|The Body on the Serpentine by Nene
Adams ©2004 - All rights reserved
A Gaslight Series Short Story (formerly available to Supporters of the Library)
I was angry with my friend;
And I watered it in fears,
And it grew both day and night,
And into my garden stole.
London, England 1890
t was, Lady Evangeline St. Claire reflected, a perfect day for a picnic.
Having some time to themselves with no criminal cases in sight, she and Rhiannon Moore - her lover, partner and other half of her soul - had purchased a large hamper of delectables from Fortnum and Mason, that purveyor of ready-made luxuries, and hied off to fashionable Hyde Park to bask in the late summer sunshine.
The two women had found a lovely spot near the Serpentine, the artificial lake that separated Hyde Park from its neighbor, Kensington Gardens, and settled beneath a shady tree to indulge in the time-honored occupation of watching passers-by. From shopgirls in bombazine and nannies with their charges, to gaily dressed ladies of leisure and the gentlemen who escorted them, the park was a popular place to be seen en promenade.
"Isn't that Baroness de Witt?" Rhiannon asked. She was seated on the picnic blanket, leaning on one hip with her legs folded together on the other side – a sidesaddle posture that seemed more uncomfortable than it truly was. Lina thought the other woman looked rather fetching in a lace-trimmed cherry-amber silk gown whose color set her strawberry-blonde hair ablaze.
Lina reluctantly tore her gaze away from a perusal of Rhiannon's generous décolletage. “Yes, I believe that is Cordelia de Witt, but the gentleman is not her husband. I had thought her to have a tad more discretion than parading a lover in public.”
“He might be a cousin or a some other relation,” Rhiannon said, biting into a plump scarlet strawberry. “You needn’t assume the worst.” A bit of juice collected at the corner of her mouth; Lina wrestled the urge to lean over and lick it away. The sweetness of the berry juice would not, she knew, equal the sweetness of Rhiannon’s lips.
To quell the sudden and insistent thud-thud-thud of her heart, Lina investigated the contents of the picnic hamper. If one appetite could not be satisfied, perhaps another could. The uniform-clad, white-gloved assistant at Fortnum and Mason had outfitted them with cutlery, crystal glasses and delicate china tableware; the hamper also contained an outstanding selection of foodstuffs including a crock of goose liver paté, lobster, ham, boned quails in aspic with prawns, strawberries and a bottle of champagne.
She expertly eased the cork from the champagne bottle with her thumbs; not for her the showy explosion that resulted in the loss of half the contents and left the remainder unpleasantly flat. After serving herself and Rhiannon with bubbly champagne, Lina took some ham and a bit of quail aspic, happy and content and full of joi de vivre.
This state of affairs lasted until a wail from nearby startled her into dropping her glass of champagne, wetting her skirts and staining the cream-and-ivory moiré and satin stripes of her dress. Lina looked around to locate the source of the contretemps and saw a woman struggling to rise from the grass, her motion hampered by her bustle; the tight sleeves of her dress were threatening to split at the seams under her agitated movements. On the opposite side of the blanket, a fat and florid man was choking, both beefy hands clutching his neck, his eyes fairly bulging from their sockets.
“My husband! Someone help my husband!” the woman screamed, wringing her hands in the depths of her distress.
A bewhiskered gentleman with their party was slapping the victim on the back with no discernible result. A second female – much younger than the first, possibly a daughter – had swooned. Lina leaped to her feet, knocking over the champagne bottle, and hastened to help. A fellow in brown tweed, accompanied by a curly-haired spaniel, declared himself a doctor and began to tend to the choking man, who had already collapsed, spasming in every limb. After a few moments, the doctor declared the man dead.
The older woman, whom Lina deduced was the dead man’s wife, let out a blood-curdling scream of grief that sent the doctor’s spaniel into hysterics. The dog raced around in a circle, scattering the picnic things and making an unholy mess in the process. The daughter recovered from her faint, only to lose consciousness again when she learned of her father’s demise. Her mother clung to the fourth member of their party, the gentleman who had been smacking her husband’s back, and emitted loud sobs and moans.
Lina took hold of the doctor’s arm and drew him aside. In the confusion, she had taken the opportunity to perform a cursory examination of the body. What she found was troubling. “We must notify Scotland Yard,” she told him.
The doctor curled his lip. It was clear that he disapproved of meddling females. “Madam, there is no reason to summon the Yard for what is a clear case of accidental death.”
Lina shook her head. “Did you fail to notice the foam on the man’s lips? The extraordinary floridness of his complexion? The smell of almonds? My dear sir, this gentleman has been poisoned. Considering the symptoms, I suspect prussic acid.”
“Who are you?” the doctor asked, his mustache bristling fiercely.
“Lady Evangeline St. Claire,” Lina answered, knowing from his blank expression that the doctor was not familiar with her reputation as a consulting detective. “If you will not send for Scotland Yard, I will do it myself.”
“Very well, milady, although I think it a fool’s errand.” He bared his teeth in a not-smile.
A considerable crowd had gathered to observe the proceedings; it was not every day that a man died in Hyde Park, and that generated no little excitement among the hoi polloi and the beaumonde alike. A police constable’s appearance made the throng sigh with anticipation. The doctor spoke to him at length, both men shooting her glances, but Lina remained unperturbed. She knew she was right and, she believed, the doctor knew it, too. Like most men, he had to show the appearance of reluctance in order to preserve the façade that he was merely indulging a lady, not taking orders from her.
And this is the master of all he surveys, she thought, snorting in amusement.
“May I know your name, sir?” Lina asked the doctor when the constable had gone off to fetch his superiors.
“Dr. Julian Idlewyld,” he replied, cutting his glance towards the victim. Idlewyld had had the decency to cover the man’s engorged features with a clean handkerchief.
Rhiannon joined them, having had the presence of mind to lure the spaniel with a slice of ham and secure the dog before it could continue running amok. “He’s a sweet creature,” she said to Idlewyld, “but perhaps a trifle excitable.”
The doctor snapped the leather lead on the panting spaniel’s collar. The smile he directed towards Rhiannon was distinctly friendlier than the one he had given Lina. “Thank you, miss…?”
“Miss Moore,” Lina said firmly, “is my companion. Thank you, my dear. There has been enough destruction for one day, I think.”
Idlewyld tipped his hat at Rhiannon. “A pleasure, Miss Moore.”
“Likewise, Dr. Idlewyld,” Rhiannon replied.
The constable returned with more Myrmidons of the law, including a figure well-known to both Lina and Rhiannon – Inspector Harold Valentine of Scotland Yard. He drummed his fingers on the round, hard paunch of his belly and squinted at the women in a relatively friendly fashion.
“If it ain’t Lady St. Claire and Miss Moore,” Valentine said, chewing an unlit cigar with his usual ferocity. “Fancy meeting you two at the scene of a murder. Hah!”
“I assure you, Harry, our presence at the unfortunate affair is pure coincidental. We were having a picnic,” Lina said, lacing her arm through Rhiannon’s, “when our idyll was interrupted by this most unfortunate happenstance.”
The bewhiskered fellow comforting the new widow spoke up. “What’s all this hullabaloo? Have some common decency - the lady has just lost her husband, damn your eyes!”
“And who might you be?” Valentine asked, rocking back and forth on his toes.
“Frederick Gideon Mordecai Butterfield III,” he answered, his hostility clearly written in the sneer and the gimlet glare he directed towards the police inspector.
That Butterfield was American was evident by the man’s accent; his occupation as a photographer could be deduced by the chemical stains on his hands and sleeve cuffs. In fact, the right jacket sleeve was positively peppered with tiny burn scars from the explosive magnesium and potassium chlorate combination known as flashpowder, which enabled him to take photographs in low light. Lina further concluded that Butterfield was an habitual pipe smoker, as evident by the matted and nicotine-stained section of beard near the corner of his mouth. Thick calluses on his hands indicated that Butterfield had done heavy labor at some time in the not-too-distant past.
Inspector Valentine questioned the sobbing widow gently and patiently. He learned that the dead man was a wealthy dilettante named Simon Barnabas. He left behind a widow – Henrietta – and a daughter, Louisa; no other relatives remained to carry on the family name. Mr. Butterfield offered the information that he was a distant relation of the widow’s; she was his cousin from the English branch of his family.
In the meantime, Dr. Idlewyld applied sal volatile to the fainting Louisa in an effort to restore her to sensibility. The girl recovered slowly from her swoon with much fluttering of eyelashes and soft breathy sounds. Idlewyld muttered something about loosening her corset, which made Louisa spring to awareness as if hot coals had been applied to her feet. She burst into tears and buried her face in the doctor’s waistcoast, clinging to him like a particularly soggy limpet. As she was a very pretty girl despite the tears, it seemed that Idlewyld did not much mind.
“Poor man,” Rhiannon said, leaning companionably against Lina and nodding at the corpse. “It wasn’t a very pleasant way to die.”
“All persons aspire to slip away peacefully at the ripe old age of one hundred, my dear, but in my experience, death is often violent or painful or both, and usually unexpected.” Lina squeezed Rhiannon’s buttock surreptitiously and was rewarded with a side-long glance from beneath the other woman’s lashes that made her spine tingle.
“How do you suppose the poison was introduced into Mr. Barnabas?” Rhiannon asked, shifting her focus to the scattered detritus of the picnic.
“That is a question,” Lina answered, pushing a stray lock of black hair behind her ear. Murder was hard on the coiffure; half her pins had been loosened in the excitement. “Let us wait upon Harry, since he has official sanction here. I am certain that I can winkle the facts out of him when he has finished his interrogation.”
Rhiannon smiled; Lina’s heart was so swollen and tender with affection, she could not help the idiotic grin that stretched across her own mouth. Nearly two years together and she could not imagine life without her fiery, red-headed partner.
“In the meantime,” Lina said after regaining control of herself, “let us beg a quantity of empty bottles from the onlookers. I wish to take samples of the picnic stuff in order to test for the poison myself. The police laboratory is adequate for the court’s purposes but I would prefer to verify the work with my own hands.”
“What poison is it?”
“Did I not tell you? Prussic acid, my dear. At least, I believe it to be so based upon the symptoms that Mr. Barnabas displayed.”
“Prussic acid…” Rhiannon frowned. “That sounds familiar.”
Before Lina could expand upon the subject, Valentine sauntered over, his storm-gray eyes narrowed to slits. “Well, I’ll wait upon the surgeon to confirm your diagnosis, milady. Barnabas may have been poisoned, but he may also have choked on a chicken bone.”
Lina was about to give him her opinion of his opinion – Harry Valentine had known her long enough to show a modicum of trust – when it suddenly struck her that the Barnabas’ picnic goods were unusual, to say the least. The damage done by Dr. Idlewyld’s spaniel could not explain what was scattered over the blanket. She got down on her knees, the better to examine the mess.
Vichyssoise – she wrinkled her nose at cold potato and leek soup – had made a creamy white splash on the blanket. The orange pool in the corner was carrot soup flavored with (from the smell) plenty of dill. There was evidence of turtle soup, a nice clear consommé au naturel, something that she tentatively identified as potage a la Crécy from the Wellington supper rooms in Piccadilly, and an oxtail soup spiked with sherry.
No bread, no fruit, no meat… just soups which had, Lina discovered when she peered into the Barnabas’ hamper, been preserved at the proper temperature in large glass bottles. The party had been eating their meal of soup out of earthenware bowls; each ‘place’ was set with a water glass, a spoon and a napkin. No, not a single spoon, Lina thought. Simon Barnabas had six spoons, while the rest made do with one apiece.
Someone nudged her shoulder. Lina looked up; it was Rhiannon, balancing a number of empty beer bottles in her arms. “Will this be enough for your samples?” Rhiannon asked.
“Yes, my dear, more than sufficient,” Lina replied. She took the bottles and proceeded to take a sample from each of the spilled soups on the blanket. On the chance that the prussic acid had been present in the man’s bowls, she took those, too, and all six of Barnabas’ spoons, blessing Rhiannon when the woman distracted Inspector Valentine by asking after a mutual acquaintance. Lina quickly turned up the hem of her petticoat and pinned it to form a large pocket under her voluminous skirts, large enough to hold her booty securely.
Rising, she joined Rhiannon and said to Valentine, “If you are quite done reminiscing on the career of ‘Blinker’ Pinker the one-eyed burglar, I ought to be returning home.”
“If you must,” Valentine said, giving Rhiannon a friendly wink. “You remember me in your prayers, luv. I reckon the Good Lord’ll listen to an angel like you instead of an old reprobate like me.”
Rhiannon chuckled, gave him a brilliant smile, and took Lina’s arm.
It was the work of a moment to gather their own picnic things and summon their carriage driver, Henry, to take them back to their house in Grosvenor Street.
As soon as they returned home, Lina took her bottles and bowls and spoons to the study. The footmen were kept busy fetching instruments and apparatus from the attic. Soon, she had a small chemical laboratory set up on a table near the Chinese screen that hid the overflowing bookcase. The butler, Jackson, was sent out to the chemist’s to purchase some necessary materials. By the time he came back with his packages, Lina was ready to begin.
Rhiannon remained coiled upon the green velvet settee, chin in hand, while Lina prepared the samples. Unfortunately, testing for prussic acid was a meticulous, time-consuming process. First, one had to combine the sample with chlorine; if the poisonous substance was present, cyanogen chloride would be formed. That was the first step. There were several others. While she worked, Lina explained the process to her watchful lover.
“The introduction of pyridine into the flask should form glutocondialdehyde, which, when combined with dimethylbarbituric acid, will turn the substance a violet color if cyanide is present,” Lina said. “The intensity of the hue varies upon the strength of the poison.”
Rhiannon sat up straight. “Did you say cyanide?”
“Yes, I did.” Lina put the flask down on the table. The color had not changed; no prussic acid was present. She marked the result on a scrap of paper.
“You said before it was prussic acid!”
“My dear, hydrogen cyanide and prussic acid are one and the same.”
Rhiannon bit her lip, then blurted, “The photographer did it. Mr. Butterfield.”
Lina had donned a white smock before beginning her work; she wiped her hands on the protective muslin garment and inquired, “How do you know this, my dear?” It was not that she did not believe Rhiannon, but the law – and logic – demanded proof.
“My late father’s hobby was photography. He poisoned himself with potassium cyanide, which is used in the photographic process.” Rhiannon shivered. She stood and fetched a paisley shawl, which she wrapped around her shoulders. “Would potassium cyanide work as well as hydrogen cyanide?”
“Oh, yes, for a murderer’s purposes, the two substances work in similar fashion.” Lina considered her next words carefully; she did not want to hurt Rhiannon’s feelings. “Mr. Butterfield certainly had access to cyanide, but that is not the only question which must be answered. He had means and opportunity… but what was his motive?”
“I don’t know,” Rhiannon said. “He seemed somewhat close to Mrs. Barnabas, but she was in shock and he is a relation, although a distant one.”
“We have only his word for that.” Lina picked up a new sample – the turtle soup, she thought. “Let me complete the laboratory tasks first, then we will pay a visit to Inspector Valentine in Scotland Yard… provided we have news to tell.”
Rhiannon nodded, but she was hugging herself and seemed somewhat distressed. Lina laid aside her experiment and crossed the room to her lover’s side. “My dear,” she said, putting her arms around the smaller woman and holding her close. “Is it your father?”
“I did love him,” Rhiannon said, her mouth drawn into a thin line. The muscles in her shoulders were rigid. “He left me. He knew I needed him and he left me.”
Lina cupped Rhiannon’s delicate, wing-like shoulder bones in her hands and rubbed her nose along the woman’s hairline. “He was not a well man, my dear. I do not condone his behavior, but I can understand the weight of despondency that can drive a person to attempt suicide and succeed.”
A gush of hot tears against the side of her throat, where Rhiannon had pressed her face, made Lina continued, “Oh, my dear… my dear…” and rub soothing circles on the weeping woman’s back. She wished, not for the first time, that William Foster Moore was burning in Hell for the trauma he had inflicted on his daughter.
She bent her head, nudging Rhiannon until she could press her mouth against her lover’s tear-slick lips. Rhiannon let out a sound that was half-sob, half-groan, and opened her mouth to Lina’s gentle pressure. Lina slipped her tongue inside; Rhiannon tasted like salt and strawberries and champagne, mixed with the taint of an old, old sorrow. She licked at the inside of Rhiannon’s mouth, chasing the flavors until the other woman suddenly relaxed against her, a warm boneless weight in her arms.
Lina had to tear herself away when scarlet-tinged sparkles drifted in the darkness behind her closed eyelids. She shuddered and sucked in a deep breath, barely hearing Rhiannon’s whimper. The sound did register, however. Lina opened her eyes. Rhiannon was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. The depth of Lina’s affection was bottomless, an abyss from which she never wanted to escape. She was drowning in desire; wave after wave of ardent feeling engulfing her until she could do nothing else except kiss Rhiannon again and again and again, reveling in the sweet, wet, addictive heat.
Rhiannon’s arms were around her neck. The skin was silky, but not as soft as the little patch of flesh between her belly and her thigh. Lina stared at the creamy mounds of Rhiannon’s breasts, exposed by a generous décolletage, and licked her lips in anticipation. Impatient to reach the prize that she hungered for, she hooked her fingers into Rhiannon’s bodice and tore downwards with all her strength. The cherry-amber silk came apart with a sound like a whisper, bits of tattered lace drifting to the floor to join the remnants of the gown around her lover’s ankles.
Lina fell upon Rhiannon like a starving wolf, bearing the other woman backwards onto the settee. Her victim giggled rather than screamed… even when she was being gobbled alive.
It was not until the following morning that Lina was able to compete her tests. The results made her raise an eyebrow until it ached. Not quite what she expected, and there remained the troublesome question of motive, but there was evidence that needed to be presented to Scotland Yard.
She had also promised to buy Rhiannon a new dress to replace the one she had ruined. Lina felt a tinge of color creep up her cheeks. Ah, sweet memories! The ragged remains of cherry-amber silk were carefully preserved in a box in the back of her wardrobe, a memento of one of the most fulfilling nights she had ever spent squeezed into a back-breaking position on the settee. A smile creased her strong-boned face. She could not wait to repeat the experience as soon as she could persuade Rhiannon to agree to an encore.
With some reluctance, Lina turned her attention back to the Barnabas poisoning.
Rather than go to Scotland Yard, Lina elected to send a note to Inspector Valentine, asking him to join her in Grosvenor Street. His arrival coincided with the tea tray brought into the study by a footman. Valentine let out the glad cry of a bachelor condemned to the indifference of his own cooking, and wasted no time tucking into egg-and-cress and tomato sandwiches with the crusts cut off, Eccles cake and toasted muffins dripping with butter.
Rhiannon, a woman who enjoyed her afternoon tea, watched Valentine make a proper pig of himself with some dismay before ringing Jackson to bring more sandwiches and cake from the kitchen. Lina stifled her amusement and poured tea, although she did have to wince at the obscene amount of sugar cubes that Valentine dropped into his milk-laced cup.
At last, his appetite satisfied, Valentine sat back, made a discreet belch behind his hand, and said, “Thank ‘ee kindly for the tea, milady. Now what can I do for thee, eh?”
Lina showed him the things she had taken from the picnic, earning a cry of outrage from the man. “B’God, milady, that ain’t fair doings!” Valentine said, his cheeks gone red with fury. “You stole them spoons from under my nose!”
“So I did, Harry,” Lina replied calmly. “Now do you want to waste time berating me for my sins, or do you wish to solve this case?”
“Don’t think we won’t have more words about your sticky fingers,” Valentine grumbled, but Rhiannon thoughtfully supplied him with a slice of Cook’s best lemon tart, and he subsided into a sort of sugar-induced state of semi-bonhomie.
“Can you tell me, Harry, whose idea was the picnic?” Lina asked.
“Mrs. Barnabas, or so the daughter says,” Valentine replied. “The soup was her idea, too, being as how the late Mr. Barnabas was having some trouble with his teeth.”
“I see. Why did Barnabas use six spoons instead of one?”
“To hear Mrs. Barnabas tell the tale, her husband was one of those fastidious fellows that can’t stand a flyspeck. When he ate his supper, he used a different fork and knife for every item on his plate, not just different cutlery for every course. Daft, eh? Oh, beg pardon… Barnabas was eccentric ‘cause he could afford not to be mad,” Valentine snorted. “A poorer man we’d have just called insane and sent to Colney Hatch in a leather jacket.”
“Did everyone eat the same?”
“Yes, all four of them ate some of each soup.”
Lina sat back on the settee, steepled her fingers together and asked the final question that would either confirm or deny her suspicions. “Harry, you have a keen sense of judgment when it comes to your fellow man. What is your impression of the relationship between Mr. Butterfield and Mrs. Barnabas?”
Valentine’s sandy brows came together in a frown. “What might you be after, milady?”
“The truth, of course.”
“As to that, I had a wee chat with the Barnabas’ butler, a cheeky fellow name of Quillard,” he said, hooking his thumbs in the pockets of his waistcoat. “You know servants, milady; they see everything, they hear everything, and for a bit of cash, they’re willing to tell everything.”
“Pas devant les domestiques,” Lina murmured.
“So you say, milady.” Valentine delayed a few moments choosing a cigar from a case that he took from the inner pocket of his gray-and-cream checked jacket. After the business of lighting the cigar with a lucifer and seeing that it was drawing properly, the inspector continued, “Quillard says that Mr. Fred Butterfield showed up about two months ago claiming a cousin’s privilege from Henrietta Barnabas. The husband was happy to accommodate his wife’s relation; ‘tweren’t no skin off his nose to give bed n’ board to an American abroad. Only Simon Barnabas didn’t know his wife was sneaking into Butterfield’s bedchamber at night, when she thought everyone was asleep. She never reckoned on Quillard bein’ one of those chappies whatt can’t go to bed without a drink or two of the master’s brandy.”
Rhiannon nodded. “Motive,” she said to Lina.
“Cui bono?” Lina asked Valentine, who blew a smoke ring and professed his ignorance. She repeated the question in English: “Who benefits? I assume his wife is the principle beneficiary in Mr. Barnabas’ will.”
“I’ve not had time to question the family solicitor but I reckon you’re right,” Valentine said. “Now, milady, it’s my turn to ask the questions, if you don’t mind.”
“As a matter of fact, I do mind,” Lina said, cutting him off rather rudely. “Harry, I know who murdered Simon Barnabas; I know how it was done and why. If you would be so kind as to request the presences of Henrietta Barnabas, Frederick Butterfield and Louisa Barnabas here tonight, I shall reveal all.”
“What are you, a bleedin’ conjurer? You’ll tell me now, milady, or I’ll know the reason why!”
Lina smiled in the face of Valentine’s bluster. “Tonight, Harry,” she repeated.
Familiar with the lady’s stubbornness - and moved to toleration by an excellent repast - Valentine gave in with a frustrated grunt.
That evening, the scene was set. Lina had sent out to several restaurants to obtain the right sort of soups, while Rhiannon was dispatched in the carriage with a wad of notes in order to purchase the rest of the required stage props. When Mrs. Barnabas, her daughter Louisa, and Mr. Butterfield arrived at Grosvenor Street, they found a reconstruction of their ill-starred picnic laid out in the study. A blanket was spread on the floor. Earthenware bowls, cutlery and napkins were set out in the correct places; the hamper itself was off to one side.
“Is this some sort of disgusting joke?” Henrietta asked. She was a handsome, thin woman whose complexion owed a good deal to rouge and pearl powder. Her brunette hair was tightly curled. Deep lines carved from nose to mouth were evidence of a spleenish nature; Lina would have wagered that Henrietta Barnabas rarely smiled.
In contrast, her daughter Louisa was pretty, pert and a dreadful flirt. Lina had seen the girl trying to work her infantile wiles on Dr. Idlewyld in the park; now she witnessed the painful spectacle of Miss Louisa batting her eyelashes and wriggling her hips at poor Harry Valentine. Judging the inspector’s color, Lina thought he was mortified.
Fortunately for Valentine’s countenance, Rhiannon intervened, sending Louisa to sit on the blanket in approximately the same position as she had been the day before. The bewhiskered Mr. Butterfield was persuaded to assume his proper place. Although she continued to protest, Henrietta allowed herself to be lowered to the floor.
Lina knew that she was shamelessly indulging her love of the melodramatic and theatrical, but it felt good to have an audience, even if it was a captive one. “It is incumbent upon me to make this announcement,” she began, glancing around to gauge the expressions of the people staring at her. “I shan’t be coy but state my business baldly - Simon Barnabas was murdered yesterday by someone in this room.”
As she had anticipated, there was a loud and noisy burst of protests from both of the Barnabas women – Louisa was particularly shrill for such a young, tender creature – but Mr. Butterfield overrode them. “I have never been so insulted in my life!” he bellowed. “How dare you, madam! I cannot believe this farce is approved by the authorities. You, sir, ought to be ashamed!” He shook his finger at Valentine. The inspector shrugged.
“Shut your hole or I’ll shut it for you,” Valentine said in a silky drawl. His rude response was so shocking, Butterfield’s mouth closed with a click.
“Thank you,” Lina said to Valentine. “To continue… I do not know who formulated the plot, but I can tell you this – Mr. Barnabas was poisoned with potassium cyanide.” To quell the new uproar which greeted her words, she held up both hands for silence. Valentine put on his best glare, which proved most effective.
When she was certain of being heard, Lina said, “The poison was not in any of the soups because all four members of the party consumed a sample of each. My tests have concluded that cyanide was not present in the earthenware dishes that Mr. Barnabas ate from. The true culprit was a most unusual article at the picnic. Can you guess what I mean?” She tilted her head. “Can you guess, Mrs. Barnabas? Mr. Butterfield?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Henrietta said.
“Your husband was an extremely fastidious gentleman. His habits were, to say the least, somewhat eccentric.” Lina went to the fireplace, her blue taffeta skirts rustling, and rested an elbow against the mantelpiece. “I have heard that he required a different set of cutlery for each item on his dinner plate.”
Henrietta snapped, “What of it?”
“Simon Barnabas needed six spoons at the picnic – one for each of the different soups which you caused to be purchased, Mrs. Barnabas. Soup is such an unusual item to bring to a summer picnic. I must ask myself why you did not choose more traditional fare.”
“My husband suffered from bad teeth.”
“It is more than that.” Lina suddenly stooped down to contront the seated woman. “Mrs. Barnabas, the amount of cyanide solution that can be painted on a knife or fork is fairly minimal, but on the bowl of a spoon…! And six spoons at that, madam – enough potassium cyanide to kill a man. Hence the soup, since you were familiar with your late husband’s habits. Each spoonful that Simon Barnabas consumed brought him closer to his doom.”
A bead of sweat slipped down Henrietta’s brow. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Lina pointed a finger at her. “Shall I spell it out for you, madam?” She swung that finger to include Mr. Butterfield. “You were having an affair with this man under your husband’s very nose. Yes, there is a witness to your infidelity. You and your lover plotted to be rid of an inconvenient spouse. Butterfield has access to potassium cyanide; it is a chemical much used in the photographer’s profession. Did he lead you to the murder, madam, or was it you who seduced him into committing the deed?”
“No!” Henrietta gasped, while at the same time, Louisa Barnabas drew her hand back and slapped Mr. Butterfield hard enough to knock him over.
“You poncy bastard!” Louisa shrilled, her face turning an ugly shade of brick red. “You told me I was the only one!”
In her astonishment at this unexpected development, Lina lost her balance and fell into the carrot soup, which stained her taffeta skirts beyond repair.
Sometime later, when Valentine had departed with his prisoners – mother and daughter having turned upon Butterfield, whose crime other than a murder conspiracy was to believe he could get away with playing the merry sultan with two females in the same house – Lina sat on the settee with a well-earned whiskey-and-soda.
Rhiannon sat next to her, giggling from time to time. That was probably due to the fact that Lina was caressing the other woman’s toes with her free hand.
“Poor Simon Barnabas,” Lina sighed, sipping from her glass and watching Rhiannon out of the corner of her eye. “For him, cleanliness was truly next to Godliness; had he not been such an hygienically obsessed individual, it is doubtful that Butterfield’s plot would have gone off as successfully as it did.”
“Poor Mr. Butterfield,” Rhiannon replied, plucking the glass out of Lina’s hand and taking a sip before putting it on the floor. “The Chinese write using a system of pictograms. The pictogram illustrating ‘discord’ is two women under one roof. Of course, however wise the Chinese are supposed to be, that’s not been my experience at all.”
“I would never describe what is between us as discord, my love.”
“How would you describe us, my dear?”
“Words simply will not suffice.”
“Perhaps a practical demonstration is in order,” Rhiannon whispered, her hands rucking up Lina’s skirts, her voice muffled against Lina’s bodice.
“Oh… oh… oh!”
The glass of whiskey-and-soda was tipped over onto the hearth rug, but neither woman noticed.