Cambric Tea by Marjorie Bowen
Published in The World's Best 100 Detective Stories, Vol. Two,
Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1929
THE situation was bizarre; the accurately trained mind of
Bevis Holroyd was impressed foremost by this; that the situation was bizarre;
he could not guess that the opening of a door would turn it into tragedy.
"I am afraid I can't stay," he had said pleasantly, humouring a sick man;
he was too young and had not been long enough completely successful to have a
professional manner but a certain balanced tolerance just showed in his
attitude to this prostrate creature.
"I've got a good many claims on my time," he added, "and I'm afraid it
would be impossible. And it isn't the least necessary, you know. You're quite
all right. I'll come back after Christmas if you really think it worth
The patient opened one eye; he was lying flat on his back in a deep, wide
old-fashioned bed hung with a thick dark, silk lined tapestry; the room was
dark for there were thick curtains of the same material drawn half across the
windows, rigidly excluding all save a moiety of the pallid winter light; to
make his examination Dr. Holroyd had had to snap on the electric light that
stood on the bedside table; he thought it a dreary unhealthy room, but had
hardly found it worth while to say as much.
The patient opened one eye; the other lid remained fluttering feebly over
an immobile orb.
He said in a voice both hoarse and feeble:
"But, doctor, I'm being poisoned."
Professional curiosity and interest masked by genial incredulity instantly
quickened the doctor's attention.
"My dear sir," he smiled, "poisoned by this nasty bout of 'flu you mean, I
"No," said the patient, faintly and wearily dropping both lids over his
blank eyes, "by my wife."
"That's an ugly sort of fancy for you to get hold of," replied the doctor
instantly. "Acute depression—we must see what we can do for
The sick man opened both eyes now; he even slightly raised his head as he
replied, not without dignity:
"I fetched you from London, Dr. Holroyd, that you might deal with my case
impartially—from the local man there is no hope of that; he is entirely
impressed by my wife."
Dr. Holroyd made a movement as if to protest but a trembling sign from the
patient made him quickly subsist.
"Please let me speak. She will come in soon and I shall have no
chance. I sent for you secretly she knows nothing about that. I had heard you
very well spoken of—as an authority on this sort of thing. You made a
name over the Pluntre murder case as witness for the Crown."
"I don't specialize in murder," said Dr. Holroyd, but his keen handsome
face was alight with interest. "And I don't care much for this kind of
"But you've taken it on," murmured the sick man. "You couldn't abandon me
"I'll get you into a nursing home," said the doctor cheerfully, "and there
you'll dispel all these ideas."
"And when the nursing home has cured me I'm to come back to my wife for
her to begin again?"
Dr. Holroyd bent suddenly and sharply over the sombre bed. With his right
hand he deftly turned on the electric lamp and tipped back the coral silk
shade so that the bleached acid light fell full over the patient lying on his
back on the big fat pillows.
"Look here," said the doctor, "what you say is pretty serious."
And the two men stared at each other, the patient examining his physician
as acutely as his physician examined him.
Bevis Holroyd was still a young man with a look of peculiar energy and
austere intelligence that heightened by contrast purely physical dark good
looks that many men would have found sufficient passport to success;
resolution, dignity and a certain masculine sweetness, serene and strong,
different from feminine sweetness, marked his demeanour which was further
softened by a quick humour and a sensitive judgment.
The patient, on the other hand, was a man of well past middle age, light,
flabby and obese with a flaccid, fallen look about his large face which was
blurred and dimmed by the colours of ill health, being one pasty livid hue
that threw into unpleasant relief the grey speckled red of his scant
Altogether an unpleasing man, but of a certain fame and importance that
had induced the rising young doctor to come at once when hastily summoned to
Strangeways Manor House, a man of a fine, renowned family, a man of repute as
a scholar, an essayist who had once been a politician who was rather above
politics, a man whom Dr. Holroyd only knew vaguely by reputation, but who
seemed to him symbolical of all that was staid, respectable and stolid.
And this man blinked up at him and whimpered:
"My wife is poisoning me."
Dr. Holroyd sat back and snapped off the electric light. "What makes you
think so?" he asked sharply.
"To tell you that," came the laboured voice of the sick man, "I should
have to tell you my story."
"Well, if you want me to take this up—"
"I sent for you to do that, doctor."
"Well, how do you think you are being poisoned?"
"Arsenic, of course."
"Oh? And how administered?"
Again the patient looked up with one eye seeming too fatigued to open the
"Cambric tea," he replied.
And Dr. Holroyd echoed:
"Cambric tea!" with a soft amazement and interest.
Cambric tea had been used as the medium for arsenic in the Pluntre case
and the expression had become famous; it was Bevis Holroyd who had discovered
the doses in the cambric tea and who had put his finger on this pale beverage
as the means of murder.
"Very possibly," continued Sir Harry, "the Pluntre case made her think of
"For God's sake, don't," said Dr. Holroyd, for in that hideous affair the
murderer had been a woman and to see a woman on trial for her life, to see a
woman sentenced to death was not an experience he wished to repeat.
"Lady Strangeways," continued the sick man, "is much younger than
I—I over persuaded her to marry me, she was at the time very much
attracted by a man of her own age, but he was in a poor position and she was
He paused, wiped his quivering lips on a silk handkerchief and added
"Lately our marriage has been extremely unhappy. The man she preferred is
now prosperous, successful and unmarried—she wishes to dispose of me
that she may marry her first choice."
"Have you proof of any of this?"
"Yes. I know she buys arsenic. I know she reads books on poisons. I know
she is eating her heart out for this other man."
"Forgive me, Sir Harry," replied the doctor, "but have you no near friend
nor relation to whom you can confide your—suspicions?"
"No one," said the sick man impatiently. "I have lately come from the East
and am out of touch with people. Besides I want a doctor, a doctor with skill
in this sort of thing. I thought from the first of the Pluntre case and of
Bevis Holroyd sat back quietly; it was then that he thought of the
situation as bizarre, the queerness of the whole thing was vividly before
him, like a twisted figure on a gem—a carving at once writhing and
"Perhaps," continued Sir Harry wearily, "you are married, doctor?"
"No." Dr. Holroyd slightly smiled; his story was something like the sick
man's story but taken from another angle when he was very poor and unknown he
had loved a girl who had preferred a wealthy man; she had gone out to India,
ten years ago, and he had never seen her since, he remembered this, with
sharp distinctness, and in the same breath he remembered that he still loved
this girl, it was, after all, a commonplace story.
Then his mind swung to the severe professional aspect of the case; he had
thought that his patient, an unhealthy type of man, was struggling with a bad
attack of influenza and the resultant depression and weakness, but then he
had never thought, of course, of poison, nor looked nor tested for
The man might be lunatic, he might be deceived, he might be speaking the
truth; the fact that he was a mean, unpleasant beast ought not to weigh in
the matter; Dr. Holroyd had some enjoyable Christmas holidays in prospect and
now he was beginning to feel that he ought to give these up to stay and
investigate this case; for he could readily see that it was one in which the
local doctor would be quite useless.
"You must have a nurse," he said, rising.
But the sick man shook his head.
"I don't wish to expose my wife more than need be," he grumbled. "Can't
you manage the affair yourself?"
As this was the first hint of decent feeling he had shown, Bevis Holroyd
forgave him his brusque rudeness.
"Well, I'll stay the night anyhow," he conceded.
And then the situation changed, with the opening of a door, from the
bizarre to the tragic.
This door opened in the far end of the room and admitted a bloom of bluish
winter light from some uncurtained high windowed corridor; the chill
impression was as if invisible snow had entered the shaded, dun, close
And against this background appeared a woman in a smoke coloured dress
with some long lace about the shoulders and a high comb; she held a little
tray carrying jugs and a glass of crystal in which the cold light
Dr. Holroyd stood in his usual attitude of attentive courtesy, and then,
as the patient, feebly twisting his gross head from the fat pillow, said:
"My wife—doctor—" he recognized in Lady Strangeways the girl
to whom he had once been engaged in marriage, the woman he still loved.
"This is Doctor Holroyd," added Sir Harry. "Is that cambric tea you have
She inclined her head to the stranger by her husband's bed as if she had
never seen him before, and he, taking his cue, and for many other reasons,
"Yes, this is your cambric tea," she said to her husband. "You like it
just now, don't you? How do you find Sir Harry, Dr. Holroyd?"
There were two jugs on the tray; one of crystal half full of cold milk,
and one of white porcelain full of hot water; Lady Strangeways proceeded to
mix these fluids in equal proportions and gave the resultant drink to her
husband, helping him first to sit up in bed.
"I think that Sir Harry has a nasty turn of influenza," answered the
doctor mechanically. "He wants me to stay. I've promised till the morning,
"That will be a pleasure and a relief," said Lady Strangeways gravely. "My
husband has been ill some time and seems so much worse than he need—for
The patient, feebly sipping his cambric tea, grinned queerly at the
"So much worse—you see, doctor!" he muttered.
"It is good of you to stay," continued Lady Strangeways equally. "I will
see about your room, you must be as comfortable as possible."
She left as she had come, a shadow coloured figure retreating to a chill
The sick man held up his glass as if he gave a toast.
"You see! Cambric tea!"
And Bevis Holroyd was thinking: does she not want to know me? Does he know
what we once were to each other? How comes she to be married to this
man—her husband's name was Custiss—and the horror of the
situation shook the calm that was his both from character and training; he
went to the window and looked out on the bleached park; light, slow snow was
falling, a dreary dance over the frozen grass and before the grey copses that
paled, one behind the other to the distance shrouded in colourless mist.
The thin voice of Harry Strangeways recalled him to the bed.
"Would you like to take a look at this, doctor?" He held out the half
drunk glass of milk and water.
"I've no means of making a test here," said Dr. Holroyd, troubled. "I
brought a few things, nothing like that."
"You are not so far from Harley Street," said Sir Harry. "My car can fetch
everything you want by this afternoon—or perhaps you would like to go
"Yes," replied Bevis Holroyd sternly. "I would rather go myself."
His trained mind had been rapidly covering the main aspects of his problem
and he had instantly seen that it was better for Lady Strangeways to have
this case in his hands. He was sure there was some hideous, fantastic
hallucination on the part of Sir Harry, but it was better for Lady
Strangeways to leave the matter in the hands of one who was friendly towards
her. He rapidly found and washed a medicine bottle from among the sick room
paraphernalia and poured it full of the cambric tea, casting away the
"Why did you drink any?" he asked sharply.
"I don't want her to think that I guess," whispered Sir Harry. "Do you
know, doctor, I have a lot of her love letters—written by—"
Dr. Holroyd cut him short.
"I couldn't listen to this sort of thing behind Lady Strangeways's back,"
he said quickly. "That is between you and her. My job is to get you well.
I'll try and do that."
And he considered, with a faint disgust, how repulsive this man looked
sitting up with pendant jowl and drooping cheeks and discoloured, pouchy eyes
sunk in pads of unhealthy flesh and above the spiky crown of Judas coloured
Perhaps a woman, chained to this man, living with him, blocked and
thwarted by him, might be wrought upon to—
Dr. Holroyd shuddered inwardly and refused to continue his reflection.
As he was leaving the gaunt sombre house about which there was something
definitely blank and unfriendly, a shrine in which the sacred flames had
flickered out so long ago that the lamps were blank and cold, he met Lady
She was in the wide entrance hall standing by the wood fire that but
faintly dispersed the gloom of the winter morning and left untouched the
shadows in the rafters of the open roof.
Now he would not, whether she wished or no, deny her, he stopped before
her, blocking out her poor remnant of light.
"Mollie," he said gently, "I don't quite understand—you married a
man named Custiss in India."
"Yes. Harry had to take this name when he inherited this place. We've been
home three years from the East but lived so quietly here that I don't suppose
anyone has heard of us."
She stood between him and the firelight, a shadow among shadows; she was
much changed; in her thinness and pallor, in her restless eyes and nervous
mouth he could read signs of discontent, even of unhappiness.
"I never heard of you," said Dr. Holroyd truthfully. "I didn't want to. I
liked to keep my dreams."
Her hair was yet the lovely cedar wood hue, silver, soft and gracious; her
figure had those fluid lines of grace that he believed he had never seen
"Tell me," she added abruptly, "what is the matter with my husband? He has
been ailing like this for a year or so."
With a horrid lurch of his heart that was usually so steady, Dr. Holroyd
remembered the bottle of milk and water in his pocket.
"Why do you give him that cambric tea?" he counter questioned.
"He will have it—he insists that I make it for him—"
"Mollie," said Dr. Holroyd quickly, "you decided against me, ten years
ago, but that is no reason why we should not be friends now—tell me,
frankly, are you happy with this man?"
"You have seen him," she replied slowly. "He seemed different ten years
ago. I honestly was attracted by his scholarship and his learning as well
Bevis Holroyd needed to ask no more, she was wretched, imprisoned in a
mistake as a fly in amber; and those love letters? Was there another man?
As he stood silent, with a dark reflective look on her weary brooding
face, she spoke again:
"You are staying?"
"Oh yes," he said, he was staying, there was nothing else for him to
"It is Christmas week," she reminded him wistfully. "It will be very dull,
perhaps painful, for you."
"I think I ought to stay."
Sir Harry's car was announced; Bevis Holroyd, gliding over frozen roads to
London, was absorbed with this sudden problem that, like a mountain out of a
plain, had suddenly risen to confront him out of his level life.
The sight of Mollie (he could not think of her by that sick man's name)
had roused in him tender memories and poignant emotions and the position in
which he found her and his own juxtaposition to her and her husband had the
same devastating effect on him as a mine sprung beneath the feet of an unwary
London was deep in the whirl of a snow storm and the light that penetrated
over the grey roof tops to the ugly slip of a laboratory at the back of his
consulting rooms was chill and forbidding.
Bevis Holroyd put the bottle of milk on a marble slab and sat back in the
easy chair watching that dreary chase of snow flakes across the dingy London
He was thinking of past springs, of violets long dead, of roses long since
dust, of hours that had slipped away like lengths of golden silk rolled up,
of the long ago when he had loved Mollie and Mollie had seemed to love him;
then he thought of that man in the big bed who had said:
"My wife is poisoning me."
Late that afternoon Dr. Holroyd with his suit case and a professional bag,
returned to Strangeways Manor House in Sir Harry's car; the bottle of cambric
tea had gone to a friend, a noted analyst; somehow Doctor Holroyd had not
felt able to do this task himself; he was very fortunate, he felt, in
securing this old solitary and his promise to do the work before
As he arrived at Strangeways Manor House which stood isolated and well
away from a public high road where a lonely spur of the weald of Kent drove
into the Sussex marshes, it was in a blizzard of snow that effaced the
landscape and gave the murky outlines of the house an air of unreality, and
Bevis Holroyd experienced that sensation he had so often heard of and read
about, but which so far his cool mind had dismissed as a fiction.
He did really feel as if he was in an evil dream, as the snow changed the
values of the scene, altering distances and shapes, so this meeting with
Mollie, under these circumstances, had suddenly clanged the life of Bevis
He had so resolutely and so definitely put this woman out of his life and
mind, deliberately refusing to make enquiries about her, letting all
knowledge of her cease with the letter in which she had written from India
and announced her marriage.
And now, after ten years, she had crossed his path in this ghastly manner,
as a woman her husband accused of attempted murder.
The sick man's words of a former lover disturbed him profoundly; was it
himself who was referred to? Yet the love letters must be from another man
for he had not corresponded with Mollie since her marriage, not for ten
He had never felt any bitterness towards Mollie for her desertion of a
poor, struggling doctor, and he had always believed in the integral nobility
of her character under the timidity of conventionality; but the fact remained
that she had played him false—what if that had been "the little
rift within the lute" that had now indeed silenced the music!
With a sense of bitter depression he entered the gloomy old house; how
different was this from the pleasant ordinary Christmas he had been rather
looking forward to, the jolly homely atmosphere of good fare, dancing, and
When he had telephoned to these friends excusing himself his regret had
been genuine and the cordial "bad luck!" had had a poignant echo in his own
heart; bad luck indeed, bad luck—
She was waiting for him in the hall that a pale young man was decorating
with boughs of prickly stiff holly that stuck stiffly behind the dark heavy
He was introduced as the secretary and said gloomily:
"Sir Harry wished everything to go on as usual, though I am afraid he is
very ill indeed."
Yes, the patient had been seized by another violent attack of illness
during Dr. Holroyd's absence, the young man went at once upstairs and found
Sir Harry in a deep sleep and a rather nervous local doctor in
An exhaustive discussion of the case with this doctor threw no light on
anything, and Dr. Holroyd, leaving in charge an extremely sensible looking
housekeeper who was Sir Harry's preferred nurse, returned, worried and
irritated, to the hall where Lady Strangeways now sat alone before the big
She offered him a belated but fresh cup of tea.
"Why did you come?" she asked as if she roused herself from deep
"Why? Because your husband sent for me."
"He says you offered to come; he has told everyone in the house that."
"But I never heard of the man before to-day."
"You had heard of me. He seems to think that you came here to help
"He cannot be saying that," returned Dr. Holroyd sternly, and he wondered
desperately if Mollie was lying, if she had invented this to drive him out of
"Do you want me here?" he demanded.
"I don't know," she replied dully and confirmed his suspicions; probably
there was another man and she wished him out of the way; but he could not go,
out of pity towards her he could not go.
"Does he know we once knew each other?" he asked.
"No," she replied faintly, "therefore it seems such a curious chance that
he should have sent for you, of all men!"
"It would have been more curious," he responded grimly, "if I had heard
that you were here with a sick husband and had thrust myself in to doctor
him! Strangeways must be crazy to spread such a tale and if he doesn't know
we are old friends it becomes nonsense!"
"I often think that Harry is crazy," said Lady Strangeways wearily; she
took a rose silk lined work basket, full of pretty trifles, on her knee, and
began winding a skein of rose coloured silk; she looked so frail, so sad, so
lifeless that the heart of Bevis Holroyd was torn with bitter pity.
"Now I am here I want to help you," he said earnestly. "I am staying for
that, to help you—"
She looked up at him with a wistful appeal in her fair face.
"I'm worried," she said simply. "I've lost some letters I valued very
much—I think they have been stolen."
Dr. Holroyd drew back; the love letters, the letters the husband had
found, that were causing all his ugly suspicions.
"My poor Mollie!" he exclaimed impulsively. "What Sort of a coil have you
got yourself into!"
As if this note of pity was unendurable she rose impulsively, scattering
the contents of her work basket, dropping the skein of silk and hastened away
down the dark hall.
Bevis Holroyd stooped mechanically to pick up the hurled objects and saw
among them a small white packet, folded, but opened at one end; this packet
seemed to have fallen out of a needle case of gold silk.
Bevis Holroyd had pounced on it and thrust it in his pocket just as the
pale secretary returned with his thin arms most incongruously full of
"This will be a dreary Christmas for you, Dr. Holroyd," he said with the
air of one who forces himself to make conversation. "No doubt you had some
pleasant plans in view—we are all so pleased that Lady Strangeways had
a friend to come and look after Sir Harry during the holidays."
"Who told you I was a friend?" asked Dr. Holroyd brusquely. "I certainly
knew Lady Strangeways before she was married—"
The pale young man cut in crisply:
"Oh, Lady Strangeways told me so herself."
Bevis Holroyd was bewildered; why did she tell the secretary what she did
not tell her husband?—both the indiscretion and the reserve seemed
Languidly hanging up his sprays and bunches of mistletoe the pallid young
man, whose name was Garth Deane, continued his aimless remarks.
"This is really not a very cheerful house, Dr. Holroyd—I'm
interested in Sir Harry's oriental work or I should not remain. Such a very
unhappy marriage! I often think," he added regardless of Bevis Holroyd's
darkling glance, "that it would be very unpleasant indeed for Lady
Strangeways if anything happened to Sir Harry."
"Whatever do you mean, sir?" asked the doctor angrily.
The secretary was not at all discomposed.
"Well, one lives in the house, one has nothing much to do—and one
Perhaps, thought the young man in anguish, the sick husband had been
talking to this creature, perhaps the creature had really noticed
"I'll go up to my patient," said Bevis Holroyd briefly, not daring to
anger one who might be an important witness in this mystery that was at
present so unfathomable.
Mr. Deane gave a sickly grin over the lovely pale leaves and berries he
"I'm afraid he is very bad, doctor."
As Bevis Holroyd left the room he passed Lady Strangeways; she looked
blurred, like a pastel drawing that has been shaken; the fingers she kept
locked on her bosom; she had flung a silver fur over her shoulders that
accentuated her ethereal look of blonde, pearl and amber hues.
"I've come back for my work basket," she said. "Will you go up to my
husband? He is ill again—"
"Have you been giving him anything?" asked Dr. Holroyd as quietly as he
"Only some cambric tea, he insisted on that."
"Don't give him anything—leave him alone. He is in my charge now, do
She gazed up at him with frightened eyes that had been newly washed by
"Why are you so unkind to me?" she quivered.
She looked so ready to fall that he could not resist the temptation to put
his hand protectingly on her arm, so that, as she stood in the low doorway
leading to the stairs, he appeared to be supporting her drooping weight.
"Have I not said that I am here to help you, Mollie?"
The secretary slipped out from the shadows behind them, his arms still
full of winter evergreens.
"There is too much foliage," he smiled, and the smile told that he had
seen and heard.
Bevis Holroyd went angrily upstairs, he felt as if an invisible net was
being dragged closely round him, something that which, from being a cobweb
would become a cable; this air of mystery, of horror in the big house, this
sly secretary, these watchful looking servants, the nervous village doctor
ready to credit anything, the lovely agitated woman who was the woman he had
long so romantically loved, and the sinister sick man with his diabolic
accusations, a man Bevis Holroyd had, from the first moment, hated—all
these people in these dark surroundings affected the young man with a miasma
of apprehension, gloom and dread.
After a few hours of it he was nearer to losing his nerve than he had ever
been; that must be because of Mollie, poor darling Mollie caught into all
And outside the bells were ringing across the snow, practicing for
Christmas Day; the sound of them was to Bevis Holroyd what the sounds of the
real world are when breaking into a sleeper's thick dreams.
The patient sat up in bed, fondling the glass of odious cambric tea.
"Why do you take the stuff?" demanded the doctor angrily.
"She won't let me off, she thrusts it on me," whispered Sir Harry.
Bevis Holroyd noticed, not for the first time since he had come into the
fell atmosphere of this dark house that enclosed the piteous figure of the
woman he loved, that husband and wife were telling different tales, on one
side lay a burden of careful lying.
"Did she—" continued the sick man, "speak to you of her lost
The young doctor looked at him sternly.
"Why should Lady Strangeways make a confidante of me?" he asked. "Do you
know that she was a friend of mine ten years ago before she married you?"
"Was she? How curious! But you met like strangers."
"The light in this room is very dim—"
"Well, never mind about that, whether you knew her or not—" Sir
Harry gasped out in a sudden snarl. "The woman is a murderess, and you'll
have to bear witness to it—I've got her letters, here under my pillow,
and Garth Deane is watching her—"
"Ah, a spy! I'll have no part in this, Sir Harry. You'll call another
"No, it's your case, you'll make the best of it—My God, I'm dying, I
He fell back in such a convulsion of pain that Bevis Holroyd forgot
everything in administering to him. The rest of that day and all that night
the young doctor was shut up with his patient, assisted by the secretary and
And when, in the pallid light of Christmas Eve morning, he went downstairs
to find Lady Strangeways he knew that the sick man was suffering from arsenic
poison, that the packet taken from Mollie's work box was arsenic, and it was
only an added horror when he was called to the telephone to learn that a
stiff dose of the poison had been found in the specimen of cambric tea.
He believed that he could save the husband and thereby the wife also, but
he did not think he could close the sick man's mouth, the deadly hatred of
Sir Harry was leading up to an accusation of attempted murder; of that he was
sure, and there was the man Deane to back him up.
He sent for Mollie who had not been near her husband all night, and when
she came, pale, distracted, huddled in her white fur, he said grimly:
"Look here, Mollie, I promised that I'd help you and I mean to, though it
isn't going to be as easy as I thought, but you have got to be frank with
"But I have nothing to conceal—"
"The name of the other man—"
"The other man?"
"The man who wrote those letters your husband has under his pillow."
"Oh, Harry has them!" she cried in pain. "That man Deane stole them then!
Bevis, they are your letters of the old days that I have always
"Yes, do you think that there has ever been anyone else?"
"But he says—Mollie, there is a trap or trick here, some one is
lying furiously. Your husband is being poisoned."
"By arsenic given in that cambric tea. And he knows it. And he accuses
She stared at him in blank incredulity, then she slipped forward in her
chair and clutched the big arm.
"Oh, God," she muttered in panic terror. "He always swore that he'd be
revenged on me—because he knew that I never cared for him—"
But Bevis Holroyd recoiled; he did not dare listen, he did not dare
"I've warned you," he said, "for the sake of the old days,
A light step behind them and they were aware of the secretary creeping out
of the embrowning shadows.
"A cold Christmas," he said rubbing his hands together. "A really cold,
seasonable Christmas. We are almost snowed in—and Sir Harry would like
to see you, Dr. Holroyd."
"I have only just left him—"
Bevis Holroyd looked at the despairing figure of the woman, crouching in
her chair; he was distracted, overwrought, near to losing his nerve.
"He wants particularly to see you," cringed the secretary.
Mollie looked back at Bevis Holroyd, her lips moved twice in vain before
she could say: "Go to him."
The doctor went slowly upstairs and the secretary followed.
Sir Harry was now flat on his back, staring at the dark tapestry curtains
of his bed.
"I'm dying," he announced as the doctor bent over him.
"Nonsense. I am not going to allow you to die."
"You won't be able to help yourself. I've brought you here to see me
"What do you mean?"
"I've a surprise for you too, a Christmas present. These letters now,
these love letters of my wife's—what name do you think is on them?"
"Your mind is giving way, Sir Harry."
"Not at all—come nearer. Deane—the name is Bevis Holroyd."
"Then they are letters ten years old. Letters written before your wife met
The sick man grinned with infinite malice.
"Maybe. But there are no dates on them and the envelopes are all
destroyed. And I, as a dying man, shall swear to their recent date—I,
as a foully murdered man."
"You are wandering in your mind," said Bevis Holroyd quietly. "I refuse to
listen to you any further."
"You shall listen to me. I brought you here to listen to me. I've got you.
Here's my will, Deane's got that, in which I denounced you both, there are
your letters, every one thinks that she put you in charge of the case,
every one knows that you know all about arsenic in cambric tea through the
Pluntre case, and every one will know that I die of arsenic poisoning."
The doctor allowed him to talk himself out; indeed it would have been
difficult to check the ferocity of his malicious energy.
The plot was ingenious, the invention of a slightly insane, jealous
recluse who hated his wife and hated the man she had never ceased to love;
Bevis Holroyd could see the nets very skilfully drawn round him; but the main
issue of the mystery remained untouched; who was administering the
The young man glanced across the sombre bed to the dark figure of the
"What is your place in all this farrago, Mr. Deane?" he asked sternly.
"I'm Sir Harry's friend," answered the other stubbornly, "and I'll bring
witness any time against Lady Strangeways. I've tried to circumvent
"Stop," cried the doctor. "You think that Lady Strangeways is poisoning
her husband and that I am her accomplice?"
The sick man, who had been looking with bitter malice from one to another,
"That is what you think, isn't it, Deane?"
"I'll say what I think at the proper time," said the secretary
"No doubt you are being well paid for your share in this."
"I've remembered his services in my will," smiled Sir Harry grimly. "You
can adjust your differences then, Dr. Holroyd, when I'm dead, poisoned,
murdered. It will be a pretty story, a nice scandal, you and she in the
house together, the letters, the cambric tea!"
An expression of ferocity dominated him, then he made an effort to
dominate this and to speak in his usual suave stilted manner.
"You must admit that we shall all have a very Happy Christmas,
Bevis Holroyd was looking at the secretary, who stood the other side of
the bed, cringing, yet somehow in the attitude of a man ready to pounce; Dr.
Holroyd wondered if this was the murderer.
"Why," he asked quietly to gain time, "did you hatch this plan to ruin a
man you had never seen before?"
"I always hated you," replied the sick man faintly. "Mollie never forgot
you, you see, and she never allowed me to forget that she never forgot you.
And then I found those letters she had cherished."
"You are a very wicked man," said the doctor drily, "but it will all come
to nothing, for I am not going to allow you to die."
"You won't be able to help yourself," replied the patient. "I'm dying, I
tell you. I shall die on Christmas Day."
He turned his head towards the secretary and added:
"Send my wife up to me."
"No," interrupted Dr. Holroyd strongly. "She shall not come near you
Sir Harry Strangeways ignored this.
"Send her up," he repeated.
"I will bring her, sir."
The secretary left, with a movement suggestive of flight, and Bevis
Holroyd stood rigid, waiting, thinking, looking at the ugly man who now had
closed his eyes and lay as if insensible. He was certainly very ill, dying
perhaps, and he certainly had been poisoned by arsenic given in cambric tea,
and, as certainly, a terrible scandal and a terrible danger would threaten
with his death; the letters were not dated, the marriage was notoriously
unhappy, and he, Bevis Holroyd, was associated in every one's mind with a
murder case in which this form of poison, given in this manner, had been
Drops of moisture stood out on the doctor's forehead; if he could clear
himself be sure that it would be very difficult for Mollie to do so; how
could even he himself in his soul swear to her innocence!
Of course he must get the woman out of the house at once, he must have
another doctor from town, nurses—but could this be done in time, if the
patient died on his hands would he not be only bringing witnesses to his own
discomfiture? And the right people, his own friends, were difficult to get
hold of now, at Christmas time.
He longed to go in search of Mollie—she must at least be got away,
but how, without a scandal, without a suspicion?
He longed also to have the matter out with this odious secretary, but he
dared not leave his patient.
Lady Strangeways returned with Garth Deane and seated herself, mute,
shadowy, with eyes full of panic, on the other side of the sombre bed.
"Is he going to live?" she presently whispered as she watched Bevis
Holroyd ministering to her unconscious husband.
"We must see that he does," he answered grimly.
All through that Christmas Eve and the bitter night to the stark dawn when
the church bells broke ghastly on their wan senses did they tend the sick man
who only came to his senses to grin at them in malice.
Once Bevis Holroyd asked the pallid woman:
"What was that white packet you had in your work box?"
And she replied:
"I never had such a packet."
"I must believe you."
But he did not send for the other doctors and nurses, he did not dare.
The Christmas bells seemed to rouse the sick man from his deadly
"You can't save me," he said with indescribable malice. "I shall die and
put you both in the dock—"
Mollie Strangeways sank down beside the bed and began to cry, and Garth
Deane, who by his master's express desire had been in and out of the room all
night, stopped and looked at her with a peculiar expression. Sir Harry looked
down at her also.
"Don't cry," he gasped, "this is Christmas Day. We ought all to be
happy—bring me my cambric tea—do you hear?"
She rose mechanically and left the room to take in the tray with the fresh
milk and water that the housekeeper had placed softly on the table outside
the door; for all through the nightmare vigil, the sick man's cry had been
for "cambric tea."
As he sat up in bed feebly sipping the vapid and odious drink the tortured
woman's nerves slipped her control.
"I can't endure those bells, I wish they would stop those bells!" she
cried and ran out of the room.
Bevis Holroyd instantly followed her; and now as suddenly as it had sprung
on him, the fell little drama disappeared, fled like a poison cloud out of
the compass of his life.
Mollie was leaning against the closed window, her sick head resting
against the mullions; through the casement showed, surprisingly, sunlight on
the pure snow and blue sky behind the withered trees.
"Listen, Mollie," said the young man resolutely. "I'm sure he'll live if
you are careful—you mustn't lose heart—"
The sick room door opened and the secretary slipped out.
He nervously approached the two in the window place. "I can't stand this
any longer," he said through dry lips. "I didn't know he meant to go so far,
he is doing it himself, you know; he's got the stuff hidden in his bed, he
puts it into the cambric tea, he's willing to die to spite you two, but I
can't stand it any longer."
"You've been abetting this!" cried the doctor.
"Not abetting," smiled the secretary wanly. "Just standing by. I found out
by chance—and then he forced me to be silent—I had his will, you
know, and I've destroyed it."
With this the strange creature glided downstairs.
The doctor sprang at once to Sir Harry's room; the sick man was sitting up
in the sombre bed and with a last effort was scattering a grain of powder
into the glass of cambric tea.
With a look of baffled horror he saw Bevis Holroyd but the drink had
already slipped down his throat; he fell back and hid his face, baulked at
the last of his diabolic revenge.
When Bevis Holroyd left the dead man's chamber he found Mollie still
leaning in the window; she was free, the sun was shining, it was Christmas