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
essentials – but 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
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
«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,
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».
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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».
«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
«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
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».
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».
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
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.
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.
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.
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
none of us immune from it».
(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 not – oh, 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?».
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 her – biff! – 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».
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
«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?».
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».
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.