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First published in Answers, the Amalgamated Press, London, 3 June 1909
Reprinted under syndication, e.g. in
Manawatu Times, New Zealand, April 29, 1909 (this version)

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2017
Version Date: 2021-04-13
Produced by Roy Glashan
Proofread by Gordon Hobley

All original content added by RGL is protected by copyright

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FOR thirty years, as many Londoners will remember, John Parker kept a hat-shop in Euston Road. At the age of sixty-five, being then a widower with an only daughter, he retired from business and settled down, with his daughter and a maid-of-all-work, in a small house in Portman Terrace. Two years after his retirement his daughter married a man named Hunt, and went to live at Streatham. After her departure the old man advertised for a housekeeper, and ultimately engaged, out of a score of applicants, a dashing young widow of twenty-eight, named Robertson.

Portman Terrace was divided in its opinions of Mrs. Robertson. The men, on the whole, thought her a "jolly good sort"; the women, on the other hand, said spiteful things about her golden hair, her pearly-white teeth, and her well-developed figure. They said other unkind things, which need not be repeated here, and presently they confided to their husbands that the "artful minx" was "setting her cap" at "her old fool of a master."

By this, of course, they meant to imply that the dashing young widow was trying to capture the old man's heart, and the three or four thousand pounds which he had saved. The men, with typical masculine superiority, scoffed at the suggestion, and advised their wives to exercise a little more Christian charity. But the wives soon had their revenge, for a few Sundays later the banns of marriage were published for the third time, and the date of the wedding had been fixed, when Mrs. Hunt, late one evening, received an anonymous postcard asking her if she was aware that her father was about to marry his youthful, golden-haired housekeeper.

Now, Mrs. Hunt, it will he readily understood, had no desire to see her father's three or four thousand pounds pass into the possession of a stranger, as they probably would if he married Mrs. Robertson. Accordingly, within an hour of the receipt of the postcard, a very indignant and very determined Mrs. Hunt arrived at Portman Terrace, intent on "putting an end to this tomfoolery!"

Amelia, the maid-of-all-work, opened the door for her, and informed her, in answer to her first question, that Mrs. Robertson had gone away that afternoon in order to spend the week before the wedding with some friends in the North.

"Wedding!" snorted Mrs. Hunt "There's going to be no wedding!"

Then she sailed into the little sitting-room to interview her father.

What passed at the interview may be gathered from the statement which Amelia—who was listening outside the door most of the time—afterwards made to the police. She said she heard Mrs. Hunt describe her father as a "blind old fool," and Mrs. Robertson as "an artful cat." She heard Mrs. Hunt implore her father to break off the marriage and come back with her to Streatham. Most important of all, she distinctly heard Mrs. Hunt declare, "I'd rather see you in your grave than married to a hussy like that!"

According to Amelia, the old man proved as determined and self-willed as his daughter. Again and again she heard him say he meant to marry Mrs. Robertson, and all the talking in the world wouldn't alter his decision. And, at last, said Amelia, he terminated the interview by wishing Mrs. Hunt good-night and going to bed.

Mrs. Hunt was furious. At the same time, she had no intention of giving in after one round, so to speak. After wiring to her husband that she would not return until the following day, she spent the night at Portman Terrace, rose betimes next morning, and assisted Amelia to prepare the old man's breakfast—the said breakfast consisting of a plate of oatmeal porridge, two rounds of buttered toast, and a pot of tea.

It is a fact of some importance that Parker complained that the porridge did not taste the same as usual, and left nearly half of it. He also left a portion of the toast and most of the tea. He had no appetite, he said, and presently he complained of a burning pain at the pit of his stomach. Very quickly the pain grew worse; he became very sick; a splitting headache supervened, followed by cramp in the limbs and smarting of the eyes.

At ten o'clock Mrs. Hunt sent Amelia for Dr. Burgin, who lived a few doors away, and who, as elsewhere related, was the young medical man who had consulted Sexton Blake, some months before, in the puzzling case of "The Mummer's Wife."

As soon as Dr. Burgin had examined his patient, he declared that he was suffering from the effects of some poison, probably arsenic. He said this in the hearing of Parker, who, writhing with agony though he was, turned on Mrs. Hunt, with something akin to maniacal fury.

"This is your doing, you—you fiend!" he almost screamed. "You said last night you would rather see me dead than married to Ethel! You have poisoned me to prevent me marrying Ethel, and in the hope of securing my money yourself. But you won't gain anything by it! I made a new will last week, leaving everything to Ethel!"

In spite of Dr. Burgin's protests, the old man sent Amelia for the police.

The police, of course, declined to arrest Mrs. Hunt, as her father commanded them to do. After they had questioned Dr. Burgin, however, they took possession of the remains of Parker's breakfast. Later in the day they reported to Mr. Parker, and afterwards to Dr. Burgin, that the borough analyst had carefully analysed these various articles, and had failed to find the very smallest trace of any poison of any kind.

This placed Dr. Burgin in a somewhat awkward position. He had pledged his reputation that Parker's symptoms were due to poison. Even on his own showing, the poison could only have been administered at breakfast-time. Yet the remains of the food which Parker had eaten at breakfast-time were not poisoned.

In the meantime, Parker's condition was growing graver with every passing hour, and every fresh symptom pointed more strongly, in Dr. Burgin's opinion, to the fact that he was suffering from arsenical poisoning. Yet none of the usual remedies—and Dr. Burgin tried them all—had the slightest effect.

"He's going to die," said the doctor to his wife, when he returned to his house after his fifth visit to his patient. "That he has been poisoned with arsenic I haven't the smallest doubt; but how, or when, or by whom, and why no arsenic was found in the food, I can't imagine. I was never so baffled in my life."

"Why not slip round to Baker Street and lay the facts before Sexton Blake?" suggested his wife.

"Good idea!" said the doctor. "Why didn't I think of him before?"


"I SHOULD like to see Mr. Parker before I pass an opinion on the case," said Sexton Blake, when Dr. Burgin had told him all there was to tell. "You have no objection?"

"On the contrary!" said Dr. Burgin. And a few minutes later the two men stood in Parker's bedroom. The detective, who, it will to remembered, was a duly-qualified medical man, examined the old man.

"Unless something is done for him, and very quickly, he's going to die," he said, when he and Dr. Burgin had adjourned to the sitting-room. "May I see the maid?"

"Certainly," said Dr. Burgin. "In the meantime, do you agree with me that he is suffering from arsenical poisoning?"

"I do. There's no room for doubt."

"Then why—"

"I'll tell you when I've questioned the maid."

Amelia came into the room, red-eyed and frightened-looking.

"Who prepared the porridge for Mr. Parker's breakfast this morning?" asked Sexton Blake.

"Please, sir, Mrs. Hunt, sir," replied Amelia.

"Did he always have porridge for breakfast?"

"Ever since Mrs. Robertson came, sir."

"And Mrs. Robertson usually prepared it?"

"Always, sir."

"Was the oatmeal which was used this morning the same that Mrs. Robertson used yesterday, and the day before?"

"Yes, sir. Leastways, it was out of the same jar, but it wasn't the same oatmeal."

"Ah! That's what I suspected. Mrs. Robertson used the last of the old oatmeal yesterday morning?"

"Not quite all, sir. But when she'd made his porridge yesterday morning there wasn't enough to make any more, so, before she went away, she got a fresh lot and put it in the jar."

"And it was the fresh lot which Mrs. Hunt used this morning?"

"Yes, sir."

"Let me see the jar."

Amelia brought the jar, and the detective turned it upside-down on the table, thus emptying out its contents in a little conical heap. From the top of the heap—which represented the old oatmeal, which had been in the bottom of the jar, of course—he scooped up a small quantity of the meal and placed it in an envelope. Then, bidding Dr. Burgin wait for him, and promising to explain when he returned, he left the house, and walked briskly to his rooms.

In his laboratory he submitted the meal to a searching analysis, the result of which appeared to afford him the liveliest satisfaction. Then, after taking down from one of the shelves a small bottle of pinkish-colored fluid and thrusting it into his pocket, he returned to Portman Terrace.

As he entered the bedroom he saw that Dr. Burgin was just about to give his patient a hypodermic injection of morphia to relieve him.

"Don't do that," said Sexton Blake. "I've got something here which will give him far more relief than morphia."

"What?" asked Dr. Burgin, in surprise.

By way of reply, the detective drew the bottle of pinkish liquid from his pocket, poured out a small quantity into a medicine-glass, and administered it to the old man.

For a moment or two nothing happened. Then gradually the look of pain died out of Parker's face, his skin resumed its normal color, the sickness ceased, and murmuring, "Heaven bless you, sir! That's the first bit of ease I've had since this morning!" he sank back on his pillows and dropped into a quiet sleep.

To say that Dr. Burgin was bewildered and amazed is but feebly to describe his feelings. He gazed at Sexton Blake in astonishment.

"You're a wizard!" he gasped. "What-what have you given him?"

"A big dose of arsenic!" said Sexton Blake.


"WHEN you told me what Mr. Parker's symptoms were," said Sexton Blake to Dr. Burgin, "I had not the slightest doubt that you were right in supposing he was suffering from arsenical poisoning. When you told me that no arsenic had been found in the remains of his breakfast, or in the food which he had rejected, I began to have a suspicion of the truth. When I questioned the maid my suspicions were confirmed, and when I had analysed the meal at the bottom of the jar they became a certainty."

"There was arsenic in the meal at the bottom of the jar?"

"There was."

"What, then, is your theory?"

Before the detective could reply Mrs. Hunt came into the room.

"My father seems better," she remarked.

"Much better," said Sexton Blake. "In fact, I think we may say he is out of danger."

Mrs. Hunt hesitated for a moment; then she looked the detective full in the face.

"Do you believe I poisoned him?" she asked.

"No," said Sexton Blake; "but I believe—in fact I know— that Mrs. Robertson did."

Mrs. Hunt shook her head. Prejudiced though she was against her father's housekeeper, she had all an Englishwoman's sense of fair play.

"Impossible!" she said. "Mrs. Robertson went away yesterday afternoon, and my father was only taken ill this morning."

The detective smiled.

"Mrs. Robertson evidently knows more about the action of arsenic than you do," he said. "She knows, for instance, that if a person has been in the habit of taking arsenic regularly for some time, and is then suddenly deprived of it, he contracts all the symptoms of acute arsenical poisoning.

"What I mean is this," he continued. "If you had not been in the habit of taking arsenic, and I were to give you a big dose, you would quickly become as ill as your father was this morning. On the other hand, if I were to begin by giving you a small dose every day, and were gradually to increase the dose, I could at last, without hurting you, give you a dose that would poison any ordinary person. If I were then suddenly to stop giving you any arsenic, you would develop the same symptoms as if I had given you a big, dose all at once for the first time in your life."

"Is that so?" asked Mrs. Hunt, turning to Dr. Burgin.

"Yes," said the doctor, in tones of suppressed excitement. "Now I understand! Mrs. Robertson has been mixing arsenic with your father's porridge for the last few months, doubtless in increasing doses. Yesterday she went away, with the result that your father got no arsenic with his porridge this morning. Being thus deprived of his daily dose, he immediately began to suffer all the symptoms of acute arsenical poisoning."

"Exactly! said Sexton Blake. He turned to Mrs. Hunt.

"Mrs. Robertson," he said, "had evidently set her heart on securing your father's money. She could only do this by marrying him, which she didn't want to do—which, perhaps, she couldn't do, as she may be married already. What she did, therefore, was this:

"Every morning she mixed a dose of arsenic, which doubtless grew bigger every day, with your father's porridge. When the banns had been published for the last time and the date of the wedding had been fixed, and your father had made a new will in her favor, she went away, pretending that she was going to spend the week before the wedding with some friends in the North. Doubtless she took the new will with her, and I shall be greatly surprised if she left any address when she went away."

"She didn't," said Mrs. Hunt.

"Which is just what I expected," said Sexton Blake. "But to resume my explanation. Before she left she bought a fresh supply of oatmeal and placed it in the jar on the top of the doctored meal she had been using. That she didn't throw the latter away is just one of those incredibly stupid mistakes which, somehow, the cleverest criminals nearly always make.

"The rest you can guess for yourself," he concluded. "This morning your father, being deprived of his daily dose of arsenic, developed violent symptoms of arsenical poisoning. The police examined the remains of the food he had had at breakfast, but, of course, they found no arsenic in it. For it wasn't the presence of arsenic, but the absence of arsenic, in the porridge which caused your father's illness. Hence, when I gave him a stiff dose of the drug, as Dr. Burgin will tell you, all his symptoms disappeared."

"What an inhuman fiend the woman must be!" said Mrs. Hunt. "And she'll never be caught, of course, for nobody knows where she is, and when she learns that her diabolical plot has failed she'll never dare show up here again."

"Suppose we could make Mrs. Robertson believe that her plot had succeeded?" said Sexton Blake. "Suppose she read in tomorrow's papers that Mr. Parker was dead? What would she do?"

"She would hurry here at once," said Mrs. Hunt, "and produce the will, and claim my father's money."

"Exactly!" said Sexton Blake. "See the idea?"

They did; and half an hour later all the blinds were drawn, whilst the following morning an announcement of John Parker's death appeared in the obituary columns of all the leading London papers.

The detective's ruse succeeded to perfection. In the course of the afternoon Mrs. Robertson arrived at Portman Terrace, apparently prostrated with grief. Her grief, however, quickly changed to fury and dismay when she was arrested and the trick was explained.

When, from papers found in her possession, the police had identified her as the wife—not the widow—of an ex-medical student, who was then serving a long term of penal servitude for a similar crime, she threw up the sponge; and her confession proved to be a replica of the theory expounded by Sexton Blake.



Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.