murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction

The Case of the Frivolous Wife


A Dixon Hawke Mistery

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Dixon Hawke Casebook | Spring 1940 | No. 4

Est. Read Time: 19 mins

“A present, Janie—from an unknown admirer! Try one of the goldpaper ones—they’re Benedictine.” Almost grudgingly Nurse Wilmot put her hand into the box and took a liqueur chocolate wrapped in gold-coloured foil.



“Have one, Janie?”

Sonia Priestly held out a large and freshly-opened box of liqueur chocolates to Jane Wilmot, her invalid husband’s nurse.

Nurse Wilmot frowned. Unlike Sonia, there was nothing light and frivolous about her.

“What! At this time in the morning I” she declared frigidly.

Sonia laughed. “Go on, Janie. Do you good. Just like a pick-me-up.”

“It seems such an awful waste of money to me. A big box like that just for one person.”

“Oh, but I haven’t bought them. They’ve just come by the eleven o’clock post. A present, Janie—from an unknown admirer! Try one of the goldpaper ones—they’re Benedictine.” Almost grudgingly Nurse Wilmot put her hand into the box and took a liqueur chocolate wrapped in gold-coloured foil.

“You won’t tell Mr. Priestly, will you?” she said sharply.

Again Sonia laughed. “Oh, he won’t mind if you have a little pick-me-up,” she said.

“I don’t mean that, Mrs. Priestly. I mean about the unknown admirer! I’m sure it s none of my business how you behave towards other men, but it is my business when it affects my patient. And he’s looking much better today. If you tell him some man has sent you chocolates, it will only worry him and send up his temperature again.”

Sonia picked out a cherry brandy chocolate and popped it into her mouth.

“He never gets to know anything about my amusements through me,” she said meaningly. “They’re quite harmless, anyway. Why shouldn’t I dance or go on the river if men my own age ask me to? John can’t expect me to sit beside his bed all day long. John–”

Suddenly her voice stopped. Her hands darted to her throat, and she gave a strangled gasp.

Nurse Wilmot stared in horror at her patient’s young wife.

“Mrs. Priestly, what’s the matter?”

“I—I feel so—so–” But without another word Sonia collapsed on the floor and passed into a state of semi-consciousness.

Ten minutes later she was dead!



Dr. Hollis, the Priestlys’ medical attendant, was at the house within half an hour.

“I can’t understand it,” said Nurse Wilmot. “Ono minute she was talking to me as gay and happy-go-lucky as usual; the next, there she was stretched out on the floor. I should never have believed she’d got anything wrong with her. But there—you can’t tell with those that burn the candle at both ends, can you? Many’s the time she’s never come back to the house until two or three in the morning.”

“There was nothing wrong with Mrs. Priestly’s constitution,” said Dr. Hollis coldly.

“Nothing wrong! But–”

“Mrs. Priestly was poisoned,” continued the medical man. “By one of the alkaloid group. Every symptom suggests it, and I’m certain an autopsy will prove it.”

The nurse’s face paled. “Poisoned! It’s impossible. She—”

“Poisons of that type act quickly, as you probably know, nurse. What had Mrs. Priestly eaten just before she collapsed?”

Jane Wilmot leaned forward tensely. “Oh, it must have been the chocolates!” she declared. Her face went even whiter. “And I ate one myself—just before she did!”

“Well, yours couldn’t have been poisoned; you would have been in a coma by now. Chocolates, eh? Where did she get them?”

“They came by the morning parcel post. From an unknown admirer.”

Dr. Hollis went to the door.

“The phone’s in the hall, isn’t it? The sooner the police are on this the better.”

A minute later he returned.

“How about Priestly?” he asked. “Has it given him a shock?”

Nurse Wilmot shook her head.

“I haven’t told him,” she replied. “I wouldn’t take the responsibility of doing so. Poor man! It will upset him badly, I’m afraid.”

Dr. Hollis went upstairs to break the news to the invalid John Priestly.

The old man took it almost without any show of emotion.

“How did it happen, doctor?” he asked quietly.

Dr. Hollis tried to introduce his suspicions lightly.

But John Priestly’s brain was still the active brain of a young and clever man even if at sixty his body had failed him so miserably.

“You mean you suspect foul play? Poisoning?”

The doctor nodded.

Priestly raised himself on the pillows.

“Get Hawke for me—Dixon Hawke!” he said. “He’ll settle this in half the time the police will. Somewhere in Dover Street; you’ll find the number in the London telephone directory. Tell him to get here as quickly as he can. He’ll know my name—I employed him in several commercial cases. He’ll come.”

“Very well, I’ll phone him right away,” said Dr. Hollis.

Dixon Hawke and his assistant. Tommy Burke arrived little more than an hour later. They had flown to Shoreham airport and driven by road from there to John Priestly’s modern mansion on the South Downs six miles from Worthing.

Inspector Denver, of the South Sussex constabulary, met him in the hall.

“Well, Hawke, you haven’t lost much time.”

Hawke smiled. It was some five years since he had worked with Denver on a large-scale smuggling case, and he remembered that the inspector then had only thinly-concealed his distaste for unofficial assistance.

“I guessed you’d have it all settled if I didn’t get down quickly, Inspector,” he said lightly.

Denver Hushed. “This isn’t the sort of case for quick results. We shall have to do a lot of donkey work before we get on the right track. But we’ll find it all right; the police organisation can’t fail in a crime of this type.”

“Meaning you don’t think it’s a job for me?” murmured Hawke.

The inspector shrugged his shoulders.

“Well, no offence, Hawke, but one man can’t possibly investigate all the possibilities there are in this affair—not in the time the police will take, anyway. You see, this Mrs. Priestly had plenty of enemies. One of them sent her a box of poisoned chocolates. Well, we shall make a list of suspects and then tackle each one of them for an alibi for the time when the chocolates were handed in at the post office.”

“Splendid,” declared the famous criminologist. “In that case I shall earn my fee without having to do much work for it. I’ll join you later, Inspector. I must go and report my arrival to my old friend, John Priestly.”

Tommy Burke followed him to the foot of the staircase.

“Hang around, Tommy,” said Hawke, “and keep your ears open for facts.”



Upstairs in the invalid’s bedroom Hawke was distressed to see the feeble physical condition of the man whom he had once considered to be the fittest and most alert director in the City. But he soon realised that John Priestly had lost none of his old mental qualities.

“I should never have married Sonia, Hawke. I freely admit it. But perhaps she never had a fair chance; I became a bedridden invalid just four months after we were married. She was only thirty—it was only natural she should want to enjoy herself elsewhere and with people of her own age. Had I remained fit and active we should have travelled—seen the world.”

John Priestly sighed.

“As it has turned out, I hardly saw her save for a few minutes each day. You see, I don’t need a wife, Hawke; only a nurse and occasional visits from Harley Street. I can’t pretend that I loved my wife—I was disappointed in her, to be perfectly frank. I felt that she might have spared me a little more of the time she so readily gave to—to others.

“But someone has killed her, Hawke! And I will spare no expense until that someone is brought to trial! That is why I sent for you. Whether her death means less to me than people would think or not, she was under my protection and under my roof when she was poisoned!”

“You’ve no suspicions, sir?” asked Hawke quietly.

The old man shook his head sadly.

“None. Ever since we came here I have been confined to this room. I know nothing of her friends—or her enemies. I know very little, too, of her past; we were married within two month of our first meeting.”

At that moment the door opened. Hawke turned his head sharply to see a nurse with a dark, sallow face peering in.

“My nurse,” explained Priestly. “She’ll tell you more than I can about Sonia. She was with her when it happened. In fact, she might have been poisoned herself—she had one of the chocolates–”

“Now, you mustn’t upset yourself, Mr. Priestly,” broke in Nurse Wilmot. “You’ve your own health to consider, you know–”

“This is Mr. Dixon Hawke, Janie. He’s going to settle this dreadful business for us.”

The nurse nodded coldly, as if already accusing Hawke of disturbing her patient.

“I’d like to ask you a few questions later, nurse,” said Hawke as he left the room.



Downstairs again the private detective asked Inspector Denver if he could see the box of chocolates.

“I can tell you all there is to know about them,” said Denver, waving his hand to a large oblong box on the table. “Eight different kinds of liqueur chocolates—but only one kind has been tampered with. The cherry brandy ones have all got a little hole drilled in them from underneath.”

Hawke nodded. “So the murderer must have known Mrs. Priestly well enough to know that she particularly liked cherry brandy, and would probably take one of them first, as she did. What about the wrappings of the box?”

Denver produced a large piece of brown paper.

“This was in the wastepaper basket,” he said. “Postmarked at Brighton. We shall trace it back to where it was handed in, with any luck.”

Hawke examined the blurred markings across the stamp. The parcel had been handled at the sorting office at 7.30 p.m. the previous day.

“The paper’s ordinary enough,” he commented. “Thousands of pieces like it everywhere.”

Inspector Denver smiled. “Yes, I thought that even a private detective wouldn’t get a clue out of that.”

“And the string?”

“Just the same—ordinary common or garden string.”

The inspector produced a length of string from his pocket.

“I see that it was cut and not untied,” Hawke remarked while he examined the knot still left in the string.

“Well, what of that? Did you ever see a woman open a parcel patiently? Of course she cut it–”

“Yes,” said Hawke, coolly, “but what a good thing for us!”

Without attempting to explain himself, he handed the length of string back to Denver.

The inspector stared at him with a puzzled, almost annoyed, expression.

“You’re still working on your list of possible enemies, I suppose?” Hawke went on.

Denver grunted. “Yes. And I don’t mind saying it means a long job. Sonia Priestly seems to have spent most of her time playing about with the emotions of half Sussex. Fortunately she kept all her correspondence.”

“Then suppose I tackle the sorting office at Brighton? The box made rather an unusual shaped parcel—we ought to be able to trace it back.”

Inspector Denver hesitated. “Well, I was going to send Sergeant Welsh over there this afternoon, but–”

“The Chief Constable won’t object to my going surely?”

“Well, all right,” snapped Denver. “I’ll tell Welsh to go over with you now. There’s no point in it until we’ve established a list of suspects, but you might as well be doing something, I suppose.” Hawke chuckled. “Self-importance in a policeman,” he mused, “is the criminal’s best friend.”

At the Brighton postal sorting office, however, he found officialdom more impressed by the mention of his famous name. Clerks and postmen set up lines of inquiry immediately they saw the parcel temporarily rewrapped in its original shape.

It took time, but eventually results were forthcoming. The parcel had been collected by the van calling at the suboffices of Bream Road, Finch Street, Albert Road, Downs Avenue, and Royal Street. But the postman could not remember at which post office he had picked it up.

Hawke and Sergeant Welsh at once proceeded to each of these branches of the postal service in turn. At Bream Road they were definitely told the parcel had not been handed in there. At Finch Street they found uncertainty. Albert Road and Downs Avenue, however, were quite sure they hadn’t handled it.

“We might have known it would be the last on the list,” said Hawke. *

The sub-postmistress at Royal Street remembered the parcel well.

“Usually people want us to weigh parcels, but this one was handed in already stamped. I said I’d check it, but the woman said she knew it was all right, and walked out before I’d even put it on the scales.”

“And it was correctly stamped?”

“Yes, so I put it under the counter and thought no more about it.”

“What was this lady like?” asked Hawke.

“I hardly saw her. I’m afraid. She just handed it in and then went. She was dressed in dark clothes—a costume, I think, but I wouldn’t like to say for sure. Her face was painted more than any woman’s ought to be, that I will say! Only she came and went so quickly, and this is a busy shop.’’

“Of course,” said Hawke gently. “About what height was she?”

“Average, I’d say. She wasn’t especially tall or short.”

“How about her build? Was she slim or stout?”

“Just ordinary, I think, sir. She might have been a bit on the lean side rather than plump, if you know what I mean. But I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said more than that.”

Hawke smiled encouragingly. “I wish all witnesses we have to question would confine themselves to just what they are certain of and no more,” ha said. “Now, how about the time? Can you tell us when she called?”

The postmistress looked happier. “Yes, sir, I can help you there. It must have been after half-past five because the parcel missed that collection; and before six because that’s when I go for my tea.”

“Between five-thirty and six, eh?”

“Yes, and I’d say at a guess about a quarter to six, and I don’t think I’d be far out.”

“Splendid. You’d never seen her before, of course?”

“Oh, no, sir. An absolute stranger to these parts she was.”

The Dover Street detective thanked her for her assistance, then left with Sergeant Welsh to drive back to the house on the Downs.

“You noticed that the postmistress herself wasn’t averse to a pretty liberal use of lipstick?” said Hawke.

The sergeant nodded.

“Therefore the woman who posted the parcel must have been excessively over-painted. One devotee of the cosmetics industry rarely criticises another without fair cause.”



It was past three when they returned to Priestly’s house.

“Well, Hawke,” said Inspector Denver sarcastically, “do you know who we’ve got to arrest yet?”

Dixon Hawke shook his head.

The inspector produced a sheet of notepaper on which was written a number of names.

“One of those seven people sent the chocolates,” he announced. “Seven people in this district who have good reason to hate Sonia Priestly. Four wives whose husbands she had played about with and whose homes you can therefore say she’d seriously threatened; one girl whose fiancé she had captivated, and so caused the breaking of a previously happy engagement; and two men who, judging from their letters, didn’t like the way she’d dropped them stone cold without reason. Now you see—we’ll soon nail down one of those seven, Hawke. Hard work and routine investigation—none of the flash- of-genius business.”

The criminologist glanced at the list. “Well, you can cross off the two men, Denver, because that parcel was posted by a woman.” He told the inspector the details. “And, if I were you,” he added casually, “I’d find out which of the five women have been Girl Guides.”

“Girl Guides!” exclaimed the inspector.

Hawke chuckled. “I don’t think it will help you much, though, because my suspect isn’t on your list. But if I’m wrong—well, it might.”

He walked away to find Tommy Burke, and hear whether the youngster had anything to report.

Tommy was run to earth busily chatting with the chauffeur in the garage.

“Well, Tommy, any finds?”

Hawke’s assistant looked glum.

“Nothing much, guv’nor. Inspector Denver hasn’t allowed me to do a thing.”

“Yes, I thought he’d be a bit unfriendly.”

“I’ve been getting round the servants, though, and they’re all worked up.”

“Naturally. A murder is–”

Tommy Burke’s eyes lit up excitedly. For once he was a jump ahead of Ins brilliant “guv’nor.”

“No, not so much that. They’re all furious the way the nurse has taken charge of the whole house. She’s giving orders to the cook and the maids, and they can’t stand it. Besides, they haven’t been told to acknowledge her authority, so–”

“Good, Tommy,” broke in Hawke. “Just what I expected, if my theory is correct. But I hardly expected it so soon. What a pity for Denver that he hasn’t noticed it himself. Right under his nose, too.” Hawke leaned forward.

“Tommy, find out as quickly as you can whether Nurse Wilmot had the afternoon off yesterday, and, if she did, at what time she got back here. I’ll wait for you here. I don’t want to make a further move until I know.”

“I can soon find out about that,” said Burke, dashing off to the back of the house.

Five minutes later he was back.

“OK, guv’nor,” he exclaimed. “She was off duty, and she didn’t get back until after seven!”

Hawke smiled grimly.

“Now, Tommy, I want you to indulge in a little burglary. While I’m questioning Nurse Wilmot downstairs, get into her room and see if you can find any lipsticks or other cosmetics. You may only find a handkerchief on which paint has been wiped off. If you’re successful, don’t wait—come downstairs and interrupt us!”

Once again Tommy Burke sped away towards the back of the house.

Dixon Hawke went indoors and waited in the lounge while a servant took a message to Nurse Wilmot asking her if she could spare him a few minutes.



A little while later the nurse entered the room.

“I can’t leave Mr. Priestly for long,” she said sharply. “I shouldn’t have left him at all after the shock he’s had to-day.”

“From what I know of John Priestly,” said Hawke calmly, “he can still survive mental or emotional shocks. And a very good thing, too, for he may receive another shock before the day is out.”

The nurse gave a nervous start.

“What—what do you mean, Mr. Hawke?”

“I mean that I think I know who sent the poisoned chocolates to Sonia Priestly—and why! Nurse, a woman posted that parcel yesterday at Brighton. I understand that you were off duty during the afternoon. May I ask how you spent your time and where?”

The nurse’s face went ashen grey.

“You have no right to ask such a question—no right at all! Why should I have questions asked about where I’ve been? I had one of the chocolates myself—it might have been me who was poisoned, not her–”

“Whoever put poison into those chocolates, nurse, knew quite well that only one kind had been tampered with. Where were you yesterday between five and six?”

“I—I went to the pictures. I can’t prove it. I went alone. No—no. I never went to Brighton at all. Why are you daring to suspect me? Why should I want to kill Sonia?”

“You had a strong motive for desiring Mrs. Priestly’s removal,” said Hawke smoothly. “Priestly is worth at least half a million, but I’m afraid he’s not going to live very long to enjoy it. As an invalid he needed you far more than he needed a young and flighty wife. With Sonia Priestly dead, you could easily persuade him to marry you, and, since he would then have no one else to whom he could leave his money, you would soon inherit that considerable fortune. Elderly and lonely invalids marry their nurses very often, don’t they, Nurse Wilmot?”

“This is insufferable! Mr. Hawke, I–”

“But not unreasonable. Why, already I understand you have assumed the management of the house!”

“I will complain to Mr. Priestly. How dare you throw servants’ tittle-tattle into my face like that!”

At that moment the door burst open and Tommy Burke dashed in.

“Here’s what you wanted, guv’nor!” he exclaimed excitedly. “Plenty of make-up material and the handkerchiefs.”

Dixon Hawke looked gravely at four sticks of cosmetic paint and three handkerchiefs stained from the removal of heavy applications of make-up.

“You—you’ve been to my room?” cried the nurse.

“I see. You admit that these are yours then?” said Hawke. “Strange, for you never use cosmetics normally. But what a neat method of disguising yourself if you wanted to for any purpose—such as posting a parcel at Royal Street, Brighton! That woman was heavily made up, Nurse Wilmot!” Jane Wilmot breathed heavily. For a moment she stood and stared at the criminologist with blazing hatred in her eyes. Then she fell into a chair and began to sob bitterly.

“Yes, I did it!” she burst out suddenly. “I hated her I She meant nothing to him—nothing. I was the one who looked after him while she deceived him. Why should she have got all his money when he died—for nothing?”

Hawke turned to his assistant.

“Tommy, go and fetch Inspector Denver and tell him the case is ended!”



An hour later Inspector Denver was in a very subdued mood.

“But what beats me is how you got on to it, Hawke. It was pure guesswork, wasn’t it?”

“It was the string,” smiled Hawke. “You see, the parcel had been tied with a reef knot. And people don’t tie reef knots unless they have been trained to do so. Sailors, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, firemen, and so on. And once I found it was a woman who had posted the parcel, I was almost certain it was Nurse Wilmot, because it’s a stem rule in hospitals that all slings and bandages are tied with reef knots I” “That’s what you meant about the Girl Guides, was it?”

Hawke chuckled. “Yes. If Nurse Wilmot had an alibi that she could prove, I thought that perhaps one of your ladies on the list might have learnt to tie a reef knot that way.”

Inspector Denver coughed and cleared his throat.