From “one of America’s favorite writers”: When a member of an aristocratic family takes a bullet, a nurse and amateur sleuth investigates (Mary Higgins Clark).
Nurse Sarah Keate is no stranger to mystery. An intrepid redhead with a biting wit, Nurse Keate has solved conspiracies and murders in places as varied as her once-sleepy hospital ward, a gothic mansion, and the Sand Hills of Nebraska. But what she encounters with the Thatchers is a new breed of deadly. The Thatchers are as close to aristocracy as an American family can get, and one of their own requires Keate’s care for a suspicious bullet wound to his right shoulder—a relative insists it was self-inflicted.
When the convalescing man dies under even stranger circumstances, Keate knows that he was murdered. And what’s worse, there is no doubt that the murderer resides in the Thatcher mansion. As the family closes rank and struggles to keep its darkest secrets buried, Nurse Keate will stop at nothing to find the truth.
About the Author
Before Agatha Christie ever published a Miss Marple novel, Eberhart wrote romantic crime fiction with female leads. Eight of her books, including While the Patient Slept and Hasty Wedding (1938), were adapted for film. Elected a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master in 1971, Eberhart continued publishing roughly a book a year until the 1980s. Her final novel, Three Days for Emeralds, was published in 1988.
Read an Excerpt
Murder by an Aristocrat
By Mignon G. Eberhart
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1960 Mignon G. Eberhart
All rights reserved.
Last week I had my telephone disconnected, and I am sleeping better. I no longer find myself suddenly awake, staring into the darkness, listening. Listening, every nerve tense, as if I dread what I am about to hear. And then coming slowly to the realization that the telephone is not ringing, that the Thatcher case is over and closed. It is always with a feeling of shock that I arrive at this realization; I invariably feel tired, exhausted, and faintly terrified, as if I had just escaped some impending danger.
Having been more or less interested in the simpler aspects of psychology for some time, I strove to analyze my own thoroughly annoying trouble and came to the conclusion that I feared the telephone.
So, as I say, I had it disconnected and have slept much better.
Though as to that there are many things far more terrifying than the telephone that I have stored in my memory. There was the singular way Bayard Thatcher's head was twisted. There was the blood on the wrong rug. There were Dave's haunted eyes when I met him at last at that strange grave. And there was, curiously, the heavy fragrance of summer night rain on roses.
But after all, it was the telephone which summoned me to the Thatcher case to nurse Bayard Thatcher who, Dr. Bouligny said, had accidentally shot himself while cleaning a revolver. He was not seriously wounded, said Dr. Bouligny, but Miss Adela Thatcher had insisted on calling a trained nurse. From the way he spoke, I received a distinct impression that Adela Thatcher's will was law.
The telephone call aroused me at exactly half-past two of a cool summer dawn; I know the time because I remember rubbing my eyes with one hand while I stretched the other toward my alarm clock and wondered whether it was an accident or a baby. The doctor explained the matter rather hurriedly, saying the accident had occurred about half an hour ago, he had dressed the wound and would leave orders for me, and would I please come at once. I resisted an impulse to tell him I would far rather get my sleep out, scrambled some things into a bag, caught a suburban train, and was presently walking along the turf path, raised a little, and so velvety thick with close-cropped grass that my feet made no sound at all, which led diagonally from the crossroads across the spacious lawns surrounding the Thatcher house.
It was that cool, lovely gray hour before the sun, and I recall very clearly but with some incredulity the feeling of peace and tranquillity and serenity induced in me by the wide green lawn, spreading into misty gray, the dim outlines of the shrubbery, the sleepy twitter of the birds in the great old trees, and the house itself, which loomed half clear, half shadowy ahead of me. It was an old house of mellowed brick with clean white trimmings, sprawling contentedly there amid its trees; a house of undecided architecture with a turret here, a bay window there, an unexpected wing somewhere else; a house that, once neat and compact, had been added onto during several generations. It was now a rambling mixture of many modes of architecture, but the effect, somehow, was still gracious and possessed a mellow and charming dignity.
The wide front door was open, with only a screen door across it; a light shone in the hall beyond. As I took a last breath of the sweet morning air which mingled the scents of sleeping flowers and dew-drenched, recently cut grass and stepped on the low porch, a woman came from the stairway in the hall to open the door. She was a small woman not much past fifty, I thought, in trailing lavender silk with lace falling about her wrists. She looked worried and anxious but was not flurried.
"Miss Keate?" It was a soft, rather high voice, delicately modulated and very deliberate. The kind of voice that in my girlhood was called elegant. Or refined. It continued: "I am Adela Thatcher. Will you come this way, please?"
She gestured toward the stairway, and I followed. The light above had fallen directly upon her face and her gray hair, which was in what, I instinctively felt, was an unaccustomed state of disorder. The arrogant curve of what I came to know as the Thatcher nose was softened in her face to a line of not unpleasant dignity, and her somewhat faded blue eyes squinted near-sightedly. She was not tall and, save for a thickness about the waist and hips, was rather slender, but she gave an impression of stateliness and assured dignity. Her hand on the polished railing was white under its laces, but a little broad and thick knuckled; it was a generous but not a sensitive hand.
At the moment I saw very little of the darkly gleaming stairway and hall. I saw little of it, but at the same time there were things I knew about that house immediately. I knew there were glittering bathrooms, lavishly supplied, and generous linen closets delicately fragrant with lavender; I knew that there were many books and good old rugs and ancestral portraits carefully hung; I knew that a stain on the silver — which would be solid and old — was like a stain on the family honor, and that somebody in the household had perpetually red knees from polishing floors and ancient mahogany.
We emerged into a wide, well aired upper hall. At a door almost opposite the stair well a girl in a yellow chiffon negligee stood, apparently waiting for us. One slim hand was on the doorknob of the room she seemed to have just left; her dark hair was pinned back in a remarkably becoming dishevelment, and even at that hurried moment I was conscious of what was almost a shock. The girl was amazingly beautiful.
Now beauty is a rare word, a delicate word, one which may not be used carelessly, but it is the only word for Janice Thatcher. But I do not know to this day exactly why she was beautiful. I suppose she had regular features and a graceful body. I know her black hair was soft and wavy and had a warm brownish tinge. I know she had a creamy magnolia-like skin, very dark gray eyes which were direct and grave under well defined eyebrows and, I believe, long-lashed. But many, many women have all that and have not beauty. No, it was something subtle; something elusive; a sort of inner flame, a something that glowed occasionally like the lambent flashes of a fire opal when you turn it in the light.
Since I am of the generation which quotes Browning, I found myself thinking, "All that I know of a certain star" — and then Miss Adela was saying a little breathlessly:
"How is Bayard? Is he better?"
The girl nodded.
"Is this the nurse?"
"Miss Keate. Mrs. Dave Thatcher," said Miss Adela. "Are you sure it was all right to leave Bayard, Janice?"
"Quite all right," said Janice briefly, looking steadily at me. "He is going to get well. It isn't anything serious."
Something about her, intangible yet positive and definite, too, told me that she had just had some sort of shock. Probably it was a scarcely definable air of rigidly maintained poise, a look of emotions held sternly in leash. At any rate, I knew it at once.
It was just then that it struck me for the first time that two o'clock of a summer morning is an unusual time to be cleaning a revolver.
Both women had been looking steadily at me, and even as I became aware of the odd intensity of their scrutiny, they exchanged between themselves a communicative glance.
"Miss Keate will do very well," said Janice.
"Yes, I'm sure of it," returned Adela Thatcher in a reassured way.
They both looked, I thought, subtly approving. And I didn't see any reason particularly to approve of the appearance of a sleepy, middle-aged nurse who is stouter and crankier than she likes to admit.
Then Miss Adela's faded blue eyes went past me to a door farther along the corridor and became suddenly bleak.
"Where is Dave?"
A little veil dropped over Janice's dark eyes, and she said crisply: "I don't know, I'm sure," and opened the door beside us.
I followed them into a large, airy bedroom with long open windows. A bedroom of fresh ruffled chintz, heavy old mahogany dresser and bed, gleaming floors, and ivory-painted woodwork. On the wide bed lay my patient, Bayard Thatcher. His eyes were closed, but he opened them as I approached, looked narrowly at me past his arrogant Thatcher nose, said, "Hell," quite distinctly, and closed his eyes again.
Well, of course, three o'clock in the morning is a trying hour, and I am no beauty at best. Still, I must admit his candor affected me most disagreeably.
Janice caught her breath sharply.
"Bayard! This is your nurse, Miss Keate."
"I know it," he said, still with his sunken eyes closed and his hard dark face and thinning brownish hair very vivid against the white pillows. "Listen, Adela, I don't need a nurse. It's only a scratch. Doctor can dress it every day —"
"There's a bedroom next door if you'd like to change into your uniform, Miss Keate," said Adela, ignoring Bayard in the blandest way in the world. "Show her, Janice. Dr. Bouligny left a note over there on the table for you. I think he gave Bayard something to make him sleep —" Her gentle, deliberate voice stopped without a period, and she moved with a soft whisper of silk to make some adjustment of the sheets.
Well — that was my introduction to the Thatcher house and household. A house which in its dim fragrance, its gracious dignity, its feeling of ancestry, its every evidence of an age when family tradition was held in honor, was to grow as familiar to me as the palm of my own hand. And a household which — no, I can't say it became familiar to me: there were things about the Thatchers which I accepted but never understood — but which was to engage and hold my strongest interest. Adela, perhaps, in her dignity, her tenacity, her strongly maternal feeling toward her two brothers, Dave and Hilary, and her determined effort to preserve an unbroken surface of amity toward the world, I came the nearest to understanding. It was only toward the last that I really knew Janice.
When I returned to my patient's room, my fresh white uniform rustling and a starched cap concealing the gray streak in my abundant reddish hair, Janice had gone, and Miss Adela, with a parting word about the doctor's orders, soon left us. I glanced at the chart Dr. Bouligny had left, noted a few directions, took my patient's pulse, which was only a little over normal, and his temperature, which was barely ninety-nine, looked at the dressing on the wound, and settled myself at length in a comfortable chair near one of the open windows, yawned and relaxed. While a nurse is quite accustomed to being called from her sleep at all hours of the night, still, it never grows pleasant.
The house was very silent, and I could hear the waking calls of the birds in the trees outside very clearly. It was growing lighter, so I turned out the lamp at my elbow. In the quiet semi-gloom my patient appeared to sleep, and his sharp profile looked dark and hawk-like. His face was narrow and thin with deeply sunken eyes, rather high cheek bones, a high forehead, and a thin mouth. It was neither a kind nor a lovable face; his eyes were set a little too close together above that arrogantly curved nose, his thin mouth had a sardonic look even in sleep. It was altogether a relentless face. I thought a moment and changed the word: it was a predatory face.
"You don't like my looks?"
"I wasn't thinking anything about your looks," I said, startled. His eyes were a peculiar light yellow-gray, which looked very light in his dark face, and it had taken me a little by surprise to discover that he'd been watching me all the while I stared at his mouth and hunted for a word to suit it. "You must go back to sleep again."
"I don't want to sleep. The doctor's pills are as ineffective as everything else about him. Do you know Dr. Bouligny?"
"Slightly. He's brought a few cases to the hospital. The nurses call him Dr. Bolon —" I checked myself, but he smiled again.
"Dr. Boloney, of course. Irresistible to the average young woman's mentality. But in this case quite applicable. He is also —" he continued in a leisurely way that was not exactly nice — "he is also a piece of cheese, a feather bed, and a Thatcher." His unpleasant light eyes went past me to the elms outside the window, which were beginning to glow in the coming sunlight.
"A Thatcher. And therefore blessed. When a Thatcher is born the key to heaven is automatically placed in his hand."
"You'd better go to sleep."
"Our doctor's mother was a Thatcher. Several times removed from the present incumbents of the honor, but still a Thatcher. And to be a That —"
"You must try to sleep," I said crisply. "If you keep talking, your pulse will go up and you'll get a fever. We don't want any trouble with that wound."
"Oh, yes. My wound. We must be careful of that. By the way, Miss — Keate, is it? — you might just glance about the room. If the revolver is anywhere, pick it up and put it away."
I did so willingly; I might even say with alacrity. Loaded revolvers lying casually about are apt to make me a little nervous. But though I looked all through the room and the adjoining bathroom, neither room yielded anything in the shape of a revolver. There were some bloodstained towels in the hamper, and some swabs of cotton and gauze stained with blood and mercurochrome in the waste basket, but no revolver. I even looked at his direction in the drawers of the great old-fashioned bureau, which offered a faint smell of lavender, an abundance of well laundered shirts, at least fifty ties, and a square bottle marked Gordon's gin and wrapped carefully in some extremely nice white silk underclothes. But no revolver.
"H'm," murmured my patient, who had been watching me with a sort of eager look in his light eyes. "Now, I wonder — I wonder who took it."
"What in the world," I asked rather sharply, my curiosity overcoming my prudence, "what in the world were you doing, cleaning your revolver at two o'clock in the morning?" "What's that?" he said quickly, and when I repeated it he laughed. It was not, however, a pleasant laugh.
"Cleaning my revolver. Is that what Adela said?"
"That's what Dr. Bouligny said."
"So that's it." He paused, looking fixedly at one of the tall pineapple bedposts. "So that's it.
Oh, clever Adela. Well, if she says so she's probably right. But don't ask me why I was doing it. To my notion that's the last thing in the world to do at that hour. There are so many nicer ways to pass the night. And if you want to know," he added abruptly, "why I hid that bottle of gin, it's on account of Emmeline."
"Emmeline?" I said, bewildered.
"Emmeline. Emmeline of the well known gimlet eyes. Emmeline of the communicative tongue. Emmeline of the unbribable virtue. With two deaf ears she hears much better than most people with two good ears. Emmeline," he said cruelly, "is Adela's trusted maid. Adela thinks she rules the household, but it's really Emmeline. And as to the gin — Emmeline thinks it her duty whenever I'm here on a visit to see that I've not fallen into any bad ways, and that all the buttons are on my shirts and my socks neatly mended. But she is still maidenly and modest at fifty-odd, and my underwear is immune."
"On a visit? I thought you lived here."
"Not by a long shot," he said. There was an acrid undertone in his voice. "I'm a sort of cousin. What is known as a connection. A connection but still a Thatcher, which is why Adela took me on when I was left without resource at a tender age. She tried to bring me up along with her two brothers. It didn't go so well," he added in a musing way. "Dave and Hilary were even then particularly nasty little snobs, and I was never anything to —"
"You really must try to go to sleep," I interrupted hurriedly. At the moment I had no wish to be told the inner politics of the Thatcher family. Later I was to wish I had overcome my scruples and listened avidly to every word he might say in the hope of discovering in retrospect some hint, some word, that would give us a clue to the dark mystery that was so soon to involve us.
This time he closed his eyes.
"My shoulder's beginning to throb. Can you shift the bandage a little? The adhesive pulls like hell!"
Excerpted from Murder by an Aristocrat by Mignon G. Eberhart. Copyright © 1960 Mignon G. Eberhart. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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