one or two interesting facts to light. Not oil of bitter almonds but nitrobenzine a kindred substance, chiefly used in the manufacture of aniline dyes, was the somewhat surprising poison employed. Each chocolate in the upper layer contained exactly six minims (12) of it, in a mixture of kirsch and maraschino. The chocolates in the other layers were harmless.

As to the other clues, they seemed equally useless. The sheet of Mason’s note paper was identified by Merton’s, the printers, as of their work, but there was nothing to show how it had got into the murderer’s possession. All that could be said was that, the edges being distinctly yellowed, it must be an old piece. The machine on which the letter had been typed, of course, could not be traced. From the wrapper, a piece of ordinary brown paper with Sir William’s address hand-printed on it in large capitals, there was nothing to be learnt at all beyond that the parcel had been posted at the office in Southampton Street between the hours of 8:30 and 9:30 on the previous evening.

Only one thing was quite clear. Whoever had coveted Sir William’s life had no intention of paying for it with his or her own.

 

«And now you know as much as we do, Mr. Sheringham», concluded Chief Inspector Moresby; «and if you can say who sent those chocolates to Sir William, you’ll know a good deal more».

Roger nodded thoughtfully.

«It’s a brute of a case (13). I met a man only yesterday who was at school with Beresford. He didn’t know him very well because Beresford was on the modern side (14) and my friend was a classical bird (15), but they were in the same house (16). He says Beresford’s absolutely knocked over by his wife’s death. I wish you could find out who sent those chocolates, Moresby».

«So do I, Mr. Sheringham», said Moresby gloomily.

«It might have been anyone in the whole world», Roger mused. «What about feminine jealousy, for instance? Sir William’s private life doesn’t seem to be immaculate. I dare say there’s a good deal of off with the old light-o’-love (17) and on with the new».

«Why, that’s just what I’ve been looking into, Mr. Sheringham, sir», retorted Chief Inspector Moresby reproachfully. «That was the first thing that came to me. Because if anything does stand out about this business it is that it’s a woman’s crime. Nobody but a woman would send poisoned chocolates to a man. Another man would send a poisoned sample of whisky, or something like that».

«That’s a very sound point, Moresby», Roger meditated. «Very sound indeed. And Sir William couldn’t help you?».

«Couldn’t», said Moresby, not without a trace of resentment, «or wouldn’t. I was inclined to believe at first that he might have his suspicions and was shielding some woman. But I don’t think so now».

«Humph! (18)», Roger did not seem quite so sure. «It’s reminiscent, this case, isn’t it? Didn’t some lunatic once send poisoned chocolates to the Commissioner of Police himself? A good crime always gets imitated, as you know».

Moresby brightened.

«It’s funny you should say that, Mr. Sheringham, because that’s the very conclusion I’ve come to. I’ve tested every other theory, and so far as I know there’s not a soul with an interest in Sir William’s death, whether from motives of gain, revenge, or what you like, whom I haven’t had to rule quite out of it. In fact, I’ve pretty well made up my mind that the person who sent those chocolates was some irresponsible lunatic of a woman, a social or religious fanatic who’s probably never even seen him. And if that’s the case», Moresby sighed, «a fat chance (19) I have of ever laying hands on her».

«Unless Chance steps in, as it so often does», said Roger brightly, «and helps you. A tremendous lot of cases get solved by a stroke of sheer luck, don’t they? Chance the Avenger. It would make an excellent film title. But there’s a lot of truth in it. If I were superstitious, which I’m not, I should say it wasn’t chance at all, but Providence avenging the victim».

«Well, Mr. Sheringham», said Moresby, who was not superstitious cither, «to tell the truth, I don’t mind what it is, so long as it lets me get my hands on the right person».

If Moresby had paid his visit to Roger Sheringham with any hope of tapping that gentleman’s brains, he went away disappointed.

To tell the truth, Roger was inclined to agree with the Chief Inspector’s conclusion, that the attempt on the life of Sir William Anstruther and the actual murder of the unfortunate Mrs. Beresford must be the work of some unknown criminal lunatic. For this reason, although he thought about it a good deal during the next few days, he made no attempt to take the case in hand. It was the sort of affair, necessitating endless inquiries that a private person would have neither the time nor the authority to carry out, which can be handled only by the official police. Roger’s interest in it was purely academic.

It was hazard, a chance encounter nearly a week later, which translated this interest from the academic into the personal.

Roger was in Bond Street, about to go through the distressing ordeal of buying a new hat. Along the pavement he suddenly saw bearing down on him Mrs. Verreker-le-Flemming. Mrs. Verreker-le-Flemming was small, exquisite, rich, and widow, and she sat at Roger’s feet whenever he gave her the opportunity. But she talked. She talked, in fact, and talked, and talked. He tried to dart across the road, but there was no opening in the traffic stream. He was cornered.

Mrs. Verreker-le-Flemming fastened on him gladly.

«Oh, Mr. Sheringham! Just the person I wanted to see, Mr. Sheringham, do tell me. In confidence. Are you taking up this dreadful business of poor Joan Beresford’s death?».

Roger, the frozen and imbecile grin of civilised intercourse on his face, tried to get a word in; without result.

«I was horrified when I heard of it simply horrified. You see, Joan and I were such very close friends. Quite intimate. And the awful thing, the truly terrible thing is that Joan brought the whole business on herself. Isn’t that appalling?».

Roger no longer wanted to escape.

«What did you say?», he managed to insert incredulously.

«I suppose it’s what they call tragic irony», Mrs. Verreker-le-Flemming chattered on. «Certainly it was tragic enough, and I’ve never heard anything so terribly ironical. You know about the bet she made with her husband, of course, so that he had to get her a box of chocolates, and if he hadn’t Sir William would never have given him the poisoned ones and he’d eaten them and died himself and good riddance? Well, Mr. Sheringham –». Mrs. Verreker-le-Flemming lowered her voice to a conspirator’s whisper and glanced about her in the approved manner. «I’ve never told anybody else this, but I’m telling you because I know you’ll appreciate it. Joan wasn’t playing fair!».

«How do you mean?», Roger asked, bewildered.

Mrs. Verreker-le-Flemming was artlessly pleased with her sensation.

«Why, she’d seen the play before. We went together, the very first week it was on. She knew who the villain was all the time».

«By Jove!», Roger was as impressed as Mrs. Verreker-le-Flemming could have wished. «Chance the Avenger! We’re none of us immune from it».

«Poetic justice (20), you mean?», twittered Mrs. Verreker-le-Flemming, to whom these remarks had been somewhat obscure. «Yes, but Joan Beresford of all people! That’s the extraordinary thing. I should never have thought Joan would do a thing like that. She was such а nice girl. A little close with money, of course, considering how well-off they are, but that isn’t anything. Of course it was only fun, and pulling her husband’s leg, but I always used to think Joan was such a serious girl, Mr. Sheringham. I mean, ordinary people don’t talk about honour, and truth, and playing the game (21), and all those things one takes for granted. But Joan did. She was always saying that this wasn’t honourable, or that wouldn’t be playing the game. Well, she paid herself for not playing the game, poor girl, didn’t she? Still, it all goes to show the truth of the old saying, doesn’t it?».

«What old saying?», said Roger, hypnotised by this flow.

«Why, that still waters run deep. Joan must have been deep, I’m afraid». Mrs. Verreker-le-Flemming sighed. It was evidently a social error to be deep. «I mean, she certainly took me in. She can’t have been so honourable and truthful as she was always pretending, can she? And I can’t help wondering whether a girl who’d deceive her husband in a little thing like that might notoh, well, I don’t want to say anything against poor Joan now she’s dead, poor darling, but she can’t have been quite such a plaster saint after all, can she? I mean», said Mrs. Verreker-le-Flemming, in hasty extenuation оf these suggestions, «I do think psychology is so very interesting, don’t you Mr. Sheringham?».

«Sometimes, very», Roger agreed gravely. «But you mentioned Sir William Anstruther just now. Do you know him, too?».

«I used to», Mrs. Verreker-le-Flemming replied, without particular interest. «Horrible man! Always running after some woman or other. And when he’s tired of her, just drops herbiff! like that. At least», added Mrs. Verreker-le-Flemming somewhat hastily, «so I’ve heard».

«And what happens if she refuses to be dropped?».

«Oh dear, I’m sure I don’t know. I suppose you’ve heard the latest».

Mrs. Verreker-le-Flemming hurried on, perhaps a trifle more pink than the delicate aids to nature on her cheeks would have warranted.

«He’s taken up with that Bryce woman now. You know, the wife of the oil man, or petrol, or whatever he made his money in. It began about three weeks ago. You’d have thought that dreadful business of being responsible, in a way, for poor Joan Beresford’s death would have sobered him up a little, wouldn’t you? But not a bit of it; he –».

Roger was following another line of thought.

«What a pity you weren’t at the Imperial with the Beresfords that evening. She’d never have made that bet if you had been». Roger looked extremely innocent. «You weren’t, I suppose».

«I?», queried Mrs. Verreker-le-Flemming in surprise. «Good gracious, no. I was at the new revue at the Pavilion. Lady Gavelstoke had a box and asked me to join her party».

«Oh, yes. Good show, isn’t it? I thought that sketch The Sempiternal Triangle very clever. Didn’t you?».

«The Sempiternal Triangle?», wavered Mrs. Verreker-le-Flemming.

«Yes, in the first half».

«Oh! Then I didn’t see it. I got there disgracefully late, I’m afraid. But then», said Mrs. Verreker-le-Flemming with pathos, «I always do seem to be late for simply everything».

Roger kept the rest of the conversation resolutely upon theatres. But before he left her he had ascertained that she had photographs of both Mrs. Beresford and Sir William Anstruther, and had obtained permission to borrow them some time. As soon as she was out of view he hailed a taxi and gave Mrs. Verreker-le-Flemming’s address. He thought it better to take advantage of her permission at a time when he would not have to pay for it a second time over.

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