A Most Gentle Death

Abigail kept watch from the large bow window that looked out upon the street.  The light of midday filtered through the avenue of Elms that lined both sides of the lane.  The lane was rather narrow, traffic could barely pass ft an automobile was parked on one side of the street or the other.  The neighborhood was an old one, first house built about 1909 on one of the many half acre lots.  The influence of brick Victorians was abundant but soon changed to the latest Praire style that came to dominate that neighborhood.  The last of the few lots left reflected the Craftsman style prior to the war, the last great one that has become almost a caricature for a great generation of personal sacrifice.  My how we glorify the past with such misadventure.  Here the sidewalks marked the mixture of style and age as cobblestone and concrete slab intermixed.

Hortense was in the kitchen starting the canning of damson preserves, her speciality, for nothing would best the taste of damson preserves on butter toast.  Calling to her sister, “Abigail, I need your help for the present.”  “I’m coming.” was the answer she received.

“What time is Grover due back from the bank?  Seems to me that he might have stopped off at that tavern on the corner of Seventh and Locust.  I do wish he would refrain from imbibing spirits in so common public place.  If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, drinking in public is a dreadful sin.”

Hortense answered her sister, “Now Abigail, Grover is a grown man and grown men often stop for a sip or two in a public place, it is expected.”

About that time Grover entered by the front door, he whistled a light air  from the opera Aida as was his want and called out to both sisters. “Hortense, Abigail, I’ve returned.”  The sound of a man’s voice immediately attracted their attention.  “I was just returning from the bank and I encountered a fellow down at Smiley’s Tavern who may need your assistance.  I took the liberty of inviting him for dinner.  He’ll be here shortly.”  Grover walked towards the kitchen fully expecting both sisters to be engaged in jam making.

“What’s the gentleman’s name, Grover.  Have you met him before?”  Abigail was always most the inquisitive of the family.

“Yes, what is his name and what is his story?”  Now Hortense had joined the curiosity shown by her sister.  “Does he have any family here?”

“Now just hold your horses, you two.  I didn’t have that much time to interview the man as we sat and had a pint together.  I do know that Mr Parsons, that’s the name by which he introduced himself, prefers a good beer and seldom drinks hard alcohol.  And no, I don’t think he is a local man.  Don’t recall seeing him at Smiley’s or even Charlies’ before today.  But we’ll have plenty of time to discuss his back ground at dinner tonight.  I told him dinner was at seven and we’d be very pleased to have him as our guest.”  The two women twittered a bit about the kitchen while preparing the night’s repast.  Grover retired to the library and preceded to check the telephone directory for the name of his guest.  “Well, no sign of him here, I suppose he rents a room,  Maybe he is just passing through.”  Grover glanced at the grandfather clock by the door and thought, “Time to prepare myself for our guest and dinner.”

Grover Marshall was a member of the old school generation.  An above average height and slight build his carriage would be described as dignified but not stiff.  He was the proud owner of a full head of white hair that gave him that almost Robert Frost look with the blue eyes to match.  As he changed into a dark blue suit he made sure to transfer his pocket watch and chain to his matching vest, a Phi Beta Kappa key was suspended from the middle of the chain.  Hortense was the oldest sibling and her maternal instincts were particularly strong.  Abigail was the baby of the trio and once considered the belle of the ball in her early years.  Only Grover had attended university, Yale by family tradition, and had achieved a certain distinction in literary circles with his poetry.  But it was Abigail who was the artist of the three for she had won recognition and prizes at juried competitions.  While the attainments of Hortense seemed to pale in comparison, it was she who exhibited the financial savvy needed to keep the estate in tact and bills paid, although that was becoming more problematic for the trio.  The death of both parents shortly after Grover’s graduation from Yale had left the three in a state of emotional chaos for a time for it had been the practice of both parents to keep the three in a rather sheltered childhood and out of public schools.

As he finished dressing for dinner Grover looked at his pocket watch and noticed the time.  “I should get down to the parlor, our guest will be arriving soon.”  As he reached the foot of the stairs he called out, “Abigail, is everything set for dinner?”

A cheerful voice answered, “Why yes, dear.  I do believe we are ready for our guest.”

“Thank you, Abigail.  I’ll wait for him in the parlor.  I was wondering, do you think we should offer him some sherry?  That’s always a proper ice breaker.  Besides, I think Hortense would appreciate a glass.  We do still have some sherry, don’t we Abigail?”

“Of course we do.  Don’t you remember, we still have three bottles left from the cellar stock.  Oh, isn’t that our guest now, ear?”

“Quite right, Abigail, I’ll let him in and bring him to the front parlor.”

Grover walked the few steps to the door and opened it.  “Ah, welcome Mr Parsons, do come in.  Here, let me take your coat.  I’ll just hang it up here on the hall tree.  My great grandfather once told me when I was a small child that this hall tree once belonged to JP Morgan.  Imagine that.  Why it’s little more than an odd branch of walnut but they say it was the old man’s favorite piece of furniture in his office.  Forgive me, I am forgetting my manners.  Please, come into the parlor.  Would you care for a glass of sherry?”

Mr Parsons walked as though he was a little unsteady and sat down in a wingback chair near the fireplace.  “Don’t mind if I do.”

“Here you are, Mr Parsons.  You don’t mind if I call you Stanley, do you?  No need to be so formal.  And please, call me Grover.  All my friends do.”  Grover turned as the two sisters entered the room.  “Good evening Hortense, may I introduce Mr Parsons to you.  His friends call him Stanley.  Mr Parsons, Stanley, this is my dear sister Hortense.”

“How do you do, ma’am.”  Stanley had barely been able to stand up before she was next to him.

“And this dear sweet woman is my other sister, Abigail.”

Abigail quickly stood on the other side of Stanley as if she were measuring him for a garment.  Abigail is the talented one in our family, those are a few of her water colors on the wall.  Really brightens the house up, don’t  you think Stanley?

“Oh, er, yes, very pretty.”

“Stanley and I were just having a glass of sherry, would you like one Hortense, Abigail?”  Grover took two more sherry glasses from the old Philadelphia desk and poured the exact amount of pale liquid into each glass.  As he handed the two glasses to his sister he started to speak.  “This is a very fine old dry sherry my grandfather had imported from Spain.  Three barrels I believe.  Grandfather had a merchant in New York bottle them and a private printed label applied.  I’m afraid its a bit pretentious on my grandfather’s part.”

Stanley simply grunted a “Huh”, and left it at that.

Approximately ten minutes of the urbane chatter Hortense announce that dinner would be served shortly.  “Come, Abigail, time to serve the meal.”  Grover rose as the two left the room, his manners impeccable as always.

“We have a minute of two before they require us at the table, Stanley, a drop more sherry?”

“Uh, yeah, sure, a drop more.”  The words seemed strangulated as they tumbled from his lips.  “Don’t mind if I do.”

Grover had been studying the man, trying to grasp the character and faults of his guest.  Yet Stanley remained something of a mystery.  Ah, dinner would loosen him up, get him to reveal more about himself.  “I shall be my disarming best.” thought Grover.  At the moment Abigail appeared and announced that dinner was served.

The meal was simplicity, roast chicken with new potatoes, cut green beans, a mushroom gravy, and a white chardonnay to accompany the fowl.  The Marshals were nothing if not circumspect of propriety and manners.  “Well Stanley, what do you think of our fair town?  Oh it has seen better days but I believe there exists a civic spirit that prides itself on accomplishment.”

Hortense was making the first attempt at discovery towards their intended guest and victim   “Have you lived here very long?”

“Oh no, ma’am,  been here only six weeks.  Haven’t decided if I want to settle down yet.”  Stanley hardly looked up from his plate as he ate with an appetite of someone unused to regular meals.

“Isn’t this a pretty town, Stanley?”  Abigail was attempting to elicit some emotional appreciation from her guest.

“It’s okay as towns go, I suppose.  Now you take Greenvale, that’s over near the border to the west.  It has a good many amenities, if you ask me.  But the people are stuck up, if you know what I mean.”

Stanley returned to his chicken breast and was sucking the meat off the bones.  “Pretty good chicken if you ask me.”

Hortense was aflutter with such a comment seeing that socially she had not received one in an exceptionally long time.  “Why Thank you Stanley, that is quite a complement.  Where is your family, do they live near here?”

“Oh no, they are several states over, Illinois near Joliette.    My sister lives there with her daughter.”

“Tell me, what is your line of work Stanley?  I don’t recall you have mentioned that before over at Smiley’s”  It was Gover’s turn to ask a seemingly innocent question.  “I am a poet myself,  there is little need of poetry in our current economy.”

“I am an entrepreneur if you must know.  Usually I size up a town, much like this one and determine what its prospects happen to be.  Then I make an investment if all looks well.   Any more potatoes, Ma’am?  Their good with the gravy.”

“Then you possess a fair amount of capital if you wish to invest in a town, as you have said.”  Grover became more animated with the possibility of money to be had.

“Well,” Stanley continued, “Capital is where you find it and I do a fair job of discovering its whereabouts.”

The evening wore on and finally Stanley, after a few polite but definite reminders that he was welcome and perhaps expected to call again.  And thus made his exit.

Hortense was the first to speak as the trio gathered in the parlor.  “That man offers possibilities.  A nameless derelict would be easy enough to take into our plan but this man is different.”

“He certainly sounds resourceful.  What do you think Grover?”  Abigail, as usual, had put her finger on the problem.  As Grover had opined frequently, a resourceful man was apt to be more trouble than he was worth.

“I think, Hortense and Abigail, that this man is not our ideal candidate for the plan we have in mind.  But I grant you, he may bear looking into.  He did appreciate your cooking and he wasn’t shy about asking for more.  Perhaps the way to his heart is through his stomach.  I shall wait a day before seeking him out.  That will give me time to make a few inquiries as to his business here in town.”

“I believe that would be wise, Grover.  I have some marketing to do tomorrow and perhaps I can pick up a bit of gossip about Stanley.”  Hortense was the one who kept tabs about town on the latest news, something of which women are generally superior to men.Women survey the emotional landscape while men only pay attention to action.

It must be said that there appeared to be, at least to the community at large, something of a whirlwind courtship between Stanley and Hortense.  The plan was the couple would supposedly elope and tragedy would occur on the honeymoon after suitable life insurance was engaged on the life of Stanley.  The honeymoon cottage was an old motel that should have been torn down years ago but had acquired a certain amount of rustic atmosphere.  It also had  a heater that could be altered slightly to produce carbon dioxide gas as the fuel burnt.  Of all three, Hortense was the most resourceful one and quite well read on the more practical arts of living.  The plan was simple.  They would get Stanley drunk and the three of the drive to the resort town where a Justice of the Peace resided.  Hortense and Grover would go before the Justice of the Peace with Grover pretending to be Stanley.  Then they would drive to the honeymoon cottage where Stanley would be put to be and the heater turned on.  A slight change in mixture would be made to the heater and Stanley would be asphyxiated.  Hortense would later claim that Stanley had behaved towards her in a drunken and hostile manner and had taken refuge in the locked car.  Grover would take the early morning bus back to the house and then wait for the telephone call.  The plan was simple enough and might have worked.

Stanley was a resourceful man.  He had taken out an insurance policy on Hortense, pretended to become sleep drunk, and waited for further developments.  Finding himself in a room with the heater on when the temperature was not close to being cool alerted him to some probability of foul play.  He left the room and waited for the plot to develop.  Brother and sister were fitfully sleeping in the car with one of the windows cracked open and the doors unlocked.  It was easy enough to use a sap to quiet both brother and sister.  Then on the drive back to town brother could be disposed somewhere far off the main road with little expectation of being found for a considerable time.  Sister would meet a different fate.  a high speed crash in which she was not wearing a seat belt would suffice.  Simply hit the overpass wall with the right side of the car and she would die almost instantly.  It might have worked but Stanley misjudged to concrete wall, he hit almost straight on.  Only Abigail was left to collect the insurance.  But with Hortense dead and Grover missing, well, she had not counted on that bargain.  It became a simple task of turning on the stove and waiting for the gas to overcome her senses.



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