The Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross
A Corpse in the Hall
The man was dead, and although he had not cut a particularly large or imposing figure when he was alive, his lifeless body seemed to take up more space in our entranceway than a whole crowd of living, breathing visitors.
He lay as he had fallen, on his back, head toward the front door, soles of his boots pointing up toward me where I stood upon the stairs. His face was frozen in an expression of terror, mouth gaping and dark eyes wide, their gaze forever fixed upon the last sight he had seen—me.
“Witch!” this stranger had shrieked, and cowered in abject terror. Yet I am a small, unthreatening woman, with nothing grotesque or fantastical about my appearance—nothing to alarm even the most nervous infant. It was hard to imagine that anything in my appearance could have given rise to such a powerful emotion in the breast of a total stranger—a fear so overwhelming that he had died of it.
Jasper Jesperson, my partner in detection, instantly crouched beside the stranger and checked for signs of life. No pulse, no heartbeat—the man who had pounded on our door only a few moments before had not lived long enough to tell us why he had come. Determined to be thorough, Jesperson went and fetched a small looking glass, which he held before the figure’s open mouth.
From the other room, the clock on the mantel chimed the hours: two o’clock in the morning. When the sound had died away, Mr. Jesperson checked the glass for any trace of clouding, then looked up at me and solemnly shook his head.
My hand flew to my mouth, just as involuntarily I exclaimed, “Do not say I have killed him!”
For a moment, amusement flickered across his mobile features, and I thought he would laugh, but the gravity of the situation checked the impulse. “Why should anyone say that? The man is dead, but not by your hand, Miss Lane!”
“Not by my hand, perhaps, but—oh! Look at him! He has clearly died of fright.”
Up went the eyebrows. “Is fright ever the cause of death, except in the penny dreadfuls?” His expression softened. “Miss Lane. You are tired, and have suffered the most trying experiences over the past few days. To see someone die in front of you was a shock. But you have always prided yourself upon your ability to think rationally.”
The memory of what had just transpired was horribly vivid. I recalled how the stranger had flinched at the sight of me, eyes wide with terror. “He thought I was a witch,” I reminded him. “His fear was so great that he staggered back and dropped dead.”
My friend’s reply was swift and calming. “The man arrived here in a dreadful state, on the brink of death and probably hallucinating. He thought himself pursued by witches, and imagined he saw one standing before him. He did not see you—and if I had not answered his knock at the door, he would have dropped dead on the doorstep, or in the street.”
What strange power resides in a word like witch and a man’s terrified, accusing gaze! Fortunately, Mr. Jesperson’s argument was enough to restore my common sense, and I realized it was absurd to blame myself for another’s nightmare fears.
“Forgive me; I was foolish—”
He waved it away. “You have been under a great deal of strain; you need rest—goodness knows, we both do.”
But the look on his face, so lively and interested, contradicted his words. “But first, let us work out the mystery that sent him here to die."
With that, he turned and knelt again, and began to search the dead man’s pockets for clues. As he extracted each item, he commented upon it.
“Silver cigarette case—shiny and new—contents, two cigarettes—engraved: dearest c from your loving a, 15-6-93.
“Leather notecase, embossed, gilded initials cm. Within: Two pounds, ten shillings. A train ticket—dated today—or rather yesterday—Great Eastern Railway, Norwich to London Liverpool Street. A card—aha!” He flourished the two-by-three-inch card, and even from where I sat I recognized it as one of our own business cards:
Jesperson & Lane
203A Gower Street London
“Nothing to say where he acquired it,” he said, flipping it back and forth between his fingers.
“And as we have distributed only fifty or sixty at most, it should not take us long to trace its provenance,” I said, my spirits reviving.
He grinned without looking at me. “Indeed. He may well be a friend of a friend of a friend. That is it for the notecase. No cards of his own, alas. Next—ah, this is better.
“Address book, with his own name and address inscribed inside the cover:
“charles manning. twenty-four gordon square, london—crossed through—then, in the same hand, care of the vicarage, aylmerton, norfolk.” He shook his head and looked up at me. “I have never been to Norfolk. Do you know it at all?”
“I have been to Norwich—Great Yarmouth and a few seaside places—but I have never heard of Aylmerton.”
He began leafing through the little book. “Hmmm. Several addresses in Norfolk, all in Cromer; others in London. This should be useful.”
My head was beginning to spin with tiredness, and I sat down rather heavily upon the stair.
Mr. Jesperson looked up. So far from flagging, his energy was magically restored in the interest of pursuing a new investigation. He stared at me briefly. “You look done in. Why don’t you go to bed?”
I gaped at him. “And leave—this?”
“Yes, a fascinating puzzle, I agree. But if you are too tired to think clearly—”
“I meant—we have a dead body in our hallway. We must inform the authorities.” I stopped, realizing I did not know the correct course of action, or who to inform, about a complete stranger who had entered our house and promptly dropped dead. Perhaps the information could be found in the copy of Enquire Within that sat upon the kitchen mantelpiece beside Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.
He grimaced. “Yes, the police must be informed.” He rose and handed me the address book. “They will want this, so would you mind copying it out? As quickly as you can?”
Despite his words, he was clearly in no great hurry to turn over this mystery to the police, and returned to his examination of the dead man’s clothing. “Pocket handkerchief, embroidered with a red c. Leather coin purse, contents—five pennies, one ha’penny, two farthings.”
“Do you think he was murdered?” I asked, gripping the address book tightly. Unless I took it upstairs to my bedroom, I should have to step over the corpse to reach our office, where the large desk was well stocked with paper, pens, and ink.
“I suspect he was poisoned, although he did not show the convulsive effects of strychnine, or the gastric distress of arsenic, and I cannot recall if hallucinations are a common feature of—hello, what’s this?”
He held up a small object—round, silver, capped with a gleaming orange stone. “A pillbox. Perhaps he was taking something for his heart?” But the little container proved empty. Jesperson held it close to his face, his nostrils flaring, before stepping around the body and offering the empty silver shell to me. “What do you smell?”
I gave a cautious sniff. Something powdery, dusty, with a faintly acrid tang . . . “I do not know.”
“Did you notice his eyes, Miss Lane? Emotion may dilate the pupils, but so do certain drugs. Whether or not it was the direct cause of his death, it seems likely that Mr. Manning ingested something that made him see and hear things not of this earth, and thus he fancied himself pursued by witches.”
He carefully replaced the pillbox into the pocket from which he had removed it, then bent close to the dead man’s open mouth and inhaled.
He got up, shaking his head in disappointment. “No clue there, except that he has been drinking . . . and eaten oysters. Well, I had better not delay any longer, or I may become the chief suspect, if this was murder.” He stepped carefully around the corpse to the coat-tree and donned the coat and hat he had removed a few hours earlier. Then he looked at me, still sitting on the stair, and frowned a little.
“I hope you are not too tired to copy out his address book?”
I forced myself to rise. “Of course not. Do you . . . should I . . . afterward . . .” I tried to speak calmly, and managed not to shudder at the idea of tucking the little book away in the dead man’s pocket, but could not help casting nervous, darting glances at the body. He understood.
“Hand the original to the police when they arrive. Nothing could be more natural than to check his pockets for a clue to his identity, and I shall tell them I have done so. We shan’t mention finding anything else—they won’t like it if they think we’ve been poaching on their territory, looking for clues,” he concluded, and, giving me a cheerful wave, went out the door into the night.
For a moment, as the heavy front door closed, leaving me alone in the hall with the dead man, I was tempted to rush upstairs and wake Mr. Jesperson’s mother. Edith Jesperson was both brave and practical, and, as I had found, a good person to have at one’s side. She had left England after the death of her husband, undaunted by the task of raising her son alone in foreign climes where, I was certain, she had encountered many more frightening situations than this. But just thinking of Edith sleeping peacefully upstairs, knowing that I could call upon her, made it unnecessary to disturb her.
Gritting my teeth, I stepped over the legs of the corpse and went into the large front room that was both the household parlor and the office of Jesperson and Lane.
Although it was neither elegant nor beautiful, and the furnishings were old, the space was generous, the decorations homey and reflective of personal choices, so that overall the shabbiness was comforting rather than depressing. Although it had been picked up cheaply secondhand, the furniture had been chosen with good taste, and the walls, mantelpiece, and bookshelves were adorned with a variety of objects that mother and son had acquired on their travels abroad. Although I had been part of the Jesperson ménage for less than half a year, I felt more at home in that room than anywhere else I had lived in my adult life. I particularly liked the corner where Mr. Jesperson had placed his large desk (we often worked there facing each other, one on either side) in front of a wall filled from floor to ceiling with books.
Before settling down to my assigned task, I added more coal and stirred the fire back to life. Then I took my accustomed seat at the desk, picked up a pen and a clean sheet of paper, and set about copying the contents of Mr. Manning’s address book. There were little more than a dozen entries, so it was quickly done. I had blotted the ink and hidden the page in a pile of others by the time I heard the noises from the street alerting me to the arrival of the police.
I did not recognize either of the uniformed men who entered a few moments later; they were, of course, from the local station, and therefore not members of the force who had helped us and made arrests at the Alhambra earlier in the evening, but it was clear from the deference they showed my partner that they knew all about our latest case.
Clearly, as heroes of the evening, we were on the side of the law, not to be considered as suspects. As Mr. Jesperson had already given his statement in regard to what had happened, nothing was required of me. In truth, I thought it remiss of them not to question me as well, but it was a relief. I handed over the little address book without comment.
With the police were two young men tasked with removal of the corpse, and they managed this swiftly with the aid of a large sheet and a canvas stretcher.
“You will keep me informed,” said Mr. Jesperson to the senior officer as they made to leave. The man looked surprised.
“There is no need for you to trouble yourself any longer, sir.”
“It is no trouble. I wish to know the results of the autopsy—if not to attend it myself. Have you any idea when that is likely to be?”
The two policemen exchanged a look, and the first one answered, less politely, “It may be no trouble to you, but it’s not your business.”
Mr. Jesperson relaxed his shoulders and seemed to gain an inch or two in height. He spoke softly, but with force. “You are wrong. Mr. Manning’s death is my business—not merely because he died on my premises, but because he came here in fear for his life, and begged for our help. Unfortunately, the death he anticipated came before he could name his enemies or tell us anything more about them. But I had already promised to help—and I mean to keep that promise. Now, would you be so kind as to tell me the name of the police surgeon, and when and where the autopsy will be conducted?”
His cool conviction won the battle, bolstered by our recent success in solving not just one but an entire series of crimes.
“That would be Mr. Blakely, sir, in the morgue. I don’t know what time; that’s up to himself, and depends on what else he has to do—if any more bodies have been fished out of the Thames tonight, say. If you go along there sometime in the afternoon he should be able to tell you what you want to know.”