From Odd Goings-on at Ferndell Farm and Other Stories, a collection of short non-murder mysteries set in the 1920s, featuring detective Frederick Babington:
Priscilla’s Precious Pearls in a Pie
He had dreamed of lost and stolen jewels since the very beginning of his work as a consulting detective. Here they were at last—an iridescent pile of matched pearls, each slightly smaller than a pea, bundled into a lady’s practical-sized handkerchief. Each had a tiny hole drilled through its center, the interior of which appeared to be tinted slightly red.
“I had them cleaned,” Mrs. Hillingdon explained. “I took them to the same man who does my dentures. He’s a marvel at removing tea and cherry-juice stains. I’m afraid I’ve always been too partial to cherry pie for my own good. I insist on my cook baking one for my birthday every year instead of cake. I never cared for cake. Imagine our surprise when we found what we thought were so many pits—Mrs. Parmiggen never leaves pits! But these were pearls, a necklace worth of pearls. Now, how on earth did they come to be in my birthday pie, and who could they possibly belong to? Answer those questions for me, Mr. Babington, and I’ll believe you’re the greatest detective since Sherlock Holmes.”
Freddie smiled at the hyperbole. Mrs. Hillingdon was a widow of a certain age, a good-humored woman of moderate means but no pretensions, somewhat stout, somewhat grey. She had come from Woking to present him with a handkerchief full of loose pearls and a most intriguing puzzle.
“I hope I’ll be able to live up to your expectations,” he answered. “None of your friends or relatives owns a string of pearls?”
“No, nothing so fine as these. You can see for yourself that they certainly aren’t Woolworth’s. Someone must surely be missing them, and yet I’ve seen nothing about a theft in the newspapers. Much as I would love to keep them as lost property, I can’t in good conscience. I must do what I can to locate the owner.”
“And you believe that must have gone into the pie as a necklace?”
“Yes, although the string was broken. We found bits of it baked onto the crust. I had those thrown out once we were certain we’d recovered all the pearls from the pie, but I did keep the clasp. I hoped it might help to identify who these belong to. There are initials and a date on it.”
“Yes.” Freddie plucked out the small gold oval that also lay within the folds of the handkerchief. It too had been cleaned and the two hooked pieces joined together.
He walked to the window of his study and held the clasp up to the light to see the engraving better—and received a surprise more astonishing than the mystery that Mrs. Hillingdon and her birthday guests had received.
“As a matter of fact,” he announced, “I can tell you exactly who these pearls belong to.”
“Can you? Who?”
“Here–” Fetching a magnifying glass from his desk, Freddie returned to his armchair and moved it slightly closer to Mrs. Hillingdon’s seat to show her the enlarged initials and date. “Do you see—EWW, 1872.”
“Yes, and there are more initials on the other side.”
“Quite so. EWW was Edgar Wentworth Wilberforce, a gentleman of Hampshire with an estate near Kimbridge. These pearls were the prized possession of his late mother. She left them to him when he was still just a boy. It was her wish that he present them to his own bride. In 1872, he did so, after having the pearls restrung and this new clasp made to commemorate the occasion. He gave them to his fiancée on the day their engagement was announced.”
“Gracious!” said Mrs. Hillingdon in amazement. “Is he still living?”
“I’m afraid not. After settling matters with the lady, he went off to India in hopes of bolstering his fortune. He meant to send for his bride in six months’ time if he found life congenial there, or return to his home in Hampshire to marry if it wasn’t. Unfortunately, poor old Edgar never got the chance to do either. He died of a fever just a few weeks after he arrived in India. His fiancée was heartbroken. She never married, but kept Edgar’s pearls as a treasured remembrance of her lost love.”
“Well, you are a Sherlock Holmes!” Mrs. Hillingdon laughed. “You haven’t made that tragic love story up just to tease me?”
“Not at all. I’ve heard it any number of times since my childhood.” He turned the clasp over to reveal the second set of initials. “PEB—Priscilla Eleanor Babington. She is my aunt.”
“But, Mr. Babington, I don’t know your aunt. I’ve never met her, nor even heard of her until this moment.”
“I’m not surprised. She doesn’t go about much these days. But that makes the mystery you’ve brought me all the more interesting, doesn’t it?”
Where to buy Odd Goings-on at Ferndell Farm and Other Stories, Storylandia, Issue 35: Amazon; Kindle; ePub and other formats available upon request.
Previous Freddie Babington mysteries: