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About the Author
Deemed ‘the father of the scientific detective story’, Richard Austin Freeman enjoyed a prolific career that saw him gain qualifications as pharmacist and surgeon, pull off a diplomatic coup along the Gold Coast, work for Holloway Prison and then become a formidable writer of fiction.
He was born in London, the son of a tailor who went on to train as a pharmacist. After graduating as a surgeon at the Middlesex Hospital Medical College, Freeman taught for a while and then joined the colonial service, offering his skills as an assistant surgeon along the Gold Coast of Africa. He became embroiled in a diplomatic mission when a British expeditionary party was sent to investigate the activities of the French. Through his tact and formidable intelligence, a massacre was narrowly avoided. His future was therefore assured in the colonial service.
However, after becoming ill with black-water fever, Freeman was sent back to England to recover and finding his finances precarious, embarked on a career as acting physician in Holloway Prison.
In desperation, he also turned to writing where he went on to dominate the world of British detective fiction, taking pride in testing different criminal techniques. So keen was he, part of one of his best novels was written in a bomb shelter. For the first twenty-five years of his writing career, Freeman was to dominate and remain unrivalled in the world of detective fiction, introducing the well-loved and highly memorable 'Dr Thorndyke'. The continued success of this character has affirmed Richard Austin Freeman’s place amongst the finest of crime writers.
Read an Excerpt
Helen Vardon's Confession
By R. Austin Freeman
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2015 R. Austin Freeman
All rights reserved.
The Crack of Doom
There is no difficulty whatever in deciding upon the exact moment at which to open this history. Into some lives the fateful and significant creep by degrees, unnoticed till by the development of their consequences the mind is aroused and memory is set, like a sleuthhound, to retrace the course of events and track the present to its origin in the past. Not so has it been with mine. Serene, eventless, its quiet years had slipped away unnumbered, from childhood to youth, from youth to womanhood, when, at the appointed moment, the voice of Destiny rang out, trumpet-tongued; and behold! In the twinkling of an eye all was changed.
"Happy," it has been said, "is the nation which has no history!" And surely the same may be said with equal truth of individuals. So, at any rate, experience teaches me; for the very moment wherein I may be said to have begun to have a history saw a life-long peace shattered into a chaos of misery and disaster.
How well I remember the day — yea, and the very moment — when the blow fell, like a thunderbolt crashing down out of a cloudless sky. I had been sitting in my little room upstairs, reading very studiously and pausing now and again to think over what I had read. The book was Lecky's "History of England in the Eighteenth Century," and the period on which I was engaged was that of Queen Anne. And here, coming presently upon a footnote containing a short quotation from "The Spectator," it occurred to me that I should like to look over the original letter. Accordingly, laying aside my book, I began to descend the stairs — very softly, because I knew that my father had a visitor — possibly a client — with him in his study. And when I came to the turn of the stair and saw that the study door was ajar, I stepped more lightly still, though I stole down quickly lest I should overhear what was being said.
The library, or book-room as we called it, was next to the study, and to reach it I had to pass the half-opened door, which I did swiftly on tip-toe, without hearing more than the vague murmur of conversation from within. "The Spectators" stood on a shelf close to the door; a goodly row clothed in rusty calf to which the worn gilt tooling imparted a certain sumptuousness that had always seemed very pleasant to my eye. My hand was on the third volume when I heard my father say:
"So that's how the matter stands."
I plucked the volume from the shelf, and, tucking it under my arm, stole out of the book-room, intending to dart up the stairs before there should be time for anything more to be said; but I had hardly crossed the threshold, and was, in fact, exactly opposite the study door, when a voice said very distinctly, though not at all loudly:
"Do you realise, Vardon, that this renders you liable to seven years' penal servitude?"
At those terrible words I stopped as though I had been, in a moment, turned into stone: stopped with my lips parted, my very breathing arrested, clutching at the book under my arm, with no sign of life or movement save the tumultuous thumping of my heart. There was what seemed an interminable pause, and then my father replied: "Hardly, I think, Otway. Technically, perhaps, it amounts to a misdemeanour —"
"Technically!" repeated Mr Otway.
"Yes, technically. The absence of any intent to defraud modifies the position considerably. Still, for the purpose of argument, we may admit that it amounts to a misdemeanour."
"And," said Mr Otway, "the maximum punishment of that misdemeanour is seven years' penal servitude. As to your plea of absence of fraudulent intent, you, as a lawyer of experience, must know well that judges are not apt to be very sympathetic with trustees who misappropriate property placed in their custody."
"Misappropriate!" my father exclaimed.
"Yes, Mr Otway, I say misappropriate. What other word could you apply? Here is a sum of money, which has been placed in your custody. I come here with the intention to receive that money from you on behalf of the trustees, and you tell me that you haven't got it. You are not only unable to produce it, but you are unable to give any date on which you could produce it. And meanwhile it seems that you have applied it to your own uses."
"I haven't spent it," my father objected. "The money is locked up for the present, but it isn't lost."
"What is the use of saying that?" demanded Mr Otway. "You haven't got the money, and you can't give any satisfactory account of it. The plain English of it is that you have used this trust money for your own private purposes, and that when the trustors ask to have it restored to them, you are unable to produce it."
To this my father made no immediate reply; and in the silence that ensued I could hear my heart throbbing and the blood humming in the veins of my neck. At length my father asked: "Well, Otway, what are you going to do?"
"Do!" repeated Mr Otway. "What can I do? As a trustee, it is my duty to get this money from you. I have to protect the interests of those whom I represent. And if you have misapplied these funds — well, you must see for yourself that I have no choice."
"You mean that you'll prosecute?"
"What else can I do? I can't introduce personal considerations into the business of a trust; and even if I should decline to move in the matter, the trustors themselves would undoubtedly take action."
Here there followed a silence, which seemed to me of endless duration; then Mr Otway said, in a somewhat different tone: "There is just one way for you out of this mess, Vardon."
"Indeed!" said my father.
"Yes. I am going to make you a proposal, and I may as well put it quite bluntly. It is this. I am prepared to take over your liabilities, for the time being, on condition that I marry your daughter. If you agree, then on the day on which the marriage takes place, I pay into your bank the sum of five thousand pounds, you giving me an undertaking to repay the loan if and when you can."
"Have you any reason to suppose that my daughter wishes to marry you?" my father asked.
"Not the slightest," replied Mr Otway; "but I think it probable that, if the case were put to her —"
"It is not going to be," my father interrupted. "I would rather go to gaol than connive at the sacrifice of my daughter's happiness."
"You might have thought of her happiness a little sooner, Vardon," Mr Otway remarked. "We are not quite of an age, but she might easily find it more agreeable to be the wife of an elderly man than the daughter of a convict. At any rate, it would be only fair to give her the choice."
"It would be entirely unfair," my father retorted. "In effect, it would be asking her to make the sacrifice, and she might be fool enough to consent. And please bear in mind, Otway, that I am not a convict yet, and possibly may never be one. There are certain conceivable alternatives, you know."
"Oh," said Mr Otway, "if you have resources that you have not mentioned, that is quite another matter. I understood that you had none. And as to sacrifice, there is no need to harp on that string so persistently. Your daughter might be happy enough as my wife."
"What infernal nonsense you are talking!" my father exclaimed, impatiently. "Do you suppose that Helen is a fool?"
"No, I certainly do not," Mr Otway replied.
"Very well, then: what do you mean by her being happy as your wife? Here am I, standing over a mine —"
"Of your own laying," interrupted Mr Otway.
"Quite so; of my own laying. And here you come with a lighted match and say to my daughter, in effect: 'My dear young lady, I am your devoted lover. Be my wife — consent this very instant or I fire this mine and blow you and your father to smithereens.' And then, you think, she would settle down with you and live happy ever after. By the Lord, Otway, you must be a devilish poor judge of character."
"I am quite willing to take the risk," said Mr Otway.
"So you may be," my father retorted angrily, "but I'm not. I would rather see the poor girl in her grave than know that she was chained for life to a cold-blooded, blackmailing scoundrel —"
"Softly, Vardon!" Mr Otway interrupted. "There is no need for that sort of language. And perhaps we had better shut the door."
Here, as I drew back hastily into the book-room, quick footsteps crossed the study floor and I heard the door close. The interruption brought me back to some sense of my position; though, to be sure, what I had overheard concerned me as much as it concerned anyone. Quickly slipping the book back on the shelf, I ran on tip-toe past the study door and up the stairs; and even then I was none too soon; for, as I halted on the threshold of my room, the study door opened again and the two men strode across the hail.
"You are taking a ridiculously wrong-headed view of the whole affair," I heard Mr Otway declare.
"Possibly," my father replied, stiffly. "And if I do, I am prepared to take the consequences."
"Only the consequences won't fall on you alone," said Mr Otway.
"Good afternoon," was the dry and final response. Then the hall door slammed, and I heard my father walk slowly back to the study.CHAPTER 2
As the study door closed, I sank into my easy chair with a sudden feeling of faintness and bodily exhaustion. The momentary shock of horror and amazement had passed, giving place to a numb and chilly dread that made me feel sick and weak. Scraps of the astounding conversation that I had heard came back to me, incoherently and yet with hideous distinctness, like the whisperings of some malignant spirit. Disjointed words and phrases repeated themselves again and again, almost meaninglessly, but still with a vague undertone of menace.
And then, by degrees, as I sat gazing at the blurred pages of the book that still lay open on the reading-stand, my thoughts grew less chaotic; the words of that dreadful dialogue arranged themselves anew, and I began with more distinctness to gather their meaning.
Seven years penal servitude!
That was the dreadful refrain of this song of doom that was being chanted in my ear by the Spirit of Misfortune. And ruin — black, hideous ruin — for my father and me was the burden of that refrain; no mere loss, no paltry plunge into endurable poverty, but a descent into the bottomless pit of social degradation, from which there could be no hope of resurrection.
Nor was this the worst. For, gradually, as my thoughts began to arrange themselves into a coherent sequence, I realised that it was not the implied poverty and social disgrace that gave to that sentence its dreadful import. Poverty might be overcome, and disgrace could be endured; but when I thought of my father dragged away from me to be cast into gaol; when, in my mind's eye, I saw him clothed in the horrible livery of shame, wearing out his life within the prison walls and behind the fast-bolted prison doors; the thought and the imagined sight were unendurable. It was death — for him at least; for he was not a strong man. And for me?
Here, of a sudden, there came back to me the rather enigmatical speech of my father's, which I had heard without at the moment fully comprehending, but which I now recalled with a shock of alarm.
"Please bear in mind, Otway, that I am not a convict yet, and possibly may never be one. There are certain conceivable alternatives, you know."
The cryptic utterance had evidently puzzled Mr Otway, who had clearly misunderstood it as referring to some unknown resources. To me, no such misunderstanding was possible. More than once my father had discussed with me the ethics of suicide, on which subject he held somewhat unorthodox opinions; and I now recalled with terrible distinction the very definite statement that he had made on the occasion of our last talks "For my part," he had said, "if I should ever find myself in such a position that the continuance of life was less desirable than its termination, I should not hesitate to take the appropriate measures for exchanging the less desirable state for the more desirable."
In the face of such a statement, made, as I felt sure, in all sincerity and with sober judgment, how could I entertain any doubt as to the interpretation of that reference to "certain conceivable alternatives?" To a man of culture and some position and none too robust in health, what would be the aspect of life with its immediate future occupied by a criminal prosecution ending in an inevitable conviction and a term of penal servitude? Could the continuance of such a life be conceived as desirable? Assuredly not.
And then imagination began to torture me by filling in with hideous ingenuity the dreadful details. Now it was a pistol shot, heard in the night, and a group of terrified servants huddled together in the corridor. But no; that was not like my poor father. Such crude and bloody methods appertain rather to the terror-stricken fugitive than to one who is executing a considered and orderly retreat. Then I saw myself, in the grey of the morning, tapping at his bedroom door: tapping — tapping — and at last opening the door, or perhaps bursting it open. I saw the dim room — Oh! How horribly plain and vivid it was! With the cold light of the dawn glimmering through the blind, the curtained bed, the half-seen figure, still and silent in the shadow. Horrible! Horrible!
And then, in instant, the scene changed. I saw a man in our hall a man in uniform; a railway porter or inspector. I heard him tell, in a hushed, embarrassed voice, of a strange and dreadful accident down on the line ... And yet again this awful phantasmagoria shifted the scene and showed me a new picture: a search party, prowling with lantern around a chalk pit; and anon a group of four men, treading softly and carrying something on a hurdle.
"Dear God!" I gasped, with my hands pressed to my forehead, "must I be — this awful thing! Is there no other way?"
And with that there fell on me a great calm. A chilly calm, bringing no comfort, and yet, in a manner, a relief. For, perhaps, after all, there was another way. It was true that my father had rejected Mr Otway's proposal, and such was my habit of implicit obedience that, with his definite rejection of it, the alternative had, for me, ceased to exist. But now, with the horror of this dreadful menace upon me, I recalled the words that had been spoken, and asked myself if that avenue of escape were really closed. As to my father, I had no doubt; he would never consent; and even to raise the question might only be to precipitate the catastrophe. But with regard to Mr Otway the manner in which my father had met and rejected his proposal seemed to close the subject finally. He had called him a blackmailing scoundrel and used other injurious expressions, which might make it difficult or, at least, uncomfortable to reopen the question. Still that was a small matter. When one is walking to the gallows, one does not boggle at an uncomfortable shoe.
As to my own inclinations, they were beside the mark. My father's life and good name must be saved if it were possible; and it seemed that it might be possible — at a price. Whether it were possible or not depended on Mr Otway.
I recalled what I knew of this man who had thus in a moment become the arbiter of my father's fate and mine. My acquaintance with him was but slight, though I had met him pretty frequently and had sometimes wondered what his profession was, if he had any. I had assumed, from his evident acquaintance with legal matters, that he was a lawyer. But he was not in ordinary practice; and his business, whatever it was, seemed to involve a good deal of travelling. That was all I knew about him. As to his appearance, he was a huge, unwieldy man of a somewhat Jewish cast of face, some years older, I should think, than my father; pleasant spoken and genial in a somewhat heavy fashion, but quite uninteresting. Hitherto I had neither liked nor disliked him. Now, it need hardly be said, I regarded him with decided aversion; for if he were not, as my father had said, "a blackmailing scoundrel," he had, at any rate, taken the meanest, the most ungenerous advantage of my father's difficulties, to say nothing of the callous, cynical indifference that he had shown in regard to me and my wishes and interests.
It may seem a little odd that I found myself attaching no blame to my father. Yet so it was. To me he appeared as merely the victim of circumstances. No doubt he had done something indiscreet — perhaps incorrect but discretion and correctness are not qualities that appeal to a woman: whereas generosity — and my father was generous almost to a fault — makes the most powerful appeal to feminine sympathies. As to his honesty and good faith, I never doubted them for an instant; besides, he had plainly said that no fraudulent intent could be ascribed to him. What he had done I had not the least idea. Nor did I particularly care. It was not the act, but it consequences with which I was concerned.
My meditations were interrupted at length by an apologetic tap at the door, followed by the appearance of our housemaid.
"If you please, Miss Helen, shall I take Mr Vardon's tea to the study, or is he going to have it with you?"
Excerpted from Helen Vardon's Confession by R. Austin Freeman. Copyright © 2015 R. Austin Freeman. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I'm a fan of R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke mysteries, but I really didn't like this one. Freeman uses a first-person female narrator to express his anti-feminist opinions, a trick that annoys me. It's also pretty anti-Semitic, which I found surprising compared with, for example, Mr. Polton Explains, which I enjoyed for its positive Jewish characters. Aside from these problems, I didn't think it was much of a mystery: the actual murder occurs late in the book, and I thought the identity of the criminal was pretty easy to guess. I did like the descriptions of craft and artistry, always given careful attention in Freeman books, and the group of women living together and supporting each others' work. I finished the book despite not liking much of it, a tribute to Freeman's writing ability.
You people should just read this novel yourselves and write your own review on this novel. I really enjoyed reading this novel verymuch so. ShelleyMA