The Adventure of the Oxford Comma
Eric Peterkin was not the sort of person who haggled over each penny, nor was he the sort to spend his days in inexpensive isolation. If he were, he might have been able to get by solely on the income from the small trust fund left to him by his grandparents. As it was, he was a young man who enjoyed life, and London in the 1920s was a city with everything to offer. So Eric needed a job, a little extra something to allow him a night or two at a music hall and a pint or two at the pub; something that let him keep up with the membership fees at the gentlemen's club where he could, from time to time, find a sparring partner--for Eric was an avid fencer, and sparring partners were hard to come by.
Family connections found Eric a suitable position with a small publishing house, where he was tasked with the evaluation of newly-submitted manuscripts. It seemed ideal: he was able to conduct nearly all his work from the comfort of an armchair at his club's lounge, with brief visits to the office to submit his recommendations, pick up his next assignment, and collect his pay.
Eric's usual day for such visits was Friday, and he arrived at the publishing house offices one such Friday afternoon, a little before one o'clock, with his last manuscript tucked under one arm, and a note in hand from his employer, Graham Chadwick, advising him to come on the following Monday instead.
"Well," said Eric to Chadwick's secretary, "it's not as though I really need to speak to him directly. I thought I might leave the envelope with you, to pass on to him when he has a free moment. If there isn't a manuscript for me to look at yet, I can stop by on Monday. The office isn't far from my club, and I wouldn't do much reading between now and Monday in any case."
Chadwick's secretary was a peroxide blonde named Angela Foster, who typed with direct downward stabs of her long, lacquered nails. "Chadwick isn't going to like that," she said. "You know how he always insists on talking to people in person."
Eric shrugged. "I've had this beastly thing on my hands for far too long. The sooner it's out of my sight, the better."
That earned a chuckle from Angela. "All right then. I'll hold on to it until he has a moment. More than likely, that won't be until Monday, so you can stop by then. I'll give it back to you so you can give it to him, and then he'll give you your next assignment and everybody will be happy."
The door to Chadwick's office burst open just as Angela was tucking the manuscript away under her desk. A very red-faced little man with a clerical collar stormed out to shouts of "where do you think you're going" from further within.
"I need a smoke!" snarled the little clergyman, snatching his hat and coat from the coat-rack. "I'll be back in an hour!"
Graham Chadwick himself was at the door now. "I've got other appointments besides you, you know. I'll be busy."
"Then I'll be back in two hours!"
"Fine! Two hours, but don't think it'll change anything!"
The little man responded with a gesture quite unbecoming to his collar, and slammed out of the office.
"The Reverend Dr. Augustus Payne," whispered Angela to Eric, indicating the man who'd left. "The champion of the Oxford comma. He's--"
"Eric Peterkin!" Chadwick's glowering eye had settled on Eric. "I thought I told you I was busy this afternoon, and to come on Monday."
Eric repeated to him what he'd just told Angela. He wasn't quite finished when Chadwick held up a hand and said: "You'd leave it with her majesty, the queen of lost documents, here? I wouldn't see your evaluation for another month."
"That's not quite fair," said Angela mildly. She'd gotten so inured to Chadwick's abuse that it simply rolled harmlessly off her back.
"Well--" began Eric, but Chadwick cut him off again.
"Get in here. Payne's gone and cut his meeting short, so you've got maybe fifteen minutes before my next meeting."
"Of course." Eric quickly retrieved his manuscript and evaluation, and trotted into Chadwick's office.
He was out again ten minutes later, with his next assignment and an earful of why anyone should bother sending notes when nobody pays attention to them. Chadwick's next appointment, a junior editor named Henry Mason, was already waiting his turn. Eric and Mason exchanged a brief nod before the latter headed in to his meeting. Mason had the additional distinction of being Chadwick's nephew, and Eric guessed that the meeting must be personal in nature.
Angela, meanwhile, was in the act of shrugging on her own coat and hat. "Fridays I leave early," she said. "You know that perfectly well."
"Chadwick usually leaves early on Fridays too, but he's staying."
"Yes. And that's Henry Mason in the office with him, and Henry Mason is an ass. I would rather not be around when they get out."
"Oh, Mason's not such a bad fellow. And what about the next person coming in?" Eric held out the note he'd received at his club that morning. "Look, the Duchess of Cullenmere herself. Unless she's already come and gone?"
The Duchess of Cullenmere was the author of a series of extremely popular romance novels. Critics were less fond of them, and Eric himself wouldn't have been caught dead with one in his possession, but it seemed as though every Englishwoman, from schoolgirls to chambermaids to actual duchesses, had a full collection of dog-eared Cullenmere romances on a shelf beside her bed. The Duchess herself was a mysterious figure: the name was clearly pseudonymous, as any perusal of the Peerage would tell you, and all business was conducted through a very close-lipped firm of solicitors. No-one at the publishing house had ever actually met her, though if Chadwick's note to Eric that morning was any indication, that was about to change in very short order.
Angela Foster was a great admirer of the Duchess; a little more surprising was that Graham Chadwick numbered himself among her more enthusiastic followers as well, and not simply because her sales propped up half the publishing house. Whatever Eric himself felt about the Cullenmere romances, he had to give Chadwick credit for having the courage to admit such admiration, and in effusive terms that sat oddly with his usually acerbic nature. Angela claimed that Chadwick was only willing to offer praise if the person to be praised wasn't around to hear it, and Eric supposed she knew the man best.
But in answer to Eric's question, Angela said: "No, she hasn't been. I suppose she wanted to wait until everyone else was gone before showing up--keep up the mystery, that sort of thing. If that's her plan, well, I wouldn't want to spoil it for the world. I certainly don't want to find myself written into her next novel as the heroine's despicable rival."
Angela left then, and Eric saw no reason to linger.
Eric caught up with Rev. Payne at the street corner, where the latter was dolefully chewing on the stem of his pipe while keeping an eye on a public clock. Eric gave him a cheerful wave, which he returned with somewhat less enthusiasm.
"Aren't you supposed to be Chadwick's next appointment?" asked Payne. "Don't tell me you're done already."
"No, I wasn't on his schedule at all today. He just managed to squeeze me in because you left early and there was a bit of time before his next meeting. My name's Peterkin, by the way; Eric Peterkin."
"Pleased to finally meet you. I read your manuscript, and it was first-rate. I say, you're not planning on waiting about on this street corner for the next two hours, are you?"
"I was hoping to be back home with a nice cup of tea by now, but your Mr. Chadwick is rather more unreasonable than I would like."
"Oh, he's not so bad, really." Eric paused, curious. "Miss Foster mentioned something about an Oxford comma...?"
That set Payne off like a firework. Eric had forgotten what the term referred to, and Payne was more than happy to explain: it was the final comma in a list of things, right before the word "and", and without it, the Empire would fall, the world would crumble, and tea-time would be no more. But Chadwick, that philistine, did not believe in it, holding that the word "and" replaced the expected comma between the last two items on a list.
Eric recalled that his grammar school masters were of Chadwick's opinion, while his Oxford professors favoured Payne's. For himself, he'd never thought about it much. He'd always just done whatever it took to make his meaning clear. It didn't seem at all diplomatic to mention this to Payne, who, in his passion, had spilled the tobacco from his pipe.
"Was that really what you and Chadwick were fighting about?" Eric said, as mildly as he could, when Payne paused for breath.
"Yes." Payne stuck his pipe back between his teeth, and gave a grunt of annoyance when he found that it had gone out. "If Chadwick publishes my book without my Oxford commas, I shall be the laughing stock of my colleagues. I may have to take my book elsewhere."
"It can't possibly be so bad, I'm sure."
That only earned Eric a baleful look from Payne, and it was clear that the conversation was over.
Eric didn't think much of the events of that Friday afternoon over the following weekend. He was, perhaps, a little more conscious of the Oxford comma in popular use--it appeared that while the writers of his club's bulletins used it, the writers of his club's restaurant menus did not--and he began to seriously consider picking up a copy of the latest Cullenmere romance just to see what it was that Angela Foster and Graham Chadwick saw in them. He supposed that the Duchess must eschew the Oxford comma as well, or Chadwick would be less effusive in his praise.
He didn't give his new assignment more than a cursory glance until Monday, when, as usual, he walked to his club as early as he could, spent an hour in the gymnasium with the fencing dummy, then got some breakfast and settled into a comfortable armchair with his reading.
He was less than a chapter in when an attendant appeared at his elbow to inform him that he was wanted in one of the downstairs reception rooms.
There was a police inspector waiting for him in the little reception room off the lobby, with a ferret-like sergeant skulking about in the shadows. The inspector himself stood before the window, chin up, back straight, feet planted shoulder-width apart.
"Mr. Peterkin, is it? I'm Inspector Drummond. Good morning. Well, not so good for some of us. There's been a bit of an incident at your place of employment, and we'd like you to answer a few questions...."
Eric mentally discarded all idea of something dreadful having happened to the members of his immediate family. It was only something to do with work, after all; he didn't expect to be informed of the exact nature of the crisis immediately, but he assumed that it must be something along the lines of a robbery.
"You stopped by at the office on Friday, is that correct?"
Eric answered in the affirmative; he told them the times of his arrival and his departure as best he could remember. He mentioned that Angela Foster left at the same time he did, and that Rev. Payne was expected back there about two hours after.
"Do you know anything about Mr. Chadwick's appointments for the day?"
"Yes, he mentioned them in his note to me. I've still got that in my jacket pocket, I think." Eric dug around, and finally withdrew the crumpled note of Friday morning, and handed it over to the inspector.
The note read: "I have meetings this afternoon with my nephew, Cullenmere herself, and that pain in the neck, Payne. I won't have time for you, so come on Monday instead."
Inspector Drummond nodded, and said: "According to this, you weren't expected last Friday."
"I only thought to leave my last assignment with Miss Foster. The office is along the way from my home to the club, you see, so it wasn't any trouble."
"Do you think Chadwick might have had any other surprise visitors?"
Eric shook his head. "Chadwick usually leaves early on Friday afternoons. The office is supposed to be closed then, so anyone dropping by would have to be someone who knew he'd be about."
"Do you know why he might have worked late that day?"
"I suppose his meeting with Mason--that's his nephew, Henry Mason--was over a personal matter, and he didn't like to deal with it during his usual working hours. And everyone knows that the Duchess of Cullenmere likes to keep herself mysterious. Payne was the only appointment actually set within his usual business hours, until they decided to postpone it."
"Who has the keys to the office?"
"Only Chadwick and Miss Foster, as far as I know; and I suppose the landlord must have a set as well."
Inspector Drummond made a note, then eyed Eric suspiciously. "You don't seem too curious as to what this might be about."
"I know well enough that demanding an answer isn't going to do me any good, and you'll tell me when you're ready, not before. I'm assuming there was some sort of a break-in over the weekend?"
"There don't appear to have been any signs of one, but your Miss Foster opened up the office earlier this morning to find Mr. Chadwick dead in his office."
"Dead! Are you sure? No, that's a stupid question. Forget I asked it. I mean, if you're going around asking questions, does that mean you think there might have been foul play?"
"Did Mr. Chadwick have any enemies?"
Eric could think of none, except perhaps for Rev. Payne--but surely the motive in that case was too petty for murder.
"We'll be the judge of that. I'd like to hold on to that note of yours, by the way. It could be evidence."
"Yes. Of course." Eric glanced down at it again as he handed it over to the inspector. Mason, Cullenmere, and Payne. The note seemed to draw a circle around these three in blood-red ink.
Eric found Angela Foster in a teashop across the street from the office. She was seated by the window, watching the door of the office building with a miserable look on her face. She looked up sharply as Eric approached her, then relaxed and turned halfway back towards the window--always keeping an eye on that door, Eric noted.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I thought you were Mason again. That man is a beast. A horrid, little beast."
Eric was aware that Angela didn't like Mason much, but this seemed a little more vehement than usual. "What's he done now?"
"He was trying to flirt--as usual, you might say, but this was really not a good time. His uncle's been found dead, and is this all he can think about?"
"Perhaps he's just trying to deal with his grief by pretending that nothing has happened."
"You're always defending him."
Henry Mason was a year younger than Eric, and too young to have taken part in the Great War. Nevertheless, he was anxious to prove himself as much a man as anyone who'd been in the trenches, and that manifested in a desire to master as many branches of athletics as possible. He played tennis, cricket, rugby and soccer; he'd taken up boxing a little while back, and there were rumours he was planning to take up equestrianism as well. He'd also taken up fencing--and Eric knew this because Eric had been asked to tutor him.
Eric half-suspected that Mason looked up to him as a teacher, though Mason, perhaps taking after his uncle, was loath to admit admiration of anyone or anything. To Angela, Eric said: "We fencers look out for each other."
"Do I feel my ears burning?" As if on cue, Henry Mason himself was upon them, grinning amiably down. Angela rolled her eyes and turned back to the window to continue her vigil.
Mason pulled up another chair and dropped into it, nudging Eric to the side. He was a much larger man, and Eric was forced to give way. "Angie," he said, "you've been staring at the office building all morning. Come on, it's not going to fly away. Have a bite to eat. You must be starved."
"I'm not hungry."
"Well, it isn't healthy, all the same." Mason beckoned to a waitress and ordered sandwiches for all three of them.
"You seem to be taking this all in stride," commented Eric. "And he was your uncle."
"Uncle Graham and I never get along much," said Mason with a shrug. "I wish I could mourn like Angie here, but for the most part I'm just worried about what's going to happen to the business now."
"That's rather a cold thing to say."
"I witnessed his will," said Angela, without looking around. "You're his sole heir. Didn't you know?"
Mason looked appropriately surprised. "No. No, I didn't. He was always going on about how I wasn't good enough, or how much I still had to learn, or what a disappointment I was to my father's memory...."
There was some real bitterness there, but Angela didn't seem to hear it. "Maybe that's what he said to your face," she replied, finally turning to face him, "but behind your back he'd do nothing but brag about your last cricket win, or your tennis trophies, or how you absolutely had to go in for the next Olympic games. It was positively revolting."
Mason looked away, chastened and uncomfortable, and Eric said: "You knew him better than anyone, didn't you, Angela?"
Angela nodded. "He was a true gentleman, and he stood up for what was right. Do you know how we first met? It was before the War. I was nine years old, and my mother was an active suffragist. She brought me along to a demonstration once. I remember a lot of women waving signs and banners and shouting, but there were a couple of men as well, which surprised me because until then I'd thought that only women were interested in this business. After it was over, I asked Mother, and Mother introduced me to them. One of them was Mr. Chadwick, and I remember him best because of the story Mother told, of how he once tried to join in the demonstration dressed in women's clothes. She thought it was a very silly thing to do, but Mr. Chadwick didn't seem embarrassed, and I thought it was the most marvellous thing I'd ever heard."
Mason gave a weak chuckle at that. "Uncle Graham was a bit of an idiot, I admit."
"It may have been a bit silly, but I still think he was very brave."
"Grow up, Angie. Maybe it seemed marvellous when you were nine, but you're certainly not nine anymore. What my uncle did was more than ridiculous: it was nothing short of a disgrace to himself as a man."
Angela shot him a venomous look, then stood up. "I should box your ears for that," she said, "but you're not worth the effort. Unless you're ready to pay the dead the respect they deserve, don't talk to me."
She turned her back and strode away, ignoring Eric's attempts to make peace, just as the waitress arrived with the sandwiches Mason had ordered.
"Well," said Mason, pushing the third one to the middle of the table, "more for us, I suppose."
In spite of his earlier assessment, that Mason might be trying to maintain a mask of stoicism in the face of tragedy, Eric began to doubt if that tragedy had affected him at all. But then, Eric's first impulse in these things was to discover everything he could; he was not in any position to accuse anyone of demonstrating a lack of feeling. He said, instead: "I was going to ask Angela what exactly happened when she got to the office this morning. The police inspector who spoke to me let slip that she was the one who found your uncle."
"Oh, I got it all out of Angie earlier. She arrived as usual, let herself in as usual, and found my uncle's office door standing wide open, not as usual. She saw Uncle Graham crumpled up on the floor. It looked like he'd hit his head on the cast iron radiator. She said that it didn't look as if he'd slipped or fallen by accident. His spectacles had been thrown to a corner several feet away, as if they'd been knocked clean off his face."
"Good on her if for keeping her head and taking note of all that."
"I suppose. At any rate, she got the police in, answered their questions, sent word to me about what had happened, and then came here to wait out the day."
Eric had been nibbling at his sandwich, but now he put it down again. He found that he hadn't much appetite. "The inspector asked me who had the keys to the office. Did you?"
Mason shook his head and took another bite of his sandwich.
"Well, it'll look jolly bad for her if the door was locked when she got there. If she, your uncle and the landlord were the only ones with the keys--"
Mason held up a hand, quickly chewed and swallowed, and said: "No fear of that. It seems that Uncle Graham's key was missing from the office. The police questioned both Angie and me quite thoroughly on that score."
"Mason? What time was it when you left the office after your meeting with Chadwick?"
"A little before two, I think. Uncle Graham said he was waiting for someone else. I suppose he meant Rev. Payne. Angie mentioned that Payne was expected back later in the afternoon."
"So you didn't meet the Duchess coming in."
Mason stared at Eric, then said, slowly: "My uncle told you he was expecting the Duchess of Cullenmere after me?"
"Well, he wrote me a note to the effect that he was expecting you, the Duchess, and Rev. Payne that afternoon."
"Well, if it isn't just like Uncle to keep a thing like this up his sleeve. I was certain Payne was the man, especially after the bloody row they had--Angie told me about it. Now, there's the Duchess as well. I wonder...."
"You're not suggesting she might have done it?"
"It's either her, or the good reverend. It certainly wasn't me."
"The police will want to have a word with her, of course. I suppose we'll read all about it in the papers, eventually."
Rev. Augustus Payne was the vicar of St. Wulfstan's, a tiny red-brick church in an impoverished part of the city. The windows were smokey glass, with a variance in thickness, colour, and quality suggesting multiple replacements over time. The roof looked, even to Eric's untrained eye, battered and in need of repairs. Had it been raining, he had no doubt that the nave and sanctuary would be peppered with tin buckets to catch the leaks.
The rectory was an even smaller structure attached to one side. There wasn't a maid to answer a door: instead, a small sign over the doorbell invited Eric to simply let himself in. The door was, in fact, unlocked, and immediately inside was a narrow entryway. On the church side was a powder room, a narrow staircase, and an equally narrow passage leading to the church sacristy; on the opposite side was the cramped little study. Further down was a door to the rest of the house, and Eric doubted if there was room for more than a kitchen and a dining parlour on the rest of this floor.
Rev. Payne, immediately visible in the study, looked up from his desk as Eric came in. He looked tired. Tall mountains of books were stacked up on either side of the desk, and an ancient typewriter weighed down the middle. Small stacks of coins were gathered in a space in front of the typewriter. "Just give me a moment," said Payne, waving to a seat. "I'm totalling up the collection from the poor box."
Eric moved the two tomes currently occupying the offered seat, and sat down while Payne made absolutely sure of his count and swept the money into a box. It was a very small sum.
"I suppose you're here about Mr. Chadwick," said Payne. "It's a tragedy, and a loss for all of us. I wish I'd been a little more charitable in my thoughts last Friday."
"I suppose the police have already been by?"
"They wanted to know about my argument with Chadwick, and my movements on Friday afternoon. I told them that I didn't see him again after I'd left the office the first time: the outer door was locked when I came back at three o'clock, and I assumed at the time that Chadwick was simply playing a malicious little trick on me. I suppose he must have already...." Payne swallowed uncomfortably. "I'm not accustomed to being viewed as a murder suspect."
"I imagine you have a lot of other concerns occupying your mind."
"Look around you, Mr. Peterkin. This is far from the finest living in England. One wants to do something for the worst-off of one's parishioners, but the best-off aren't so much better off that they can give much. I empty out the poor box once a month rather than once a week, and there's still not enough with which to do anything. Sometimes I find more assorted rubbish than actual money."
Payne gestured to the wastepaper basket beside the desk, and Eric could see that there was, indeed, a prodigious number of buttons and bottle caps, several sweet wrappers, a couple of rusty metal washers, and a discarded house key.
"Some people treat it as a dust bin," Payne said sadly. "The best thing I ever found was someone's wedding band. Imitation gold, of course. I got a pittance for it at the pawnbroker's, and then had to buy it back again the next day. It turned out that one of my parishioners had thrown it into the box in a fit of pique, but had since reconciled with her husband and wanted it back."
"I'm surprised you found it in you to write a novel, all things considered. Trying to keep this place going must be a twenty-four hour headache."
"It seemed like the best way to scrounge up a few pennies. Mind you, writing it meant swallowing my pride in the bargain. All this scholarship, all these years of philosophy and theology, and here I am hawking a petty little romance. My old friends will never let me live it down."
"You wouldn't be the first clergyman to make a name as a novelist. Jonathan Swift--"
"Swift was a satirist, not a novelist. And I'm sure he didn't spend his student days declaring that serious scholars and real theologians shouldn't sully their hands with mere popular fiction." Payne sighed. "Perhaps I shouldn't have stated my position quite so firmly and arrogantly. The Almighty has an ironic sense of humour."
Eric didn't completely understand Payne's dilemma. He knew that every man had his little point of pride, but Payne's conviction, that there might be shame in writing for money, seemed irrational to him. Perhaps it had more to do with the image that Payne had cultivated among his peers. Recalling the subject of Payne's feud with Chadwick, Eric supposed that Payne might have borne it much better if it had not come on top of this state of affairs. It also occurred to Eric that they had wandered away from the purpose of his visit, which was to satisfy his curiosity with regards to Chadwick's murder.
Eric was just wondering how to bring the conversation around without putting Payne's back up, when there came a resounding crash from the direction of the church. Both men leapt to their feet and dashed down the passageway to the sacristy and, from there, into the church itself.
The poor box, a flimsy wooden affair, had been torn from its moorings and smashed to pieces on the floor. A crowbar lay a few feet away, evidently discarded by the would-be thief.
Eric sprinted to the church doors. He couldn't see anyone fleeing the scene, and the first passerby he hailed claimed to have seen nothing unusual, no-one coming or going. His next instinct was to find a policeman, but Payne, coming up behind him, said: "I wouldn't bother. Nothing was taken--I emptied the poor box myself, barely an hour ago. If anything, I'm going to need to call in a carpenter for repairs."
"To repair the poor box? It doesn't look very complicated. I could probably--" Eric stopped in mid-sentence, then dashed back to the rectory.
The door at the far end of the entryway was swinging open when Eric arrived. He pointed it out to Payne as the latter joined him. "It looks like our thief escaped through here while we were examining the poor box," he said. "You had better check your study, see if he took anything."
Payne nodded, and his concern was the money from the poor box. This appeared to be untouched, exactly where he left it, and he muttered a prayer of thanks for that.
Eric, however, couldn't shake the feeling that something in the study was amiss. It was several minutes before he realised what it was: the discarded house key was missing from the wastepaper basket. "That's probably what the thief was after from the beginning," he told Payne.
Payne scowled. "Well, if that's all it was, he could have simply asked!"
"I don't think that was an option." It had occurred to Eric that the key to Chadwick's office was still missing, and he wondered if the two keys were one and the same.
The newspapers the next day blared the headlines to all the nation: the Duchess of Cullenmere, reclusive romance novelist, was wanted by Scotland Yard for information in connection to the death of her publisher. The more sensationalist press implied that she was, in fact, almost certainly the murderess. Chadwick's note to Eric was cited frequently as "conclusive proof" that the Duchess had been a visitor to the office right before the Rev. Payne; and if a man of the cloth said the door was locked on his return, of course he must be telling the truth.
The popularity of the Cullenmere romances fueled the sensationalism. No-one could really believe it, no-one wanted to believe it, and no-one could stop talking about it. The firm of solicitors retained by the Duchess issued a statement that they had not received any communication from her since the publication of her last novel, but that every possible effort was being made to contact her.
On Wednesday, it emerged that no-one at the Duchess's firm of solicitors had actually spoken to her, much less seen her. All business had been conducted either through mail correspondence, or over the telephone with a man claiming to be her secretary. Her royalty cheques were made out to "D. Cullenmere", mailed to her solicitors, and deposited by them into an account created only a month before the publication of the first Cullenmere romance. The bank was of no help on this score: money was regularly withdrawn from the account, but, as no-one at the bank had connected it with the Duchess of Cullenmere, no-one had thought to take note of the person making the withdrawals.
On Thursday, it came out that the Duchess's solicitors had received a telegram instructing them to wire the remaining money in her bank account to another bank in France. It also came out that passage had been booked on a ferry to Calais, in the name of "Dorothy Cullenmere". It seemed almost certain that the Duchess was attempting to flee the country.
"But I don't believe she really plans to," said Eric to Angela, whom he'd invited to his club for dinner the next day. "She's made it too obvious. This is almost certainly a bluff. Ten to one, she's biding her time, and she'll quietly slip aboard a steamer bound for America only as soon as she's certain that the Yard is concentrating its efforts in France."
Angela frowned as she read her menu for the third time. "I don't believe it. I can't believe it. No-one who writes such lovely books could possibly think of harming another human being."
"She might not have meant to. From what I can tell, it looks as though Chadwick was struck in the course of an argument, fell, and hit his head on the cast-iron radiator. It wasn't that she hit him--assuming she was the one who hit him--so much as it was that he fell when she hit him."
"I don't believe a woman could have struck him as hard as that. I know I couldn't."
"Maybe you couldn't, not with those long nails. But I know many women who could hit as hard as any man; and I don't doubt that there are women who could hit even harder. We don't know a thing about the Duchess, whether she's frail or athletic, old or young, tall or short. Come to think of it, we don't even know for certain if she's a woman."
"Oh, I think we can be quite certain of that. Those books of hers--"
"You don't think a man could have written them?"
Angela looked up from her menu and laughed. "Chadwick's rubbed off on you, I see. He was always of the opinion that the difference between man and woman is a good deal smaller than society would have us think."
Mention of Chadwick threw a shadow of gloom over the conversation. Both Eric and Angela turned awkwardly back to their menus. Angela said: "Chadwick would have approved of this menu, I think. I notice that it doesn't use the Oxford comma."
"He did have a bit of a bee in his bonnet about that. I never actually noticed, but he always--" Eric stopped, and put down his menu in sudden realisation.
"What is it?"
"My nephew, Cullenmere herself, and Payne. There was a comma in his note to me, right where there shouldn't have been if ... if it were a simple list of three people."
"You're not saying the note was a forgery? But--"
"It wasn't a forgery. You remember. He knew all about it. But there's the comma. And Chadwick didn't use the Oxford comma."
"What are you saying?"
Eric had gotten up, and was signalling to the waiters that they would not be dining after all. Angela joined him as he hurriedly struggled into his coat. "It's not an Oxford comma at all. It's a parenthetical comma. Chadwick didn't mean 'my nephew and Cullenmere and Payne'; he meant 'my nephew, who is Cullenmere, and Payne'. Henry Mason is the Duchess of Cullenmere."
"That's ridiculous! Henry Mason, that great oaf who thinks of nothing but what a splendid specimen of manliness he is?"
"Yes. Come on: if we hurry, we might get to the Yard before the Inspector Drummond leaves for the day." He hailed a taxi, practically threw Angela into the back seat and leapt in after her. "Chadwick was proud of Mason, wasn't he? And he admired the Duchess terribly, didn't he? Well, think how proud he'd be if he found out the two were the same person. He couldn't help crowing a little--that's what his note to me amounted to--and he wouldn't have cared that the Duchess was supposed to be a woman. But Mason did care. Mason was in love with his own image as the manliest man in London: you've observed it yourself. He wouldn't have wanted to admit that he'd had anything to do with something as feminine as the Cullenmere romances."
"But ... but why would he write them in the first place?"
"Chadwick didn't like praising people to their face. You remember what Mason told us about their relationship? You knew how fond Chadwick was of his nephew, but Mason never did. Mason thought he had something to prove. He wrote the romances to show that he could be a literary success, and he wrote as a woman to further hide his identity: he couldn't be sure of success, and he didn't intend to reveal himself to his uncle until he was. I think Chadwick wanted to trumpet Mason's achievement from the rooftops, as it were, and that became the basis for the fight that ended with Chadwick cracking his skull on the office radiator."
Eric thought for a moment of Rev. Payne, swallowing his pride to write popular fiction after a lifetime of pretending he was too good for such an occupation. Every man had his little point of pride; every man had his image to consider.
"Mason didn't realise that Chadwick's note to me implied that the Duchess would be a third person meeting with Chadwick that afternoon, not until I mentioned it to him on Monday. Until then, his plan was to frame Payne for it, by hiding the office key in the poor box at St. Wulfstan's church. But that was a gamble. Payne might turn out to have an alibi, or something else might prove his innocence. Or the key might never be found. How much easier to pin the murder on someone who doesn't exist! Mason followed me to St. Wulfstan's after we parted ways, broke into the poor box, and, when he didn't find the key there, lured us away from Payne's study long enough to retrieve the key from Payne's wastepaper basket. I'll bet that key will be found any day now, in a hotel room registered to a 'D. Cullenmere', further evidence of this non-existent woman's guilt."
"But Eric, how can you hope to prove any of this?"
Eric paused for all of two seconds to consider this. They were on the pavement outside Scotland Yard now, and, coming to a decision, he squared his shoulders and strode up to the front doors.
"There were regular withdrawals from the Cullenmere bank account, weren't there? Those could be compared against the deposits to Mason's personal account. If I'm right, there should be some very suspicious correspondence between them. Then there's the break-in at St. Wulfstan's. That was all very touch-and-go: Mason didn't have much time to conduct his search, with Payne and me running around after an intruder. I wonder if he wore gloves: he might have left fingerprints. And he must have typed up all his manuscripts on something. He'll have a typewriter at home, which can be matched to the manuscripts the office has on file for all the Cullenmere romances. And that," he declared triumphantly, bursting through Inspector Drummond's office door, "is how we catch him: his bank account, his typewriter, and the poor box at St. Wulfstan's."
Inspector Drummond looked up, brows raised in surprise. On the desk before him was an open hotel register and a very familiar-looking key. "Mr. Peterkin? Perhaps you had better begin at the beginning."