Leader in the Times, —th August, 19—
Good morning. Is that the right way to begin? I've never done anything like this before. I'm only doing it now because the gentleman from the Times asked me to. With all the rubbish that's been written about me, I felt it was only proper to set things right.
Let's begin at the beginning. My name's Sarah Harris. I had what the newspapers consider a disappointingly un-traumatic childhood, at a small Church of England orphanage on the South Coast. I was brought up to respect my betters, contribute to society and speak the truth and shame the Devil.
At St. John's, most of the girls went into domestic employment, but if we were bright and did well in our studies, we went to secretarial school. I trained as a secretary and took my first job when I was sixteen, working as a clerk in a rail-way office.
Since I was a little girl, I have been fascinated by crime stories real and fictional. I did not merely devour them with the enthusiasm of nearly the entire reading public of our century. I studied them. I was always a diligent, studious girl. From Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle I learned the mistakes commonly made. From Arsene Lupin and Raffles I learned how to get away with it.
By the time I was twenty, and Lord Edmund employed me as a combined secretary and nurse to his little boy, Kay, I was could commit the perfect crime. And I did.
If there remains a literate person in the English-speaking world who has never heard of Scarfell Hall, I shall explain that it's an ancient country house, built by the Edmunds when they came over with the Conqueror, on a bleak moor in Devon. The classic house. All the classic characters, too.
Lord Edmund's wife, Emma, whom he cheated on shamelessly.
His step-son from Her Ladyship's first marriage, Fred, a brooding eighteen-year-old who was home from art school in Paris for the summer before going up to Oxford, which his step-father didn't want him to do. He liked writing gloomy poems about death.
His nephew, William Edmund, had conveniently come back from East Africa in time for the murder and was arguing with Lord Edmund about diamond mines. I don't pretend to understand the details, but from what I could gather, Lord Edmund was in the wrong. But maybe that was just because I wanted to believe Mr William was in the right.
Her Ladyship's neurotic companion, Ellen Johnson, who was quite obviously in love with Lord Edmund.
Lord Edmund's aunt, who was a fierce Methodist and hated him for drinking, gambling and womanising, but still lived, with a permanent expression of pious disapproval, on the third floor.
And what did I think of Lord Edmund? I liked him. I did not—again disappointing the newspapers—fall in love with him. I disapproved of him, of course, as much as his aunt, but I didn't think that meant I had to dislike him. He was funny, very funny, always telling me scandalous stories about people in high society. Oh, the things he used to get up to at school! Wicked boy! The things he used to get up to in the army! The money he lost on horses! The people he's met in hotels—all sorts of illicit romancers having the funniest old-married-couple rows. It still makes me laugh. And he was very generous. A nice room, enough money to buy nice clothes. I liked my work, no doubt about that. And Kay was adorable. Five years old and simply adorable. I could happily have adopted him and kept him for ever. You should have seen him nursing a baby squirrel back to health. He was always kind to animals. Always kind to everyone. Especially me. I really do believe he loved me as much as I love him. I hope so.
I remember playing with him in the garden. Like watching some-one else, not me, playing with a boy, throwing and catching a ball. Sometimes, Mr William played with us. He was very fond of his little cousin. I remember him in particular, the sun-light shining on his hair as he picked up Kay and swung him round and round, both laughing. When we collapsed panting on the grass, I would ask Mr William about his travels. I've never been abroad. East Africa sounds like a wonderful place, but Mr William said the insects were a night-mare, and laughed.
So, when did the difficulty arise?
I enjoy painting when I have the chance, but Lord Edmund said he didn't want a neurotic, modern fool looking after his son. He seemed to think art would make me one.
I wanted to go to an art class in Exeter. It was my afternoon off, so there was no reason why I shouldn't have simply gone, but like an idiot I told Lord Edmund.
"Where are you off to, dressed up? Cinema?"
"No, sir, art class in Exeter."
Lord Edmund put his foot down. He would have none of that nonsense in his house. What would I need in my life with art classes? It led to loose living. I thought that was a bit much coming from him. How did he live, if not loosely?
Lord Edmund gave me a pay rise on the spot, and three shillings to go to the cinema. He was a very generous man, really. When he was in control.
I'll tell you what I did, good citizen. I went to my art class. I went with my head held high and my face burning. I barely listened to what was said. All I could think was I went, I really went. I was amazed with myself. I had never, never done anything like that before. I probably never could again. But that day I did. The class finished late. I came home, and Lord Edmund was waiting for me.
I remember what he said.
"Get out." Two words.
I didn't say anything. I couldn't. I was too shocked.
"Get out," he said again. His voice was like a knife. A knife made of ice. It was the voice he must have used back in his colonial days to make his hapless lieutenants shake in their shoes.
But I was not a lieutenant. I had done nothing wrong. Therefore, I considered that I was in the right and he was in the wrong.
"Why?" I said.
"Because you're a disobedient, haughty wretch with no gratitude. If you won't obey me, I can't trust you in this house. Get out."
"Well, the next train isn't until Monday. You can take yourself to the dole queue in Exeter then. Don't expect any money from me, girl. Don't expect a reference."
The words dug into my stomach like a stab with a sword. But not cold any more. Hot. The heat rose from the pit of my stomach up through my chest to claw in my throat. The strongest, purest, most concentrated rage I had ever felt.
Lord Edmund hadn't just sacked me, he had robbed me of any chance of decent employment ever again. Who would take a sacked secretary with no reference? I might as well kill myself now, for it was other girls in my position were reduced to in the end.
I looked into Lord Edmund's face, white to the lips with rage, eyes blazing, and I didn't look away. Not until the red mist rose so thick before my eyes that I couldn't see. In that moment I hated Lord Edmund. I hated him more than I have ever hated anyone. For his stupid, callous pride.
But I never lost my head. Never once. I'm proud of that.
I forced myself to breathe evenly when I could hardly breathe at all. I was not so helpless as Lord Edmund thought.
I could sack me if he liked, but he couldn't disinherit me. There are advantages to Saturday nights in rural areas. No trains until Monday. No solicitors' offices until Monday either. Which meant several thousand pounds "for faithful service" would become mine if Lord Edmund could die before Monday morning.
Well, I saw no reason to delay.
Lord Edmund went to the drawing room
I went to the kitchen. There was no one else. Cook was in the pantry.
I took a knife from the drawer and slid it down the front of my blouse. It was after the family's dinner so I knew it would not be missed.
Then cook appeared in the pantry door-way. How did I know that she wouldn't have opened the door when the drawer was open and the knife was in my hand? I didn't. There's a gamble in all these things. I could have invented an elaborate ploy to get cook out of the way. But generally, the more elaborate one makes one's murder plans, the more easy they are to trace back to one.
I was a servant of this family. I had every business to be in the kitchen. When cook appeared I took an apple and poured a mug of milk.
"Young Kay not sleeping?" She sounded sympathetic.
"He says he's hungry. I'm getting him some milk."
"Poor little thing! Children need such a lot to eat at that age, don't they? And his parents fighting like cats in a back yard can't help him sleep at night."
Lord and Lady Edmund were going through a particularly vicious series of quarrels, over a pretty young actress called Violeta. They thought Kay was too young to notice or care. But he did notice and care, of course. Children always do. And they never really understand. That makes it worse.
I went to Kay's bed-room. He was indeed sitting up. But this time, it wasn't about his parents.
"Is it true you have to go away?"
"Yes." How could I tell him that I had no intention of ever leaving him if I could help it? That right now I was making my plans to stay with him for ever—a very rich woman.
"But you've only just come!" He began to cry softly. I put him on my lap and rocked him. He clung onto me like those funny Australian koala bears round trees.
"Don't you love me any more?"
How could I leave him then, with his fighting parents, his drunken, idiot father and his bitter, wretched mother? I couldn't. I wouldn't. If my resolution had needed any more bolstering, this would have bolstered it.
"Of course I do." I realised I was crying, too.
I soothed Kay, explained as best I could why I had to go, and left with his declarations of undying hatred for his father ringing in my ears. I did nothing to discourage them. The less Kay grew up like his father, the happier I would be.
I went to Lord Edmund's bedroom. The door was locked, but Lord Edmund's man-servant opened it when I said there was some correspondence in Lord Edmund's desk which he wanted me to take.
"I thought Lord Edmund had terminated your employment?"
"He wants me to label it up." Oh, how slickly I lied! I heard my own voice, calm and even, and admired myself.
The man-servant let me in.
I took a packet of letters from the desk. Then, quickly but silently, I opened the wardrobe door and took out a shirt and a pair of trousers. I rolled them up and was just tucking them into my stocking-tops under my skirt that I heard the man-servant's voice from the outer room.
"Are you all right?"
I heard how calm my own voice was, felt the steadiness of my own nerves. "He has a lot of correspondence. It's arranged in my system. I'm just clarifying everything." How was I doing this? But at the same time, it was so easy. Just a question of a cool head and ready lying. And my head was cooler than it had ever been in my life. Cool and oddly disconnected. As if I weren't really there. Even the solid wooden desk and heavy door felt as if they might just float away.
Then I left the room, the packet of correspondence in my hand. Would the man-servant tell Lord Edmund? Possibly, although there was absolutely no reason why he should and he was never very chatty. Would Lord Edmund see anything unusual in it? No. I was certain of that.
The clothes, you see, were my touch of genius. The only flashy thing about this crime. My only deviation from the rule that simpler is better. In stabbings, blood is left on clothes, and it seems that no matter what one does with the clothes, the police always find them. So I had to borrow someone else's clothes. But I couldn't incriminate anyone. So I took the clothes of the one person who wouldn't murder Lord Edmund. Lord Edmund.
Then I went to my room to dress, listening to Lord and Lady Edmund shouting at each other down-stairs.
A man's shirt is harder to put on and fasten than I realised. A man's trousers even more so. I had forgotten that they need a belt. I tied the cloth belt from my coat round the waist.
I heard the Edmunds finally go to sleep. The whole house fell gradually silent.
I waited until two in the morning.
Then, I bundled up my night-dress under my arm and went down-stairs. I took Lord Edmund's gloves from the hall.
The wonderful thing about committing murder in a country house is that all the floors, up-stairs and down, are stone. No creaking floor-boards. So, when one goes bare-foot, there's no need for one to make any noise at all.
I went to his room and picked the lock. It was very easy. It's so common in crime stories. Crime stories are so educational.
Lord Edmund was fast asleep. I put my night-dress by the door, where I knew it wouldn't get splashed.
I stabbed him in the throat. It was very easy. His throat was soft, and the blade went in like into a fruit. Easier than butter, really, but not so easy as cheap margarine. His eyes opened, for a moment he looked right at me. He looked so angry. It was almost amusing. Some men die screaming. Some men die nobly. Lord Edmund died angry.
He only saw me for an instant. Then he was dead. Quite clearly and obviously dead. There was less blood than I expected. It bubbled up in his throat and splashed on the glove and on the sleeve of the shirt. I stabbed a couple more times in his throat and chest, just to be sure, then came the difficult bit. I stepped back from the bed. I wiped the knife clean first, on my shirt. Then I put it down on the carpet. I removed the shirt and trousers and gloves. I put them in their correct place. I put on my nightdress. Then I picked the knife up off the floor. In detective stories, people do an awful lot of different things with knives. They throw them in rivers, bury them, hide them in their own and other people's wardrobes. Shall I tell you what I did with the knife?
I washed it in the big stone kitchen sink, and put it back in the knife drawer. The plumbing in Scarfell Hall isn't bad down-stairs if you just use the cold tap, not the boiler. Not too much groaning. The hot tap's lethal. I used plenty of soap and—listen and learn—wiped the soap dry on the towel hanging on the pantry clothes-horse.
Then I went to bed in my own little room under the eves. Do you want to know how I slept? Like a lamb.
And that was it. I got away with murder. I came into my money and kept my job. In books, of course, the criminal is always caught. It's reassuring. They make elaborate plans and get tripped up covering up traces they didn't leave. They give themselves away chattering like canaries. They're caught red-handed. Even the best. Even Bunny Manders did time in the end.
If all else fails, they break down and confess. Tortured by guilt, haunted by daemons or just mad. If all else fails, make your criminal mad.
Well, I had no intention of doing that. I'm protecting my future, not pandering to the ego of private detectives with cocaine habits or big moustaches. And I'm certainly not tortured by guilt. It was him or me.
Real life, you see, is not a book. We know what we're doing, most of us, and we do damn well. The perfect crime doesn't have to be complicated, or artistic, or macabre. It just has to be done. No hesitating. Cool head, steady hand. Half of it's just nerves. I feel if the public were to really know how many killers are wandering around the country-side, they might be very alarmed. Particularly women. Women don't make the same idiotic mistakes as men do. They don't feel the need to bump people off in full view of a bar. Or rant and rave about what they're going to do before doing it. And everyone feels sorry for the poor little widow whose husband drowned so tragically. Even when everyone knows, no one can prove it. Women don't tend to get caught.
I alarm the British public. That was clear enough from the public galleries.
Because of course I ended up on trial.
Me? The Perfect Murderess?
Because I was too perfect.
It's jolly to have such a lot of other suspects, but sometimes, they're too suspicious.
No one seemed to mourn Lord Robert Edmund particularly. Well, perhaps the local race-track might. Everyone pretended to the police that they were terribly sad, so the police wouldn't suspect them of murdering Lord Edmund. It was quite funny.
In the end, the cops arrested Lady Emma Edmund. I thought she'd get off. They didn't have any real evidence other than some unwise death threats she had made in a moment of anger. Just enough, they decided, to bring her to trial. But, ooohhh, that actress! The lies she told! Spite, pure spite. Because she believed, like everyone else, that she'd killed him. I still see her in court, bold as brass, skirt too tight. Little hussy. She looked the jury full in the face and lied and lied. *Word omitted by editor.*
And I knew, the minute the prosecution gave his summing up, that I was finished. No, I knew that it was up to me whether I was finished. And I chose to be finished.
When the judge sentenced Lady Emma Edmund to hang for the "cruel and cowardly" murder of her husband, I left the court, went to the clerk and handed myself in.
I couldn't do anything else, you see. Lady Edmund hadn't killed her husband, although I don't think I'd have blamed her if she had, really. And I knew that the people at St. John's wouldn't approve one jot of my letting another person suffer for my crime. It would have been wrong.
I enjoyed going to court. The judge didn't seem to know what to say. He tried to save face, whittled on about how justice had been done for a vicious and selfish crime. Yes, justice had been done. But only because I had chosen that it should be. Not all the hemming and hawing of all the judges in the world could stop the great British public, in the galleries, writing and reading the newspapers, lining the streets outside the court-room, knowing that the great British justice had failed and I had won.
There were no grounds for mercy. You only get mercy if you cry and I didn't cry.
There was a certain expression of glee on the judge's face as he sentenced me to hang on Tuesday.
The clergy-man wants me to repent my sins, but I won't. I'm not sorry. It was Lord Edmund or me. I'm a good girl and a Church member. Have been ever since I was a baby. I've loved God and kept His laws, but for all I know that the Good Book says Thou Shalt Not Kill, I don't repent killing Lord Edmund. And if God wants to punish me for it, then He can punish me for it, unrepentant.
Life for the Edmund family will go on. Lady Edmund, an intelligent and charming, if slightly temperamental woman, will doubtless marry someone who thinks the world of her. Probably a young man, bit stupid, ready to play Sir Lancelot and help her get over it all.
Fred Hardwick will go up to Oxford in the autumn, for some more gloomy poetry on an English literature course. No doubt his gloomy friends will admire him tremendously for being caught up in a real-life murder, and no doubt he'll milk it for all it's worth. I know I would.
And my baby? He was sent off to boarding school somewhere up north. Yorkshire, I think. Somewhere like that. I hope he'll be happy there, and forget that his nurse-maid murdered his father, and have plenty of friends. I fear that he'll become a walking museum exhibit—Victim's Family, Exhibit A.—and be badgered with autograph requests from friends and amateur psychological probing from teachers.
Mr William came to see me yesterday. He told me that I disgusted him, that I ought to be ashamed of myself. That he never wanted to see or speak to me again. That's all I regret, but I do regret that.