The Earthly Purgatory

Alden spoke first. “You are aware, Mr. Durgan, that Mr. Claxon and his second wife were suddenly killed, that a large body of circumstantial evidence proved that Hermione was alone in the house with them, that by her own arranging she was alone with them—in fact, I must say there was complete circumstantial proof that she committed the heinous crime. There was even motive, if just anger and love of money are motive enough. Against this stood, I may say, only her personality, for so reticent and modest is she that few knew her character.”[…]

[…] [Alden] “Remember that the dual crime and the vanishing of this boy occurred at midday in a fashionable neighbourhood in a household noted for propriety, elegance, and culture.” […]

[…]“But—oh, but—I read constantly in the papers of people who kill themselves, or kill others and themselves afterwards. The verdict is always ‘temporary insanity.’ I supposed there was such a thing.”

“That verdict is usually a cloak for ignorance; but it assumes that had such people lived they would have shown symptoms of mental disease.” […]

[…]Alden rose up, his back stiff with indignation. “Sir! that is at least a contingency which is entirely impossible. Are you aware that, before her father’s death, Hermione Claxton had consented to marry me? We were about to make the engagement public. I had asked Mr. Claxton to accord me an interview. He was a confirmed hypochondriac; it was difficult to see him. I was waiting his pleasure when the tragedy—— Ah! it is impossible to explain how this tragedy has wrecked our lives, for, with an unparalleled strength of will and sensitive honour, Miss Claxton at once, and ever since, has refused to link her name with mine.”[…]

[…] [Hermione] “I must tell you from the beginning—it is the only way. Upon the morning that that crime was committed in our house, a boy came with a note from Mr. Beardsley. It made my father very angry. He told me that Beardsley was coming on the heels of his messenger upon an impertinent errand. What he said was that Bearsely was bent upon dictating the terms of his friendship with Mrs. Durgan, whom he had only lately met.

“There was something the maids had to do that afternoon, and I sent them then in the morning, for I could not bear that anyone should see such a person in our house, or see my father so angry. My poor step-mother had not risen from bed. When Beardsley came he went upstairs to my father’s sitting-room. The door was shut, but from what my father told me afterwards, I know pretty well what happened.”

“Afterwards,” repeated Alden; “afterwards! Hermione?”

“Dear Herbert, do not be angry, but only listen, and you will understand how easily what seemed impossible could happen. This Mr. Beardsley had the idea that my poor father and Mrs. Durgan had fallen in love at his meetings. He was a simple, stupid man, and he thought it his duty to exhort my father and warn my stepmother. I think that, angry as he was, my father thought it best to receive his exhortation with the affectation of playfulness. It was his way, you know. He had graceful, whimsical ways; he was not like other people. When he could not make this man see his own folly, or divert him from his purpose, he took down the little old pistol that was fastened on the wall as an ornament—the one that was found. I need not tell you that he did not know it was loaded; I did not know, and I dusted his things every day, for he could not bear to have a servant in the room. He tried to sop Beardsley by threatening to shoot himself in mock despair. Poor mamma, hearing loud voices, ran in.

“Up till then I am sure papa had not a serious thought, except that he was naturally angered by the folly of the man; but the pistol went off, and poor mamma was killed. Oh! can you not imagine my father’s wild grief and anger against the fellow that, as he would think, had caused him to do it? But there was more than that. My father told me that Beardsley denounced him as a wilful murderer, and declared that it was only a feigned accident. Then, you see, he was the only witness, and could ruin my father’s reputation. Oh, I think it was fear as much as anger, but I am sure it was frenzy, possessed my father. You know what happened. The Indian battle-axe was hanging beside the pistol, and as soon as Beardsley fell, I am sure my father lost all control of himself or any knowledge of what he was doing.” […]

Source: Lily Dougall, "The Earthly Purgatory" (London: Hutchison and Co., 1904), 133-323. Notes: Released in the United States as The Summit House Mystery, published in New York by Funk and Wagnalls, 1905

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