The Vicar's Wife
by Anthony Wingrave
The Vicar's Wife
A Detective Story
ST. CHRISTOPHER'S is a nondescript parish in North London, and its vicar, the Rev. Peter Wiggin, was a nondescript man.
He was neither popular nor unpopular, and if his wife was disliked it was not for her slightly contemptuous treatment of him, which seemed natural.
Any man would have agreed that he would not have liked his wife to treat him in the same way, but then no man would have liked to have been him. It was all natural enough. Nobody who knew him supposed that for many years he had wished to murder her.
But in fact he never read an account of wife murder without sympathy for the criminal. He asked himself: "Were they always caught? Must there not be some who remained unsuspected? By what manner of error was it that the unfortunate ones came within the grasp of the law?"
* * * * *
He observed two mistakes which were commonly made.
First they supplied a motive such as intimacy with another woman, which it was foolish to do. If they had got rid of their wives first and then invited consolation they might never have been suspected.
The second mistake was imitation. They imitated the methods of previous murderers: those who indulged in a plurality of murders even imitated themselves. By so doing, they made suspicion more probable, and detection easier. Arsenic: strangulation: drowning: or the blunt instrument which could be identified nine times out of 10. They kept to the trodden paths - there must be better methods than these.
So he continued to act the part of a faithful husband while he waited and pondered.
Then he saved his wife's life - and saw the way clear ahead.
She smoked a good deal. She sometimes took sleeping tablets. She frequently read in bed.
* * * * *
One night she dozed as she read, and a half-smoked cigarette fell from her hand. A smouldering hole spread in the sheet, then a shawl leapt into flame. She waked screamlng, the flames running from arm to face. Peter awoke also. Their beds were not more than 18in. apart. He threw a quilt over her and held it down, putting out the fire.
When she came out of hospital, she showed little sign of the ordeal she had endured. There had been a skin grafting operation on one side of her face. Evidences of damage were not in sight. The incident was forgotten - except by Peter. He treasured it, seeing his way to release.
Six months later he decided that the time for action had come.
Besides themselves, only one person slept in the house, a maid, Bertha, who retired to her attic room regularly at 10.15.
His wife's habits were less regular, but she was usually in bed before eleven.
His own custom was to remain downstairs for half an hour, or an hour, longer.
On the chosen night he remained down until midnight. He expected to find his wife asleep, but she spoke as he entered the room. "Peter," she said, "my water-bottle has gone quite cold. You'd better get me another."
He said: "Yes, Maud." with his usual meekness, and took the hot bottle from her hand, quite understanding that the request was his punishment for remaining down beyond his usual time. He decided that the attempt must he postponed.
Next night he took an additional precaution. Maud had a glass of hot milk before retiring, into which she would dissolve one of her tasteless sleeping tablets more often than not. When he was certain of not being observed, he slipped three into the glass.
He stayed down again until after midnight, and when he went up he found his wife sleeping soundly. She did not appear to have been smoking, and he was careful to move an ashtray which had some cigarette ends in it, from the dressing-table to the little one at the side of her bed, where he put some cigarettes also. She had thrown off the shawl, which he put back, drawing it over her face and hair, but too lightly to rouse her.
So far, everything had gone perfectly. He struck a match, and started the fire at three remote corners, wishing it to get a good hold before she would be disturbed, and that he should have time to get back to his study before the screams would begin.
He had left the bedroom door slightly open. As he went out he closed it causously, so that it would make no noise.
As he turned on the landing he faced Bertha, coming up the stairs, not three yards away.
The girl was wearing a pink dressing-gown. Her hair was in curlers. She was naturally startled at this unexpected encounter. She said: "I forgot to bolt the back door. I remembered how careful you've told me to be."
He said: "Yes, Bertha. Quite right, of course," and as they passed each other, she wondered why his voice shook, and he looked so queer. Then the first scream came.
They worked hard to put out the flames, but it was hopeless. The screaming, writhing creature that they had seen rolling on the floor as they had entered the room was smothered, quenched lifted into her husband's bed. With more dfficult, the burning bed was extinguished.
The doctor came quickly. The ambulance followed. Before dawn, without having spoken an articulate word, Mrs. Wiggin was dead.
* * * * *
The doctor had been sympathetic to an evidently distraught man. He was puzzled that the fire could have got such a hold immediately Mr. Wiggin had left the room, but the idea of murder did not enter his mind.
The hospital doctors were puzzled by the same problem, from a slightly different angle. They saw that she had been Iying down when the burns began, as they would have expected. But, if she had been sitting up when her husband had been with her, how suddenly the change had occurred - for she must have been fast asleep when the fire began.
On the other hand: if she had already been Iying down when he left the room, hat had caused the fire? They concluded that they must have got the tale a bit wrong. The thought of murder did not enter their minds either.
The coroner's officer, interviewing Bertha, also had his moment of puzzled wonder, if not of doubt. Bertha said: "The poor gentleman might have had a warning of what was coming, he was that white and dithering when he came out of the room." But the coroner's officer did not guess that it was the sight of her which had roused the fear.
* * * * *
The Vicar went to the fnneral at which he had asked a brother clergyman to officiate, conscious of a more sympathetic atmosphere than he had been accustomed to meet.
He did not know that a letter from his wife's sister, with another attached, had lain for the last two days on the desk of Chief-Inspector Dixon, at Scotland Yard. Its second paragraph read:
"You will see that she told me, only last week, that she had given up the habit of smoking in bed. I cannot help wondering. . . ."
Returning from the funeral, he sat down to a good lunch. The Chief Inspector, having interviewed the doctors concerned, was then talking to Bertha at the back door.
The Vicar had no cause for disquiet until Dixon entered the room and said, in a tone that did not invite refusal: "There are one or two points about Mrs. Wiggin's death concerning which further inquiries are being made. I'm afraid I must ask you to come with me to Scotland Yard when you have finished your lunch."
* * * * *