Marybell Westmoreland was, at the delicate age of 82, a soft, pink-cheeked, quiet woman. Standing merely five feet, one inch tall, she nevertheless commanded total respect from rich and poor, elite and scoundrel.
No one really knew for sure if she was rich or just extremely smart and thrifty. Very few people ever saw her actually spend money, but she always seemed to have a well-stocked larder, immaculate gardens, late-model vehicles, elegant gowns, and hoards of priceless jewelry.
She seldom entertained these days, but when she did, the party was one for the society columns to slobber over. She nearly always had a guest list that included several members of royalty – from half a dozen different countries – as well as homeland celebrities and scores of friends. They ate; they danced; they gossiped; they groveled where necessary; and they had an all-round rollicking good time.
That’s why, when the Thursday morning papers reported that Marybell Westmoreland had been arrested and charged with poisoning her gardener, citizens from all around the world were in shock.
“I just do not believe it!” one duchess was heard to exclaim to her husband as she slammed down the paper. “Why, we’ve known Marybell for decades! She hasn’t an evil bone in her little body!”
“Mmmm,” replied her hubby. “Well, my dear, these things generally do take one by surprise, you know.”
“Nonsense! They have the wrong person; that’s all! You’ll see!”
“Well … time will tell, my love,” hubby replied, as he finished his coffee and rose to gather his hat and briefcase, preparing to head out for a meeting.
“I must send her a telegram to encourage her!” he heard his wife add as the butler let him out the front door.
And so the duchess sent her telegram – as did scores of other friends and family from all echelons of society.
Having been released on an exceedingly large bail, Marybell Westmoreland, chose to go straight to her home and refused to see anyone or go out in public for any reason. News reporters swarmed the area just outside the boundaries of her property, hoping to get a tiny glimpse that would allow a chance at a photo that would, no doubt, at least triple the sales of their particular newspaper.
One enterprising young woman reporter did manage to talk one of the maids into speaking with her, and when asked how Miss Westmoreland was behaving, the maid answered, “Oh, she’s the same as ever, Lord love her. She goes about the house hummin’ to herself just like usual, and she has her meals at the right time, and eats like a horse. It’s a sure bet she ain’t worried about gettin’ a death sentence.”
By the time a month had passed – and the scheduled trial was still three more weeks away — the reporters went back to ordinary stories and let the old lady go on about her life uninterrupted. Gossip seemed to die down. There just wasn’t enough activity taking place in Marybell’s day-to-day life to add any fuel to the fire.
Finally, the trial began. Each side presented various forms of what they considered evidence, but everything was so circumstantial that most of the people following the proceedings had made up their minds within three days that there would be nothing to convict the old bird.
They were all the more shocked then, when the defense attorney put Marybell on the stand herself. Naturally, the judge asked her publicly if she understood that she did not have to testify against herself, and she replied that she did understand. “But I don’t mind, Your Honor,” she told him. “I’ll be glad to testify. After all, it’s my own trial, is it not? How ill-mannered would I be to expect people to come to my trial if I don’t even act like a good hostess and talk to them!”
The judge rolled his eyes and turned to her attorney. “Do you agree with this decision, Mr. Withers?”
“No, Your Honor, but my client has insisted.”
“Very well. Proceed then.”
“Thank you, Your Honor,” he said and cleared his throat for the coming interrogation. After asking Marybell to verify her name and other identifying information, he went right to his first shocking question.
“Now, Miss Westmoreland, will you tell us, please, did you poison your own gardener, Mr. Samuel Trustbody?”
“Yes, I did,” she replied, looking him directly in the eye.
The audience in the courtroom – including both attorneys and the judge – sucked in an audible breath.
“I beg your pardon?” said Mr. Withers. And days later, one reporter made the comment that the look on the poor defense attorney’s face at that moment was one for the history books.
Very calmly, as if she did that sort of thing every day, Marybell replied, “I said, yes, I did.”
Mr. Withers cleared his throat again. “You are saying that you poisoned your gardener, Mr. Samuel Trustbody, in order to kill him?”
She nodded her head, her soft pink cheeks looking just a little pinker than usual, but with no other sign of any agitation. “Yes, that is correct.”
Poor Mr. Withers had never lost a case so quickly, and he just did not know how to deal with the situation. He cleared his throat again, but when he began to ask the next question, his voice came out so squeaky that he had to start again. “And … may I ask why you killed your gardener, Miss Westmoreland?”
“Well, you see I had to.”
“Go on, please. Why did you have to kill him?”
“Because he just insisted on digging up the whole yard behind the greenhouse to plant a new garden. Naturally, I couldn’t let him do it. I tried to talk him out of it. I even ordered him not to do it. But all he would say was that his contract with me said that he had free rein to plant anywhere he saw fit, and he was convinced no other place would be right for that kind of garden.”
“But … surely … madam … that was not sufficient reason to take his life!”
“Oh, I had to! Don’t you see? If I had let him go back there and dig up all that area, why … he would have discovered all the other bodies I’ve buried back there.”
© 2013 Sandra Conner