The Case of Mrs. Cridlan
The Mystery in the Palatial Home of an Absentee Husband
Author of the “Scarlet Pimpernel”
“So you are going to marry that charming Mrs. Cridlan,” said the Doctor, leaning with both elbows on the table and regarding me thoughtfully, “and you have fixed your wedding for Christmas eve? Dear me! . . . I wonder if she realizes that the coming festive occasion will be the fifth anniversary of the most terrible event of her life. . . an event which — I may say it without conceit—would have deprived you of your charming, future wife but for my happy intervention.
“Five years seem a long time!” he mused after a slight pause, “and perhaps it is a little strange that I have never spoken to you before of my intimate connection with the tragedy of Mrs. Cridlan’s earlier married life. It was in the summer of 1902 that I took on that locum tenens work at a place called Oakham. ‘The Priory’ was on the outskirts of the little town, and I had not been long in the place before local gossip apprised me of the unenviable reputation for eccentricity which the old house enjoyed. Mr. Cridlan was renting it from the Squire of Oakham and had filled it with native Indian servants, the only kind of domestics he would ever have about him. He had spent all his life in India you see, and I suppose he had got used to their ugly dark skins and stealthy footsteps, but, of course, the neighboring servants and the tradespeople round about could not abide these ‘ niggers, ’ as they were popularly called; and as Mr. Cridlan did not care for his own neighbors, there was not much social intercourse between ‘The Priory’ and the adjoining country seats or houses, either upstairs or below.
“I was told that Mr. Cridlan, in spite of his eccentricities, was still a young man, and that about a ye^r and a half ago he had married a young wife, whom, however, he promptly left to bore herself alone in that old-fashioned and dreary house, whilst he himself went back to his beloved India, where he had a business house in Bombay.
“Very soon the gossip got about that young Mrs. Cridlan was a confirmed invalid, and that since her husband’s absence she had scarcely ever left the house. Strange rumors also were afloat as to the state of desolation and neglect which pravailed in the fine old house and grounds. The dusky servants with an absent master and a sick mistress having it seemingly all their own way.
“It had struck me as odd that though I was the nearest medical man to ‘The Priory ’ I had never been called in to see the invalid, but one afternoon—it was on the 22nd of December—I had a visit from a pompous but pleasant looking gentleman, who introduced himself to
Editor’s Note.—This short story of action and mystery by Baroness Orczy, author of ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel,’ and other novels, will be welcomed by our many readers. The scene is laid in England and deals with Indian life. The plot is skilfully worked out and maintains the interest to the last. The unexpected turn of events and the clever handling by the author marks this as one of the best short stories of the month.
me as General Hector U. Shee of the United States Army, uncle of Mrs. Cridlan of ‘ The Priory. ’ He told me that he was over in Europe on a pleasure trip and had paid a visit to his niece, Mrs. Cridlan, at ‘The Priory.’ Mrs. Cridlan was the only danghter of his late brother Town Councillor Shee, and the gallant General had been horrified beyond measure at seeing the havoc wrought in his niece’s health by eighteen months of European life.
“ ’In fact her apathy and general look of Avretchedness positively alarms me, Doctor,’ added the gallant General, ‘she seems to have no friends, and I don’t half like those beastly niggers about the place.’
“ ‘But what do you wish me to do, General?’ I asked. ‘It is scarcely correct for a medical man to call on a patient who probably doesn’t want him.’
“ ‘That’s just it,’ he said; ‘I think she wants a doctor all right enough, but seems too apathetic even to send for one. Now if you will call to-morrow morning at about ten o’clock, I can introduce you to Mrs. Cridlan, and she won’t refuse to see you, if only to please her old uncle.’
“I confess that I was deeply interested in my unfortunate neighbor, and the strange air of mystery which had alAvavs surrounded her seclusion at ‘The Priory.’ I therefore pronounced myself quite willing to call the next day at 10 o’clock, and to leave the matter of impossible welcome in the hands of the gallant General.
“The next morning found me sharp to time outside the closed gates of ‘The Priory.’ I had to wait some considerable time in the cold before a dusky and white-clad figure shambled down the illkept gravel drive, and, after casting very suspicious glances at me, finally made up its mind to alloAV me to pass. I
asked for General Shee, and the ‘nigger,’ with an unceremonious backward jerk of the thumb, indicated the direction of the house.
“The grounds of ‘The Priory' were far larger than I had had any idea of, and must at one time have been very beautiful.
“The house itself was an ugly, oldfashioned one, built on the ruins of the old Oakham Priory, bits of the cloisters of which are still extant. The whole property, with these interesting relics and the fine grounds, would have made an exquisite and artistic home if properly kept up; in its present state it looked mournful and wretched in the extreme.
“I boldly rang the front bell, and was ushered by another ‘nigger’ into a cheerless and vast living room, where the gallant U. S. warrior received me with much dignified cordiality. After the usual preliminaries he took me to see the patient.
“Mrs. Cridlan at that time was a young woman, scarcely more than a girl, whom her mysterious troubles had worn down to a shadow. She lay like a wax image in the great old-fashioned fourpost bedstead, the dark panelling of the room making her and the white bedclothes appear almost ghost-like.
“Well, I don’t suppose that you would care to hear me enter into a long account of how I arrived at my diagnosis. General Shee had left me alone with my patient, who seemed neither pleased nor annoyed at seeing me, and who was ready enough, in a dull apathetic way, to reply to my questions. Suffice it to say that within tAventy minutes I had realized that my patient was dying—and that she was dying because —slowly but surely—she was being poisoned with arsenic.
“Strangely enough,” continued the Doctor, as soon as he had ascertained that my attention had in no way flagged, “strangely enough my terrible discovery did not astonish me in the least. A medical man, when face to face with such terrible problems, is exactly like a general before he takes the field : he
has to locate his enemy, and to !av his plans: mine were complete m less time than it now takes me to tell you.
“Unfortunately my patient was too ill at present to be moved. Without in any way alarming her, I asked her searching questions as to her entourage. A rapid survey of the room had already assured me that all traces of the fatal drug had been obliterated.
“Mrs. Cridlan told me that her household consisted of three native Indian servants only; two men, who did duty as gardener and cook; and one woman, who acted as maid to her.
“A kind and faithful creature,” she
added in her ¿pathetic voice, “and seems devoted to me.”
“Have you had her long?” I asked.
“About six months,” she replied. “My husband sent her from Bombay, and she arrived about a week after he went away.”
“As my duty would be henceforth to suspect and to watch everybody, I sincerely hoped that poor Mrs. Cridlan’s description of her Indian maid was a correct one, that indeed, I would have in her a faithful and devoted ally. I would, of course, be obliged to return home in order to get certain medicaments which I wanted, and also to give a few orders to my housekeeper against my absence, for I had firmly resolved to spend my Christmas dinner at ‘The Priory’ and remain there until the trained nurse, for whom I intended telegraphing, had arrived.
“My patient now was too weary to be plied with further questions, and I wished to consult General Shee over many matters: but I was loth to leave her; the whole atmosphere of this great panelled room filled me with mistrust. However, I looked in vain for a bell, and had perforce to seek General Hector U. Shee myself.
“As I opened the heavy oak bedroom door, with a sudden jerk, and stepped out onto the gloomy passage, it seemed to me that a figure swathed in yellow draperies quickly vanished down the corridor. It struck me it might be the Indian maid, and I called to her, but the figure had already disappeared; then with sudden determination I turned the key of the bedroom door, and put it in my pocket—locking my patient in. Then with a feeling of momentary security, I went downstairs.
“General Hector U. Shee could throw but little light upon the horrible tragedy which threatened the life of his niece. He, most like Americans, had the most profound contempt for everything that pertained to the ‘nigger’; against that, he and I both agreed that the native servants at ‘The Priory’ could have no possible motive for cruelly murdering a mistress who had never done them any wiong, and paid them good was'es for very little work, nor -could they find the means of procuring the poison themselves. They were never seen outside the precincts of the ‘Priory,’ and I am sure that Brown, the only druggist in the neighborhood, would never have supplied the ‘niggers’ with so deadly a drug without specific orders from a medical man.
Cridlan must of course be sent for at once,’ was the General’s firm comment, ‘he is a—hem—blackguard,—the way he has treated Sadie, and after she quarrelled with all her family in order to marry him, too. But after the telegram we’ll send him, he can’t in all decency refuse to return at once. Mrs. Cridlan had a letter from him from Bombay only yesterday. He is in business there at 10 Hummum street. Will you sepd the reply paid wire, Doctor? Ánd mind you, put it strongly. ’
‘ ‘And, while T am gone, may T rely on your not leaving my patient alone
for a moment?’ I added earnestly. ‘Here-is the key of her room. I locked her in, you understand? If you must leave her, lock the door and put the key in your pocket. I’ll be back in less than an hour.’
“In my little house, I made a few arrangements for my proposed absence, and collected what medicaments I knew I should require. Then I walked quickly to the post office, sent the two wires ‘reply paid,’ ascertained when I could have the reply from Bombay, and then turned my steps once more towards the gloomy and mysterious ‘Priory.’
“I had been gone but a little over an hour, and as soon as I had gained admittance, I hastened to my patient’s room, where General Hector U. Shee greeted me with much effusion.
“I then went up to the great fourposter, and had a look at my patient. One glance was sufficient. She was worse, very much worse than Avhen I had left her an hour ago, locked up in her room. The skin was of a more livid hue, the eyelids showed more deeply purple, round the mouth there was a curious convulsive twitch. My eyes wandered from her waxlike face to the fine, massive oak table by her side; on it there had stood when I left, some bottles, a few knicknacks, and a handkerchief, also a clean glass and a small caraffe full of water.
“The caraffe was now half empty and the glass bore the faintest possible trace of moisture. I turned fiercely towards the General.
“ ‘Who has been in this room, besides yourself?’ I asked peremptorily.
“ ‘No one,’ he replied.
“ ‘You either lie, General Hector U. Shee,’ I retorted, ‘or else. . . .’
“ ‘Who gave Mrs. Cridlan to drink?’
“I did. She complained of being thirsty. There was a glass full of water on the table. I gave it to her, and she drank it. Now then, Sir, what is the— hem—meaning—?’
“ ‘Anything you like, General Hector U. Shee,’ I replied with sudden calm; ‘but in my absence, and while no one had access to your niece’s room but yourself, she has been given another dose of the poison.’
“Now that I look back on that short but animated conversation,” continued the Doctor as he slowly sipped his wine, “I am bound to confess that General Hector U. Shee acted Avith marvellous decorum and presence of mind. He reiterated his plain but straightforward explanation at the time, in deference, he said, to my position as medical adviser; and it was not until after the arrival of the nurse, and when we knew that the patient was well looked after and could spare us for half an hour, that he called me to account for having called him a liar.
“And then he did it with an absence of passion and ill-feeling, which pleased me very much, I remember—though I did suffer in other respects. He told me that he merely did it on a matter of principle, and bore me no ill-will—but then, I bore the marks for quite a considerable time afterwards.
In the meanwhile the gallant General and I remained the best of friends; after the first moment of doubt, I was compelled to accept his explanation: so
would you, if you had seen him. A more perfect type of straight-forward, honest, plucky soldier, it would be impossible to meet with. After some discussion he and I arrived at the conclusion that the bedroom key which I had so carefully put in my pocket had evidently a duplicate, which was in the possession of poor Mrs. Cridlan’s dastardly and secret enemy. In my heart of hearts, I at once fastened my suspicions on the figure in the yellow drapery, Mrs. Cridlan’s Indian maid, whom she trusted, and whom I had only dimly seen gliding with stealthy footsteps along the corridors. A desire seized me to see her now, at once, and make up my mind by the study of her dusky face, exactly how f¿r I need suspect her.
“The General undertook to have her found, and to send her up to her mistress’ room on some errand or other, so that I might gratify my curiosity. _
“Three minutes later she came in, quiet, very silent, very respectful : swathed from head to foot in her yellow draperies. She was very dark complexioned indeed, rather taller than the average Hindoo, with ugly bony hands, and long thin feet thrust into felt slippers, and of the usual sharp, thin-featured type we are all familiar with. But my scrutiny of her revealed nothing new. I suspected her vaguely, just as much as ever, and I found myself wondering how in the world she could have managed to buy the virulent poison in sufficient quantity to do the horrible damage she had already done.
“Unceasing watchfulness was, of course, just as much a part of my duty as the medical treatment which I had mapped out for my patient : another
dose or two, such as she had had that morning, and she would be beyond the reach of human skill. It was therefore agreed between the General and myself that until the arrival of the nurse, one of us at least Avould always be in the room.
“I had had a reply the same afternoon from the nurse, who, however, could not be at ‘The Priory’ until Christmas morning, which meant two nights and one day of unceasing, unremitting watchfulness.
“The General was an able and faithful ally, and the first night and the next day passed quietly enough. During that day the reply had come from Bombay. Mr. Cridlan had telegraphed, ‘Very anxious, sail home by first possible steamer.’
“My patient on the second e\Tening seemed perhaps a trifle easier and even inclined to sleep.
“That second night was bitterly cold —regular Christmas weather some jovial people would have called it—but there was nothing festive in our hearts, as you may well imagine;—however a cheerful blaze brought a thought of cosiness to the place. The Generál had had his nap, and a couple of hours on the sofa had made a new man of him.
I had spent those two hours cogitating on this strange mystery which surrounded me, trying to find some plausible solution to the tragedy which was threatening that poor young woman, who looked so frail and so helpless in the great four-poster. But I was tired out; the night before I had not closed my eyes, and when the General took possession of the big armchair by the fire, and vacated the sofa, I was glad enough to stretch myself upon it. I remember the last glimpse I had of the room just before I dropped off to sleep. My patient was dosing fairly quietly, with only an occasional, faint moan from her feverish lips, the bed and she herself were in complete darkness. In front of the fire, the General sat in the big Queen Anne chair, with the Times spread out before him, and a shaded reading lamp lighting up his pleasant, rather pompous face and the white newspaper. Then all was oblivion.....
“Suddenly I awoke. Something had aroused me—something—I could not tell what—had happened in that room, a second ago, and had caused me to wake, not because I had had enough sleep, but because I was roused quite suddenly.
“I looked about me, the General was still reading his paper—he, evidently, had heard nothing. Then I looked at my patient. She was awake. I could just see her in the distant gloom of the great rooft, as she raised herself on her elbow,
and reached out her hand for the glass of barley water, I myself had prepared for her.
“That certain something which had roused me from my sleep, had done it most effectually, and had cleared my faculties as suddenly as it had chased away my sleep. It was one of those faculties, terribly on the alert, which in spite of the apparently unaltered condition of the room caused me to spring almost at a bound to my patient’s bedside and to snatch the glass from her hand, at the very moment that she already conveyed it to her lips. She uttered a faint scream of fright. In her weakened condition my sudden action had terrified her, her cheeks became even more livid than formerly, and she sank unconscious upon her pillow.
“Care for her took up some little time, then only could I reply to the General’s anxious query:
“ ‘Some one has been in this room, while I was asleep,’ I said.
“ ‘Impossible. I sat facing the door, and was fully awake the whole time.’
“ ‘And yet there is arsenic in this barley water, which I myself mixed, tasted, and placed on this table, just before I lay down on that sofa.’
“The General said nothing for a moment, but I saw that look creep into his eyes, which sometimes comes in the eyes of brave men, when the fear of the supernatural first takes hold of their nerves.
Even I could not repress a shudder. I took up the glass again. There certainly was nothing supernatural in the virulent poison which lay within it. It was there, tangible enough both to smell and taste, and strong enough this time to have ended with one stroke the feeble life that still flickered — but oh! so feebly.
“Impatient at the slowness of the results, or afraid of our watchfulness the next day, when the nurse would arrive, the murderer had wished to end it all now, to-night, at once. Again, I shuddered—then I went to the door, and peered out into the passage; it was dark and solitary. I knew now which was the Hindoo woman’s room. Leaving the General in charge. I went to her door, very quietly, and listened: it seemed to me that I heard the sound of regular breathing—then I tried the handle—the door was locked, but a voice from within whispered very softly in Hindoostanee:
“ ‘Who goes there?’
“And thus ended our Christmas eve,” added the Doctor grimly.
“I don’t think that any human being ever welcomed another quite so effusively as I welcomed the nurse when she came on that memorable Christmas morning.
“Big, chubby, fresh and rather loud, Nurse Dawson brought an air of Christmas festivity with her. Though not an
ideal nurse in an ordinary sick room, she was just the right sort of person to dispel the atmosphere of weird superstition which had begun to envelop us both.
“As briefly as possible I put Nurse Dawson au fait of all the events which had happened since first I had charge of the case, and she entered into my plans, which I had formulated during the small hours of the morning, with energy and enthusiasm.
“Bv now, my mind was made up. It was the Hindoo woman, I felt sure, acting for some motive I could not now fathom, who was slowly poisoning her mistress. It was she who last night had daringly outwitted us and — who knows?—had. perhaps with her cat-like step actually dared to enter and cross the room unperceived by the General.
“There was a certain hour in the evening, about nine o’clock, when I had, both evenings previously, noticed the Hindoo woman taking a stroll in the garden. On this I had based my plan. Chance favored me, she made no exception on this Christmas night. There was moonlight, and soon after nine I saw her in her yellow draperies walking slowly along the paths.
‘ ‘ The two men were at that hour busy in the kitchen; the General having insisted on some semblance of Christmas cheer, we three faithful attendants had a clear field in the house. Quickly and dexterously Nurse Dawson wrapped the patient in a blanket, then, aided by the General, together they carried her to Nurse’s room.
“Dawson remained to watch, beside her, whilst the General and I returned to the big bedroom. In two minutes I had undressed and slipped between the sheets in the big four-poster, wrapping my head and as much of my face as possible in a lace shawl* Then the General took the big chair by the fire and began reading his paper—by the light of the reading lamp, whilst the rest of the room, including the sofa, and of course the big four-poster with myself in it, remained wrapped in complete darkness.
“Hour after hour slipped by, with no sound in that room save the occasional rustle of the General’s paper as he turned over the pages. I think it must have been just past two o’clock when mv nerves, so vividly on the alert, first became conscious that something had happened—a slight noise only, probably, different from that which my ears had been accustomed to. I dared not move, for fear of displacing the lace shawl, but my eyes sought the door, the polished brass handle of which stood out fairly distinctly against the dark panelling: but neither the door, nor the handle were being moved, and yet, the consciousness became stronger upon me, that there was some one else in the room besides the General and, myself, ‘some one' who was looking at me. I dared not move . . . Behind me the heavy damask curtains of the four-poster rested against the oak panelling, and next to me was the table, also placed against the panelling, and on which was a glass filled with barley water.
“A moment or two elapsed—the General had evidently seen and heard nothing, for he had not even looked up from his paper; then I saw a hand thrust forward from behind me—from ihe wall itself—only a hand, which I distinguished vaguely in the gloom ; the fingers were closed over the palm, then they opened, and something white fell into the glass.
“One instant, I had been paralyzed— the next I had jumped up, and clutched that hand with all my might; the whole thing took fewer seconds than it now takes minutes to describe; that hand and arm were thrust through a square aperture in the oak panelling, immediately above the table beside the bed. The aperture was less than four inches square, and my position, half in and half out of bed, was awkward and difficult to maintain. With a sudden wrench the hand was almost jerked out of my grasp, but I managed, by an almost superhuman effort, to retain possession of the thumb.
“I clung to it for a moment, then with a wrench I dislocated that thumb, clean out of its socket, nearly smashing the joint as I wrenched.
“There was a cry—an agonized cry— for that sort of thing is very painful, and the hand escaped me. I tell you, the whole episode had barely taken sixty seconds, and it was that cry, half smothered, which roused the General’s attention. He was by my side in a moment, but it was too late. The aperture in the panelling was there to testify to the truth of what I then quickly described to him, but when we peered into it, there was nothing to be seen only impenetrable darkness.
“It was useless to do anything now, that night, though the General and I did go out into the grounds and scoured the outskirts of the house at the point where we calculated the secret passage must be which ended just behind the panelling of the bedroom.
“On my way down, I had tried the door of the Indian woman’s room. It was locked, and no voice answered to my knock from within.
“The whole thing seemed strange: than ever. Who was this woman ? And what motive could she have for poisoning a young mistress, who until six months ago had been a perfect stranger to her? Her knowledge of the secret passage—unknown to Mrs. Cridlan herself—pointed to the fact that she was a tool in the hands of some cunning rascal. But what a strange tool to use, and how dangerous to have a tool at all ! And again, why should the woman have been the tool of a murderer?
“Why? Why? Why?
“The next day the General sent for the police. A clever detective came down from Scotland Yard, and he it was who —exploring the ruined Priory chureh— came across the entrance of an underground passage in what must have been the sacristy ; I was with him at the time, and lighting a couple of bull’s eye lanterns we embarked into that passage. It was stone paved, and stone walled, like a long cellar. We had walked silently and cautiously for about a hundred yards, when we saw something yellow, lying in a heap on the ground, at the
(Continued on page 113.)
(Continued from page 20.)
ot of a narrow stone staircase which J upwards into the darkness.
“It was the Hindoo woman. She lay a pool of blood with a fractured skull, izzy no doubt with the pain of her diseated thumb, she had fallen the whole agth of the stone stairs; when we und her she had been dead some hours. ; »fore we carried her away we finished ploring the underground construction. “What its original uses could have ¡en I cannot conjecture, for the stone airs ended in a little narrow chamber ■which—of course—was imm'diatelV'
¡hind the bedroom, for there was the aall window, or aperture, stil' epen, 'erlooking the table by tht bedside. “Then the detectives and I went back the body which we carried out. Alady as I carried it, my suspicions had ¡en aroused; as soon as we had laid \ in one of the disused rooms these Lspieions were confirmed. The body rnthed in thé yellow draperies of a woan, was that of a man—and the dark mplexion, the jet black eyebrows, and ts of hair protruding beneath the sari, ished off, with the first application of ■irm water. When I had finished washg off the last vestige of the various res that went to complete the most asterly disguise I had ever seen, I lied General Hector U. Shee to have look at the body.
He identified it without a moment’s sitation as that of John Cridlan.
“It was only after I had succeeded in storing Mrs. Cridlan to health, that a | mewhat softened version of the real ets were put before her, by her own nerican relatives. It appears that the fortunate young bride had been ineed in the earliest period of her marid life to make a will by which all her mey, of which she had a great deal,
,s to have gone to her husband uncon;ionally. Hence the motive for this ¡emped murder, unparalleled almost in brutality and cunning.
‘As far as the public was concerned, i whole matter was of course hushed ; the criminal had been indicted by > Supreme and Highest Court, and the ifederate at Bombay, who received i answered all John Cridlan’s letters 1 telegrams was never found, in spite the most strenuous efforts on the part the English and Indian police.
‘It was ascertained that a native,
0 seemed well-furnished with money,
1 had a room at 10 Hummum Street, mbay, at that time, and whilst lodging re had had letters and telegrams from gland. He had given some sort of ne, paid for his room very regularand thus satisfied his landlord, who de no further enquiries. One day he l a reply paid telegram, the next, lie it out. and no one had seen or heard him since. But you may well imne,” concluded the Doctor though tly, “that I am not likely to forget t Christmas and its grim memories some considerable time to come.“