July 25, 2012 by jamesessj
Mrs. Bainbridge met the inspector in the vestibule. She was tall, thin, going to silver, but still every inch in command of her faculties and surroundings. A grand dame — as was the mansion in which she lived. The house embraced them, encased them, its ambiance reeking of age, money, class, and a touch of something not quite kosher.
“Mrs. Bainbridge,” said the inspector.
He was an upstanding officer of Scotland Yard. An impeccable record. A spotless career. Three years from retirement. He wished he’d had more cases like this one. But then again…perhaps not.
“I thank you,” he said, “for allowing me the use of your indoor facilities. I noticed the outdoor W.C. as I came up the drive, but frankly, it appeared to be–”
“Yes,” interrupted Mrs. Bainbridge. “In a state of disrepair. It is not one of this house’s proudest chapters.”
The inspector rotated his hat in his hand, an automatic, unthinking habit. “I do have good news, however. I believe I’ve deduced the solution to the mystery.”
“Mystery? What mystery?”
“The mystery of who murdered your husband, Mrs. Bainbridge.”
“Oh! That mystery! How could that have slipped my mind, goodness gracious.”
The inspector lowered his head, then raised his eyes to gaze at her. “I put it to you that you have good reason for not wanting the mystery solved, Mrs. Bainbridge.”
“Inspector! You don’t mean to suggest that you suspect me?”
“No, Ma’am. But I do suspect your secret lover — the Earl of Tonkerton.”
Mrs. Bainbridge gasped. “Not — Ray-Ray!”
“Indeed. Raymond Featheringhaugh, sixteenth Earl of Tonkerton.”
“But why would Ray-Ray kill my husband?”
Inspector Hausfrau spoke delicately. “It has to do with his being your secret lover, Mrs. Bainbridge.”
Mrs. Bainbridge looked left…then right…the left again. “I’m not following you, Inspector…”
Hausfrau spoke slowly. “The Earl of Tonkerton is your secret lover. He murdered your husband so that he might have you all for himself.”
Mrs. Bainbridge suddenly understood. “Oh, I see! So that our love would no longer need be secret, is that what you’re getting at?”
“Yes, Mrs. Bainbridge.” Inspector Hausfrau placed his hands behind his back and began to pace, a step to the left, a step to the right, a step to the left. At the Yard this was known as “the final chapter strut.”
“The answer,” he said, “is startlingly obvious. In fact this case required almost no investigation to speak of. During my questioning of you, I asked if you had a secret lover, and you said yes. I asked if your secret lover was capable of murdering your husband, and you said yes. I asked if you knew where the Earl of Tonkerton was on the night of the murder, and you said he was in your husband’s office, where your husband’s body was later found. I asked if the Earl owned a pistol or a knife or a candlestick, and you said yes, he carried all three with him at all times, for personal protection; and as a convenient source of illumination. Your husband was hit on the head with a candlestick — then his throat was cut with a knife — then he was shot fourteen times in the stomach. Most murderers would have stopped with the candlestick, as your husband was already quite clearly dead. Only an impassioned, rage-filled murderer would have continued to kill a man who was already dead.”
Hausfrau stopped his pacing, awaiting the inevitable confession.
Mrs. Bainbridge did not oblige. “But, Inspector — Ray-Ray wouldn’t have killed husband over me!”
“Because my husband knew all about us! He even liked to film us, on occasion!”
Hausfrau could scarce believe his ears.
“We had an arrangement, Inspector. I was free to pursue my carnal love for Ray-Ray, and my husband was free to pursue his carnal love for Withertowers.”
“Withertowers? The very house in which we now stand?”
“Your husband pursued a carnal love for…a house?”
“It is a magnificent structure, Inspector.”
“Oh, there’s no denying that, but…carnal love? With a house?”
“We are the aristocracy, Hausfrau.”
The inspector’s self-confidence was shattered. “But if the Earl of Tonkerton didn’t kill your husband, who did?”
Mrs. Bainbridge glanced to her left…to her right…back to her left…and then leaned in close to the inspector. “Have you considered that perhaps…Withertowers might have committed the crime?”
Hausfrau recoiled. “The house is guilty of murder?”
“Stranger things have happened, Inspector.”
“Not on my beat!”
“The facts fit, Inspector. Withertowers was upset over my husband’s continuing interest in videotaping Ray-Ray and me…she decided to take it out on my poor husband mercilessly, vengefully, brutally!”
The inspector put his hands on his hips. “I don’t believe it. A house committing a murder. Honestly!”
“It’s the truth, Inspector.”
“You might as well say your coat rack killed your husband! Or the dining room table! Or your credenza!”
“No, they wouldn’t give my husband a second glance. He was not the handsomest of men.”
“Then how is it,” demanded the inspector, as if he’d caught her out in a transparent lie, “Withertowers bore him such a powerful love?”
“Because–” Mrs. Bainbridge’s fist flew to her mouth. A choking sob escaped her lips. “Because — they had a child together!”
Inspector Hausfrau staggered backward. “A child? A man and a house had a child?”
“Yes! Yes!” cried Mrs. Bainbridge, close to hysterics. “A tiny, terrible, misshapen thing!”
Hausfrau staggered back another step. “You don’t mean — ?”
“Yes, Inspector.” Mrs. Bainbridge flung the words from her mouth as if they were poison. “The outhouse! The outdoor outhouse!”
The inspector fell back against the staircase railing for support. “My god…”
Mrs. Bainbridge pointed toward the front door; but they both knew she was pointing beyond it, to the ramshackle wooden monstrosity on Withertowers’ lawn. “It is the product of their unholy union!”
“Then–” The inspector could barely form the words. “Then — the house really did…”
“Kill my husband? Yes, Inspector, yes! When my husband thew his bastard child out into the yard, Withertowers went mad with fury! She killed him…and killed him…and killed him again. She would have gone on killing him forever, if the gun I gave her hadn’t run out of bul–”
She stopped. Hausfrau stared at her.
“The gun you gave her, Mrs. Bainbridge?”
Mrs. Bainbridge froze. A long moment passed. When next she spoke it was without emotion. Without hope.
“I wanted a child…so badly. I always assumed it was my husband Frederick’s fault…that’s why I took up with Raymond. But still no child came…and then when my husband announced that Withertowers was carrying his child…something in me snapped. I convinced him to exile the child, and then I gave Withertowers the gun to kill him, because I knew she would! So great was her anger, so deep her distress, I knew she would kill him, if I gave her the means! She killed him, Inspector — but it might as well have been me who swung the candlestick…who stabbed with the knife…who pulled the trigger on the gun.”
She was quiet then. Quiet and still.
“Mrs. Bainbridge,” said Inspector Hausfrau, “I arrest you for conspiracy to murder Mr. Frederick Bainbridge.”
The inspector placed the handcuffs about her wrists.
“Will — will I go to jail?” she asked.
“For a very long time, I’m afraid.”
“Then…could I go to Brixton? It has those lovely tall ceilings, and that intricate brickwork, and…and those pretty little cornices!”
* * *
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute stupidity; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to rationalize. Withertowers, not wholly sane, stood by itself against its meadows, holding hatred within; it had stood so for eight hundred years, but more than likely not eight hundred or even eight more, expensive as its upkeep was. Within, walls continued at angles, bricks met irregularly, floors were creaky, and doors that went nowhere led to other doors that went somewhere, which only succeeded in making the trip a little longer; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Withertowers, and whatever laughed there, laughed alone.