Earl Derr Biggers worked as a journalist and humorist throughout the beginning of the 20th century, but found the most success as a writer of mystery stories. He is most famous for his recurring fictional sleuth Charlie Chan as well as his popular novel Seven Keys to Baldplate, which was adapted into a Broadway stage play and later into multiple films. “The Agony Column” finds Biggers working at the height of his whodunit powers, telling the story of a mysterious newspaper column and the elusive “Strawberry Man.”
Published on July 8, 1916
Two years ago, in July, London was almost unbearably hot. It seems, looking back, as though the big, baking city in those days was meant to serve as an anteroom of torture — an inadequate bit of preparation for the hell that was soon to break in the guise of the great war. About the soda-water bar in the drug store near the Hotel Cecil many American tourists found solace in the syrups and creams of home. Through the open windows of the Piccadilly tea shops you might catch glimpses of the English consuming quarts of hot tea in order to become cool. It is a paradox they swear by.
About nine o’clock on the morning of Friday, July 24th, in that memorable year nineteen hundred and fourteen, Geoffrey West left his apartments in Adelphi Terrace and set out for breakfast at the Carlton. He had found the breakfast room of that dignified hotel the coolest in London, and through some miracle, for the season had passed, strawberries might still be had there. As he took his way through the crowded Strand, surrounded on all sides by honest British faces wet with honest British perspiration, he thought longingly of his rooms in Washington Square, New York. For West, despite that Geoffrey was as American as Kansas, his native state, and only pressing business was at that moment holding him in England, far from the country that glowed unusually rosy because of its remoteness.
At the Carlton news stand West bought two morning papers — the Times for study and the Mail for entertainment — and then passed on into the restaurant. His waiter — a tall, soldierly Prussian, more blond than West himself — saw him coming and, with a nod and a mechanical German smile, set out for the plate of strawberries which he knew would be the first thing desired by the American. West seated himself at his usual table and, spreading out the Daily Mail, sought his favorite column. The first item in that column brought a delighted smile to his face:
“The one who calls me Dearest is not genuine or they would write to me.”
Anyone at all familiar with English journalism will recognize at once what department it was that appealed most to West. During his three weeks in London he had been following, with the keenest joy, the daily grist of Personal Notices in the Mail. This string of intimate messages, popularly known as the Agony Column, has long been an honored institution in the English press. In the days of Sherlock Holmes it was in the Times that it flourished, and many a criminal was tracked to earth after he had inserted some alluring, mysterious message in it. Later the Telegraph gave it room; but, with the advent of penny journalism, the simple souls moved en masse to the Mail.
Tragedy and comedy mingle in the Agony Column. Erring ones are urged to return for forgiveness; unwelcome suitors are warned that “Father has warrant prepared; fly, Dearest One!” Loves that would shame by their ardor Abelard and Héloïse are frankly published — at ten cents a word — for all the town to smile at. The gentleman in the brown derby states with fervor that the blond governess who got off the tram at Shepherd’s Bush has quite won his heart. Will she permit his addresses? Answer: this department. For three weeks West had found this sort of thing delicious reading. Best of all, he could detect in these messages nothing that was not open and innocent. At their worst they were merely an effort to sidestep old Lady Convention; this inclination was so rare in the British, he felt it should be encouraged. Besides, he was inordinately fond of mystery and romance, and these engaging twins hovered always about that column.
So, while waiting for his strawberries, he smiled over the ungrammatical outburst of the young lady who had come to doubt the genuineness of him who called her Dearest. He passed on to the second item of the morning. Spoke one whose heart had been completely conquered:
MY LADY sleeps. She of raven tresses. Corner seat from Victoria, Wednesday night. Carried program. Gentleman answering inquiry desires acquaintance. Reply here. — LE ROI.
West made a mental note to watch for the reply of raven tresses. The next message proved to be one of Aye’s lyrics — now almost a daily feature of the column:
DEAREST: Tender, loving wishes to my dear one. Only to be with you now and always. None
“fairer in my eyes.” Your name is music to me. I love you more than life itself, my own beautiful darling, my proud sweetheart, my joy, my all! Jealous of everybody. Kiss your dear hands for me. Love you only. Thine ever. — AYE.
Which, reflected West, was generous of Aye — at ten cents a word — and in striking contrast to the penurious lover who wrote, farther along in the column:
— loveu dearly; wantoou; longing; missu —
But those extremely personal notices ran not alone to love. Mystery, too, was present, especially in the aquatic utterance:
DEFIANT MERMAID: Not mine. Alligators bitingu now. ‘Tis well; delighted. — FIRST FISH.
And the rather sanguinary suggestion:
DE Box: First round; tooth gone. Finale. You will FORGET ME NOT.
At this point West’s strawberries arrived and even the Agony Column could not hold his interest. When the last red berry was eaten he turned back to read:
WATERLOO: Wed. 11:53 train. Lady who left in taxi and waved, care to know gent, gray coat? — SINCERE.
Also the more dignified request put forward in:
GREAT CENTRAL: Gentleman who saw lady in bonnet 9 Monday morning in Great Central Hotel lift would greatly value opportunity of obtaining introduction.
This exhausted the joys of the Agony Column for the day, and West, like the solid citizen he really was, took up the Times to discover what might be the morning’s news. A great deal of space was given to the appointment of a new principal for Dulwich College. The affairs of the heart, in which that charming creature, Gabrielle Ray, was at the moment involved, likewise claimed attention. And in a quite unimportant corner, in a most unimportant manner, it was related that Austria had sent an ultimatum to Serbia. West had read part way through this stupid little piece of news, when suddenly the Thunderer and all its works became an uninteresting blur.
A girl stood just inside the door of the Carlton breakfast room.
Yes; he should have pondered that dispatch from Vienna. But such a girl! It adds nothing at all to say that her hair was a dull sort of gold; her eyes violet. Many girls have been similarly blessed. It was her manner; the sweet way she looked with those violet eyes through a battalion of head waiters and resplendent managers; her air of being at home here in the Carlton or anywhere else that fate might drop her down. Unquestionably she came from oversea — from the States.
She stepped forward into the restaurant. And now slipped also into view, as part of the background for her, a middle-aged man, who wore the conventional black of the statesman. He, too, bore the American label unmistakably. Nearer and nearer to West she drew, and he saw that in her hand she carried a copy of the Daily Mail.
West’s waiter was a master of the art of suggesting that no table in the room was worth sitting at save that at which he held ready a chair. Thus he lured the girl and her companion to repose not five feet from where West sat. This accomplished, he whipped out his order book, and stood with pencil poised, like a reporter in an American play.
“The strawberries are delicious,” he said in honeyed tones. The man looked at the girl, a question in his eyes.
“Not for me, dad,” she said.
“I hate them! Grapefruit, please.”
As the waiter hurried past, West hailed him. He spoke in loud, defiant tones.
“Another plate of the strawberries!” he commanded. “ They are better than ever to-day.”
For a second, as though he were part of the scenery, those violet eyes met his with a casual, impersonal glance. Then their owner slowly spread out her own copy of the Mail.
“What’s the news?” asked the statesman, drinking deep from his glass of water. “Don’t ask me,” the girl answered without looking up. “I’ve found something more entertaining than news. Do you know — the English papers run humorous columns! Only they aren’t called that. They’re called Personal Notices. And such notices!” She leaned across the table. “Listen to this: ‘Dearest: Tender, loving wishes to my dear one. Only to be with you now and always. None “fairer in my eyes” —
The man looked uncomfortably about him. “Hush!” he pleaded. “It doesn’t sound very nice to me.”
“Nice!” cried the girl. “Oh, but it is — quite nice. And so deliciously open and aboveboard. Your name is music to me. I love you more — ”
“What do we see to-day?” put in her father hastily.
“We’re going down to the City and have a look at the Temple. Thackeray lived there once — and Oliver Goldsmith — ”
“All right — the Temple it is.”
“Then the Tower of London. It’s full of the most romantic associations. Especially the Bloody Tower, where those poor little princes were murdered. Aren’t you thrilled?”
“I am if you say so.”
“You’re a dear! I promise not to tell the people back in Texas that you showed any interest in kings and such — if you will show just a little. Otherwise I’ll spread the awful news that you took off your hat when King George went by.”
The statesman smiled. West felt that he, who had no business to, was smiling with him.
The waiter returned bringing grapefruit, and the strawberries West had ordered. Without another look toward West, the girl put down her paper and began her breakfasting. As often as he dared, however, West looked at her. With patriotic pride he told himself: “Six months in Europe, and the most beautiful thing I’ve seen comes from back home!”
When he rose reluctantly twenty minutes later his two compatriots were still at table, discussing their plans for the day. As is usual in such cases, the girl arranged, the man agreed.
With one last glance in her direction, West went out on the parched pavement of Haymarket.
Slowly he walked back to his rooms. There was work there waiting for him; hut, instead of getting down to it, he sat on the balcony of his study, gazing out on the courtyard that had been his chief reason for selecting those apartments. Here, in the heart of the city, was a bit of the countryside transported — the green, trim, neatly tailored countryside that is the most satisfying thing in England. There were walls on which the ivy climbed high, narrow paths that ran between blooming beds of flowers, and opposite his windows a seldom-opened, most romantic gate. As he sat looking down he seemed to see there below him the girl of the Carlton. Now she sat on the rustic bench; now she bent above the envious flowers; now she stood at the gate that opened out to a hot, sudden bit of the city.
And as he watched her there in the garden she would never enter, as he reflected unhappily that probably he would see her no more — the idea came to him.
At first he put it from him as absurd, impossible. She was, to apply a fine word much abused, a lady; he supposedly a gentleman. Their sort did not do such things. If he yielded to this temptation she would be shocked, angry, and from him would slip that one chance in a thousand he had — the chance of meeting her somewhere, some day.
And yet — and yet — She, too, had found the Agony Column entertaining and — quite nice. There was a twinkle in her eyes that bespoke a fondness for romance. She was human, fun-loving — and, above all, the joy of youth was in her heart.
Nonsense! West went inside and walked the floor. The idea was preposterous. Still — he smiled — it was filled with amusing possibilities. Too bad he must put it forever away and settle down to this stupid work!
Forever away? Well —
On the next morning, which was Saturday, West did not breakfast at the Carlton. The girl, however, did. As she and her father sat down, the old man said:
“I see you’ve got your Daily Mail.”
“Of course!” she answered. “I couldn’t do without it. Grapefruit — yes.”
She began to read. Presently her cheeks flushed and she put the paper down.
“What is it?” asked the Texas statesman.
“To-day,” she answered sternly, “you do the British Museum. You’ve put it off long enough.”
The old man sighed. Fortunately he did not ask to see the Mail. If he had, a quarter way down the column of personal notices he would have been enraged — or perhaps only puzzled — to read:
CARLTON RESTAURANT: Nine A. M., Friday morning. Will the young woman who preferred grapefruit to strawberries permit the young man who had two plates of the latter to say he will not rest until he discovers some mutual friend, that they may meet and laugh over this column together?
Lucky for the young man who liked strawberries that his nerve had failed him and he was not present at the Carlton that morning! He would have been quite overcome to see the stern, uncompromising look on the beautiful face of a lady at her grapefruit. So overcome, in fact, that he would probably have left the room at once, and thus not seen the mischievous smile that came in time to the lady’s face — not seen that she soon picked up the paper again and read, with that smile, to the end of the column.
The next day was Sunday; hence it brought no Mail. Slowly it dragged along. At a ridiculously early hour Monday morning Geoffrey West was on the street, seeking his favorite newspaper. He found it, found the Agony Column — and nothing else. Tuesday morning again he rose early, still hopeful. Then and there hope died. The lady at the Carlton deigned no reply.
Well, he had lost, he told himself. He had staked all on this one bold throw; no use. Probably if she thought of him at all it was to label him a cheap joker, a mountebank of the penny press. Richly he deserved her scorn.
On Wednesday he slept late. He was in no haste to look into the Daily Mail; his disappointments of the previous days had been too keen. At last, while he was shaving, he summoned Walters, the caretaker of the building, and sent him out to procure a certain morning paper.
Walters came back bearing rich treasure, for in the Agony Column of that day West, his face white with lather, read joyously:
STRAWBERRY MAN: Only the grapefruit lady’s kind heart and her great fondness for mystery and romance move her to answer. The strawberry-mad one may write one letter a day for seven days — to prove that he is an interesting person, worth knowing. Then — we shall see. Address: M. A. L., care Sadie Haight, Carlton Hotel.
All day West walked on air, but with the evening came the problem of those letters, on which depended, he felt; his entire future happiness. Returning from dinner, he sat down at his desk near the windows that looked out on his wonderful courtyard. The weather was still torrid, but with the night had come a breeze to fan the hot cheek of London. It gently stirred his curtains; rustled the papers on his desk.
He considered. Should he at once make known the eminently respectable person he was, the hopelessly respectable people he knew? Hardly! For then, on the instant, like a bubble bursting, would go for good all mystery and romance, and the lady of the grapefruit would lose all interest and listen to him no more. He spoke solemnly to his rustling curtains.
“No,” he said. “We must have mystery and romance. But where — where shall we find them?”
On the floor above he heard the solid tramp of military boots belonging to his neighbor, Captain Stephen Frasetro Freer, of the Twelfth Cavalry, Indian Army, on furlough from that colony beyond the seas. It was from that room overhead that romance and mystery were to come in mighty store; but Geoffrey West little suspected it at the moment. Hardly knowing what to say, but gaining inspiration as he went along, he wrote the first of seven letters to the lady at the Carlton. And the epistle he dropped in the post box at midnight follows:
Dear Lady of the Grapefruit: You are very kind. Also, you are wise. Wise, because into my clumsy little Personal you read nothing that was not there. You knew it immediately for what it was — the timid, tentative clutch of a shy man at the skirts of Romance in passing. Believe me, old Conservatism was with me when I wrote that message. He was fighting hard. He followed me, struggling, shrieking, protesting, to the post box itself. But I whipped him. Glory be! I did for him.
We are young but once, I told him. After that, what use to signal to Romance? The lady at least, I said, will understand. He sneered at that. He shook his silly gray head. I will admit he had me worried. But now you have justified my faith in you. Thank you a million times for that!
Three weeks I have been in this huge, ungainly, indifferent city, longing for the States. Three weeks the Agony Column has been my sole diversion. And then — through the doorway of the Carlton restaurant — you came —
It is of myself that I must write, I know. I will not, then, tell you what is in my mind — the picture of you I carry. It would mean little to you. Many Texan gallants, no doubt, have told you the same while the moon was bright above you and the breeze was softly whispering through the branches of — the branches of the — of the —
Confound it, I don’t know! I have never been in Texas. It is a vice in me I hope soon to correct. All day I intended to look up Texas in the encyclopedia. But all day I have dwelt in the clouds. And there are no reference books in the clouds.
Now I am down to earth in my quiet study. Pens, ink and paper are before me. I must prove myself a person worth knowing.
From his rooms, they say, you can tell much about a man. But, alas! these peaceful rooms in Adelphi Terrace — I shall not tell the number — were sublet furnished. So if you could see me now you would be judging me by the possessions left behind by one Anthony Bartholomew. There is much dust on them. Judge neither Anthony nor me by that. Judge rather Walters, the caretaker, who lives in the basement with his gray-haired wife. Walters was a gardener once, and his whole life is wrapped up in the courtyard on which my balcony looks down. There he spends his time, while up above the dust gathers in the corners —
Does this picture distress you, my lady? You should see the courtyard! You would not blame Walters then. It is a sample of Paradise left at our door — that courtyard. As English as a hedge, as neat, as beautiful. London is a roar somewhere beyond; between our court and the great city is a magic gate, forever closed. It was the court that led me to take these rooms.
And, since you are one who loves mystery, I am going to relate to you the odd chain of circumstances that brought me here.
For the first link in that chain we must go back to Interlaken. Have you been there yet? A quiet little town, lying beautiful between two shimmering lakes, with the great Jungfrau itself for scenery. From the dining room of one lucky hotel you may look up at dinner and watch the old-rose afterglow light the snow-capped mountain. You would not say then of strawberries: “I hate them!” Or of anything else in all the world.
A month ago I was in Interlaken. One evening after dinner I strolled along the main street, where all the hotels and shops are drawn up at attention before the lovely mountain. In front of one of the shops I saw a collection of walking sticks and, since I needed one for climbing, I paused to look them over. I had been at this only a moment when a young Englishman stepped up and also began examining the sticks.
I had made a selection from the lot and was turning away to find the shopkeeper, when the Englishman spoke. He was lean, distinguished-looking, though quite young, and had that well-tubbed appearance which I am convinced is the great factor which has enabled the English to assert their authority over colonies like Egypt and India, where men are not so thoroughly bathed.
“Er — if you’ll pardon me, old chap,” he said. “Not that stick — if you don’t mind my saying so. It’s not tough enough for mountain work. I would suggest — ”
To say that I was astonished is putting it mildly. If you know the English at all, you know it is not their habit to address strangers, even under the most pressing circumstances. Yet here was one of that haughty race actually interfering in my selection of a stick. I ended by buying the one he preferred, and he strolled along with me in the direction of my hotel, chatting meantime in a fashion far from British.
We stopped at the Kursaal, where we listened to the music, had a drink, and threw away a few francs on the little horses. He came with me to the veranda of my hotel. I was surprised, when he took his leave, to find that he regarded me in the light of an old friend. He said he would call on me the next morning.
I made up my mind that Archibald Enwright — for that, he told me, was his name — was an adventurer down on his luck, who chose to forget his British exclusiveness under the stern necessity of getting money somehow, somewhere. The next day, I decided, I should be the victim of a touch.
But my prediction failed; Enwright seemed to have plenty of money. On that first evening I had mentioned to him that I expected shortly to be in London, and he often referred to the fact. As the time approached for me to leave Interlaken he began to throw out the suggestion that he should like to have me meet some of his people in England. This, also, was unheard of — against all precedent.
Nevertheless, when I said good-by to him he pressed into my hand a letter of introduction to his cousin, Captain Stephen Fraser-Freer, of the Twelfth Cavalry, Indian Army, who, he said, would be glad to make me at home in London, where he was on furlough at the time — or would be when I reached there.
“Stephen’s a good sort,” said Enwright. “He’ll be jolly pleased to show you the ropes. Give him my best, old boy!”
Of course I took the letter. But I puzzled greatly over the affair. What could be the meaning of this sudden warm attachment that Archie had formed for me? Why should he want to pass me along to his cousin at a time when that gentleman, back home after two years in India, would be, no doubt, extremely busy. I made up my mind I would not present the letter, despite the fact that Archie had with great persistence wrung from me a promise to do so. I had met many English gentlemen, and I felt they were not the sort — despite the example of Archie — to take a wandering American to their bosoms when he came with a mere letter.
By easy stages I came on to London. Here I met a friend, just sailing for home, who told me of some sad experiences he had had with letters of introduction — of the cold, fishy, “My-dear-fellow-why trouble-me-with-it?” stares that had greeted their presentation. Good-hearted men all, he said, but averse to strangers; an ever-present trait in the English — always excepting Archie.
So I put the letter to Captain Fraser-Freer out of my mind. I had business acquaintances here and a few English friends, and I found these, as always, courteous and charming. But it is to my advantage to meet as many people as may be, and after drifting about for a week I set out one afternoon to call on my captain. I told myself that here was an Englishman who had perhaps thawed a bit in the great oven of India. If not, no harm would be done.
It was then that I came for the first time to this house on Adelphi Terrace, for it was the address Archie had given me. Walters let me in, and I learned from him that Captain Fraser-Freer had not yet arrived from India. His rooms were ready — he had kept them during his absence, as seems to be the custom over here — and he was expected soon. Perhaps — said Walters — his wife remembered the date. He left me in the lower hall while he went to ask her.
Waiting, I strolled to the rear of the hall. And then, through an open window that let in the summer, I saw for the first time that courtyard which is my great love in London — the old ivy-covered walls of brick; the neat paths between the blooming beds; the rustic seat; the magic gate. It was incredible that just outside lay the world’s biggest city, with all its poverty and wealth, its sorrows and joys, its roar and rattle. Here was a garden for Jane Austen to people with fine ladies and courtly gentlemen — here was a garden to dream in, to adore and to cherish.
When Walters came back to tell me that his wife was uncertain as to the exact date when the captain would return, I began to rave about that courtyard. At once he was my friend. I had been looking for quiet lodgings away from the hotel, and I was delighted to find that on the second floor, directly under the captain’s rooms, there was a suite to be sublet.
Walters gave me the address of the agents; and, after submitting to an examination that could not have been more severe if I had asked for the hand of the senior partner’s daughter, they let me come here to live. The garden was mine!
And the captain? Three days after I arrived I heard above me, for the first time, the tread of his military boots. Now again my courage began to fail. I should have preferred to leave Archie’s letter lying in my desk and know my neighbor only by his tread above me. I felt that perhaps I had been presumptuous in corning to live in the same house with him. But I had represented myself to Walters as an acquaintance of the captain’s and the caretaker lost no time in telling me that “ my friend” was safely home.
So one night, a week ago, I got up my nerve and went to the captain’s rooms. I knocked. He called to me to enter and I stood in his study, facing him. He was a tall, handsome man, fair-haired, mustached — the very figure that you, my lady, in your boarding-school days, would have wished him to be. His manner, I am bound to admit, was not cordial.
“Captain,” I began, “I am very sorry to intrude “ It wasn’t the thing to say, of course, but I was fussed. “However, I happen to be a neighbor of yours, and I have here a letter of introduction from your cousin, Archibald Enwright. I met him in Interlaken and we became very good friends.”
“Indeed!” said the captain.
He held out his hand for the letter, as though it were evidence at a court-martial. I passed it over, wishing I hadn’t come. He read it through. It was a long letter, considering its nature. While I waited, standing by his desk — he hadn’t asked me to sit down — I looked about the room. It was much like my own study, only I think a little dustier. Being on the third floor it was farther from the garden, consequently Walters reached there seldom.
The captain turned back and began to read the letter again. This was decidedly embarrassing. Glancing down, I happened to see on his desk an odd knife, which I fancy he had brought from India. The blade was of steel, dangerously sharp, the hilt of gold, carved to represent some heathen figure.
Then the captain looked up from Archie’s letter and his cold gaze fell full upon me.
“My dear fellow,” he said, “to the best of my knowledge, I have no cousin named Archibald Enwright.”
A pleasant situation, you must admit! It’s bad enough when you come to them with a letter from their mother, but here was I in this Englishman’s rooms, boldly flaunting in his face a warm note of commendation from a cousin who did not exist!
“I owe you an apology,” I said. I tried to be as haughty as he, and fell short by about two miles. “I brought the letter in good faith.”
“No doubt of that,” he answered.
“Evidently it was given me by some adventurer for purposes of his own,” I went on; “though I am at a loss to guess what they could have been.”
“I’m frightfully sorry — really,” said he. But he said it with the London inflection, which plainly implies: “I’m nothing of the sort.”
A painful pause. I felt that he ought to give me back the letter; but he made no move to do so. And, of course, I didn’t ask for it.
“Ah — er — good night,” said I, and hurried toward the door.
“Good night,” he answered; and I left him standing there, with Archie’s accursed letter in his hand.
That is the story of how I came to this house in Adelphi Terrace. There is mystery in it, you must admit, my lady. Once or twice since that uncomfortable call I have passed the captain on the stairs; but the halls are very dark, and for that I am grateful. I hear him often above me; in fact, I hear him as I write this.
Who was Archie? What was the idea? I wonder.
Ah, well, I have my garden, and for that I am indebted to Archie the garrulous. It is nearly midnight now. The roar of London has died away to a fretful murmur, and somehow across this baking town a breeze has found its way. It whispers over the green grass, in the ivy that climbs my wall, in the soft, murky folds of my curtains. Whispers — what?
Whispers, perhaps, the dreams that go with this, the first of my letters to you. They are dreams that even I dare not whisper yet.
And so — good night.
THE STRAWBERRY MAN.
With a smile that betrayed unusual interest, the daughter of the Texas statesman read that letter on Thursday morning in her room at the Carlton. There was no question about it — the first epistle from the strawberry-mad one had caught and held her attention. All day, as she dragged her father through picture galleries, she found herself looking forward to another morning, wondering, eager.
But on the following morning Sadie Haight, the maid through whom this odd correspondence was passing, had no letter to deliver. The news rather disappointed the daughter of Texas. At noon she insisted on returning to the hotel for luncheon, though, as her father pointed out, they were far from the Carlton at the time. Her journey was rewarded. Letter number two was waiting; and as she read she gasped.
Dear Lady at the Carlton: I am writing this at three in the morning, with London silent as the grave, beyond our garden. That I am so late in getting to it is not because I did not think of you all day yesterday; not because I did not sit down at my desk at seven last evening to address you. Believe me, only the most startling, the most appalling accident could have held me up.
That most startling, most appalling accident has happened.
I am tempted to give you the news at once in one striking and terrible sentence. And I could write that sentence. A tragedy, wrapped in mystery as impenetrable as a London fog, has befallen our quiet little house in Adelphi Terrace. In their basement room the Walters family, sleepless, overwhelmed, sit silent; on the dark stairs outside my door I hear at intervals the tramp of men on unhappy missions
But no; I must go back to the very start of it all:
Last night I had an early dinner at Simpson’s, in the Strand — so early that I was practically alone in the restaurant. The letter I was about to write you was uppermost in my mind and, having quickly dined, I hurried back to my rooms. I remember clearly that, as I stood in the street before our house fumbling for my keys, Big Ben on the Parliament Buildings struck the hour of seven. The chime of the great bell rang out in our peaceful thoroughfare like a loud and friendly greeting.
Gaining my study, I sat down at once to write. Over my head I could hear Captain Fraser-Freer moving about — attiring himself, probably, for dinner. I was thinking, with an amused smile, how horrified he would be if he knew that the crude American below him had dined at the impossible hour of six, when suddenly I heard, in that room above me, some stranger talking in a harsh, determined tone. Then came the captain’s answering voice, calmer, more dignified. This conversation went along for some time, growing each moment more excited. Though I could not distinguish a word of it, I had the uncomfortable feeling that there was a controversy on; and I remember feeling annoyed that anyone should thus interfere with my composition of your letter, which I regarded as most important, you may be sure.
At the end of five minutes of argument there came the heavy thump-thump of men struggling above me. It recalled my college days, when we used to hear the fellows in the room above us throwing each other about in an excess of youth and high spirits. But this seemed more grim, more determined, and I did not like it. However, I reflected that it was none of my business. I tried to think about my letter.
The struggle ended with a particularly heavy thud that shook our ancient ‘house to its foundations. I sat listening, somehow very much depressed. There was no further sound. I rose and went to the door of my room. It was not entirely dark outside — the long twilight — and the frugal Walters had not lighted the hall lamps. Somebody was coming down the stairs very quietly — but their creaking betrayed him. I waited for him to pass through the shaft of light that poured from the door open at my back. At the moment Fate intervened in the shape of a breeze through my windows, the door banged shut, and a heavy man rushed by me in the darkness and ran down the stairs. I knew he was heavy, because the passageway was narrow and he had to push me aside to get by. I heard him swear beneath his breath.
Quickly I went to a hall window at the far end that looked out on the street. But the front door did not open; no one came out. I was puzzled for a second; then I reentered my room and hurried to my balcony. I could make out the dim figure of a man running through the garden at the rear — that garden of which I have so often spoken. He did not try to open the gate; he climbed it, and so disappeared from sight into the alley.
For a moment I considered. These were odd actions, surely; but was it my place to interfere? I remembered the cold stare in the eyes of Captain Fraser-Freer when I presented that letter. I saw him standing motionless in his murky study, as amiable as a statue. Would he welcome an intrusion from me now?
Finally I made up my mind to forget these things and went down to find Walters. He and his wife were eating their dinner in the basement. I told him what had happened. He said he had let no visitor in to see the captain, and was inclined to view my misgivings with a cold British eye. However, I persuaded him to go with me to the captain’s rooms.
The captain’s door was open. Remembering that in England the way of the intruder is hard, I ordered Walters to go first. He stepped into the room, where the gas flickered feebly in an aged chandelier.
“My God, sir!” said Walters, a servant even now.
And at last I write that sentence: Captain Fraser-Freer of the Indian Army lay dead on the floor, a smile that was almost a sneer on his handsome English face!
The horror of it is strong with me now as I sit in the silent morning in this room of mine which is so like the one in which the captain died. He had been stabbed just over the heart, and my first thought was of that odd Indian knife which I had seen lying on his study table. I turned quickly to seek it, but it was gone. And as I looked at the table it came to me that here in this dusty room there must be finger prints — many finger prints.
The room was quite in order, despite those sounds of struggle. One or two odd matters met my eye. On the table stood a box from a florist in Bond Street. The lid had been removed and I saw that the box contained a number of white asters. Beside the box lay a scarfpin — an emerald scarab. And not far from the captain’s body lay what is known — owing to the German city where it is made — as a Homburg hat.
I recalled that it is most important at such times that nothing be disturbed, and I turned to old Walters. His face was like this paper on which I write; his knees trembled beneath him.
“Walters,” said I, “we must leave things just as they are until the police arrive. Come with me while I notify Scotland Yard.”
“Very good, sir,” said Walters.
We went down then to the telephone in the lower hall, and I called up the Yard. I was told that an inspector would come at once and I went back to my room to wait for him.
You can well imagine the feelings that were mine as I waited. Before this mystery should be solved, I foresaw that I might be involved to a degree that was unpleasant if not dangerous. Walters would remember that I first came here as one acquainted with the captain. He had noted, I felt sure, the lack of intimacy between the captain and myself, once the former arrived from India. He would no doubt testify that I had been most anxious to obtain lodgings in the same house with Fraser-Freer. Then there was the matter of my letter from Archie. I must keep that secret, I felt sure. Lastly, there was not a living soul to back me up in my story of the quarrel that preceded the captain’s death, of the man who escaped by way of the garden.
Alas, thought I, even the most stupid policeman cannot fail to look upon me with the eye of suspicion!
In about twenty minutes three men arrived from Scotland Yard. By that time I had worked myself up into a state of absurd nervousness. I heard Walters let them in; heard them climb the stairs and walk about in the room overhead. In a short time Walters knocked at my door and told me that Chief Inspector Bray desired to speak to me. As I preceded the servant up the stairs I felt toward him as an accused murderer must feel toward the witness who has it in his power to swear his life away.
He was a big, active man — Bray; blond as are so many Englishmen. His every move bespoke efficiency. Trying to act as unconcerned as an innocent man should — but failing miserably, I fear — I related to him my story of the voices, the struggle, and the heavy man who had got by me in the hall and later climbed our gate. He listened without comment. At the end he said:
“You were acquainted with the captain?
“Slightly,” I told him. Archie’s letter kept popping into my mind, frightening me. “I had just met him — that is all; through a friend of his — Archibald Enwright was the name.”
“Is Enwright in London to vouch for you?”
“I’m afraid not. I last heard of him in Interlaken.”
“Yes? How did you happen to take rooms in this house?’
“The first time I called to see the captain he had not yet arrived from India. I was looking for lodgings and I took a great fancy to the garden here.”
It sounded silly, put like that. I was not surprised that the inspector eyed me with scorn. But I rather wished he hadn’t.
Bray began to walk about the room, ignoring me.
White asters; scarab pin; Homburg hat,” he detailed, pausing before the table where those strange exhibits lay.
A constable came forward, carrying newspapers in his hand.
“What is it?” Bray asked.
“The Daily Mail, sir,” said the constable. “ The issues of July twenty-seventh, twenty-eighth, twenty-ninth and thirtieth.”
Bray took the papers in his hand, glanced at them and tossed them contemptuously into a wastebasket. He turned to Walters.
“Have you notified the captain’s family?” he asked.
“Sorry, Walters; “but I was so taken aback! Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I’ll go at once — “
“No,” replied Bray sharply. “Never mind. I’ll attend to it
There was a knock at the door. Bray called “Come!” and a slender boy, frail but with a military bearing, entered.
“Hello, Walters!” he said, smiling. “What’s up? I — ”
He stopped suddenly as his eyes fell upon the divan where Fraser-Freer lay. In an instant he was at the dead man’s side.
“Stephen!” he cried in anguish.
“Who are you?” demanded the inspector — rather rudely, I thought.
“It’s the captain’s brother, sir,” put in Walters. “Lieutenant Norman Fraser Freer, of the Royal Fusiliers.”
There a silence.
“A great calamity, sir — ” began Walters to the boy.
I have rarely seen anyone so overcome as young Fraser-Freer. Watching him, it seemed to me that the affection existing between him and the man on the divan must have been a beautiful thing. He turned away from his brother at last, and Walters sought to give him some idea of what happened.
“You will pardon me, gentlemen,” said the lieutenant. “ This has been a terrible shock! I didn’t dream, of course — I just dropped in for a word with — with him. And now — ”
We said nothing. We let him apologize, as Englishman must, for his public display of emotion.
“I’m sorry,” Bray remarked in a moment, his eyes still shifting about the room — “especially as England may soon have great need of men like the captain. Now gentlemen, I want to say this: I am the Chief of the Special Branch at the Yard. This is no ordinary murder. For reasons I cannot disclose — and, I may add, for the best interests of the empire — news of the captain’s tragic death must be kept for the present out of the newspapers. I mean, of course, the manner of his going. A mere death notice, you understand — the inference being that it was a natural taking off.”
“I understand,” said the lieutenant, as one who knows more than he tells.
“Thank you,” said Bray. “I will leave you to attend to that matter, so far as your family is concerned. You will also take charge of the body. As for the rest of you I forbid you to mention this matter outside.”
And now Bray stood looking, with a puzzled air, at me.
“You are an American?” he said, and I judged he did not care for Americans.
“I am,” I told him.
“Know anyone at your consulate?” he demanded.
Thank heaven, I did! There is an undersecretary there named Watson — I went to college with him. I mentioned him to Bray.
“Very good,” said the inspector. “You are free to go. But you must understand that you are an important witness in this case, and if you attempt to leave London you will be locked up.”
So I came back to my rooms, horribly entangled in a mystery that is little to my liking. I have been sitting here in my study for some time, going over it again and again. There have been many footsteps on the stairs, many voices in the hall.
Waiting here for the dawn, I have come to be very sorry for the cold, handsome captain. After all, he was a man; his very tread on the floor above, which I shall never hear again, told me that.
What does it all mean? Who was the man in the hall, the man who had argued so loudly, who had struck so surely with that queer Indian knife? Where is the knife now?
And, above all, what do the white asters signify? And the scarab scarfpin? And that absurd Homburg hat?
Lady of the Carlton, you wanted mystery. When I wrote that first letter to you, little did I dream that I should soon have it to give you in overwhelming measure.
And — believe me when I say it — through all this your face has been constantly before me — your face as I saw it that bright morning in the hotel breakfast room. You have forgiven me, I know, for the manner in which I addressed you. I had seen your eyes and the temptation was great — very great.
It is dawn in the garden now and London is beginning to stir. So this time it is — good morning, my lady.
THE STRAWBERRY MAN.
It is hardly necessary to imply that this letter came as something of a shock to the young woman who received it. For the rest of that day the many sights of London held little interest for her — so little, indeed, that her perspiring father began to see visions of his beloved Texas; and once hopefully suggested an early return home. The coolness with which this idea was received plainly showed him that he was on the wrong track; so he sighed and sought solace at the bar.
That night the two from Texas attended His Majesty’s Theater, where Bernard Shaw’s latest play was being performed; and the witty Irishman would have been annoyed to see the scant attention one lovely young American in the audience gave his lines. The American in question retired at midnight, with eager thoughts turned toward the morning.
And she was not disappointed. When her maid, a stolid Englishwoman, appeared at her bedside early Saturday she carried a letter, which she handed over, with the turned-up nose of one who aids but does not approve. Quickly the girl tore it open.
Dear Texas Lady: I am writing this late in the afternoon. The sun is casting long black shadows on the garden lawn, and the whole world is so bright and matter-of-fact I have to argue with myself to be convinced that the events of that tragic night through which I passed really happened.
The newspapers this morning helped to make it all seem a dream; not a line — not a word, that I can find. When I think of America, and how by this time the reporters would be swarming through our house if this thing had happened over there, I am the more astonished. But then, I know these English papers. The great Joe Chamberlain died the other night at ten, and it was noon the next day when the first paper to carry the story appeared — screaming loudly that it had scored a beat. It had. Other lands, other methods.
It was probably not difficult for Bray to keep journalists such as these in the dark. So their great ungainly sheets come out in total ignorance of a remarkable story in Adelphi Terrace. Famished for real news, they begin to hint at a huge war cloud on the horizon. Because tottering Austria has declared war on tiny Serbia, because the Kaiser is to-day hurrying, with his best dramatic effect, home to Berlin, they see all Europe shortly bathed in blood. A nightmare born of torrid days and tossing nights!
But it is of the affair in Adelphi Terrace that you no doubt want to hear. One sequel of the tragedy, which adds immeasurably to the mystery of it all, has occurred, and I alone am responsible for its discovery. But to go back:
I returned from mailing your letter at dawn this morning, very tired from the tension of the night. I went to bed, but could not sleep. More and more it was preying on my mind that I was in a most unhappy position. I had not liked the looks cast at me by Inspector Bray, or his voice when he asked me how I came to live in this house. I told myself I should not be safe until the real murderer of the poor captain was found; and so I began to puzzle over the few clues in the case — especially over the asters, the scarab pin and the Homburg hat.
It was then I remembered the four copies of the Daily Mail that Bray had so casually thrown into the wastebasket as of no interest. I had glanced over his shoulder as he examined these papers, and had seen that each of them was folded so that our favorite department — the Agony Column — was uppermost. It happened that I had in my desk copies of the Mail for the past week. You will understand why.
I rose, found those papers, and began to read. It was then that I made the astounding discovery to which I have alluded.
For a time after making it I was dumb with amazement, so that no course of action came readily to mind. In the end I decided that the thing for me to do was to wait for Bray’s return in the morning and then point out to him the error he had made in ignoring the Mail.
Bray came in about eight o’clock and a few minutes later I heard another man ascend the stairs. I was shaving at the time, but I quickly completed the operation and, slipping on a bathrobe, hurried up to the captain’s rooms. The younger brother had seen to the removal of the unfortunate man’s body in the night, and, aside from Bray and the stranger who had arrived almost simultaneously with him, there was no one but a sleepy-eyed constable there.
Bray’s greeting w a s decidedly grouchy. The stranger, however — a tall, bronzed man — made himself known to me in the most cordial manner. He told me he was Colonel Hughes, a close friend of the dead man; and that, unutterably shocked and grieved, he had come to inquire whether there was anything he might do.
“Inspector,” said I, “last night in this room you held in your hand four copies of the Daily Mail. You tossed them into that basket as of no account. May I suggest that you rescue those copies, as I have a rather startling matter to make clear to you?” Too grand an official to stoop to a wastebasket, he nodded to the constable. The latter brought the papers; and, selecting one from the lot, I spread it out on the table. “The issue of July twenty-seventh,” I said.
I pointed to an item halfway down the column of Personal Notices. You yourself, my lady, may read it there if you happen to have saved the copy. It ran as follows:
“RANGOON: The asters are in full bloom in the garden at Canterbury. They are very beautiful — especially the white ones.”
Bray grunted, and opened his little eyes. I took up the issue of the following day — the twenty-eighth:
“RANGOON: We have been forced to sell father’s stickpin — the emerald scarab he brought home from Cairo.”
I had Bray’s interest now. He leaned heavily toward me, puffing. Greatly excited, I held before his eyes the issue of the twenty-ninth:
“RANGOON: Homburg hat gone forever — caught by a breeze — into the river.”
“And finally,” said I to the inspector, “the last message of all, in the issue of the thirtieth of July — on sale in the streets some twelve hours before Fraser-Freer was murdered. See!”
“RANGOON: To-night at ten. Regent Street. — Y.O.G.”
Bray was silent.
“I take it you are aware, inspector,” I said, “that for the past two years Captain Fraser-Freer was stationed at Rangoon.”
Still he said nothing; just looked at me with those foxy little eyes that I was coming to detest. At last he spoke sharply:
“Just how,” he demanded, “did you happen to discover those messages? You were not in this room last night after I left?” He turned angrily to the constable.” I gave orders — ”
“No,” I put in; “I was not in this room. I happened to have on file in my rooms copies of the Mail, and by the merest chance — ”
I saw that I had blundered. Undoubtedly my discovery of those messages was too pat. Once again suspicion looked my way.
“Thank you very much,” said Bray. “I’ll keep this in mind.”
“Have you communicated with my friend at the consulate?” I asked.
“Yes. That’s all. Good morning.”
So I went.
I had been back in my room some twenty minutes when there came a knock on the door, and Colonel Hughes entered. He was a genial man, in the early forties I should say, tanned by some sun not English, and gray at the temples.
“My dear sir,” he said without preamble, “ this is a most appalling business!” “ Decidedly,” I answered. “ Will you sit down?”
“Thank you.” He sat and gazed frankly into my eyes. “Policemen,” he added meaningly, “are a most suspicious tribe — often without reason. I am sorry you happen to be involved in this affair, for I may say that I fancy you to be exactly what you seem. May I add that, if you should ever need a friend, I am at your service?”
I was touched; I thanked him as best I could. His tone was so sympathetic and kindly, and,’ above all, so sincere, that before I realized it I was telling him the whole story — of Archie and his letter; of my falling in love with a garden; of the startling discovery that the captain bad never heard of his cousin; and of my subsequent unpleasant position. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.
“I suppose,” he said, “that no man ever carries an unsealed letter of introduction without opening it to read just what praises have been lavished upon him. It is human nature — I have done it often. May I make so bold as to inquire
“Yes,” said I. “It was unsealed and I did read it. Considering its purpose, it struck me as rather long. There were many warm words for me — words beyond all reason in view of my brief acquaintance with Enwright. I also recall that he mentioned how long he had been in Interlaken, and that he said he expected to reach London about the first of August.”
“The first of August,” repeated the colonel. “That is to-morrow. Now — if you’ll be so kind — just what happened last night?”
Again I ran over the events of that tragic evening — the quarrel; the heavy figure in the hall; the escape by way of the seldom used gate.
“My boy,” said Colonel Hughes as he rose to go, “the threads of this tragedy stretch far — some of them to India; some to a country I will not name. I may say frankly that I have other and greater interest in the matter than that of the captain’s friend. For the present that is in strict confidence between us; the police are well-meaning, but they sometimes blunder. Did I understand you to say that you have copies of the Mail containing those odd messages?”
“Right here in my desk,” said I. I got them for him.
“I think I shall take them — if I may,” he said. “You will, of course, not mention this little visit of mine. We shall meet again. Good morning.”
And he went away, carrying those papers with their strange signals to Rangoon.
Somehow I feel wonderfully cheered by his call. For the first time since seven last evening I begin to breathe freely again.
And so, lady who likes mystery, the matter stands on the afternoon of the last day of July, nineteen hundred and fourteen.
I shall mail you this letter to-night. It is my third to you, and it carries with it three times the dreams that went with the first; for they are dreams that live not only at night, when the moon is on the courtyard, but also in the bright light of day.
Yes — I am remarkably cheered. I realize that I have not eaten at all — save a cup of coffee from the trembling hand of Walters — since last night, at Simpson’s. I am going now to dine. I shall begin with grapefruit. I realize that I am suddenly very fond of grapefruit.
How bromidic to note it — we have many tastes in common!
TO BE CONTINUED
Illustrations by Will Grefé / SEPS
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