May and December by Frank Parks
Professional Sleuth

May and December

by Frank Parks

Detective Story Magazine | Mar. 5, 1916 | Vol. 2, No. 5 THE RED FILE | Jun. 18, 2017 | Vol. 4 No. 13 Casefile No: 55ccf75fb3901011515aef0f

Only seventeen, it was a forgone conclusion that she would marry Norton Terry, more than three times her age. But when he dies in agony, exhibiting all the symptoms of poisoning by arsenic, will it be a simple case of murder for inheritance, or is there a deeper motive?

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Rumors and Stories

Agnes Miller's good fortune was the talk of town and country when it was announced that she was to marry Norton Torrey. He was worth half a million dollars, which amounts to wealth, outside the big cities. He had lived for thirty years in Holliston, a pretty little town on the Delaware River, not far from the famous Water Gap, and always had enjoyed the distinction of being the richest man in the place.

At the time of his engagement to Miss Miller, he was fifty-four years old, and had been a widower for a decade. So far as was known to Holliston people, he had no near relatives except one son, from whom he was estranged. This son was engaged in a manufacturing business in Trenton, New Jersey, and was said to be almost as rich as his father.

Agnes Miller was an orphan when she was four years old. Her father—who survived her mother a little over a year—left a few thousand dollars for his child's support. This sum was not very well managed by her guardian, but he made up in generosity what he lacked in business ability; and gave the girl a home and an education.

When she was seventeen years old, she began to make a little money by writing stories, and thus ceased to be altogether a charge upon her guardian; but her literary ability was not of a high order, and it is doubtful whether she ever could have made a living with her pen.

This question ceased to be of interest, however, when she attracted the attention of Norton Torrey. It was a foregone conclusion that she would accept him, for, aside from his money, he was a man to win a woman. He was admitted to be by all odds the handsomest man, young or old, who ever had stepped inside the limits of that township. Holliston had two principal "sights" with which to delight visitors. One of them was Mr. Torrey's house, and the other was Mr. Torrey. He had a commanding figure; he always dressed exceptionally well; his manner was affable, and his conversation was brilliant.

An ideal husband, truly; and yet there were rumors that the first Mrs. Torrey had not been happy, and even that her death had been hastened by a hidden sorrow.

With a proper regard for his ward's interests, the guardian of Miss Miller tried to get some light upon the basis of these stories, but he failed. The girl herself considered them the malicious whisperings of envy. Not even the most hardened gossip dared to hint to Agnes that there was peril in marriage with Norton Torrey. She paid no heed to idle stories; she cared nothing that her husband would be much more than twice her age; she went to her bridal with a light heart, and with the surest expectation of happiness.

Some months later, it was said of her, as of her predecessor in that household. that she was unhappy; but no one could say why. Two years went by; and then, of a sudden, Mr. Torrey's health failed most alarmingly. No one had ever known him to be ill. "A constitution like Norton Torrey," had come to be an ordinary form of expression in the town.

He was a sad wreck when the iron strength that had sustained him through so many years failed at last. No one knew what was the matter with him. A distinguished expert in nervous diseases—summoned at great expense from Philadelphia—supplied the gossips with ponderous scientific names, which became even more incomprehensible after a few attempts at repetition.

The patient rallied, and soon was able to go out-of-doors; but it was evident to all who met him that he had failed in mind as well as in body, and that he never would be the same man again. He was eccentric and despondent, and as irritable as if he had been an invalid all his days.

Of course, the sad change in him excited no end of talk; but the gossips soon had a better subject in the wife, whose friendship with George Harley, a young lawyer, was said to have become closer than propriety permitted.

Harley was a fine-looking fellow, just out of a law school. He was the son of a well-to-do resident of Holliston, which accounts for his beginning practice in so small a field. For a year or more, he had a little legal work to do for Norton Torrey, but other clients came rarely to the door of his office.

Finally, Torrey heard the stories about his wife and the young lawyer; there was a violent interview between the two men; and the result was that Harley's law business lost its mainstay. When this became known, there was considerable interest in the question whether Harley would seek a fresh field, since Holliston, which had been worth little, was now worth nothing. But he lingered on to the great satisfaction of the gossips.

It was an afternoon in May. Mrs. Torrey, rapidly crossing the hall in her magnificent home, met Doctor Frazer, the old village physician. He was surprised to see her—much more surprised than she, apparently.

"Where have you been?" he cried. "We have searched for you everywhere. We have been looking for you since one o'clock."

"Is it possible?" asked Mrs. Torrey calmly. "What is the matter?"

The physician did not mark, at the time, that she had not answered his question, but he remembered it afterward.

"Your husband is very ill," he said.

"Indeed?" replied the lady, without seeming to note the physician's excited, almost frightened, demeanor. "He seemed no worse than usual when I saw him this morning. I will go up to his room at once."

She ascended the stairs, and the old doctor followed her. His hand, upon the banister rail, trembled.

They found Norton Torrey in his bed. An elderly woman, Mrs. Eliza Ward, who had long been the principal servant in the house, was bending over him. It seemed that she was trying to make him swallow a potion, and that he was unable to do so. His teeth were clenched tightly; his face was pale, and showed the lines of recent and acute suffering. One hand was at his throat, as if he were choking.

At the sight of him, his wife's face became as pale as his. She stepped forward hastily.

Norton Torrey's eyes were upon her, and their look was repellent. He murmured something in a harsh tone, but the words were indistinguishable. One hand remained at his throat, but the other, with which he had been supporting himself in bed, was raised with a peculiar gesture, pointing at his wife.

Suddenly, with a deep groan, he fell back. A convulsive shudder shook his frame. Then he turned his face to the wall.

The physician leaned far over him, his knee upon the bed. With a strong effort, he turned the patient upon his back, and gazed intently into his face. Then he got down from the bed, and stood beside it with uplifted hand.

"Dead!" screamed the wife, and she fell upon the floor, fainting.

When they raised her up, there seemed to be as little life in her as in the form upon the bed; but when they had carried her into another room, the physician restored her to consciousness without much trouble. She speedily recovered full control of her faculties, so that she was able to ask calmly enough for the details of the sudden illness which had terminated fatally in her presence.

"I was sent for about one o'clock." said the doctor. "Your husband was then very ill, and I soon became alarmed at his condition. Of course, we immediately endeavored to find you. but we could not. I suppose that you were at the house of some friend. We sent to several places—Mrs. Warner's and others. Unfortunately, we did not send to the right place, wherever that may have been."

The doctor paused, as if expecting some reply, but Mrs. Torrey did not open her lips.

"Your husband had not been well during the forenoon," the physician continued. "He had remained in his room."

"I was aware of that," said Mrs. Torrey.

"About noon, he sent to the kitchen for some beef broth, and it was made tor him. Immediately after taking it. he became violently ill. It seems almost as if there must have been something wrong with the broth. I have taken what remained in the bowl, and I shall examine it."

Doctor Frazer was laboring under great excitement. As he stood before the lady, who sat with her arms resting upon a small table, his fingers played nervously with a fold of the tablecloth.

Mrs. Torrey looked up at him with an intense expression, which deepened into horror. She rose slowly, and leaned over the table, so that her face was near his.

"Do you mean to tell me," she demanded in a whisper, "that my husband was poisoned?"

The physician was silent for a full minute, during which time he eyed the woman's face with professional attention. What he saw there seemed to embolden him.

"Mrs. Torrey," he said, with a sudden access of firmness, "it is my duty to tell you that your husband exhibited all the symptoms of poisoning with arsenic. Deeply as I regret the necessity of adding to your burden at this time, I must put the case into the hands of the authorities for a full investigation."

He was a man who had ever been faithful to the honorable rules of his profession, but the expression of his face had never been trained to keep a secret. It could be read at a glance.

"Wretch!" cried the widow of an hour. "Do you dare to accuse me?"

"It is impossible that I should do so." he replied gently. "There is absolutely no evidence. The case stands thus: This beef broth was prepared in the kitchen, by Mrs. Ward, a woman absolutely beyond suspicion, as I need not tell you. She put it into a bowl, and that into a plate, and carried it to the door of your husband's room.

"She knocked, and he came to the door, but did not open it. He told her to put the broth on that little stand which is near the door, and he would get it presently.

"Now, Mrs. Torrey, the critical point is this: No one knows how long the broth remained there. Any one in the house might have gone to the spot, and poured the poison into the bowl."

"But you are not sure that the broth was poisoned," cried the woman. "My husband has been ill a long time. Natural causes might have—"

The physician checked her with a wave of the hand.

"In the bottom of the bowl," he said, "I found a white powder. Of course, I have had no time to analyze it chemically, even if I felt competent to undertake so serious an examination. Yet I have not a shadow of doubt that the powder is ordinary white arsenic."

The woman sank back into her chair.

"I am ill," she said, with a shudder. "Will you call my maid?"

The doctor touched a bell upon the table, and presently Mrs. Ward opened the door between the widow's room and that in which the master of the house lay dead.

"Mrs. Torrey wants her maid," said the doctor.

"Alice has gone," replied the housekeeper. "She left, this morning, for good. Didn't you know it, Mrs. Torrey?"

"I knew nothing of it," was the answer. "Why did she go?"

The housekeeper could give no information upon that point. Having said so, she left the room, and closed the door behind her.

"Let me urge upon you, Mrs. Torrey," said the physician, "the importance of answering the question now: Where have you been since twelve o'clock; when, so far as I know, you were last seen by anybody in this house, previous to my meeting you in the hall?"

"I must decline to tell you," she replied.

The old physician, who had known her from her infancy, and had, with daily pleasure, seen her grow to beautiful womanhood, pleaded with her to shun the error of concealment in that hour of peril; but she would not heed his words. With a heart that was heavy with black doubts and fears, he left her to herself.

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Chapter 2

Facts and Truths

"Mr. Sharpe," said George Harley, "I have sought your assistance in this case from peculiar motives. In the first place, let me say that I have unlimited faith in your power. I believe that you can establish Mrs. Torrey's innocence, no matter what may be the evidence against her."

The great detective was standing by the window of the young lawyer's office, looking out upon the familiar beauties of the Delaware.

"Do you mean," he said, "that you think I can establish her innocence, even if she is guilty? Do not harbor such a thought. You are her legal counsel. It is your duty—or, at least, it is your privilege—to free her by any legal means in your power. My case is different. I shall regard only the facts; and, by the way, the sooner I learn whatever may be known to you the better."

"Then let us see how the case stands," said Harley. "In the first place, let me say, that the very devil himself has been in it. The evidence which the prosecution will bring is absolutely conclusive. I know exactly what the case against my client will be, and it is strong enough to convict a saint.

"To begin with, Torrey's whole life will be raked over. That will be done to show the motive, or, rather, to strengthen the force of it.

"Do you know what that man was? Of course not; you have had no chance to find out. Well, that cultured and dignified gentleman, that walking model of all the virtues, that paragon, whose physical beauty was a perpetual lecture to young men on the rewards of a correct life, is now known to have been that most deplorable of wretches—a secret tippler, a home drunkard.

"Incredible, isn't it? Yet it is true. That was what broke his first wife's heart. That was the horror which Agnes discovered within a month after she married that man.

"Almost every evening, in the seclusion of his room, whose privacy no servant dared to violate, Norton Torry drugged himself with liquor. His indulgence was such that it would have sent almost any other man to the grave. Yet so miraculous was the strength of his constitution, that he would awake, after a secret debauch, with scarcely a trace of it about him. A half hour's vigorous exercise, a plunge into cold water, a careful toilet—and the beast of a few hours before would be transformed into the gentleman that poor Agnes Miller had loved.

"And this wretched farce had been going on for years and years. Talk about the secrets of a great city! Go to the country, if you want to probe the miserable deceptions of human life.

"The first Mrs. Torrey had suffered in silence. Her son had left his father's house in disgust, but had breathed no word of reproach that the world could hear. I don't know how much Mrs. Ward knew, but she did not open her lips. Agnes followed their example as best she could.

"It couldn't last forever. Torres's health endured beyond the bonds of all hunt an experience, but it had to give up some time. And when it failed, the ruin of body and mind was awful. Oh, he was a nice man to live with, was Norton Torrey! First a drunkard, and then a maniac!"

"And a rich man all the time." said Sharpe. "I think you have established the motive. Mrs. Torrey would have been more than human if she had not longed to be a widow.

"The prosecution will say as much," rejoined Harley; "and they will also make some references to myself, if they dare; but I warn them that the man who ventures to intimate that my relations with Agnes were more than friendly, may expect to join the saints in paradise or the fiends in perdition, according to his deserts, and that speedily."

He spoke with the tone of a man who meant what he said. The detective regarded him curiously, remembering that he, also, had a motive for desiring Norton Torrey's death.

"They will prove," continued Harley, "that Torrey died of arsenical poisoning. I shall not be able to contest that. Chemical analysis has shown the presence of arsenic in the body.

"A part of the powder found in the bowl from which Torrey had taken the beef broth has been analyzed. It is white arsenic.

Albert Dunning, a young druggist, who recently opened a first-rate store on the center below here, will testify that Alice Holden, Mrs. Torrey's maid, bought white arsenic powder at his store on the evening before the day of Torrey's death.

"It was hard work getting that evidence for it will hurt Dunning in this town, and he knows it well. If it hadn't been that one of his clerks saw the sale made, I think the fact might never have come out. You see, Dunning was in a fair way to run old Doctor Seabrook, the other druggist, out of the business, and this will turn the tables.

"It is rough on Dunning, for, by all accounts, he didn't want to make the sale. But the Holden girl told him that Mrs. Torrey wanted the stuff to poison rats—the house was overrun with them. It's the old story, of course. Dunning was afraid of disobliging so influential a woman as Agnes, and so he finally sold the stuff.

"'About half of it was found wrapped in paper in a little drawer in a table in Mrs. Torrey's room. She doesn't know how it came there, and I don't pretend to understand that feature of the case."

"Where is Alice Holden?" asked Sharpe.

"She has not been found," was the reply. "Of course, it is natural to suspect her, but that theory will not work. It is positively proved that she left this town early in the morning. She has been traced to New York. It is utterly impossible that she could have put the poison into that broth, for she was a hundred miles away when it was done.

"To proceed, every servant in the house has been examined, and every one can clear himself or herself, as the case may be. There is no doubt whatever that the poison was put into the broth while it was on the little stand outside the door of Torrey's room. During that time, not one of the servants was alone. In short, though I naturally want to take a contrary view, I am forced to admit that they are all innocent."

"How about Mrs. Ward, the housekeeper ?" asked Sharpe. "I understand that she made the broth and carried it upstairs."

"She had no motive," was the reply; "and her character will clear her. She is one of the best of women, and everybody in this town knows it. I haven't the faintest suspicion that she did the deed; and, in any case, as a lawyer, I know that it will be perfectly useless to try to throw suspicion upon her."

"You are perfectly right in that view," said Sharpe. "Such an attempt would only injure your client. Now, let us return to Mrs. Torrey. Where was she at the critical moment?"

Harley twisted about in his seat, and seemed afraid to answer, though it was evident that he had made up his mind beforehand to do so.

"She was in the house," said he at last.

"How did it happen that she was not summoned when her husband was taken ill?" demanded the detective.

"The servants did not find her," replied Harley. "She was in an unused room, which is always locked. No one thought of going there."

"Was she alone?"

Again Harley hesitated.

"No," he said finally; "I was with her."

"Then, why do you not come forward and clear her?"

"For several reasons," was the answer. "First, it would damage her reputation."

"Scarcely so much as an accusation of murder," suggested Sharpe.

"A woman has strange preferences," said Harley. "Agnes commands me to be silent. As a matter of fact, I ought not to have been there, but the case was getting to be desperate. Life in that house was becoming unbearable for her. We were discussing the means of ending her captivity."

"An elopement?" suggested Sharpe.

"Heaven knows!" cried Harley. "It might have come to that. I urged it, for I was mad with love for her. She refused, though she admitted her love for me. Ah, her behavior was noble! Her words might be shouted in the street, and they would do good to all who heard them. Only the secrecy of our meeting was wrong; but in a little town like this, what can one do? She couldn't come to my office for legal advice. All the gossips were watching."

"Were you with her all the time?" asked Sharpe.

"All but a moment," replied the young man.

"She left you in that room?"

"No; I left her there."

"Why?"

"I went to get a document which was in a writing table in the library."

"What was that document?"

"A deed of some property, executed by Torrey in favor of his wife."

"Why did not Mrs. Torrey get it?"

"Because she did not know exactly where it was."

"Did you not take a risk in passing through the halls at that time?" asked Sharpe. "You did not wish any one to know that you were in the house."

"That was not important," answered Harley. "If I had been seen, I should simply have gone to Torrey's door and rapped. We quarreled once, you know, but of late our relations had been more cordial. I had to take care when it came to the matter of a long, private conversation with Agnes."

"What time was it when you left that room?"

"About half past twelve."

"Do you suppose that broth was standing outside Torrey's door at that time?"

"I know it was," said Harley, "for I saw it."

"Well, upon my word," said Sharpe, "this is one of the most peculiar situations that I ever saw. You can clear your client if you go upon the stand as a witness, but in so doing you will cast the gravest suspicion upon yourself."

"That is the point that I've been working up to," said Harley calmly. "Who poisoned Norton Torrey, I don't know; but one thing is sure: Sooner than see Agnes bear the blame, I will go on the stand, whether she is willing or not. And, if the worst comes, and she is sure to be convicted, I will not only tell the truth, I will go farther; I will lie upon my oath, and say that I put that poison into the broth myself!"

"Let us hope it will not come to that." said Sharpe.

"My only hope is in you," replied Harley.

"One more question, and I am done: Could Mrs. Torrey have left that room and you not know it?"

"Impossible! She must have passed me in the halls or on the stairs. While I was getting that paper, the library door was open, and I could see the bowl of broth standing outside the door."

This concluded Sharpe's talk with Harley. From his office, the detective went to the drug store of Doctor Seabrook. The old druggist had assisted in some of the analyses that had been made, and had seen all the chemists' reports, so that Sharpe expected to get accurate data from him. In this he was not disappointed. Doctor Seabrook made it clear to the detective that the case was a genuine one of arsenical poisoning, and that it must be futile to attempt to shake the chemical expert testimony.

The veteran druggist was very bitter against his young rival in business for having sold poison so recklessly. As to the actual crime, he stoutly defended Mrs. Torrey, and asserted his belief that the case was one of accident, or that the missing maid had done the deed.

As to this missing woman, Sharpe was much perplexed. It was impossible that she should have done the deed; yet it was admitted that she had bought the poison, and her flight was highly suspicious. She had had a quarrel with her mistress a few days before, but it had not been serious enough to warrant a desperate revenge, or even a sudden quitting of the house.

The detective had very little time in which to work, for he was very desirous of clearing Mrs. Torrey—if. indeed, she was innocent—at the inquest, which was called for the day after that on which Sharpe reached Holliston. It is, however, no new thing for the detective to be in a hurry; and he used his scanty time to so good advantage that when he appeared at the inquest the next morning he felt in the highest degree satisfied with the status of the case.

It will not be necessary to enter upon any detailed account of that somewhat remarkable inquiry. The climax came when the representative of the district attorney produced two samples of poison, one of which had been obtained by drying the powder found in the bowl which had held the beef broth, while the other was taken from the little package found in Mrs. Torrey's room.

"These two are identical," he said. "They are both white arsenic, a well-known deadly poison, unfortunately too common, and too easily obtained."

At this point, Carson Sharpe, who occupied a seat beside the coroner on the bench, desired to know whether the package found in Mrs. Torrey's room could be proven to be that which the maid had bought. He was informed that the wrapper bore the druggist's stamp. Druggist Dunning, crestfallen, nodded despondently on the witness' bench. Druggist Seabrook scowled triumphantly.

"Will you permit me to make a brief experiment?" asked Sharpe; and nobody objected, for they all stood in considerable awe of the detective.

Thereupon, Sharpe took the two packages of poison and poured a small quantity of powder from one of them into a glass tube, and an equal amount from the other package into another tube. Then, producing a small vial of colorless liquid, he poured some of it into the tube which held the powder taken from Mrs. Torrey's room.

There was no visible result, and coroner, jury, lawyers, and spectators looked very much disappointed. Then Sharpe poured some of the same liquid into the other lube which contained the powder taken from the broth.

Instantly there was a lively effervescence. The tube was as full of bubbles as a glass of soda water. The jurymen opened their eyes, the spectators rose to their feet and craned their necks to see.

"Mr. Sharpe," said the coroner, "I do not quite understand the meaning of the experiment you have performed, but I perceive that it is important. It seems to show that the poison found in the broth is not the same as that found in Mrs. Torrey's room."

"On the contrary," said Sharpe, "the poison is exactly the same. Yet I tell you that I have proved that the drug bought by Mrs. Torrey's maid was not used to poison Mr. Torrey.

"Let me explain: White arsenic, in the form of powder, as it is sold in drug stores, is rarely pure. It is adulterated with various cheap substances similar in appearance.

"As I have said, the poison which the maid bought is the same as that found in the broth, but the substance used in adulterating the two was not the same.

"That bought by the maid was adulterated with sulphate of calcium; that which killed Mr. Torrey was mixed with carbonate of calcium—in other words, with chalk dust.

"I prove this by adding acid to both powders. It produces no effect upon the sulphate of calcium, but it breaks up the chalk, setting free carbonic acid gas—the ordinary soda-water gas.

"The chemists who have analyzed these two samples, paid no attention to the adulterant. They took it for granted. If the same chemist had prepared both analyses, he would have noticed the difference; but the two reports mention only the white arsenic, since the other substances were harmless.

"Now, what does this prove? Why, it proves that the fatal dose was not bought at Dunning's store. He gets his white arsenic of Abel, Hanniford & Co., of New York, who use sulphate of calcium as an adulterant.

"On the other hand. Doctor Seabrook buys his white arsenic of Seamen, Wilbur & Co., of Baltimore, and they use powdered chalk. I learned these facts yesterday afternoon.

"Mr. Coroner, if you will permit me to do so, I will suggest that you call Doctor Seabrook to the stand."

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Chapter 3

Confessions and Consequences

The druggist came up, flushed and trembling.

"Question him, Mr. Sharpe," said the coroner, and the district attorney acquiesced.

Little questioning was necessary. The old druggist saw himself detected, and he confessed. He had sold the white arsenic which had proved fatal in this case, and the person who had bought it was Norton Torrey!

The druggist had known how criminal an act it was to sell poison to such a half-mad creature, but he had not dared to offend Torrey, who for many years had secretly bought his liquors through Doctor Seabrook. Not daring to disclose his error, the druggist had taken the risk of sending Mrs. Torrey to the scaffold by his silence.

It became evident that the case was one of suicide, and when that view was presented, no one was surprised. Torrey's suicide had been predicted since his mental failing had been noticed.

After Seabrook had left the stand, Sharpe explained the purchase of the poison by the maid, and the fact that a considerable portion of it was missing from the package found in Mrs. Torrey's room.

The detective, after becoming convinced that the maid had not contributed in any way to the death of Torrey, had sought for a motive for buying the poison.

Searching the house and surroundings, he had come upon the dead body of a pet dog that had been owned by Mrs. Torrey. The dog had died of arsenic. In the excitement of the tragedy in the house, the loss of the dog had not been noticed.

It was evident that the maid had poisoned the dog in revenge for the quarrel she had had with the mistress, who had prized the animal highly. Having done this cruel and brutal act, the maid had fled.

This discovery cleared the case up thoroughly. It had ended in a manner most satisfactory to Harley and Mrs. Torrey, for Sharpe's disclosure had come in time to shield them.

It was the detective's opinion that the wife's conduct had not been so blamable as it had at first appeared, so far as Harley was concerned. He was not sorry that she would inherit the fortune of the man who had clouded her young life by his intemperance; and he viewed with equanimity the practical certainty that Harley would eventually share the money.

~ The End ~

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