No. 20.—Mystery on Board
H.M.S. Drawing-Room, Part 3.
EXTRAORDINARY INVESTIGATOR PLENIPOTENTIARY Thicke pricked up his ears at the Marchioness’ remark. “Is that so? You the wife?” he demanded.
“The widow, apparently,” she corrected him.
“What did you mean when you said, ‘It’s happened again’?”
“I meant exactly what I said,” the Marchioness answered. “My first husband died in precisely the same way. Poor Sir Gundobald! I still miss him sometimes.”
“Is that so?” Thicke remarked with an unbecoming touch of sarcasm in his voice. “And where have you been all this time since your husband came into this room?”
“Powdering my nose.”
“Is that so?” Evidently Thicke had had little experience with the ways of women, as he seemed to have difficulty believing that the Marchioness could have been powdering her nose for two hours and a half. I did not like the man’s tone at all. To an officer in Her Majesty’s navy, gallantry is an ineradicable instinct, and I could not stand idly by and hear a lady treated with contempt. The Marchioness was still a dashed fine woman for her age, which as I recall was twenty-two, and the man who should not be moved to pity by her noble stoicism in the face of grief was certainly no gentleman. There was only one thing for me to do. If Extraordinary Investigator Plenipotentiary Thicke was set on accusing the obviously innocent grieving widow, I must solve the mystery myself. Fortunately that would not be difficult, since I had already arrived at the obvious conclusion before the men from the Royal Commission had arrived.
“If you’ll excuse my saying so,” I said, “it seems to me that the solution to this mystery is quite obvious.”
“Is that so?” Thicke asked with undisguised sarcasm.
“I believe it is. In fact, I might say that it is no mystery at all. The poor gentleman simply tripped.”
“Tripped?” Thicke repeated with an incredulous laugh.
“The solution is obvious. You will observe the positions of the various objects strewn about the room. Observe also the position of the electrical outlet. This small table was standing here, with that electric table-lamp upon it. The electrical cord passed here, in front of the chair. The marquess would have come through here, tripping over the wire, and bringing down the table with the lamp and water-pitcher on it. The pitcher fell this way, but the lamp that way, stretching the cord over the fallen table. The Marquess would have pitched forward, thus, probably making every attempt not to spill the precious cognac, whereupon his neck would have become entangled in the display of seamen’s macrame that had been hanging from the chandelier, effectively hanging the poor man. In his violent struggles to free himself, the chandelier came down, striking him on the head with one of its arms, and sending him staggering against the shelves, which collapsed, precipitating, among other objects, the small painting of Sunlight on the Sea Near the Coast of Orkney and that case of pistols, one of which discharged. When the bullet struck him, he would have dropped the cognac, spilling it all over the picture, where as you can see it dissolved much of the paint (which you will observe is predominantly Paris green), creating a poisonous solution that dribbled into the puddle of spilled water on the floor, much of which was absorbed by the rug. The poor Marquess fell forward, his neck catching on the lamp cord, which strangled him briefly until the cord pulled out of the lamp itself, leaving him to drop face first into the sodden rug on the floor, pierced as he landed by a shard of glass from the broken pitcher, and in his struggles inhaling a great deal of the liquid; so that, with the wet rug blocking his respiration, he was effectively drowned, poisoned, and suffocated at the same time. The cord, meanwhile, still connected with the electrical outlet, made a short circuit with the puddle on the floor, and electrocuted the poor man as he lay dying from his other injuries.”
Extraordinary Investigator Plenipotentiary Thicke thought for a moment. “Yes,” he agreed, “I suppose that clears everything up. Well, we’ll be on our way then. Sorry to have inconvenienced you, Marchioness, and my condolences on your loss. And thank you, admiral, for all your help. If you get tired of life in the Admiralty, our Commission is always hiring.”
I thanked him for the compliment, but assured him that the sea was in my blood. Thus the gentlemen from the Royal Commission removed the body of the unfortunate Marquess, gathered their oil paintings, and departed, leaving me to address my crew.
“Now we can all return to our duties and prepare this fine ship for her maiden voyage,” I told the men cheerfully. “But before we all go back to our stations, I should very much like to know why you all confessed to a murder you did not commit.”
The men looked down at the deck for a little and shuffled their feet, but at last Higgs spoke up.
“Well, you see, Admiral, we all thunk you done it,” Higgs explained.
“Why would you think such a thing?”
Dim-Eye Jim answered for the rest. “We all knows how you stands up for the men, Admiral. A man like that insultin’ us, why, it must have wounded you to the quick. So we all stood up for you, like as you stands up for us.”
“Do you mean you were willing to be hanged out of loyalty to me?”
“Hanged?” they all shouted at once.
“Well, yes. Murder is a hanging offense, you know.”
The men all exchanged shocked glances.
“We’d no idea, Admiral,” Jim said, apparently still speaking for the lot of them. “We thunk there’d be a fine or something.”
So the men all agreed that they would think twice before confessing to murder the next time, and I sent them back to their posts.
As for the widowed Marchioness, she inherited an enormous fortune, and a few weeks later married the Earl of Cummerbund, a man whose canny investments in the glass-paperweight industry had made him even richer than the Marquess of Rottenapple. I understand the poor Earl came to a bad end, having been stabbed, strangled, drowned, shot at close range, poisoned, hanged, bludgeoned with a pipe, suffocated, and electrocuted in his own drawing-room. The coroner’s jury in that case also returned a verdict of death by misadventure.