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False Pretences

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Harriet hesitated on the threshold of Holloway Gaol. She had never expected to return. The frightened, confused person who’d entered these gates as a prisoner seemed like a stranger to her now. The relieved but equally confused person who’d left these gates a free woman, thanks to the efforts of the man she now called husband, was equally unfamiliar. Still—the prospect of stepping inside and hearing the doors shut behind her brought her out in goose-flesh.

So much had happened in the past few weeks. Lady Celia’s arrest had caused a sensation in the press. They had been willing to minimize the inquest at Lord Dalrymple’s request, but this was no longer a matter of declining to expose the foibles of a young woman dead before her time. An earl’s daughter, believed to have been murdered, was a murderer herself, and her secret husband was the victim! Newspapers sold almost as quickly as they were printed.

The trial had been avidly followed. Harriet, of course, had been required to testify about the body in her boot, now known to have been Evelyn Waters. That, too, had been difficult—to step into the witness box, feeling once more under scrutiny as she explained how she had come to mistakenly identify the body as Lady Celia—but this time she had been believed, and dismissed with the judge’s thanks.

The most sensational moments of the trial occurred when Lady Celia gave her testimony. Crown Prosecutor Sir Harold Cockburn was a deceptively amiable young man. Under his skilful guidance, Lady Celia told a story of being abducted by mysterious unknown individuals. She’d made her escape and changed her appearance and name in fear for her life. Such was the power of her tale that more than a few sympathetic sighs were heard in the courtroom and the less-experienced reporters wondered why he seemed to be making the defence’s case for them.

Having established Lady Celia’s story, Sir Harold set to work. “Lady Celia, when you were first taken up, you denied your identity.”

“I was afraid.”

“Of a police inspector? I believe everyone in this court has had a chance to observe Chief-Inspector Parker. One would scarcely call him a menacing individual.”

“It was different then. I’d been running for so very long.”

“Actually, Lady Celia, my understanding is that you’d been driving. You had a car in York, did you not?”

“Yes.”

“And it was not the car you’d abandoned at the hotel?”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“When did you obtain this car?”

“I… I don’t recall.”

“I believe I can help you there. I have a witness prepared to testify that you purchased the car from him in North London last May. How did you know in May that you would need a second vehicle?”

“I didn’t. I just had the car.”

“A second car. Just as you had a second flat. And instead of going to the authorities after you’d escaped your kidnappers, instead of informing your grieving parents that you were not dead, you got into your second car and drove away?”

“I was very frightened at the time. I couldn’t really say what I was thinking.”

“Why did you not contact your husband after you escaped these unknown kidnappers?”

“I have no husband.” At this, there was a great commotion in the courtroom.

“Edward Sandborn...”

“Was not my husband. I never met him.”

“You shared a flat as husband and wife. I could summon many witnesses who saw you together as a couple.”

“They are mistaken, or lying. It must have been some sort of scheme to blackmail me.”

At this, Sir Harold produced a document. “This, I believe is a marriage-license for Edward Tristan Sandborn and Lady Celia Augusta Dalrymple.”

Lady Celia regarded the paper disdainfully. “That’s not my signature.”

Sir Harold smiled. “You are quite correct, Lady Celia; it is not. It is a forgery. I will shortly produce a witness testifying to that effect. I can also bring witnesses to testify that the woman who married Edward Sandborn in your name was Beatrice Mudge, also known as Evelyn Waters. This, however,” he said, producing another document, “is your signature. It is a will, signed by you, leaving all you have to Edward Sandborn, a man you claim not to know.”

Lady Celia hesitated, then said, “That’s not my signature, either.”

“I have an expert witness who will say that it is, and that you also signed the insurance documents where you were described as Edward Sandborn’s wife.  The solicitor who wrote out the will you signed remembers you clearly and is also prepared to testify.”

Now there was frustration and apprehension in Lady Celia’s face, and a great murmuring in the courtroom. The judge called for silence, then Sir Harold continued, “We have heard evidence that Mr. Sandborn was poisoned with digitalis, which is derived from foxglove. The police found poisonous plants growing in your second flat. One of them was foxglove. Dried foxglove was found in a tea-tin in your second flat and in Edward Sandborn’s flat.”

“I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

“Actually, I suspect you know a great deal about that, as the same poisonous substance was found in a small tin in your room at the boarding-house in York.”

“I often take herbal tea for headache.”

“Lady Celia, I am prepared to call an expert who will testify that a single cup of this particular tea could have cured your headache in a most permanent fashion. Must we continue this farce?”

And still she would not yield. Sir Harold called all of the promised witnesses, and their testimony supported his claims. Despite Sir Impey Biggs’ finest histrionics on behalf of the defence, the jury returned a guilty verdict in less than an hour.

 

“Lady Peter?”

Harriet realised with some embarrassment that she’d been wool-gathering while standing there on the pavement. “Sir Impey. I hadn’t expected you to meet me.”

“I wanted a word with you before you go in.” Sir Impey hesitated as his glance drifted away to the Daimler where Lord Peter sat, patiently waiting. “I have defended many clients over the course of my career. On the morning of his execution, one of them told me he'd believed he could convince someone of anything, so long as he was allowed to keep speaking. The stories he had told in the past were irrelevant; the possibility that his words could be disproven in the future mattered not; winning the moment was all.

“Lady Celia strongly reminds me of that client. I do not know why she asked to speak to you. On rare occasions, I have had condemned clients who sincerely wished to apologise to those whom they had wronged. More often, I find, they offer information about their crimes in a last-minute attempt to postpone the inevitable or because they seek sympathy or notoriety.”

“And you believe Lady Celia is the latter sort?”

“I do. If she chooses to confess her crimes to you, she will do so for her benefit, not yours.”

“My husband once said that most confessions are full of lies and self-pity.”

“Lord Peter is indeed a man of the world. Be wary, my lady. Poison appears to be Lady Celia’s weapon of choice, and plants are not the only thing which can be toxic.”

“You think I ought not to go in?”

“I cannot presume to answer that question for another. I will only repeat this advice: be wary. She will attempt to use your words, as well as her own, to manipulate you. Give nothing away. Show no especial interest in anything. Every time you speak, you are possibly handing her a weapon.”

Harriet nodded gravely, thanked Sir Impey for his counsel, and steadily walked toward the entrance of Holloway Gaol.

 

“Lady Peter. How kind of you to come,” said Lady Celia, as Harriet stepped into a barren interview room.  How strange it felt to be in this room once again, and to sit on the vistor’s side of the table!

“Sir Impey Biggs said that you’d asked to speak to me. I saw no reason to refuse.”

“Do sit down. I suppose you wonder why I’ve asked you to come.”

Harriet took a chair, thinking to herself that Sir Impey had been right. Lady Celia was already trying to dominate the conversation by behaving as if Harriet were a guest or subordinate.

“I expect you’ll tell me, in time.”

To Harriet’s satisfaction, Lady Celia frowned slightly, and hesitated. Apparently, she’d expected Harriet to beg for information.

“Don’t you want to know why I did it? I thought all writers of detective fiction were curious about that sort of thing. Has your new husband forced you to give up your work?”

“Not at all. The joint novel I was working on in Hastings has been sent to the publishers and I’ve just begun another Robert Templeton mystery. It’s true that my readers would be dissatisfied without a thorough explanation of a murderer’s motives, but I recognise that is not always possible in real life.”

“Then you don’t want to hear about the first person I killed?”

For an instant, Harriet almost blurted out, “Miss Horton?” but she caught herself in time. “That is entirely up to you, Lady Celia.”

“It wasn’t that wretched Beatrice—Evelyn, I mean. It was someone I knew at University. I didn’t mean her to die, of course.”

“Of course.”

“She had a bad heart, and I took one of her bottles of medicine. I assumed she would think it lost and immediately get another, but the little fool never noticed. Cost her her life.”

“And the medicine? Did you require it for something?”

“I thought it would be useful to have, and it was. At first, I thought of it as insurance.”

“Insurance?” Harriet echoed.

“Daddy was being quite tiresome at the time about my marrying Lord Enderton’s eldest son and I didn’t care for him at all. I thought I might need the medicine to make away with myself.”

“I see.”

“Only I didn’t use it for that.” Lady Celia’s eyes took on a queer gleam. “There was a boy from Brasenose who wouldn’t let me alone. We’d been out a time or two and he’d been a bit of fun, but I wasn't interested in him any more and he wouldn’t go away, so I… well, you can guess,” she said, looking at Harriet intently.

“You helped him go away,” Harriet suggested. “Permanently.”

“Exactly! You do understand! Well, that worked fairly well, only then I hadn’t got any more medicine. It took me a while to grow the plants—I’d never messed about with gardening before, so my first attempt to grow foxglove was a dismal failure—but I soon figured it out.”

“And then?”

“And then I made my plan. By this time, I’d long since gone down from Oxford and Daddy was becoming terribly insistent about my finding a suitable husband. So I began looking.”

“For what?”

“Can’t you guess? For someone to take my place. It took months and months for me to find Evelyn. She didn’t always get work as a chorus girl, so she sometimes worked as a mannequin, and that’s where I first saw her—modeling clothes. We wore the same size and were about the same height with the same colouring, so it was perfect. In the meantime, I’d met Edward and found him ideal for what I had in mind. He was good at disguises and at taking care of things, so long as someone else made the plan and I’d already taken care of that.”

Here, Lady Celia paused, as if expecting some sort of comment, so Harriet said, “I see. What happened next?”

“You are interested, aren’t you!”

“You tell a good story.”

“Well, I told Edward to go along and meet Evelyn to see if he could seduce her. She was completely taken in by him and before long he said to her, ‘I used to go about with this woman who’s got an earl for a father, and her family must be rolling in it. Let’s blackmail her. Let's go up to Scotland and get married, only you pretend you're her. I'll shuttle along afterwards and tell her father that he'll have to pay to keep the marriage quiet. He'd be horrified if his Society friends found out his daughter had married an actor. It will be a laugh to watch him squirm and we'll be rich.’ ”

“What did Evelyn say?”

“She was greedy as well as thick, so when Edward said, ‘Let’s blackmail her,’ she agreed. So they toddled up to Gretna Green and got married, only she was pretending to be me. He didn’t blackmail anyone, of course, but Edward told her that he'd tried it on but my father had told him to go to blazes.”

“And then what?”

“Well, I’d already had this brainwave about the car park, so one day Edward said to her, ‘Let’s go away for the weekend’ and they took a car—the one I had in York, actually—down to Hastings. And when he got there, he said, ‘I have an idea. A friend told me Lady Celia would be staying here this weekend. Let’s sneak into the car park and make love in her car.’ ”

“Surely Evelyn was suspicious? Or jealous, perhaps?”

“I don’t know; Edward never said. What I do know is that late that night, they used a hook and a rope to climb up a bus shelter and down into the car park. And they made love in my car, then he strangled her. I wish I’d seen it.”

Harriet swallowed convulsively and said, “And then?”

“He dressed her in my clothes—I’d had a duplicate made of the outfit you saw at the signing and left it in my boot in a satchel—and put my ring on her finger and wiped off her nail varnish. I was most impressed that you noticed that, by the way. I'd known the nails would be a problem—she always had hers done in the most vulgar style—so I put some acetone and rags in my boot, along with the petrol and water.”

“What about the ring?”

“What about it?” Lady Celia said, cocking her head to one side.

“How did Edward come by it?”

“Guess.”

Harriet began to feel the conversation was slipping away from her, but she said, “You contrived a meeting at some time after the signing. Perhaps you were in disguise and had agreed to meet at a public house in a nearby village.”

“Excellent. You do have the makings of a murderess. So Edward tidied up using the things I'd left in my boot, then gathered up the acetone, which most people wouldn't carry around in their car, and the rags, and Evelyn's clothing and shoes. My God, that woman had the most hideous footwear. I wouldn't be caught dead in them, so I wasn’t, ha ha! Anyway, he gathered everything up, put it in the satchel, climbed out of the car park, and went back to London, thinking that all he’d have to do is wait. My body would be found—well, Evelyn’s body—I’d be declared dead, and he’d inherit and collect the insurance money. And I did consider allowing things to happen that way at first, but I dislike untidiness.”

“And Edward was an untidy end.”

“Very much so. So I made him a cup of my special tea and left the rest in a tin, on the off chance that the first cup didn’t work. It’s not instantaneous, you know. Well, perhaps it would have been for Miss Horton. And then I traveled for a bit, waiting to see what was in the papers. Once I read about the inquest, I went to York to find Edward’s sister. She knew nothing about any of it, which made her the perfect foil. All I had to do was wait for her to inherit and collect the insurance money and then she would go on holiday with her new friend, Miss Leighton. Only, of course, neither of them would ever return. I’d take Miss Sandborn’s name and money and go to Canada.”

“But it didn’t happen that way,” said Harriet.

“It didn’t. I don’t understand how they found me so quickly. I say, you haven’t asked who Miss Horton is.”

Harriet was tempted to reply that she knew perfectly well who Miss Horton was, having already heard the story of the missing medicine, but Sir Impey’s warning stilled her tongue. She also forbore to elaborate on Miss Climpson’s role in apprehending her and on Lord Peter’s role in dispatching Miss Climpson to York. Instead, all she said was, “I suppose I haven’t. Tell me, why didn't you go to Canada in the first place? It would have been much simpler and you already had the trust from your great-aunt.”

“It's not much money,” Lady Celia grumbled.  “Not nearly enough to have fun on.  And I couldn't get any money from Daddy unless I married some dreadful wart, and if I poisoned him, Daddy would probably want me to marry again, and again, and I didn't want that, so I had to have the insurance money.  Surely you understand?”

This, then, must be what Lady Celia had wanted. To be understood. To be told her actions had been clever and eminently reasonable. Harriet sighed in bewilderment and said, “I can't say that I do.”

Lady Celia’s expression turned petulant. “You imagine you’re clever; don’t you? Poncing about with that fool of a lord. Do you like your cage? Do you? You’ll never get out, same as me. At least my death will be quick, while you’ll be trapped there, year after year. You’re not one of us and people won’t accept you.”

Harriet remembered what Lady Mary had once told her and said, “That’s possibly true, but I would rather be with my husband than anywhere else.”

“You fool. You're all fools. You never even guessed what I’d done. And that sister—that whey-faced nothing—I’m glad she’ll get nothing from me.”

Harriet found herself on the verge of contradicting Lady Celia, but held her tongue with a great effort of will. “So I see. Good-bye, Lady Celia.” She stood up and left the room while Celia was still shouting at her.

 

“She made a complete confession,” Harriet told Lord Peter as she got into the Daimler.

“Was it beastly?”

“I wouldn’t say so. She’s definitely mad, though. And convinced she had us all completely fooled.”

“How did she reconcile that belief with her presence in gaol?” Lord Peter asked.

“I didn’t ask. Just as I said nothing when she claimed Miss Sandborn will inherit nothing from her.”

“That might be true. She and Edward made a false statement by claiming to be husband and wife when they applied for those insurance policies. The company may refuse to pay on those grounds.”

“True, but there’s always the trust she had from Lady Marjorie. If I remember correctly, Edward Sandborn was the only person mentioned in her will. There was no provision made for the possibility that he might die first.”

“True. Murbles would not have approved of such a slipshod document. But would that will be valid? Oh, it would, wouldn’t it?  Harriet, you clever thing! The will doesn’t call him her husband, does it? She used the word ‘beloved’.”

Harriet nodded. “I thought it sounded rather goopy at the time, but it was a deliberate evasion on her part. Even if the forgery on the marriage-license was discovered, Edward would still inherit. Lady Celia would still have had the trust money she’d started with, if she stayed with Edward or succeeded in impersonating his sister.”

“Which means Edward’s estate will inherit when she’s executed,” said Lord Peter. “Did you tell her? She still has time to change her will.”

“I didn’t. Let poor Miss Sandborn reap a little happiness from this misery.”

“Is that what this has been to you? A misery?” Lord Peter said, looking anxious.

“No. I would call it an illumination. And I can see you worrying again about whether I regret marrying a duke’s son. I don’t,” Harriet said, and kissed him soundly to prove it.

A King's Counsel alighting from a taxi saw them embracing and mistook them for a couple celebrating a long-awaited reunion. He smiled and wondered whether the just-released prisoner would make a go of her new life.  He rather hoped so.