Sergeant Earnest Mug was, quite frankly, enjoying himself. He’d always been a Student of the Drama, and, ever since he’d left a rural police force for London and Scotland Yard, he’d taken advantage of the increased opportunities for play-going that the metropolis offers. And now, here was a slap-up Melodrama, unfolding, not on a stage, but all around him. And he, Earnest Mug, was right in the middle of it.
First, Inspector Crowner had come within a toucher of arresting an actual Countess. Then, a man had walked in from the wings and Been Unmasked as the long-lost brother of the murdered man, and as a probable murderer, too. And now- here was old Doctor Brandwood, summoning them up to a sick-room where an old woman had just awoken from a coma, an old woman who had, it seemed, further Shocking Revelations to impart.
“Lady Cadblister. Mr. – erm- Ermyntrude,” said Crowner, “Sergeant Mug and I are going to go with the Doctor. If either of you leave this house, I will take this as a confession of guilt, and you will be instantly arrested. You will not,” and he looked at Richard Crabtree, “make it to a ship this time.”
But the two Suspicious Persons were standing up, preparing to leave the room with the doctor.
“I consider that it is my right,” said the Countess, “to be present at this interview.”
“Oh, do you?” Crowner eyed her without cordiality. “Well, I do not.”
“This is my house,” said the Countess, dangerously.
“Is it, now? Is it? I wonder. Way I see it, this is either your son’s house or Mr. Ermyntrude’s. But that is completely irrelevant. You have no right to be privy to our investigations.”
And that was the Countess told, Mug thought.
“I’m coming with you,” said Mr. Ermyntrude (it was hard to think of him as a Crabtree, Mug considered).
“Oh, yes you are,” said Crowner, with heavy sarcasm. “Yes, that’s a great idea, isn’t it? You walk in, and the old lady takes one look at you, recognizes you, has a heart attack, and dies without speaking. Great. Great. Geniuses, the lot of you. Yes.” And, muttering, Crowner left the room in the wake of the Doctor. Mug followed.
“You think one of them did the murders, Chief?” Mug asked Crowner as they rapidly ascended a steep staircase obviously intended for the use of servants.
“I have no bloody idea. There was that plank, of course. And the rock in the path. Hrm.”
“You mean, that bit of wood we found in the lane?”
“Yes yes yes. Plank, as in ‘thick as two planks.'” And Crowner laughed irritatingly. Mug, realizing that his chief was not in the mood for chit-chat, closed his mouth, and thought deeply about planks. Was Crowner just pulling his leg, now, or was that plank somehow significant? Before Mug could decide on this point, Doctor Brandwood was pushing open a door, and the three men were in the presence of Aunt Theodolinda.
“This is the Inspector, madam,” said the doctor. “And the other man is a Sergeant.” Mug nodded at the figure on the bed, and then sat in a handy chair, notebook at the ready, to record any Startling Revelations that might come.
The old lady did not move. Mug thought, for a horrified instant, that she’d died, and that The Secret, whatever it was, had Died With Her. But then a voice, barely more than a whisper, came from the frail figure.
“Come closer, Inspector. I am dreadfully weak, I think, and I am a little bit muddled, but- I need to tell you something.” She paused. “Richard Crabtree did not kill Lord Cadblister.” Another, longer pause. “That,” she said, slowly, “may or may not matter now. It is terrible to be so old.”
“You are speaking,” said Inspector Crowner, his voice almost gentle, “of the events of thirty years ago. Is that correct?”
“Thirty years?” Aunt Theodolinda thought this over. “I suppose so. It was George, not his brother Richard, who killed Lord Cadblister.”
Mug nodded. He approved of this twist. George Crabtree, the Lord Cadblister who had been murdered on Christmas Eve, was himself the murderer of the Lord Cadblister of thirty years ago. Good.
“How do you know that, miss?” Asked Crowner.
Aunt Theodolinda said, simply, “I saw it happen.”
“And you didn’t think it your duty to tell the police?” Crowner eyed the figure doubtfully.
“But you see,” said Theodolinda, “I didn’t remember. I’d got the influenza, you see. Doctor- you were there then, weren’t you? I seem to remember…”
“Yes, madam. I was there,” said Brandwood, gently. “She was very bad, Inspector. I didn’t think she’d live. And it isn’t unusual to forget, when you’re as sick as that.”
“On the night of the crime, I went walkabout.” Aunt Theodolinda paused. “I suppose- oh dear, I am getting muddled. On the nights of the crimes, I went walkabout. I seem to do that too much. You see things, if you walk when others are asleep.”
“That must have been why she got so much worse after the murder,” muttered Brandwood. “She must have caught a chill. It was a wet spring- a very wet spring- and unseasonably cold.”
Theodolinda’s expression suggested that she was now groping after accuracy. “I didn’t really go walkabout- not in the sense that I do now. Now, I don’t choose. It just happens. Then, I think, I did choose.” She spoke slowly and with great care. “Yes. I remember. I was feeling horribly hot. The fever, I suppose. It was unbearably hot in the room.” She looked about her. “In this room,” she added. “It was unbearably hot in this room. I got out of bed and went out on the terrace. I walked along it, enjoying the freshness of the air. Clouds were moving fast over a full moon. Sometimes, it was quite dark; sometimes, quite light. I turned the corner of the terrace. Ahead of me were two figures- but I couldn’t see who they were, as the moon was then hidden behind a cloud. I didn’t want to be seen. I was dressed only in a nightgown, and anyway I couldn’t bear the thought of explanations. Besides – I thought they’d make me go back to bed. I was about to turn back and go along the other way when I saw the figures move strangely. They seemed all jumbled up together. There was a cry, and afterwards only one man stood on the terrace. He seemed to be looking over the balustrade at the ground below. This was just at the point where the ground is farthest away from the level of the terrace. I remember thinking, in the vague way that you do think when you’re feverish, that the man must be looking down at a body, since it was such a drop to the bottom, and all those rocks, too. And I think I would have called out- but then the moon came out. It shone full down onto the face of George Crabtree, and on his expression. His expression-” she broke off, and for a moment stared into the past with a look of terror upon her face. “I can’t explain- but it told me that deliberate murder had been done.” She shuddered. “I went back around the corner and crept all the way back to my bed. And then- I don’t remember.”
“You lay in a state of feverish delirium for three weeks,” said Doctor Brandwood.
“And then you lived with George Crabtree, who was now Lord Cadblister, for the next thirty years, without remembering this,” said Crowner. Mug scowled at his superior. He sounded, Mug considered, skeptical. For himself, Mug accepted the story. It was Dramatic, but it was also Possible.
Aunt Theodolinda sensed Crowner’s doubt. “Yes, I am afraid that that is exactly what I did do. I was afraid of him, of course. But I think I would have been that in any case. You see, I am not really a –”
“I suspect, Inspector, that the only reason she remembers this now is that she has just passed through a crisis of health with many similarities to the crisis of thirty years ago,” the Doctor interrupted firmly.
“I think,” said Aunt Theodolinda, “it is something about the smell. The smell of the sick-room. Horrible, but evocative. Yes, very evocative.” Her voice grew weaker as she spoke.
“Inspector, I think your other questions will have to wait. My patient must be allowed to rest now,” said the doctor.
But the old girl, Mug saw, was not done.
“Not yet, doctor,” said Aunt Theodolinda, with tired firmness. “I must tell them… my three ghosts.”
In his excitement, Mug broke the tip of his pencil.
“Yes,” said Crowner, “I want to know all about them.”
Aunt Theodolinda went on haltingly. “This was Christmas Eve. I saw –Richard Crabtree- at just midnight. The bells were sounding from the village church. He was in a grove of trees, somewhere along the fringe of Yeoman’s Woods. First ghost- Richard Crabtree. Midnight.” Theodolinda paused. “See?”
Crowner nodded. “I see. Please go on.”
“Second ghost- the Yeoman. I saw him. I actually saw him.” There was something exultant in Theodolinda’s ancient face as she said this. “Gliding up the lane. I can only guess the time, but I think – 15 to 20 minutes after I saw Richard Crabtree. I think.”
“The Yeoman?” Asked Crowner.
“A local ghost, sir,” said Mug. “Comes at the death of a Crabtree. All the locals seem to believe in it.” Crowner snorted, but did not give a further opinion.
“Third ghost-” Aunt Theodolinda paused. “Why, it wasn’t a ghost at all!” Her voice was full of wonder. “It was the body of Lord Cadblister, lying in the lane, and young Alfie the Boots crouching over him. Well, well. I’ll be.” She paused. “He said something,” she said. “That is, Alfie did. It wasn’t me. He said, it wasn’t me.”
“Young Alfie didn’t tell us that, did he, sir?” Mug muttered.
“He did not,” said Crowner. “But he will, very soon. I feel quite sure of that.” He spoke with grim determination.
“Poor Alfie,” said the old woman. “You are terribly fierce, Inspector. Poor little Alfie.” And, quite suddenly, she fell asleep. Doctor Brandwood ushered the policemen out into the hall.
“Well, gentlemen,” said the doctor, with an aggressiveness that surprised Mug, “I think my patient has told you all she knows.”
Mug was about to make some conventional reply when he saw that Crowner was glaring right back at the doctor.
“Oh, do you think so? Do you really think so, doctor? I don’t think you do, you know,” said Crowner.
“Sir!” Said Brandwood, “either say what you mean or apologize at once.”
“She said, ‘I am not really a-‘ and then you came in with a bunch of unnecessary medical notes. You wanted to stop her speaking. Why?”
“It isn’t relevant to your inquiries.”
“In that case, I won’t let it go any further.”
“I really can’t justify-”
“Crabtree. She was going to say, I am not really a Crabtree.”
Mug nodded approvingly. Good. The thing was getting crazier by the minute. It was all a dark mystery to him, but Crowner seemed to have got a grip, at last.
“How on earth did you know that?” The doctor was Baffled.
“Instinct,” said Crowner, pleased. “Now tell us the rest, please.”
“But Inspector, I don’t know the rest.” Doctor Brandwood looked at his turnip-watch. “Oh my! I really must go.” And without another word, the elderly doctor was bolting down the hallway towards the front door. “Patient in a delicate state- nerves, mostly, but she’ll be easier to handle if I’m on time.” He turned at the head of the Regency staircase, and called back, “she’s the aunt of the cook who was here in old Lord Cadblister’s time. That’s all I know! Goodbye!” And he jogged down the stairs.
“Well, I never!” Said Mug as he watched the doctor disappear rapidly from view. “At least we can eliminate Richard Crabtree from our list of suspects. That’s something.”
“Oh, can we?” Said Crowner. “Why?”
“Why- oh!” Mug grinned. “We can’t either, can we?”