SNOWSTORM OVER ANNECY
- Varuni Pragya
On the morning of 24th December, the inner compartment of the European Railways was as quiet as a tombstone in mourning. The train was at a standstill, on a bridge overlooking a death valley. The raging snowstorms outside made all the tree canopies appear white. Mr. William Anderson, the coachman was a very light sleeper. He could hear the wind howling but it was all usual to him. He peered outside his door, a regular routine to make sure some passenger had not, out of curiosity wandered off the train. He walked towards the vestibule and there were only two colors visible – white and red. Just like a painter drags his brush dipped in blood red paint across his empty canvas, he could see stains across the floor leading up to an open window and next to it on the floor, a twisted dead body frozen because of the snow.
23th December 1951
Many who knew Dr. Alfred Asheton thought he possessed an air of superiority; something most people believed was either because of his illustrious military background and service in the World War.
“Not too bad?” asked Mrs.Asheton.
“Actually, its way above my expectations.” Dr.Asheton began.
“We have a spoken deal about this trip, don’t we? You don’t complain all through our journey to Zurich and I will consider investing my savings into your new practice.”
Mrs. Asheton turned to look at a young handsomely dressed couple a few tables in front of them.
All the passengers had retired to their beds when, the coachman, Mr. William Anderson was moving around the train on his routine night walk. He had just entered the sleeping carriage when he bumped into a young man.
“Oh I’m so sorry sir, I wasn’t looking.” The dark skinned man said, getting up from the ground.
“Oh it’s alright.” Mr.Anderson said as he noticed, there was something not right about him. At first the man was looking on the group and then he began shaking his head frantically.
“Sir, please calm down. Tell me, are you here with someone else?” He asked him.
“Mother, mother…” He whispered and then started slamming his head against the windowpane.
A thin woman dressed in bright yellow robes came running towards them.
“I am here Elijah, I am here.” The woman said loudly in her thick African accent and hugged the boy. The woman looked at the coachman and smiled as a sign of gratitude.
They were out of sight when an old woman of about seventy, came out of her chamber dressed in her night gown.
“What was that commotion all about sir?” She said sharply with a tone of arrogance. “I knew there were all kinds of people on train but I will not have gypsies disturb my sleep, you hear me!” Her wrinkled face was drawn up in a frown as she attacked different ethnicities for a good fifteen minutes and all the poor Mr. Anderson could do was nod. He wondered who the woman was to be fearlessly condemning entire nations in the middle of the night.
The next morning his curiosity was satiated sufficiently. He was talking to a nun, Sister Mary, who was travelling to Zurich with four children from her orphanage who had been adopted there.
“It was Ms. Bertha, who convinced her stepmother to finance the trip. She is a sweet young woman but the old lady is an absolute menace.” The nun said. “It’s good she won’t have to depend on anyone for money anymore.”
Cian Walsh, the coachman’s young assistant was a gossip monger, just like Sister Mary. He couldn’t control his excitement.
“Oh why is that?” He asked her.
“You see, Mrs. Aldreda Charlton is the second wife of James Charlton of The Great Western Railway Company. He died a couple of months back and of course left almost all of his fortune to his blood daughter, Ms. Bertha.The only property his wife received was their house in Zurich. She was very young when her mother died. You see, I recently started teaching at the church where the family used to visit every Sunday.”
“But I feel happy for Ms. Bertha with what I can derive. So were they on good terms? Mrs. Aldreda and her step daughter?” Cian asked.
“Absolutely not. I often heard stories from the servants of Charlton mansion about how their mistress was beaten up by her step mother. This is probably why he left his wife penniless and his daughter in control of all his fortune. I feel bad for Miss Bertha though. Look there she is!”
She pointed towards a young energetic girl walking towards the breakfast cart.
“Mrs. Asheton pointed towards you and told me that you were the coachman.” She said in a polite yet confident voice.
“Well, yes I am.” He said
“I came here to apologize.”
“Why is that miss? I don’t recall ever meeting you before.”
“It’s on behalf of my old stepmother. Some passengers heard a commotion between the two of you last night.”
“You needn’t apologize miss. It’s difficult to make people understand beyond a certain age.” He replied curtly.
The four children accompanying, Sister Mary entered the cart and upon recognizing Bertha, began running around her just as the doors swung open a waiter working in the dining cart came in panicking.
“What is it John?” The coachman asked.
“Sir…” He said between breaths, “There has been an accident. Somebody broke into a couple of cabins. A passenger has been injured too, a particular Miss Claire.”
“That’s my sister!” Bertha cried and rushed out the door with the group following her.
They entered Claire’s cabin to find her lying on the bed looking as pale as a ghost.
“What happened?” Mr. Anderson asked.
“I was strolling about in the lobby with my husband when we heard Claire scream. On our way we noticed that our door was ajar and the contents of our suitcases thrown on the floor.” Mrs. Asheton said.
“It was those Africans. I am sure of it! They are trying to rob me. This was supposed to be my last luxurious travel but the train has such low standards. There are thieves present, the pipes are leaking and in this extreme cold, my window pane is broken too!” Mrs. Charlton shrieked until she was calmed down by Bertha.
“I will fetch someone to fix you broken cabin window.” Bertha said.
“I am so sorry this happened. I should have been here beside you.”
“It’s not your fault. Now that I am moving to Zurich with mother, I will have to learn to live without you. I was sleeping when I heard someone scream outside and in a hurry to grab the candle stand on the table; I turned and fell off the bed.” Claire said with a sad smile.
“Cian, order the fellows in the engine room to check every passenger’s luggage. The culprit must be found.” Mr. Anderson said.
“What does that mean? I will not allow strange men to invade my privacy in this manner.” Delphine said. Nobody had noticed till then that she was standing along with Victor near the doorway. They all looked up all of sudden because of her sudden outburst.
Victor stroked Delphine’s hair and said, “There is nothing to be scared about darling. They will not hurt you.”
Everyone retired to bed late that night with their windows tightly shut for the fear of the thief and of the incoming snowstorm. It was around four in the morning on 25th December, exactly two days after they had started their journey when the horrifying discovery was made. It was around seven in the morning when someone began loudly banging the door to Bertha’s cabin.
Bertha, woke up startled and opened the door to find a panicking Cian.
“Cian, is something wrong?” She asked.
“No, no Miss Bertha.” He said.
“It was about four in the morning when Mr.Anderson found a dead body in the lobby of the train.”
“And whose body was it?”
“Miss… It was your mother. She has been murdered. Somebody strangled her using a necklace from your own pearl strings she was wearing.”
“What? How is that possible? Why?” Bertha felt dizzy and took a few steps back to sit down on the edge of her bed.
“Miss, you also must know that the Swiss police are here on board. We decided to inform them before the passengers. The train was stopped in the small town of Annecy near the French Swiss border.”
Bertha still shaken up by the accident when three officers in uniform entered the cabin.
“Miss Bertha Charlton, we are putting you in temporary arrest for the murder of your step mother, Aldreda Charlton, until you are transferred to the Scotland Yard for investigation.”
“I don’t think she did it. The facts don’t support it. There is more to it, I tell you.” Mrs. Asheton said in front of the group in the dining hall of Swiss Lodge. They had been instructed to stay in the lively town of Annecy overnight so that the authorities could check the train completely.
“Yes, I don’t think she did it.” Mrs. Asheton repeated again but with much more surety than before.
“I think she’s innocent too.” Mr. Anderson said while sipping his tea and looking out the window at the falling snow. He had tried very hard to remove the picture of an old woman’s twisted frozen body from his mind but had been unable to do so.
“I think Bertha did it. Now that the old lady is dead, Bertha owns the family mansion in Zurich too.” Sister Mary said.
“It could have been the sick boy, Elijah, or his mother.” Cian added. “They might have overheard the comments made by the old lady.”
Nobody uttered another word for the evening. The journey which had begun on a cheerful note had turned into a haunting chaos.
Meanwhile, in room 109, Claire was sitting in the edge of her bed looking at an old picture album she carried along with her everywhere she went. The walls of the lodge were very thin. He could clearly hear people talking about her. The first picture was of her when she was three with her parents in their new mansion. She looked at it with tears brimming in her eyes. She kept flipping the pages, until a particular picture caught her notice. She looked at it again, wondering how she had never noticed this before. A lot of things suddenly started making sense to her. At the same instant, she heard the door being unlocked and Cian came in with her dinner. She rushed to his side and made him sit on a chair opposite her.
“Cian, look me in the eye and tell me that you think I am a killer.”
Cian looked up at her. “No miss, I don’t believe for a second that you did this. I tried talking to the authorities but they wouldn’t listen to me. What do you want me to do?”
“Thank God believe me.” Bertha whispered and lowered her head. “Listen carefully to me; the only other people who believe me are Mrs.Asheton and Mr.Anderson. I need you to go and tell them that I have to speak with them privately as soon as possible.”
At the same time, Mrs. Anderson walked up to Delphine who was sitting near the reception area window, smoking a cigar.
“It’s cold out here, isn’t it?” Mrs.Asheton said as she sat down beside her.
“What do you want?” Delphine asked in her thick French accent, putting off her cigar.
“You obviously know something about the murder. Bertha is young girl who struggled with an abusive step parent all her life. She doesn’t deserve this.”
Delphine looked at her hands for a few moments, closed her eyes and finally spoke.
“I know what it is like to suffer in silence but if I tell you what I know, you have to promise to help me.”
“You have my word.”
“The gallery I worked at was owned by Victor’s uncle who lives in Paris. I knew from the initial few days that Victor fancied me. It all seemed like a dream at first but then…”
“…Victor started showing his true colors. He began beating you up.” Edith said.
“Yes. I couldn’t leave him because then I would lose my job and if I tried to run away with the jewelry he gave me as gifts, his influential family would have me thrown behind bars. The only good thing was that his family disliked me. I convinced him to elope with me to Zurich to get married, where I would take the jewelry and escape. But after my outburst in Claire’s room made him suspicious. He found a ticket from Zurich to Paris in my bag. It was early in the morning when he threw me against the wall and began to beat me up,” she said with a straight brave face, “but the bolt was unlocked and I fell back towards the aisle when I saw someone dragging a body towards the door. The person ran away when he or she saw us. Something fell out from the murderer’s robes before he fled.”
She gave Edith a crumpled, thick letter.
“But doesn’t this prove Bertha guilty?” Delphine asked.
“On the contrary, I think it proves her innocence and points towards the real killer.”
It was past midnight and almost everybody was asleep. The storm outside had only gotten worse. A hidden figure in dark robes tiptoed towards Bertha’s room and unbolted the lock from outside, crept up to her bed, raised an old kitchen knife in the air and pierced it with the maximum force possible on the figure in the bed. Instead of blood staining the sheets, the only thing coming out was white feathers from the pillow underneath.
“What is this?” The culprit mumbled just before Bertha hit her from behind with a glass vase. Mary fell down on the ground, with her face clearly visible in the moonlight but Bertha wasn’t shocked in the least.
“So you knew?” Mary said smiling after a moment.
“Yes and so did they.” Bertha said pointing towards the door from where Dr. and Mrs. Asheton, Mr.Anderson and Cian entered. Mr.Anderson and Cian promptly held Mary down as she tried to get up and run and tied her hands with a cloth.
“I will go and fetch the officers at once!” Dr.Asheton said at once.
“And while you’re at it doctor, why don’t you open the closet and let poor Claire out. She has been hiding in closet for a good couple of hours, watching me like a hawk.” Bertha said sternly.
He went ahead and opened the closet door to indeed find a shocked Claire sitting in a wheelchair.
Soon, most of the passengers of the train had assembled in the room hearing all the commotion but it wasn’t until a few weeks later, in London, after the investigation had been over and Bertha and Mary jailed that they came to know the full story.
“I still don’t know how you all came to know about the real murderers!” Cian said looking at Mrs.Asheton and Bertha.
Bertha smiled. “Let me explain it to you then. It all started making sense to me when I looked at one of my old school photographs where I was standing in a playground with Claire and her group of friends. The resemblance was uncanny and I was a fool to have not noticed it before. Mary was Claires’s old classmate.”
“Delphine found a note dropped the killer on the morning of the murder. It was an official copy of Mr.Charlton’s will. What nobody noticed was that the will stated that in case of Bertha’s death the next owner of the fortune would be Claire.” Mrs.Asheton said.
“I was the real target not my step mother. I switched rooms with her before we went to bed.”
“Ah yes! I remember her complaining about her broken window.” Dr. Asheton said.
Bertha nodded. “My pearls were kept on the box next to the bed which Mary used to strangle her. It must have been dark for she confessed in front of the officers that it was only after she had murdered Aldreda that she realized her mistake.”
“Anyway, Mr. Anderson spoke to Elijah , we went to see Bertha where we discussed what each of us had discovered. Mr.Anderson told us about how Elijah’s mother said that she saw the little kids with Mary near the cabins which were broken in and it was only after this that Bertha remembered one of the kids telling her that Find the Treasure was one of the games Sister Mary had taught them.”
“She wanted to distract us with a fake robbery but did not actually steal anything for the fear of the items being caught in her possession.”Bertha said. “We knew then, that the killer will strike again so we simply waited.”
“I could clearly see wheelchair marks leading up to the closet after I had returned to my room after talking to them. I knew she was a part of the plan but I was still hoping. I made my sister too desperate it seems. She murdered her own mother because of money.” Bertha said sighing.
“Perhaps I was a bad sister but after all these years, I just really wanted to stay in my family mansion alone with father’s memories like it was before them. But I am happy now. I have decided to convert the Zurich mansion I own as an orphanage and all of you are welcome anytime you want to visit.” She added, smiling.
“I don’t know about all of you but I have had my share of train adventures for a while.” Laughed Dr.Asheton and others followed.