Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Classic Authors Challenge: "Nothing That Needs Poisoned"-- Abigail Leskey

Here's the next story, by Abigail. A mini mystery featuring a famous mystery writer :-)

Nothing That Needs Poisoned
A Story about Sir Arthur Conon Doyle

Author’s Note

     The clue of the parsley is derived from the 1904 story “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.” This story is entirely fictional, although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not.


      This is the story of how I, Arthur Conan Doyle, went to Scotland trying to escape from a detective and became one myself. Let me hasten to assure you that I am not a criminal. The detective in question is from my own pen. He is greatly loved my many people. Perhaps you are among them. As this may be so, I will not reveal my own feelings towards him.
     I went to Scotland. I am a native of the place, though England is my home now. A friend of mine from medical school had invited me to his place for a fortnight.
   Colonel Earle Abercrombie (he has gone into the army, finding medicine little to his taste) greeted me warmly and loudly (he was half-deaf, and as he had a bad cold in his head this problem was far worse than at ordinary times.)
     “And my wife, who somehow ye’ve not met ‘till now.”
     Her dress was a glowing pink, decorated with much lace and ink.  Her eyes glittered.
     “Mr. Doyle! Oh, I am thrilled. I’m a writer, and you’re a writer, and I adore your detective—oh, when I found out you were coming I could not breathe! That was two days ago. I swooned. Oh, you must tell me how you do it!”
     I smiled. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Abercrombie. And honored you enjoy my stories.” No escape.
     “And this is our son Douglas,” she boasted. Douglas had arrived late. He was about twenty, with hunched shoulders and a lower lip slightly too plump. His hand stuck to mine; his hair looked almost as if it had been buttered.
     “Douglas is in love,” said Mrs. Abercrombie.
    “Um, uh, pardon me,” mumbled Douglas. He stumbled, shambled, and shuffled away.
     “He is in love with our maid, Emma.”
     “Mariah, how many times must I tell you that is not to be mentioned!”
     She glared at him. “They love each other. She’s a darling girl. You are narrow-minded!”
     “I let her stay. Be sated!”
     I walked into the garden, mortified. Mrs. Abercrombie was screaming. I turned a corner and collided with Douglas and a young woman. They were—I hesitate—oh, hang it all. They were kissing.
     They ceased, and I apologized.
     “This is Miss Armour,” Douglas said. “We intend to wed.”
     She blushed. A pretty young woman, walnut-haired and tiny.
It was at tea that it happened.  I will give you the details, so that you will not become confused.
    Tea was served in the garden, on a small table at which Colonel Abercrombie had fallen asleep. I was not present when Emma brought the tea out, but arrived just as she was leaving. Colonel Abercrombie—apparently just woken—Mrs. Abercrombie, and I sat around the table. Douglas was not present. I had spent the last half hour, after Colonel Abercrombie had fallen asleep, walking alone. 
    Mrs. Abercrombie passed me a dish of butter. “No, thank you.” I was too corpulent of late. “I never eat it either,” said Mrs. Abercrombie.
      Colonel Abercrombie took the other dish of butter and began smearing a thick slice over a scone.  “I apologize for dozing, Doyle. I’m aging for sure.” He coughed into a handkerchief.
    “Not at all, my dear Abercrombie.”
    “Truly! Though if I ate less butter—and meat—and biscuits, perhaps—“ He ate large bites of the scone.  “And scones. But a scone covered in butter is grand, aye?” He finished the scone, stretched out his hand for another, and began slathering it.  He took a bite, then sat silently a moment. “Confound this cold!” he gasped, dropping his scone into the black tea. “I—“ He rose, turned to the right, and fell on his face onto the table. I heard china break. Mrs. Abercrombie screamed and swayed out of her chair onto the grass.
    I ran around, pulled him off the shards and laid him on the grass. When a man or woman faints, the face of the afflicted person is pale. His was the colour of the sky the morning of a stormy day, shining through his grey whiskers. I bent over him.
     “Cannot breathe…” he whispered. But he was breathing frantically. Why did I scent almonds? There were no almonds at tea.  Sanguine face. Almonds. Prussic acid.  Poison.
      I realized Douglas was standing there, mouth open. “Go get the doctor. Tell him to bring the antidote for prussic acid. Now!”
     Abercrombie looked at me. “No police,” he said, and closed his eyes. I checked his pulse. It was still present.
     Emma ran up. “Attend to Mrs. Abercrombie,” I said.
“He’ll live,” said Dr. Gillespie, also a friend from school. We stood next to Colonel Abercrombie’s bed. He was asleep. “Thank Providence I was no far away.  Douglas, lad, you can tell your mother.”
    Dr. Gillespie closed the door after him. “The police must hear of this.”
    “He wishes not,” I said. “I shall attempt to change his mind.”
    “It was no suicide,” said Gillespie. “Be certain of that! No, it was murder, an attempt at it. Watch Maria Abercrombie. She’s no a good, normal woman.”
     Gillespie remained with Abercrombie; I went to inspect the tea-table.
     Of everything at least one person besides Abercrombie had partaken, if any had been consumed. There was one exception. The dish of butter from which he had spread only he had used.
    I smelled it. This was the poison bearer.
    The two butters were nearly indistinguishable. Both in their cut glass containers, pale yellow, with a fragile parsley sprig on top.  Only on the poisoned one, the sprig was imbedded in the butter.  Perhaps the addition of the acid had made the butter set softer, or perhaps it had sat out longer than the other?
    I made my way back to the house, and entered Abercrombie’s room. Gillespie rose, and with a nod went out.  I sat beside Abercrombie for some thirty minutes, quite angry. He was a good man.
     “Doyle? I’m alive?”
    “That’s grand,” he said dully. “You are not to contact the police.”
    “Why not?”
    “Because it was Douglas who poisoned me—he or the girl.” Abercrombie began to weep.
         I did not contact the police then; I was of the opinion that the choice was Abercrombie’s. Over the next few days I questioned people, and watched the making of Abercrombie’s meals. Emma tried to make me leave the kitchen, but I remained.
     “Do you usually put two dishes of butter on the table?” I asked her the day after the incident.
     “No, sir. “
     “But you did yesterday.”
     “Begging your pardon, sir, one dish was on the table when I came. I don’t know the reason.”
    “You are certain? It was in a dish of butter that the poison was.” I was seeing her back only.
     “Yes, I am sure!” she said.
   “Does Douglas usually take meals alone?”
    “He often takes his tea in the kitchen, sir. With myself. We were on our way to the kitchen when the mistress screamed.”
       “Colonel Abercrombie will not be pleased by that,” I said. She turned around, a carrot in one hand and a knife in the other. “I do not want you in the kitchen,” she said. “At least be quiet!”
    I was flabbergasted. Maids did not speak like that.  She glared at me, then turned and slammed the knife through the carrot.
“Have you solved the mystery?” Mrs. Abercrombie demanded. “Do you have any clues?”
      “Not many,” I said.
      “Where are you going?”
     “To the apothecary. To see if anyone bought prussic acid.”
     “I’m sure I didn’t! I don’t want to influence you, but do you suppose—well, he’s been terribly upset by Douglas…perhaps…” She looked at me nervously.
     “It was not suicide,” I said. “I shall be back soon.”
     The apothecary nodded. “Aye, Emma bought some two days ago.  She said Mrs. Abercrombie was wanting it for mice, or something of the sort, aye. Why are ye wanting to ken?”
Douglas said, “There is nothing—ah, nothing here that needs poisoned.”
      Prussic acid had been bought, and not for mice. If Mrs. Abercrombie had claimed that it was, then her guilt was extremely possible. On the other hand, Emma might have lied to the apothecary. If she had, she was likely the assassin. Douglas, by admitting there was no rodential difficulty, had lessened my suspicions of him. At least he must not have known of the lie.
     Emma had a motive; Colonel Abercrombie was blocking her from marriage to her betrothed.  Mrs. Abercrombie did not. Perhaps she and her husband did not live precisely in all accord, but that was all.
     When Emma went to market I walked up the servant’s staircase and entered her attic room. I assure you that under any other circumstances than attempted murder I would not have done so; and I certainly would not have searched her two drawers and one hatbox.  Feeling ungentlemanly, I lifted garments, only to find more. Nothing. I descended the stairs and entered Douglas’s chamber.  He was standing in it.
    “Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “I—“
    “I found this,” he said, and held out a blue glass bottle.  I took it, and read the label.  Hydrogen cyanide. Prussic acid.
    “Where was this?”
    “It was on the, um, shelf in my wardrobe. I did not put it there.”
    I pocketed the thing, and went to Colonel Abercrombie’s room. He was sitting near the window, upright in a dark gold velvet chair.
    “Abercrombie, something has been found.”
    “The bottle?”
     “It is so. Do I have your permission to apprise the officers of the law of this?”
     “I do not want to bring trouble on Douglas! ‘Tis the girl who’s culpable. Delilah, Salome, Cleopatra…it was in his room, was it not?”
    “It was, but he asserts ignorance of it. He states that he found it today in his wardrobe. I believe he is innocent, Abercrombie. I want to check the bottle for fingerprints. I shall require assistance from the police. ”
    “Very well,” he said.  
“Ye’re Arthur Conan Doyle!” exclaimed the sergeant. “The author of the tales about that detective?”
     “Yes. This is a delicate matter.”
     “Oh, aye. I’m no blabber-mouth.”
     “Colonel Abercrombie was nearly poisoned a few days ago. Someone put Prussic acid into butter; he ingested a quantity, and nearly died. He did not wish the police contacted.  But the bottle containing the acid has been located in his son’s room. I do not believe Douglas a murderer. So I want to test for fingerprints.”  
     “You should have told us. But too late for that. Who bought the stuff?”
     “Emma, claiming Mrs. Abercrombie wanted it for mice. Mrs. Abercrombie denies it; Douglas and Colonel Abercrombie say there is an absence of pestilential animals present.”
     We set out. I told all.
     “Ye think ‘twas meant for Abercrombie?”
     “I cannot believe it was for me; and Douglas eats elsewhere. That leaves Mr. and Mrs. Abercrombie, and she doesn’t eat butter. According to Emma the poisoned butter was already on the table when she came with the tea. It was melting, so I think that’s true enough. ”        
     In the sitting room he took my prints first, then beckoned Mrs. Abercrombie. She giggled.
     “I feel as if this were all one of your stories, Arthur,” she cried. I was bemused and greatly abashed at this freedom with my name. Douglas gave his prints subsequently.
   “No, sir,” said Emma. “I’m a decent girl. I did touch the bottle; I bought it. Mrs. Abercrombie wanted it, for mice she said.”
    “Are there mice, lassie?”
    “No, sir. But it is my place to run errands.”
    Colonel Abercrombie came down and had his prints taken after hers had been, and the sergeant left.
    That evening a wind was blowing hard. I hardly heard the telephone.
    “For you, Mr. Doyle,” said Douglas.
     Sergeant Beall wanted me to come at once. So I walked down. The wind was cold for early August.
    “Ah, Dr. Doyle. As nearly as we can tell, an unknown person first—the apothecary, likely—then Emma, then Mrs. Abercrombie, then Douglas, then yourself.”
    “That’s right.” I sat in silence, thinking. Then I stood up. “I know who did this, sergeant.”
I explained everything to Colonel Abercrombie, the door locked for privacy. It was hard. He took it like a soldier.
    “Half an hour,” he said quietly. “Alone. I shall then join ye in the sitting room.”
    He joined us on time and sat down. Mrs. Abercrombie adjusted his cushions. Douglas slouched. Emma stood, very pale. Sergeant Beall and an officer also stood.
    I placed the bottle on the ecru doily that netted the table.  Emma pressed herself against the wall.  “This bottle contained the prussic acid with which some individual adulterated the butter,” I said. “Emma Armour bought it at the apothecary, by Mrs. Abercrombie’s directions. Mrs. Abercrombie wanted it to kill mice. But upon the testimony of Colonel Abercrombie and Douglas Abercrombie, there is nothing here that needs poisoned.”
    “She is lying,” said Mrs. Abercrombie, angerless.
    “The next person to handle it was you. Either she did get it at your bidding, or else you took it from her. Either way you had it. There was no legitimate reason for you to possess poison.  After using the poison to attempt to kill your husband, you secreted the bottle in your son’s wardrobe.”
    Mrs. Abercrombie was smiling. “Yes,” she said. “I made a mystery for you. You can use the plot. And I did want Douglas and Emma to be able to marry. They’re in my book, you see. My husband never liked my books.”
    What more is there to say? Mrs. Abercrombie lives in a mental asylum, from which two new novels emit a year; Douglas and Emma married; and now they have a child, dear to the Colonel. And I did put it in a story. 

Copyright©2014 by Abigail Leskey
Find out more about Abigail on the Writer's Page

My own story will me up Friday. I hope you have enjoyed Abigail and Mara's stories so far :-)


  1. I really liked how you did this story, I think it sounded very much like Doyle. Poor fellow, trying to go on vacation and ending up getting caught in a case, just like Sherlock ;) I really admire your ability to be able to write a mystery in so few words.

    1. Thank you very much :) I'm truly pleased you liked it.

  2. That's awesome! And yes, bravo for writing such a compelling mystery in so short a story! :)

    1. Thank you! I'm honoured that my story has the approbation of two Sherlockians :)


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