“The Poison Pen” by Thomas Beer

A young man journeys home, only to be sucked into his family’s dramatic search for his sister’s cruel suitor.

A man speaking to a woman.
(Illustrated by H. Westen Taylor)

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Jordan Bace, Second, was dreaming of strawberry shortcake piled with fine sugar and dripping redly when the afternoon mail reached Gale’s Ferry. It brought him a letter from his father, the envelope stamped with the arms of his native city, where Mr. Bace was mayor. Jordan wondered why his parent should write on two days in succession, and tore the envelope, worried.

June fifteenth.

Dear Sec: ‘Sorry to say that the freshman-crew race will not be witnessed by any of your affectionate family. Just recieved a wire from California that Edwin Joyce has died in Pasadena. The body is to be sent here and, of course, I am to be a pallbearer. The funeral is the day of your race. This is too bad, and we are all mighty sorry to miss seeing you perform, but please remember that Mr. Joyce was your grandfather’s partner and a great friend of mine. Doris is mad as a hornet. She has quite a collection of clothes she was going to air in New London, and I expect she thinks the Yale-Harvard regatta will not be the same without het shining presence, especially as quite a herd of young women seem to be leaving here to see the show. Well, good luck to you, and please don’t strain your heart unnecessarily.

Your affectionate father.

P.S. I notice that I have misspelled “receive” above, and I think I have made a mess of “unnecessarily,” though it may be right. Hot weather always affects my spelling. They never did teach me to spell “receive” at the little old red schoolhouse.

Jordan chuckled. The little old red schoolhouse of his father’s infancy was a family joke. Mr. Bane had been reared in England, while Jordan’s grandfather managed the branch of a New York bank in London. But he could spell nothing accurately. The fact had been used against him in his campaign for the mayor’s office.

“What are you laughing at?” the freshman coxswain sniffed crossly, rubbing cold cream on a blistered neck.

“My people can’t come to the races,” said Jordan.

“What’s funny about that?”

“Just the way father puts it. Have you any sisters?”

“Four,” the coxswain sighed.

“You poor pup!” Jordan said, and went off to bathe.

He could figure the wrath of Doris exactly. She hated funerals, and she had been looking forward to a week of New London. Inevitably several of her dearest friends would come to the regatta; and she had spent some days of early May shopping in New York, with an afternoon at New Haven added. He reflected that her interest in the Yale-Harvard races was not solely based on his position in the freshman boat. The reflection rose again when she met him at the station the evening he arrived.

“You were lucky to be away for the Joyce funeral, Sec. It was simply frightful. There were quantities of old women from that orphanage, or whatever you call it, that Mr. Joyce built, and they all sniffled and it was horribly hot. And there wasn’t the slightest reason why mother and I shouldn’t have gone to New London. No one would have known whether we were there or not, you know. And it’s too bad your boat was beaten.”

“But it wasn’t,” said Jordan.

“Why, it was, Sec! It was in the papers.”

“The freshman four got licked,” he corrected her — “we didn’t.”

“Oh, I’m so glad,” said Doris, straightening her hat. “But really father’s so silly about things. I do wish you’d talk to him, Sec. And poor mother always gives in like a — like a baby.”

“I didn’t know that babies gave in,” Jordan grinned, “and where did you get that hat? It’s awful.”

The hat was covered with reddish flowers in the character of violets, and it concealed a corner of her forehead. Jordan thought it somehow out of keeping. His twin had pale-yellow hair, and the rosy glitter above gave her an air of the theater, not quite desirable. As usual, she did not answer his objection, but smiled amiably and went on.

“Anyhow, mother and I motored down to Columbus for Kitty Fleming’s wedding, and that wasn’t bad fun. Quite a lot of people from Philadelphia. She’s married a man from Philadelphia — Rotherhythe Kemp. Did you get cards?”

“Yes, I did. And if he’s anything like his brother in my class she’s going to have an awfully nice time before she gets divorced,” Jordan grunted.

“Oh, don’t get Middle Western,” said Doris, haughtily bowing to their former governess, who was wheeling a perambulator along the sidewalk under the horse chestnuts.

“I can’t help being Middle Western any more than you can,” Jordan snapped; “and Eddie Kemp’s as big a rotter as —”

“Some of the ushers,” said his twin, “were quite all right.”

She gave him a slow and meditative smile, suggesting that some of the ushers had been well investigated. Jordan thought heavily of the freshman cox swain. Really four sisters seemed excessive. However, Doris was pretty and not nineteen. Girlish vanity had to be excused in some measure.

“There’s a dance at the Bulkelys’ at nine,” she said, “and I suppose they wouldn’t mind if you came. It wasn’t supposed to be a children’s party, though.”

“Go to — Tophet,” Jordan ordered.

“But you aren’t awfully old, Sec,” she said more pleasantly, and patted his knee.

“I hate dancing in hot weather,” he told her, “and this is my first night at home.”

The Bace house stood on a small crest of the residence district, and air from the lake blew genially through the dining room. Also Mrs. Bace had commanded a strawberry shortcake of the proper breed. His parents seemed enchanted by Jordan’s ravages in this dish.

“I should think you’d explode,” Doris drawled.

“You haven’t been in training for years,” said Jordan.

His lesser brother, George, took up the defense of Jordan’s appetite. He alleged that he had seen Doris eat three slices of shortcake. Doris smiled at the small boy calmly.

A maid helping a woman.
(Illustrated by H. Westen Taylor)

“Children are always pigs,” she murmured, and her eyes seemed to view afar off that remote age when she had eaten three slices of strawberry shortcake. She tapped her fingers on the edge of the table and lapsed into some secret, amused contemplation. Young George after a moment rolled up his napkin and hurled it at her shining head. It missed.

“Oh, Geordie!” said Mrs. Bace.

“Bad shot even for a southpaw,” Mr. Bace commented.

Doris stroked her hair.

“You might try a saltcellar,” she said, and rose, the sleeves of her negligee wavering like moth wings in the candlelight, roamed off to dress, humming the love song from Louise.

“I’ll kill her sometime,” George muttered.

“Oh, Geordie!” said Mrs. Bace, helpless and shocked.

“I wouldn’t kill her,” Mr. Bace observed, “unless you’ve got the pocket money for a good lawyer. It’s always hard to explain things like that to juries, son. They’re so prejudiced.”

“Oh, Dan!” said Mrs. Bace.

“Give Sec some more cake, Molly,” the mayor yawned, “and let us be cheerful while the higher criticism’s putting her clothes on.”

“I think I’ve had enough,” Jordan said regretfully, and lit a cigarette.

“Oh, Sec,” his mother stammered, “are you sure those are good for you?”

“I guess from his looks that they won’t ruin him,” Mr. Bace remarked. “He’s in pretty good condition, I take it. Go on about the race, Sec. We’ve had it interspersed with sections of the latest fashions, and really I’d like to know just what happened. Give Sec some coffee, Molly.”

It struck Jordan that his father was speaking with a strained sharpness instead of the familiar level note, gently English, that sounded always agreeable in any room — and there were some gray additions above his ears. His sleepy eyes had a fresh patch of wrinkles at the corner.

“You’ve been working too hard,” Jordan accused him.

“Hot weather, Sec. Go on about the race.”

Doris came in to say good night to her relatives, and Jordan pondered on the strings of vermilion beads sustaining her frock. He hoped, they were strung on some solid substance. But it was a charming gown. She looked like an inverted peony, and her small feet were shod appropriately in gold.

“I had it made to wear at New London,” she said, “and Nancy Guest says the party at the Griswold—”

“Oh, Doris,” Mrs. Bace broke in suddenly, “let’s not talk about New London any more, please.”

This outbreak had all the value of a high-explosive shell. Jordan stared at his mother. It truly sounded as though Doris had been talking too much of the missed race. It must be that. His twin was considering Mrs. Bace with a pained bewilderment.

“Oh, very well, dear. Any signs of Johnny?”

“His visibility is still low,” said Mr. Bace through his cigar smoke, “and that is a mighty pretty dress — frock. You look like the late Lola Montez a good deal.”

“Oh, Dan!” Mrs. Bace gasped, and pink touches appeared in her cheeks.

“Sure, I don’t know who Lola was,” said Doris kindly, “but it sounds like a slam. There’s Johnny. He always takes a bit off the rose bed. Good night.”

Jordan wondered if the best breeding permitted a young man to sound his horn outside the doors of a gentleman’s house summoning his daughter forth. He strolled over to the window and watched Doris flutter into the motor, where Johnny Rhodes was sprawled gracefully.

He had a natural admiration for young Rhodes, a great figure in white flannel, with a curly dark head that showed fully as the motor slipped under the lights of the dining room outflung on the gravel.

“If Doris marries that mucker,” said George, “I’m goin’ to run off.”

“Oh, Geordie!” Mrs. Bace moaned.

“That’ll do, son,” said Mr. Bace, and rose. “Well, I’ve got to go down to the club and blackball some men. Be back in an hour, Sec.”

When the family car had carried him off Jordan asked questions, having planted George over a volume of Gale’s Ferry snapshots. Mrs. Bace was never expansive.

“There’s been a lot of trouble with the police force, Sec, and it’s been dreadfully hot. It would have been such a rest for him to go East. It was too bad poor Mr. Joyce had to die just then and” — she flushed “and — really — Doris wasn’t very — very nice about missing the races. I suppose we should have found a chaperon for her and let her go. And there’s been some trouble at the bank with one of the tellers. And of course, dear, your father isn’t young.”

“I suppose Doris just simply raised hell.”

“Oh, Sec!”

“I’m sorry, mother. Look here, is she going to marry Johnny Rhodes?”

“I hope not,” said Mrs. Bace with more firmness than she usually mustered. “I’m sure I hope not, Sec.”

“Of course,” Jordan mused, “there’s his D. S. C. and all that, but — I hope she doesn’t. I don’t mind his being divorced, but —”

Jordan played golf considerably, and Johnny Rhodes had a clear, carrying voice in the country-club dressing rooms. His theories on matrimony and finance were memorable. Still he was jolly and handsome, and there was the medal. Jordan frowned.

“You and dad can put your feet down —”

“Oh, Sec, Doris is so old for eighteen!”

Jordan grinned and went off to talk to George. His brother illuminated the matter of Mr. Joyce’s funeral when they had gone to bed. He sat on Jordan’s floor and barked with the note of one long oppressed but now sure of a hearing.

“Sounded like a baseball game when everybody’s jumpin’ the umpire. She said dad was old-fashioned and stuffy and mid-Victorian and —”

“Oh, she’s got that mid-Victorian thing? Go on.”

George continued at some length, including his own grievances in the business of having his Navajo Indian headdress borrowed for the country-club masquerade in April and so lost.

“But Sid Conway says he’ll get his cousin in Arizona to get me another. Sid’s a peach, I think. He’s got a lot of sense too. He don’t hang round Doris the way he did.”

“That’s too bad,” said Jordan drowsily.

“It is not! Why, gee, you wouldn’t want a nice fellow to go and marry a thing like her? But how much does a coxswain have to weigh, huh?”

Jordan stirred somewhat when a motor rattled in the drive toward dawn, but he was deeply asleep when George shook him at ten.

“Get up, Sec! Say, something’s happened!”

“Dad isn’t sick?”

“No. He’s mad, though, and mamma’s cryin’, and — it’s some kind of something. Get up!”

George was inarticulate and clearly a little frightened. Jordan hauled on a dressing gown and trotted downstairs through the shuttered coolness of the wide house to the dining room. His sister’s voice detained him outside the door.

“Nonsense! I shan’t let you do anything of the sort. I’m not going to have a lot of cheap detectives and things mixed up in this. I —”

“I’m not going to have my daughter insulted through the —”

Doris laughed, not merrily.

“Of course, father, if you like publicity —”

“Oh, Doris!”

His mother’s open anguish brought Jordan into the room on the run. Mrs. Bace was still crying wearily. His father stood on the hearth slashing at the white flowers in the grate with a napkin. Doris was trying to tidy her hair with fingers that shook. “Some low hound has been writing your sister anonymous letters,” said Mr. Bace. “That’s what’s the matter, Sec. Look at it!”

“It’s a woman of course,” Doris alleged — “not a man. Do keep still, father.”

The letter was typed on a sheet of plain paper. Jordan read it hastily, wishing that his mother would stop crying.

Dear Doris: Really you are getting too much for a civilized community. That red hat you were wearing yesterday has given me a headache, and I am not quite well yet. No wonder your brother looked ashamed of you when you were bringing him up from the station. And when wearing red do remember that face powder should be used sparingly — if at all. The contrast is too marked. You had the effect of a rather ignorant chorus girl trying to look like a second-rate French actress.

As to the horrible thing you were wearing at the Bulkely dance last night, words fail me. Please understand that I have no objection to your going about half naked. It is being done, and the gown was no worse than some others there. But that cheap swagger of yours would be tolerable only in a raving beauty. If your idiotic father has not the sense to check you up it is time someone else did. Au revoir.

“I’m going to ring up the police head —”

“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” said Doris, cutting Mr. Race’s sentence neatly. “You told us yourself that things like that always leak out of the police office. And there’ll be reporters at the Conway tea. I’m not going to have them telling people some woman —”

“How d’you know it’s a woman?” Jordan asked.

“Oh, really, Sec, a man wouldn’t bother about clothes! And it’s all about clothes. Of course it’s a woman!”

“But the hat isn’t really red, darling,” said Mrs. Bace. “It’s a cerise — and do try to drink some coffee, dear. You mustn’t wear yourself out.”

“I’m not!”

Jordan looked at the torn envelope. It was postmarked from the city-hall station, and dated from yesterday of course. He found himself mastering a grin. But he effaced this, as his father was staring at him, and it would not do to smile over a letter in which Mr. Bace was called idiotic. “It’s a dirty trick,” he said, “and can’t the police —”

“Oh, don’t be childish!” cried his sister, and walked out of the room.

“It’s a damned outrage,” said the mayor, chewing his lip.

“Oh, Dan,” wailed Mrs. Bace, “do be calm! I mean — you can’t be calm, dear — but do eat something.”

Mr. Bace refused food and set off for his office. Jordan puzzled, drinking coffee.

“I didn’t like that hat an awful lot,” he said. “It’s rather loud. And that dress isn’t what you’d call quiet, mother. Of course girls wear things like that, but —”

And the facts did not at all excuse this piece of blackguardism. Jordan worked himself into a fair measure of wrath as the day progressed. His sister was his sister. He might find cause to criticize her privately, but no stranger should be allowed to. This must be some jealous woman of course. He seldom went to such dances as his years permitted. He prided himself on a disdain for gossip. He had never even fancied himself in love. Perhaps it was a duty to squire Doris about and note her rivals.

“I’ll come to this tea at the Conways’ if you want, mother.”

“Oh, you’re not asked, Sec. It’s for some English author — Sir John — who is it, darling?”

“Sir John Pelton, the one who wrote all those novels about Scotland. It’s a very grown-up tea, Sec,” Doris mentioned, wandering about the veranda.

“Read any of his novels?” growled Jordan.

“One or two.”

“I’ll bet against it,” said Jordan. “They aren’t fluffy stuff.”

“Oh, Sec!”

“What you need,” said Doris, “is a course in manners. You aren’t the only person in the family who reads, you know. I’ve got to dress.”

Mrs. Bace looked after her unhappily, and turned her pale face to Jordan when the click of heels had ceased.

“Doris does read, Sec.”

“Not enough to hurt her any,” he smiled.

“She’s very young, dear.”

“Hour older than me, isn’t she?”

“But you’re a boy,” said Mrs. Bace, settling the question. She patted him and went on: “And really girls don’t read as much as they did, or they read such odd things — Freud —”

“I see Doris wading into Freud,” Jordan choked.

His father did not go to the Conway tea, and came home wilted, late for dinner. Mrs. Bace fussed over him with suggestions of iced coffee and spoke almost sharply to the butler about the misguided electric fan. She was, Jordan thought, in an anguish of solicitudes.

Dinner embraced all the things Doris liked best, and George had been privately warned to keep his mouth shut. But Doris was cheerful.

“Sir John’s quite nice,” she said, “and not stiff at all. And his son got the Victoria Cross. I really like middle-aged Englishmen better than the young ones. They don’t seem to want to talk about themselves so much. Of course young men all do.”

“He did talk to you quite a long time,” Mrs. Bace nodded.

“What did he say about the Irish question?” Mr. Bace inquired.

“I didn’t ask him. Does he know anything about it?”

“He’s supposed to be something of an authority. He’s written three books on it, and so on.”

“Great Scott,” said Doris, “what a bore! Englishmen always seem to like politics. He asked me about some senator or other.”

“He must have learned a lot from you,” Jordan reflected.

Doris ate an almond and looked at her twin for a moment.

“I suppose you’ll grow up — if you ever do — to be a college professor or something. Why should a man want to learn anything when he’s talking to a girl?”

“Speech sometimes does imply an exchange of ideas, daughter,” said Mr. Bace mildly.

“Oh, Dan!”

“Thanks so much,” said Doris.

In the morning George appeared at Jordan’s bedside with news of more misery. But Mr. Bace had left before the morning mail arrived, and Doris was alone with her second letter.

“There weren’t more than fifty people at the Conways’ yesterday, and a lot of them were men. But this is worse. So silly too.”

She hummed while Jordan read the note she had received:

Doris Darling: I am glad to note that the red hat was not on view yesterday. Still that orange suit was not all it should be. All right for a tennis tea and that sort of thing.

“You are clever about your ears too. I know how big they are, and the arrangement of the hair hides them very well indeed. The emerald ring was striking, but out of place.

“A reception for a literary celebrity, my girl, is not the same as a bride’s luncheon, you must remember.

“But what I principally complain of is that you monopolized Sir John for twenty minutes when there were many people three times your age and with twenty times your brain power waiting to talk to him. Moreover, it was rotten bad taste to ask if his son had been decorated. A glance at the headlines of yesterday’s paper would have informed you that his son was also killed in action.

“That fatheaded lunatic, your father, should make you read the papers. I suppose he is too busy grafting to pay any attention to you.

“God forbid that I should say a word against your mother. You have bullied her from the day of your birth, of course, and she is probably so cowed by this time that she does not dare lift her voice. I suppose, too, that she lets you dress like a cannibal queen because she had to dress on nothing a year as a girl. Clergymen’s daughters don’t get big allowances, do they?

“But she shouldn’t let you knock about with swine like Johnny Rhodes, dear. Yes, I know he’s fond of you. You probably remind him of Tottie Toothbrush, or whatever the name of that red-stocking blonde was that he married in 1912. Your mentality must make the same strong appeal to him. More later. I am sorry for your family, because the reaction to these little jabs at your self-conceit must affect them unpleasantly. I suppose you take it out on the servants too. So long.”


Doris hummed a moment when he had finished, and stared at him steadily.

“Mother’s gone down to talk to father. Really I didn’t think Sid Conway could be such a cad!”

“What on earth has Sid Conway got to do with this?”

“He was sitting on the window seat while I was talking to Sir John. That’s the only way — and we had a row in April. And, of course, he hates Johnny Rhodes.”

“I don’t think so. He’s always spoken mighty well of him, and they were in the same regiment. You’re wrong anyhow. Sid’s a gentleman.”

“He keeps giving me long lectures on — all sorts of things, and he’s just as stuffy and old school as father. It is Sid.”

“Junk!” said Jordan. “Sid wouldn’t say a word against dad anyhow, and he wouldn’t mention mother. It’s someone else. And did you talk to this Englishman twenty minutes? That’s where you let yourself in for it, sis. Who else was listening?”

“It is Sid — and if Sir John didn’t want to talk to me he could have left me. I want you to go and —”

Jordan flashed up into a queer anger. He was fond of Sid Conway, and no amount of evidence would make him swallow the accusation.

“Sid’s thirty nearly, and he’s known us all our lives. If he wanted to tell you what he thought of you he’d have done it out like a man. I shan’t go see him. Go see him yourself.”

“That’s pretty!”

Jordan was ashamed of himself promptly. Doris never wept. Now her eyes filled, and she looked at him across the breakfast flowers with a sort of fright. He pulled at the cord of his dressing gown.

“All right,” he mumbled, “I’ll go see him. But you’re all wrong.”

“You really like Sid, don’t you?”

“Of course I do.”

“Why is it men stick together so?”

“They have to. There are too many women loose round. We’ve got to protect ourselves.”

“You don’t talk so badly as you used to,” said Doris. She sat silent for a second, then flushed. “And I don’t take Johnny Rhodes seriously. That’s why this is so silly. It’s — it’s uncalled for, Sec. Give me the paper.”

Sidmuth Conway was a burly young man, who had taught Jordan how to use an air rifle ten years before, and still gave him good advice from time to time. He was amateur middleweight of the city. Jordan thought of this as he motored into the hot heart of town. The silly errand seemed likely to get him a lesson in boxing for which he had no wish or use. Sid, though, was patently glad to see him, and his expression was not guilty when he spoke of Doris.

“I was wondering if she’d be home tonight. No, there’s the Wallace wedding. Going?”

“I hate weddings,” said Jordan. “If you’d been a page as often as I wag! Are you going?”

“Not for love or money. Too hot. But I want to see Doris.”

Sid hesitated, rapping his pipe on his desk and blinking at the fan that wagged its revolutions from side to side.

“Fact is, Sec, I’m worried about Doris.”

“Are you?”

“Yes — like this: A girl can make an awful fool of herself without knowing it or meaning to — and she did yesterday. And, of course, she didn’t realize it — naturally.”

“I suppose no one does,” said Jordan.

“Of course not. Well, Sir John saw her and asked to be introduced. She was looking awfully pretty, and she started talking to him. They were sitting on the window seat, and a lot of people rather hung round, looking at the great man and all that. And, you know, her voice carries.”

“Like a freight car,” Jordan agreed.

“Anyhow, she said some things — it was rather funny, one way of looking at it — only it wasn’t. And after the party I motored him down to the club, and there were a lot of fools talking in the smoke room. Anyhow, it made me sore — and your father walked in to get some cigars. I’m afraid he heard some of it. But what I want you to — to think about telling her is that —”

“She shouldn’t make a fool of herself?”

“Oh, not so strong as that! But I don’t like hearing her get herself criticized any more than I would you, Sec.”

“Come and tell her so,” Jordan offered.

A woman and two men.
(Illustrated by H. Westen Taylor)

“Well,” Sid said, moving-in his chair, “we aren’t getting along very well just now; and you’re her brother — and I was thinking of writing her. Only that’s so idiotic, seeing that I live across the street, and all that.”

He waved his pipe to indicate assembled reasons. Jordan wiped his, forehead and beamed at Sidmuth.

“Do you write your letters or type them?” he asked with skillful yawns to suggest that the subject bored him.

“Type? I don’t know how. I’m like your dad. I’ve tried to learn and can’t. Fingers too stiff or something. But about Doris —”

With intricate guile Jordan discovered that Sid liked the peony dress and the cerise hat.

There wasn’t any flavor of dissimulation in the statements. Sid was plainly worried. The city was full of rank outsiders who envied the old families, and Mr. Bace was mayor on the reform ticket. Well, it was too bad that anyone should lift the smirk of criticism against Doris.

“And she jumps down your throat if you tell her her hat isn’t on straight,” Jordan nodded.

“It wasn’t her hat,” said Sid. “It was her paint at that fool masquerade after Easter. There was too much on her chin. Made her look as though she’d been eating raspberries and hadn’t wiped her mouth. Perhaps I didn’t put it right. I’m not much of a diplomat. But I’m a lot older than she is!”

“I don’t think it’s much of a game, being diplomatic with Doris,” Jordan told him. “Try a brick.”

“Rot! You’ve got to consider a girl’s feelings. I hadn’t any business to say all this to you, anyhow.”

“It’s just as well you did,” Jordan said darkly, and withdrew.

Sidmuth Conway, he felt, was guiltless; and any guilt attached to these letters was balanced somewhat by their tone of raillery. Doris let herself in for it. It was about time, he thought, that something was done to Doris. She did bully their mother. Her clothes alarmed him often, and her conceit was flourishing.

“You’re wrong about Sid,” he said curtly, “and I told you so.”

Doris was cutting the leaves of a novel. She looked at her twin sulkily.

“I suppose you went and said, ‘Hi, have you been writing Doris anonymous letters?’ And he said no, and that was all there was to it.”

“I didn’t do anything of the kind! And he likes that rotten dress too.”

“He would,” said Doris. “I hate the rag. It’s the wrong color. It’s what one gets for buying evening things by daylight.”

“You liked yourself pretty well in it the other night,” Jordan pointed out.

“Oh, stop talking like Geordie!” Doris cried, and threw the novel into a corner. She went on breathlessly to state that Jordan had no right to discuss her with Sid in any case, and finished with a thorough condemnation of the city from the street cleaning department to the architecture of the church they attended. “And, of course, father had to go and make us conspicuous by getting himself elected mayor.”

“You didn’t mind that when he was elected.”

“Do you think I’d be getting these beastly letters if he wasn’t mayor?”

“I think if you dressed like a human being, and didn’t try to hog all the men in town, you wouldn’t be getting anything but bills,” Jordan said hotly; “and don’t ask me to go snooping round to any more people asking fool questions either. No one ever named me Holmes.”

“I shan’t ask you to do anything else in a hurry, dear,” Doris hissed. “You’re as bad as father.”

“That’ll be all of that, please,” he retorted. “I notice that all you’re worried about in these letters is what this person says about you. Doesn’t seem to bother you having him — or her — call dad a fatheaded idiot and a grafter.”

“But that’s —”

“If you say that’s so I’ll just naturally kill you!” Jordan shouted.

“I wasn’t going to say anything of the sort. I was going to say that’s just as silly as the rest of it. And I don’t suppose you would care if I was killed,” she said with a waver of the voice that prophesied tears.

“I would though. I hate wearing black.”

“Ah,” she declared, “that’s the masculine sense of humor!”

Jordan began to reproach himself in an hour and came to terms. The girl was restless and pale. Mrs. Bace murmured over her all afternoon and the mayor brought home a box of the best chocolates to console her. But Doris was not in the mood for chocolates, and it took the whole female staff of the house to dress her for the Wallace wedding.

“Poor kid,” said Mr. Bace, “it’s very hard on her, Sec. She’s young, and she likes gay clothes and all that. It’s a cowardly sort of trick. Of course the police can’t do anything under the state laws unless the letters get scandalous.”

“I think calling you a grafter is pretty scandalous!”

Mr. Bace arranged his white tie and shook his head.

“Calling a mayor a grafter’s just ordinary repartee, Sec. See if you can trim this nail down for me, will you?”

The finger nail was broken a little from the edge, and the crack was blackened as if with coal dust.

“How did you do that, dad?”

“Blessed if I know. Run and order the car. It’s almost time to start.”

Jordan was proud of the family, setting off for the wedding. Doris looked well in white and silver. Mr. Bace carried evening dress splendidly, and of his mother Jordan was in no way critical. He wandered over to play dominoes with Sid Conway and spend the evening coolly. By his sister’s attitude, when she came home, he fancied a successful party. The next day was calm. The mail contained nothing odious and peace seemed planted in the house again. But Friday morning George — as scout — reported more trouble.

“Mother’s awfully mad this time,” he announced, “and father says he’s going straight to the police. Better hurry.”

“Oh, Sec,” said Mrs. Bace, “don’t get excited!”

“I want you to go down and stay in the post office all afternoon,” the mayor scowled. “I won’t have this sort of thing.”

“I think it’s really r-rather funny,” Doris said in a reduced tone, as though she spoke through veils. Jordan took the letter and his baked apple to the dining room window seat.


“Well, Doris, you are doing better. That white gown was all right, though the beauty spot on the right shoulder blade merely accented the fact of your skinniness and added nothing to your charms. And it was pleasant to see you shake hands with Mrs. Wallace as though you did not feel her far beneath you.

“Still you should not have told Mr. Wallace that Sec is too young for evening parties. Mr. Wallace has the bad taste to be fond of Sec, and is well aware that you are Sec’s twin. Sec, though an ass in some respects, is not all bad for a Bace. I don’t think he would have tried to talk about André Gide to that fat woman from New York without some idea as to whether Monsieur Gide is a dressmaker or a butcher.

“For your information I may tell you that the fat woman is writing a book on American education, and you will probably figure in it to your discredit. Beware of discussing foreign letters without reading them. It betrays a lack of common sense.

“And why apologize for your father’s job as mayor? True, he is no good at it, but that is characteristic of mayors. And as he has the misfortune to be your father, he is probably too worried by that responsibility to attend to his duties at the city hall very thoroughly. I suppose most of the missing funds for the new orphanage are on your back. It’s amazing that your mother’s hair hasn’t turned, and it is a pity that you will never be what she was. See you in church Sunday. Bye-bye.”


“He’s strong for you, mother,” said Jordan; “that’s one thing for him. What new orphan asylum is he talking about, dad?”

“I’m blessed if I knew there’d been any trouble with the fund. I’ll have to get hold of the charity commissioner and see.”

“And I do know who André Gide is,” said Doris. “I read some of that book about — about trees, or whatever it is. But you shan’t turn this over to the police, father. It — it isn’t very serious. It’s just some — some person with a poor sense of humor. And we’re going to Watch Hill next week anyhow.”

“He doesn’t seem to have an eye on Geordie,” Jordan chuckled.

“Oh, Sec,” said Mrs. Bace, “don’t — don’t speak of such a thing!”

After the morning bombshell Friday went peacefully. Doris decided to work in the rose garden, and after lunch Jordan saw her taking over an armful of blossoms to Mrs. Conway, whose flowers had suffered from some pest. This thoughtfulness was uncommon, and Jordan was touched. He pondered while driving George down to the dentist. Really this dose of critical advice was doing the girl some good. He somehow wished that the critic would supply him with notes on his own behavior. If he was in some respects an ass it would be quite as well to know them. The observer had hit his twin’s defects clearly.

He sat in the motor outside the office waiting for George and watched the people on the sidewalk about the Postal Building. Why, any one of them might be the traducer of his father! He shifted, frowning. Queer that the writer found nothing kind to say of Mr. Bace. Everyone liked him. Queer that his father didn’t resent it more keenly. A truly patient man, his father was — and Doris must be a fearful expense. Jordan rubbed his nose. Things were expensive. His own bill for haberdashery at New Haven was not small. Children cost a good deal, and Doris was never so grateful as she should be. She took things for granted. Jordan’s conscience wriggled uncomfortably. Well, at least he always said thanks, and his father seemed contented with him.

“Let’s go over and see if dad’s ready to go home,” George suggested, scrambling into the car.

The mayor’s outer office was empty except for the secretary.

“There isn’t anyone with him,” she said to the boys, “but he said he didn’t want to be disturbed. He had some mail to look through. Shall I go see if —”

Mr. Bace came .out of the inner office, hat in hand, as she spoke, and pinched George’s ear.

“I’ll be ready in a minute. I’ve got to run across the street for a second. Hang round. Don’t fool with the city property, Geordie.”

George began a conversation with the secretary, and Jordan strolled into the private office, a horrible place, decorated with oil portraits of earlier mayors and photographs of more recent sufferers in the cause of government. The furniture was built of high-polished redwood and carved with griffins and pine cones. Even the little typewriter stand had its sheathing of dusty gilt scrollwork. Jordan gave the municipal taste a shiver and walked to the window.

His father was plodding over the dull brick street in the simmer of heat toward the Postal Building. He was not long inside its brightly gleaming glass doors, but on the return a shabby man buttonholed him at the curb, and Jordan watched what must be the beginning of a long argument. Finally, he moved back to the typewriter table for a match and stood contemplating the machine. He had tried to use the one at the house occasionally, and now yawning with the delay he rolled a fragment of paper clumsily into the apparatus and pressed down a key. The businesslike click amused him. He wrote a line of random letters, then a key stuck and he patted it briskly with a finger. The nail snapped.

“Oh, the devil!” said Jordan, and reached for his pocket knife.

Afterward he thought that the key must be rather soiled. The crack had a thread of black along it. He was looking at this uneven edge in his bathroom before dinner, when it seemed that he had seen a nail broken so not long since. Where and on whom?

As he walked down to dinner he began to grin and had to stop outside the dining room door to adjust his face.

“Where’s Doris?” he asked.

“She’s stopped at the Conways’ for dinner,” said Mrs. Bace so cheerfully that Jordan laughed.

“The weather doesn’t affect you, Sec,” his father smiled.

“I’m all right. Are you coming on to Watch Hill with us, sir?”

“Not for a week or two.”

“I’d better stay here and keep you company.”

“Nonsense! Run along and keep cool, Sec.”

“I’d really like to stay here, sir. I could come down and be office boy.”

“I wouldn’t have you at the office for a million a day,” said Bace. “But you can stay if you want to, son. But do you want to?”

“Of course I do,” Jordan insisted honestly, “and that’ll get me out of helping straighten the cottage up. Doris’ll have to work.”

“Oh, Sec!”

“I’d like to see Doris workin’,” said George.

“You’re too ambitious,” Mr. Bace observed.

“Oh, Dan!” said Mrs. Bace.

Sunday church was hot, dull and restless. George wiggled aimlessly, and Doris glared at him across her father. Jordan looked about the scant congregation warily. There might be some noting eye upon them, and his father appeared to be asleep.

“That beast said he’d see me in church,” said Doris as they walked home, “and Sid wasn’t there. Of course I was wrong about Sid, anyhow — and I suppose I was horrid to you the other day, Sec.”

“Oh, that’s all right. And whoever it is can’t say anything about your clothes this trip.”

“Oh, yes he can,” she said miserably.

Under her veil her chin shook faintly, and Jordan hoped the next letter would be less acid. But on Monday morning she whirled into his bedroom while he was thinking of getting up and threw him a letter.

“I can’t stand that sort of thing, Sec. I don’t mind the rest of it, and — and I suppose some of my things are too — too but — oh, Sec, there isn’t a word of that true!”

She thrashed up and down the room, her rosy skirts fluttering and her hands clenched. Jordan rubbed his eyes and read.


“Doris, your Sunday get-up was perfect — just gaudy enough to show off your good points and not at all theatrical. The absence of powder was also pleasing. In time and with practice you may learn to go along unassisted by these little hints. Your inattention to the sermon was justified by its dullness. As to your attitude toward your kid brother, I thought it unnecessarily rude. Remember that George is only twelve, and therefore naturally wrigglesome.

“I wonder what you were thinking of most of the time? The extreme coolness with which you received Johnny Rhodes’ bow justifies me in the conclusion that you are bored with him.

“What does a young woman of your sort think about anyhow? Clothes and men and bank accounts, I fancy. I was wondering what would happen to you if your witless father happened to lose all he has stolen here and there and then drop dead. Probably you would expect Jordan to turn in and work for you. I can’t imagine you doing anything for yourself. You might make a competent housemaid with a little practice.

“After all, though, you are pretty safe. It must be satisfying to you to know that your father’s investments are solid and his life is insured for a pretty large sum. He looks worth about five or six years more if he does not land in state’s prison, and after that you will be very well fixed.

“They tell me you are off to the seashore soon. Heaven help your poor mother! I suppose she will have to sit about and watch you play the fool all summer. Well, dear, au revoir. We will meet soon again.”


“Pretty stiff,” said Jordan, discreetly scratching his chin.

“Look here, Sec, I can’t stand it! I don’t mind what they say about me. I don’t care, but I can’t stand it. I’ve never thought about father dying! I don’t care how much money he has! He’s always been so — so awfully kind to me — I —”

Her sobs began to hurt him. Jordan jumped out of bed and went to pat her back awkwardly.

“It isn’t fair,” he said. “It’s too bad.”

“And he isn’t well. I was thinking of that in church. He does look tired. It’s been a bad winter, and — I suppose there were too many parties. But I can’t stand this! Go and get Sid. He’s a lawyer. He knows all about things like detectives. I won’t have father called a thief! Some of the things about me are funny. But that isn’t, and I won’t stand it. I’ve got some birthday money left. Go get Sid, and — and if we can find who this is I — I want you to horsewhip him.”

“Good kid,” said Jordan.

“And don’t dare tell father about this — this thing!” She ripped the paper in her fingers. “I’d die if he thought anyone thought that I thought — oh, you know what I mean!”

Jordan gentled her up the hall into her own room, then went to his father’s quarters, where Mr. Bace was shaving.

“Doris wants me to get Sid Conway to hire detectives and all that.”

“’Nother letter?” said Mr. Bace sideways through his lather.

“Yes. This one’s perfectly rotten, and not a word of it true. It’s beastly. Doris,” Jordan muttered, “is an awful fool some ways, sir, but she isn’t — well, as bad as this letter makes her out, and she’s all busted up. She says if she can find the — the person that wrote it she wants me to horsewhip him.”

“Go ahead and retain Sid,” said his father. “Sid’s a good lawyer. All busted up, is she?”

“Into chunks, sir.”

“Poor old girl,” said Mr. Bace, and sighed.

Sid Conway and Doris had many consultations on the veranda before Mrs. Bace took her off to Watch Hill, and Jordan was left with his father in the empty house, where a flight of post cards from the departed daughter began to drift in on every mail.

“She writes a vile hand,” Mr. Bace said, studying one.

“She ought to learn the typewriter, sir.”

“Pretty hard, Sec.”

“Yes,” said Jordan, “and awfully hard on your nails.”

“Is it, son?”


Mr. Bace lit a cigarette and went on studying the last post card.

“She can’t write, but she spells decently, Sec.”

“I wonder,” said Jordan, “if she can spell things like ‘receive’ and ‘unnecessarily’ and all that?”

“Sure your allowance is big enough, Sec?”

“Of course, dad. Shoot you a game of pool?”

Read “The Poison Pen,” by Thomas Beer. Published July 17, 1920 in the Post.

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  1. I felt like a voyeur reading this story. It has all of the dramatic elements and conversational style of many 1930’s and ’40s films. I got a kick out of some of the words too, like ‘wrigglesome’, ‘beastly’ and ‘mucker’ to name three.

    To make a long story short, it’s an interesting slice of life of some haughty, spoiled “upper class” people not long after the end of World War I.


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