Detective Cromwell folded his arms across his chest, taking in the horrible sight that met him. The room he was in was small and dark with panelled walls almost entirely covered by an impressive collection of paintings. Although Cromwell found it difficult to ignore the valuable masterpieces it was impossible to forget why he was in this particular study, in this particular house.
Sitting in a comfortable armchair, clad in a navy blue dressing gown, with the tremendous upper body leaning over the mahogany desk, was the body of Lord Reginald Blackthorn, owner of Fox Hill Manor. Lord Blackthorn was a strongly built man with broad shoulders and fairly thick arms. His hands were rough and large, his face likewise. His cheeks were round and he had a broad chin. The eyes sat deep and he had bushy, grey brows. Lord Blackthorn was known as a friendly man, and Cromwell could understand why so many looked up to and respected him. He enjoyed a status as the village's benefactor and a role model for many, for he was known to gladly share his great fortune with the community. But the sight that met the detective there in the Lord’s study was far from the gracious man he had imagined. The grotesque facial expression told of a gruesome death. His mouth was open, as if he had tried to shout for help and his eyes were filled with fear.
After having surveyed the room in general, Cromwell took to examining the desk. He found little of any importance. An empty coffee cup stood next to a porcelain pot, and Cromwell sniffed carefully at its contents. A dozen letters that were all sorted by the date they were sent, plans for a new outhouse and a list of household income and expenditure couldn’t tell him much, but the open snuff-box beside the corpse caught the detective’s attention. Why wasn’t it closed and in the man's pocket? There was also another object Cromwell particularly noticed. A letter. Putting on his glasses, he read it slowly, examining the handwriting and the language. It was written by an educated man, and ran in a friendly tone, evidently from the lord’s nephew.
"Interesting," he thought to himself. "Old Lord Blackthorn meant to adopt his ward, Miss Juila Summerset ..."
The body bore no signs of violence, and the butler and the maid had assured him that Lord Blackthorn had not received any visitors in the last days. Only his ward and her fiancé, Peter Lloyd, were in the house at present, but none of them had been in the study today. Cromwell let his eyes wander around the room one last time, and as he was about to go, his eyes fell on a painting hanging on the wall behind the desk. It was one of Van Gogh's portraits and showed a man sitting at a table with his head tilted to one side and a foxglove in a glass in front of him. On the desk, just to the right of Lord Blackthorn, stood a fresh, pink foxglove in a glass. Cold shivers ran down the experienced detective’s back. He was convinced that something was wrong and that the revered man had not met a natural death.
In the living-room Cromwell found the beautiful Miss Julia Summerset with Mr Lloyd, a tall, dark-haired young man with clear, bright eyes and pronounced cheekbones, by her side.
"I cannot believe he's dead ... So kind and good that he was ... Oh, poor old Reggie." Miss Summerset gasped and tried frantically to wipe the tears that flowed in fast-flowing streams down her pale cheeks. The bright green eyes were red-rimmed and the elegant face bore the grief and shock of losing her guardian, who had been like a father to her after she had lost both her parents a few years earlier. Lloyd put a protective arm around her and tried his best to comfort the despairing lady. Yet Cromwell could not help but notice a certain nervousness in Lloyd's eyes.
"You have to excuse her, Mr Cromwell. She thought very highly of old Blackthorn. We all did."
There was a fourth person in the room who remained silent, and stood with his left arm on the mantelpiece, gazing out of the window facing the vast moor at the back of the house and smoking a cigarette. George Lorrimer, Lord Blackthorns nephew, was a tall, broad-shouldered man, with a proud bearing and expensive clothes. Neither attitude nor facial expression gave anything away about his inner thoughts or what he felt about his uncle's demise.
"I understand you came up from London only this morning, Mr Lorrimer?" asked Cromwell and examined the other. The eyes that finally met his were muddy brown, and shone with calm and great intelligence. The jaw was broad and covered with a grizzled beard. He was neatly dressed in a grey suit, with matching waistcoat and white shirt with starched collar. His necktie was of deep crimson with a golden pin.
"Yes, my uncle invited me. It's not often we see each other now that I work in London, but it's always nice to come back here. We were often here as children, my siblings and I, and I’m very fond of the place. "
The voice was weary, and slightly pompous, and Cromwell promptly got the impression of a somewhat arrogant attitude, which was often the case with those born into riches. "What exactly is your profession?"
"I am a specialist in heart disease, Mr Cromwell. And unfortunately, my uncle was not as healthy as he often liked to believe. I have many times urged him to come to London for an examination, but the stubborn old man always refused... And now his heart has failed him at last."
Cromwell nodded slowly and stared blankly in front of him. "And the snuff-box?" He said in a low voice, to the other’s big surprise. Lorrimer looked up abruptly and studied the detective carefully, with an almost mocking glance. "I beg your pardon? What has the snuff-box got to do with it?" he asked.
"Reggie's only vice in life was tobacco. Snuff in particular." It was Miss Summerset who finally broke into the conversation. "It was a gift, was it not? From you, George." Lorrimer nodded and admitted that he had sent his uncle a full snuff-box as a gift, knowing his uncle's love for London's quality tobacco. Cromwell looked to the young Peter Lloyd.
"And what about you, Mr Lloyd? What is your profession?"
Lloyd looked up at him with a curious glance. "I'm just a simple botanist, Mr Cromwell."
"A specialist on poisonous plants, I have heard," Lorrimer stated, which got Lloyd to widen his eyes, and wring his hands. From Miss Summerset he learned that she had recently completed an art degree program. It was her guardian who had encouraged her to study, and she was very intrigued by the somewhat eccentric, but nevertheless brilliant painter Vincent Van Gogh. Although he was tempted to engage in a conversation with a fellow art enthusiast, Cromwell kept his mask and remained cold and indifferent. The young lady being an art connoisseur could explain why the scene had such a frightening resemblance to the painting on the wall.
"I would like to know a few things," Cromwell announced after a short pause. "First, who made and served coffee to Lord Blackthorn this morning, and why is there a foxglove on the desk?"
"It was I who made the coffee, but Reggie brought it into the study himself." Miss Summerset glanced anxiously at Cromwell. "You… you don’t think it was poisoned...?"
"At the moment I think nothing, madam. Now, what about this flower? It is a highly unusual decorative? "
"I wish I could tell you, Mr Cromwell, but I have not the faintest idea how the flower came to be there. Reggie may have picked it himself and put it there to decorate. He has always been fond of those hideous flowers ..."
Cromwell nodded thoughtfully and thanked Miss Summerset for her help before he continued with his questions. "Finally I would like to know who inherits Lord Blackthorn." Cromwell met the eyes of all three and it was a short silence before Lorrimer spoke up. "I'm his closest family and inherit the house and a third of his fortune. Julia gets a considerable sum, and the rest of the household a bit each. He also leaves a considerable sum to the village parson, to be spent at renovating the church."
"And if Blackthorn should adopt Miss Summerset - what happens with his current will?" Cromwell's question was met with three pairs of shocked eyes and for a moment no one said a word. Finally Lorrimer won back his tongue. "I guess it would be invalid, and that he would write a new one. As his adopted daughter... she would be entitled to everything."
"Thank you very much, Mr Lorrimer. you have been of tremendous help. Now I hope you will excuse me. It is such a lovely weather today and I'd rather have a few minutes to myself."
With that he took his hat and coat and headed for the front door. A walk always seemed to help him think. Fox Hill Manor was an old house, built in the late 1700s and towered majestically above the village which lay a little farther down, at the foot of the hill. Along the paved walkway grew a hundred purple, pink and white foxgloves and other wild flowers. Cromwell stopped to look at the flowers for a while as his brain worked at full speed. Everything indicated that the old man had died of heart failure, yet Cromwell was unable to get rid of the unpleasant feeling that there had been foul play. Poisoning was obvious, but how? A bumblebee buzzed lazily past him and crawled into one of the bell-shaped flowers. Foxglove. Suddenly he saw everything crystal clear. As if by magic all the pieces fell into place. He hurried back into the living room, where he found the suspects just as he had left them. With his arms folded behind his back and a resolute face he stood in front of them.
"The way I see it,” he started, eyeing the three, “there are only three possible suspects in this case and they are all located in this very room. Yet it is one who stands out as the most likely. Miss Julia Summerset has a clear motive to inherit a significant amount of money, but would have earned more by letting Lord Blackthorn live, so he could adopt her as his own daughter and thus make her his first heir. She also had an excellent opportunity to poison her guardian this morning."
"This is absurd! Why would I kill poor Reggie?" The desperation and despair in Miss Summerset’s voice made Cromwell give her a reassuring smile. "Please, my good lady, fear not. I don’t believe that the coffee was poisoned, but let me continue. Mr Peter Lloyd has good prospects of becoming a rich man if he marries Miss Summerset. He has good knowledge of poisonous plants, and Fox Hill is the ideal place to find the excellent murder weapon. Yet I do not think you are cold-blooded enough, my good man." Lloyd nodded approvingly and took a better grip on Miss Summerset’s slender hand.
"Mr George Lorrimer, however, had everything to gain from his uncle's death. If Miss Summerset was adopted, he would lose a large part of his inheritance, in particular the right to Fox Hill Manor and his uncle's considerable fortune. On the other hand, Lorrimer is also the only one who was not in the house when Blackthorn died, and thus could not have murdered the old man... Or could he? I am convinced, Mr Lorrimer, that you let your passion for art run away with you and that you could not resist the temptation to use Lord Blackthorn’s favourite painting as inspiration for the perfect murder. His only vice in life, as we all know, was tobacco, particularly snuff. I'll be very surprised if an analysis of Lord Blackthorn’s snuff-box does not reveal large amounts of digoxin, derived from the poisonous foxglove and used as a common drug against heart disease. The old man already had a weak heart, and with the right dose the foxglove poison was guaranteed to kill him. It was easy for you to obtain adequate amounts of digoxin and mix a highly concentrated dose with the snuff you gave your uncle. you knew about Lord Blackthorn’s plans to adopt Miss Summerset and thus deprive You of Your rightful inheritance. Am I right, Mr George Lorrimer? Did you kill Lord Reginald Blackthorn?"
Lorrimer’s eyes were filled with terror and not even his best attempts to control his emotions could hide the truth from Cromwell. The mask fell and he stared angrily at the detective. "Blasted sleuth. How did you see through me? The plan was perfect!" Lorrimer sputtered and his eyes flashed.
"You underestimated me, Mr Lorrimer. And you made one mistake. The foxglove. It was you who discovered your uncle’s body, if I remember correctly. To me it seems probable that you could have placed the foxglove on his desk then, to complete your masterpiece. The whole thing was masterly done, I'll give you that. You didn’t even have to be here for the murder to take place. You knew that within a matter of days, Lord Blackthorn would take that lethal dose which you had so carefully planned, and, of course, you had the perfect alibi. This case has been highly entertaining and informative. Art is a source of inspiration to us all and enrich our lives in many ways, but in your case, Mr Lorrimer, art has led to a man's death and your doom."
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