In the third and final part of this classic crime serial, Earl Derr Biggers concludes the winding mystery of a newspaper column and the curious stranger who haunts it. Biggers 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.
Published on July 22, 1916
The fifth letter from the young man of the Agony Column arrived at the Carlton Hotel, as the reader may recall, on Monday morning, August the third. And it represented to the girl from Texas the climax of the excitement she had experienced in the matter of the murder in Ade1phi Terrace. The news that her pleasant young friend — whom she did not know — had been arrested as a suspect in the case, inevitable as it had seemed for days, came none the less as an unhappy shock. She wondered whether there was anything she could do to help. She even considered going to Scotland Yard and, on the ground that her father was a Congressman from Texas, demanding the immediate release of her strawberry man. Sensibly, however, she decided that Congressmen from Texas meant little in the life of the London police. Besides, she might have difficulty in explaining to that same Congressman how she happened to know all about a crime that was as yet unmentioned in the newspapers.
So she reread the latter portion of the fifth letter, which pictured her hero marched off ingloriously to Scotland Yard and, with a worried little sigh, went below to join her father.
In the course of the morning she made several mysterious inquiries of her parent regarding nice points of international law as it concerned murder, and it is probable that he would have been struck by the odd nature of these questions had he not been unduly excited about another matter.
“I tell you, we’ve got to get home!” he announced gloomily. “The German troops are ready at Aix-la-Chapelle for an assault on Liege. Yes, sir — they’re going to strike through Belgium! Know what that means? England in the war! Labor troubles; suffragette troubles; civil war in Ireland — these things will melt away as quickly as that snow we had last winter in Texas. They’ll go in. It would be national suicide if they didn’t.”
His daughter stared at him. She was unaware that it was the bootblack at the Carlton he was now quoting. She began to think he knew more about foreign affairs than she had given him credit for.
“Yes, sir,” he went on; “we’ve got to travel — fast. This won’t be a healthy neighborhood for noncombatants when the ruction starts. I’m going if I have to buy a liner!”
“Nonsense!” said the girl. “This is the chance of a lifetime. I won’t be cheated out of it by a silly old dad. Why, here we are, face to face with history!”
“American history is good enough for me,” he spread-eagled. “What are you looking at?”
“Provincial to the death!” she said thoughtfully. “You old dear — I love you so! Some of our statesmen over home are going to look pretty foolish now in the face of things they can’t understand. I hope you’re not going to be one of them.”
“Twaddle!” he cried. “I’m going to the steamship offices again today and argue as I never argued for a vote.” His daughter saw that he was determined; and, wise from long experience, she did not try to dissuade him. London that hot Monday was a city on the alert, a city of hearts heavy with dread. The rumors in one special edition of the papers were denied in the next and reaffirmed in the next. Men who could look into the future walked the streets with faces far from happy. Unrest ruled the town. And it found its echo in the heart of the girl from Texas as she thought of her young friend of the Agony Column “in durance vile” behind the frowning wall of Scotland Yard.
That afternoon her father appeared, with the beaming mien of the victor, and announced that for a stupendous sum he had bought the tickets of a man who was to have sailed on the steamship Saronia three days hence.
“The boat train leaves at ten Thursday morning,” he said. “Take your last look at Europe and be ready.” Three days! His daughter listened with sinking heart. Could she in three days’ time learn the end of that strange mystery, know the final fate of the man who had first addressed her so unconventionally in a public print? Why, at the end of three days he might still be in Scotland Yard, a prisoner! She could not leave if that were true — she simply could not. Almost she was on the point of telling her father the story of the whole affair, confident that she could soothe his anger and enlist his aid. She decided to wait until the next morning; and, if no letter came then —
But on Tuesday morning a letter did come and the beginning of it brought pleasant news. The beginning — yes. But the end! This was the letter:
Dear Anxious Lady: Is it too much for me to assume that you have been just that, knowing as you did that I was locked up for the murder of a captain in the Indian Army, with the evidence all against me and hope a very still small voice indeed?
Well, dear lady, be anxious no longer. I have just lived through the most astounding day of all the astounding days that have been my portion since last Thursday. And now, in the dusk, I sit again in my rooms, a free man, and write to you in what peace and quiet I can command after the startling adventure through which I have recently passed.
Suspicion no longer points to me; constables no longer eye me; Scotland Yard is not even slightly interested in me. For the murderer of Captain Fraser-Freer has been caught at last!
Sunday night I spent ingloriously in a cell in Scotland Yard. I could not sleep. I had so much to think of — you, for example, and at intervals how I might escape from the folds of the net that had closed so tightly about me. My friend at the consulate, Watson, called on me late in the evening; and he was very kind.
But there was a note lacking in his voice, and after he was gone the terrible certainty came into my mind — he believed that I was guilty after all.
The night passed, and a goodly portion of today went by — as the poets say — with lagging feet. I thought of London, yellow in the sun. I thought of the Carlton — I suppose there are no more strawberries by this time. And my waiter — that stiff-backed Prussian — is home in Deutschland now, I presume, marching with his regiment. I thought of you.
At three o’clock this afternoon they came for me and I was led back to the room belonging to Inspector Bray. When I entered, however, the inspector was not there — only Colonel Hughes, immaculate and self-possessed, as usual, gazing out the window into the cheerless stone court. He turned when I entered. I suppose I must have had a most woebegone appearance, for a look of regret crossed his face.
“My dear fellow,” he cried, “my most humble apologies! I intended to have you released last night. But, believe me, I have been frightfully busy.”
I said nothing. What could I say? The fact that he had been busy struck me as an extremely silly excuse. But the inference that my escape from the toils of the law was imminent set my heart to thumping.
“I fear you can never forgive me for throwing you over as I did yesterday,” he went on. “I can only say that it was absolutely necessary — as you shall shortly understand.”
I thawed a bit. After all, there was an unmistakable sincerity in his voice and manner.
“We are waiting for Inspector Bray,” continued the colonel. “I take it you wish to see this thing through?”
“To the end,” I answered.
“Naturally. The inspector was called away yesterday immediately after our interview with him. He had business on the Continent, I understand. But fortunately I managed to reach him at Dover and he has come back to London. I wanted him, you see, because I have found the murderer of Captain Fraser-Freer.”
I thrilled to hear that, for from my point of view it was certainly a consummation devoutly to be wished. The colonel did not speak again. In a few minutes the door opened and Bray came in. His clothes looked as though he had slept in them; his little eyes were bloodshot. But in those eyes there was a fire I shall never forget. Hughes bowed.
“Good afternoon, inspector,” he said. “I’m really sorry I had to interrupt you as I did; but I most awfully wanted you to come back. I wanted you to know that you owe me a Homburg hat.” He went closer to the detective. “You know, I have won that wager. I have found the man who murdered Captain Fraser-Freer.”
Curiously enough, Bray said nothing. He sat down at his desk and idly glanced through the pile of mail that lay upon it. Finally he looked up and said in a weary tone:
“You’re very clever, I’m sure, Colonel Hughes.”
“Oh — I wouldn’t say that,” replied Hughes. “Luck was with me — from the first. I am really very glad to have been of service in the matter, for I am convinced that if I had not taken part in the search it would have gone hard with some innocent man.”
Bray’s big, pudgy hands still played idly with the mail on his desk. Hughes went on: “Perhaps, as a clever detective, you will be interested in the series of events which enabled me to win that Homburg hat? You have heard, no doubt, that the man I have caught is Von der Herts — ten years ago the best secret service man in the employ of the Berlin Government, but for the past few years mysteriously missing from our line of vision. We have been wondering about him — at the War Office.” The colonel dropped into a chair, facing Bray. “You know Von der Herts, of course?” he remarked casually. “Of course,” said Bray, still in that dead, tired voice. “He is the head of that crowd in England,” went on Hughes.
“Rather a feather in my cap to get him — but I mustn’t boast. Poor Fraser-Freer would have got him if I hadn’t — only Von der Herta had the luck to get the captain first.”
Bray raised his eyes. “You said you were going to tell me — “ he began. “And so I am,” said Hughes. “Captain Fraser-Freer got into rather a mess in India and failed of promotion. It was suspected that he was discontented, soured on the Service; and the Countess Sophie de Graf was set to beguile him with her charms, to kill his loyalty and win him over to her crowd.
“It was thought she had succeeded — the Wilhelmstrasse thought so — we at the War Office thought so, as long as he stayed in India.
“But when the captain and the woman came on to London we discovered that we had done him a great injustice. He let us know, when the first chance offered, that he was trying to redeem himself, to round up a dangerous band of spies by pretending to be one of them. He said that it was his mission in London to meet Von der Herts, the messages. From that column the man from Rangoon learned that he was to wear a white aster in his buttonhole, a scarab pin in his tie, a Homburg hat on his head, and meet Von der Herts at Ye Old Gambrinus Restaurant, in Regent Street, last Thursday night at ten o’clock. As we know, he made all arrangements to comply with those directions. He made other arrangements as well. Since it was out of the question for him to come to Scotland Yard, by skillful maneuvering he managed to interview an inspector of police at the Hotel Cecil. It was agreed that on Thursday night Von der Herts would be placed under arrest the moment he made himself known to the captain.”
Hughes paused. Bray still idled with his pile of letters, while the colonel regarded him gravely.
“Poor Fraser-Freer!” Hughes went on. “Unfortunately for him, Von der Herts knew almost as soon as did the inspector that a plan was afoot to trap him. There was but one course open to him: He located the captain’s lodgings, went there at seven that night, and killed a loyal and brave Englishman where he stood.”
A tense silence filled the room. I sat on the edge of my chair, wondering just where all this unwinding of the tangle was leading us.
“I had little, indeed, to work on,” went on Hughes. “But I had this advantage: The spy thought the police, and the police alone, were seeking the murderer. He was at no pains to throw me off his track, because he did not suspect that I was on it. For weeks my men had been watching the countess. I had them continue to do so. I figured that sooner or later Von der Herts would get in touch with her. I was right. And when at last I saw with my own eyes the man who must, beyond all question, be Von der Herta, I was astounded, my dear inspector. I was overwhelmed.”
“Yes?” said Bray.
“I set to work then in earnest to connect him with that night in Adelphi Terrace. All the finger marks in the captain’s study were for some reason destroyed, but I found others outside, in the dust on that seldom-used gate which leads from the garden. Without his knowing, I secured from the man I suspected the imprint of his right thumb. A comparison was startling. Next I went down into Fleet Street and luckily managed to get hold of the typewritten copy sent to the Mail bearing those four messages. I noticed that in these the letter a was out of alignment. I maneuvered to get a letter written on a typewriter belonging to my man. The a was out of alignment. Then Archibald Enwright, a renegade and waster well known to us as serving other countries, came to England. My man and he met — at Ye Old Gambrinus, in Regent Street. And finally, on a visit to the lodgings of this man who, I was now certain, was Von der Herts, under the mattress of his bed I found this knife.”
And Colonel Hughes threw down upon the inspector’s desk the knife from India that I had last seen in the study of Captain Fraser-Freer.
“All these points of evidence were in my hands yesterday morning in this room,” Hughes went on. “Still, the answer they gave me was so unbelievable, so astounding, I was not satisfied; I wanted even stronger proof. That is why I directed suspicion to my American friend here. I was waiting. I knew that at last Von der Herts realized the danger he was in. I felt that if opportunity were offered he would attempt to escape from England; and then our proofs of his guilt would be unanswerable, despite his cleverness. True enough, in the afternoon he secured the release of the countess, and together they started for the Continent. I was lucky enough to get him at Dover — and glad to let the lady go on.”
And now, for the first time, the startling truth struck me full in the face as Hughes smiled down at his victim.
“Inspector Bray,” he said, “or Von der Herts, as you choose, I arrest you on two counts: First, as the head of the Wilhelmstrasse spy system in England; second, as the murderer of Captain Fraser-Freer. And, if you will allow me, I wish to compliment you on your efficiency.”
Bray did not reply for a moment. I sat numb in my chair. Finally the inspector looked up. He actually tried to smile.
“You win the hat,” he said, “but you must go to Homburg for it. I will gladly pay all expenses.”
“Thank you,” answered Hughes. “I hope to visit your country before long; but I shall not be occupied with hats. Again I congratulate you. You were a bit careless, but your position justified that. As head of the department at Scotland Yard given over to the hunt for spies, precaution doubtless struck you as unnecessary. How unlucky for poor Fraser-Freer that it was to you he went to arrange for your own arrest! I got that information from a clerk at the Cecil. You were quite right, from your point of view, to kill him. And, as I say, you could afford to be rather reckless. You had arranged that when the news of his murder came to Scotland Yard you yourself would be on hand to conduct the search for the guilty man. A happy situation, was it not?”
“It seemed so at the time,” admitted Bray; and at last I thought I detected a note of bitterness in his voice.
“I’m very sorry — really,” said Hughes. “Today, or tomorrow at the latest, England will enter the war. You know what that means, Von der Herts. The Tower of London — and a firing squad!”
Deliberately he walked away from the inspector, and stood facing the window. Von der Herts was fingering idly that Indian knife which lay on his desk. With a quick, hunted look about the room, he raised his hand; and before I could leap forward to stop him he had plunged the knife into his heart.
Colonel Hughes turned round at my cry, but even at what met his eyes now that Englishman was imperturbable.
“Too bad!” he said. “Really too bad! The man had courage and, beyond all doubt, brains. But — this is most considerate of him. He has saved me such a lot of trouble.”
The colonel effected my release at once; and he and I walked down Whitehall together in the bright sun that seemed so good to me after the bleak walls of the Yard. Again he apologized for turning suspicion my way the previous day; but I assured him I held no grudge for that.
“One or two things I do not understand,” I said. “That letter I brought from Interlaken
“Simple enough,” he replied. “Enwright — who, by the way, is now in the Tower — wanted to communicate with Fraser-Freer, who he supposed was a loyal member of the band. Letters sent by post seemed dangerous. With your kind assistance he informed the captain of his whereabouts and the date of his imminent arrival in London. Fraser-Freer, not wanting you entangled in his plans, eliminated you by denying the existence of this cousin — the truth, of course.”
“Why,” I asked, “did the countess call on me to demand that I alter my testimony?”
“Bray sent her. He had rifled Fraser-Freer’s desk and he held that letter from Enwright. He was most anxious to fix the guilt upon the young lieutenant’s head. You and your testimony as to the hour of the crime stood in the way. He sought to intimidate you with threats — ”
“But — ”
“I know — you are wondering why the countess confessed to me next day. I had the woman in rather a funk. In the meshes of my rapid-fire questioning she became hopelessly involved. This was because she was suddenly terrified; she realized I must have been watching her for weeks, and that perhaps Von der Herta was not so immune from suspicion as he supposed. At the proper moment I suggested that I might have to take her to Inspector Bray. This gave her an idea. She made her fake confession to reach his side; once there, she warned him of his danger and they fled together.”
We walked along a moment in silence. All about us the lurid special editions of the afternoon were flaunting their predictions of the horror to come. The face of the colonel was grave.
“How long had Von der Herts held his position at the Yard’?” I asked.
“For nearly five years,” Hughes answered. “It seems incredible,” I murmured.
“So it does,” he answered; “but it is only the first of many incredible things that this war will reveal. Two months from now we shall all have forgotten it in the face of new revelations far more unbelievable.” He sighed. “If these men about us realized the terrible ordeal that lies ahead! Misgoverned; unprepared — I shudder at the thought of the sacrifices we must make, many of them in vain. But I suppose that somehow, someday, we shall muddle through.”
He bade me good-by in Trafalgar Square, saying that he must at once seek out the father and brother of the late captain, and tell them the news — that their kinsman was really loyal to his country.
“It will come to them as a ray of light in the dark–Lmy news,” he said. “And now, thank you once again.”
We parted and I came back here to my lodgings. The mystery is finally solved, though in such a way it is difficult to believe that it was anything but a nightmare at any time. But solved none the less; and I should be at peace, except for one great black fact that haunts me, will not let me rest. I must tell you, dear lady — And yet I fear it means the end of everything. If only I can make you understand!
I have walked my floor, deep in thought, in puzzlement, in indecision. Now I have made up my mind.. There is no other way — I must tell you the truth.
Despite.the fact that Bray was Von der Herts; despite the fact that he killed himself at the discovery — despite this and that, and everything Bray did not kill Captain Fraser-Freer!,
On last Thursday evening, at a little after seven o’clock, I myself climbed the stairs, entered the captain’s rooms, picked up that knife from his desk, and stabbed him just above the heart!
What provocation I was under, what stern necessity moved me — all this you must wait until tomorrow to know. I shall spend another anxious day preparing my defense, hoping that through some miracle of mercy you may forgive me — understand that there was nothing else I could do.
Do not judge, dear lady, until you know everything — until all my evidence is in your lovely hands.
YOURS, IN ALL HUMILITY
The first few paragraphs of this the sixth and next to the last letter from the Agony Column man had brought a smile of relief to the face of the girl who read. She was decidedly glad to learn that her friend no longer languished back of those gray walls on Victoria Embankment. With excitement that increased as she went along, she followed Colonel Hughes as — in the letter — he moved nearer and nearer his denouement, until finally his finger pointed to Inspector Bray sitting guilty in his chair. This was an eminently satisfactory solution, and it served the inspector right for locking up her friend. Then, with the suddenness of a bomb from a Zeppelin, came, at the end, her strawberry man’s confession of guilt. He was the murderer, after all! He admitted it! She could scarcely believe her eyes.
Yet there it was, in ink as violet as those eyes, on the note paper that had become so familiar to her during the thrilling week just past. She read it a second time, and yet a third. Her amazement gave way to anger; her cheeks flamed. Still — he had asked her not to judge until all his evidence was in. This was a reasonable request surely, and she could not in fairness refuse to grant it.
So began an anxious day, not only for the girl from Texas but for all London as well. Her father was bursting with new diplomatic secrets recently extracted from his bootblack adviser. Later, in Washington, he was destined to be a marked man because of his grasp of the situation abroad. No one suspected the bootblack, the power behind the throne; but the gentleman from Texas was destined to think of that able diplomat many times, and to wish that he still had him at his feet to advise him.
“War by midnight sure!” he proclaimed on the morning of this fateful Tuesday. “I tell you, Marian, we’re lucky to have our tickets on the Saronia. Five thousand dollars wouldn’t buy them from me today! I’ll be a happy man when we go aboard that liner day after tomorrow.”
Day after tomorrow! The girl wondered. At any rate, she would have that last letter then — the letter that was to contain whatever defense her young friend could offer to explain his dastardly act. She waited eagerly for that final epistle.
The day dragged on, bringing at its close England’s entrance into the war; and the Carlton bootblack was a prophet not without honor in a certain Texas heart. And on the following morning there arrived a letter which was torn open by eager, trembling fingers. The letter spoke:
Dear Lady Judge: This is by far the hardest to write of all the letters you have had from me. For twenty-four hours I have been planning it. Last night I walked on the Embankment while the hansoms jogged by and the lights of the tramcars danced on Westminster Bridge just as the fireflies used to in the garden back of our house in Kansas. While I walked I planned. Today, shut up in my rooms, I was also planning. And yet now, when I sit down to write, I am still confused; still at a loss where to begin and what to say, once I have begun.
At the close of my last letter I confessed to you that it was I who murdered Captain Fraser-Freer. That is the truth. Soften the blow as I may, it all comes down to that. The bitter truth!
Not a week ago — last Thursday night at seven — I climbed our dark stairs and plunged a knife into the heart of that defenseless gentleman. If only I could point out to you that he had offended me in some way; if I could prove to you that his death was necessary to me, as it really was to Inspector Bray — then there might be some hope of your ultimate pardon. But, alas! he had been most kind to me — kinder than I have allowed you to guess from my letters. There was no actual need to do away with him. Where shall I look for a defense?
At the moment the only defense I can think of is simply this — the captain knows I killed him!
Even as I write this, I hear his footsteps above me, as I heard them when I sat here composing my first letter to you. He is dressing for dinner. We are to dine together at Romano’s.
And there, my lady, you have finally the answer to the mystery that has — I hope — puzzled you. I killed my friend the captain in my second letter to you, and all the odd developments that followed lived only in my imagination as I sat here beside the green-shaded lamp in my study, plotting how I should write seven letters to you that would, as the novel advertisements say, grip your attention to the very end. Oh, I am guilty — there is no denying that! And, though I do not wish to ape old Adam and imply that I was tempted by a lovely woman, a strict regard for the truth forces me to add that there is also guilt upon your head. How so? Go back to that message you inserted in the Daily Mail: “The grapefruit lady’s great fondness for mystery and romance — ”
You did not know it, of course; but in those words you passed me a challenge I could not resist; for making plots is the business of life — more, the breath of life — to the. I have made many; and perhaps you have followed some of them, on Broadway. Perhaps you have seen a play of mine announced for early production in London. There was mention of it in the program at the Palace. That was the business which kept me in England. The project has been abandoned now and I am free to go back home.
Thus you see that when you granted me the privilege of those seven letters you played into my hands. So, said I, she longs for mystery and romance. Then, by the Lord Harry, she shall have them!
And it was the tramp of Captain Fraser-Freer’s boots above my head that showed me the way. A fine, stalwart, cordial fellow — the captain — who has been very kind to me since I presented my letter of introduction from his cousin, Archibald Enwright. Poor Archie! A meek, correct little soul, who would be horrified beyond expression if he knew that of him I had made a spy and a frequenter of Limehouse!
The dim beginnings of the plot were in my mind when I wrote that first letter, suggesting that all was not regular in the matter of Archie’s note of introduction. Before I wrote my second, I knew that nothing but the death of Fraser-Freer would do me. I recalled that Indian knife I had seen upon his desk, and from that moment he was doomed. At that time I had no idea how I should solve the mystery. But I had read and wondered at those four strange messages in the Mail, and I resolved that they must figure in the scheme of things.
The fourth letter presented difficulties until I returned from dinner that night and saw a taxi waiting before our quiet house. Hence the visit of the woman with the lilac perfume. I am afraid the Wilhelmstrasse would have little use for a lady spy who advertised herself in so foolish a manner. Time for writing the fifth letter arrived. I felt that I should now be placed under arrest. I had a faint little hope that you would be sorry about that. Oh, I’m a brute, I know! Early in the game I had told the captain of the cruel way in which I had disposed of him. He was much amused; but he insisted, absolutely, that he must be vindicated before the close of the series, and I was with him there. He had been so bully about it all! A chance remark of his gave me my solution. He said he had it on good authority that the chief of the Czar’s bureau for capturing spies in Russia was himself a spy. And so — why not a spy in Scotland Yard? I assure you, I am most contrite as I set all this down here. You must remember that when I began my story there was no idea of war. Now all Europe is aflame; and in the face of the great conflict, the awful suffering to come, I and my little plot begin to look — well, I fancy you know just how we look.
Forgive me. I am afraid I can never find the words to tell you how important it seemed to interest you in my letters — to make you feel that I am an entertaining person worthy of your notice. That morning when you entered the Carlton breakfast room was really the biggest in my life. I felt as though you had brought with you through that doorway — But I have no right to say it. I have the right to say nothing save that now — it is all left to you. If I have offended, then I shall never hear from you again.The captain will be here in a moment. It is near the hour set and he is never late. He is not to return to India, but expects to be drafted for the Expeditionary Force that will be sent to the Continent. I hope the German Army will be kinder to him than I was!My name is Geoffrey West. I live at 19 Adelphi Terrace — in rooms that look down on the most wonderful garden in London. That, at least, is real. It is very quiet there tonight, with the city and its continuous hum of war and terror seemingly a million miles away.Shall we meet at last? The answer rests entirely with you. But, believe me, I shall be anxiously waiting to know; and if you decide to give me a chance to explain — to denounce myself to you in person — then a happy man say good-by to this garden and these dim, dusty rooms and follow you to the ends of the earth — aye, to Texas itself!
Captain Fraser-Freer is coming down the stairs. Is this good-by forever, my lady? With all my soul, I hope not.
YOUR CONTRITE STRAWBERRY MAN.
Words are futile things with which to attempt a description of the feelings of the girl at the Carlton as she read this, the last letter of seven written to her through the medium of her maid, Sadie Haight. Turning the pages of the dictionary casually, one might enlist a few — for example, amazement, anger, unbelief, wonder. Perhaps, to go back to the letter a, even amusement. We may leave her with the solution to the puzzle in her hand, the Saronia little more than a day away, and a weirdly mixed company of emotions struggling in her soul.
And leaving her thus, let us go back to Adelphi Terrace and a young man exceedingly worried.
Once he knew that his letter was delivered, Mr. Geoffrey West took his place most humbly on the anxious seat. There he writhed through the long hours of Wednesday morning. Not to prolong this painful picture, let us hasten to add that at three o’clock that same afternoon came a telegram that was to end suspense. He tore it open and read:
Strawberry Man: I shall never, never forgive you. But we are sailing tomorrow on the Saronia. Were you thinking of going home soon?
MARIAN A. LARNED
Thus it happened that, a few minutes later, to the crowd of troubled Americans in a certain steamship booking office there was added a wild-eyed young man who further upset all who saw him. To weary clerks he proclaimed in fiery tones that he must sail on the Saronia. There seemed to be no way of appeasing him. The offer of a private liner would not have interested him.
He raved and tore his hair. He ranted. All to no avail. There was, in plain American, “nothing doing!”
Damp but determined, he sought among the crowd for one who had bookings on the Saronia. He could find, at first, no one so lucky; but finally he ran across Tommy Gray. Gray, an old friend, admitted when pressed that he had passage on that most desirable boat. But the offer of all the king’s horses and all the king’s gold left him unmoved. Much, he said, as he would have liked to oblige, he and his wife were determined. They would sail.
It was then that Geoffrey West made a compact with his friend. He secured from him the necessary steamer labels and it was arranged that his baggage was to go aboard the Saronia as the property of Gray.
“But,” protested Gray, “even suppose you do put this through; suppose you do manage to sail without a ticket — where will you sleep? In chains somewhere below, I fancy.”
“No matter!” bubbled West. “I’ll sleep in the dining saloon, in a lifeboat, on the lee scuppers — whatever they are. I’ll sleep in the air, without any visible support! I’ll sleep anywhere — nowhere — but I’ll sail! And as for irons — they don’t make ’em strong enough to hold me.”
At five o’clock on Thursday afternoon the Saronia slipped smoothly away from a Liverpool dock. Twenty-five hundred Americans — about twice the number of people the boat could comfortably carry — stood on her decks and cheered. Some of those in that crowd who had millions of money were booked for the steerage. All. of them were destined to experience during that crossing hunger, annoyance, discomfort. They were to be stepped on, sat on, crowded and jostled. They suspected as much when the boat left the dock. Yet they cheered!
Gayest among them was Geoffrey West, triumphant amid the confusion. He was safely aboard; the boat was on its way! Little did it trouble him that he went as a stowaway, since he had no ticket; nothing but an overwhelming determination to be on the good ship Saronia.
That night, as the Saronia stole along with all deck lights out and every porthole curtained, West saw on the dim deck the slight figure of a girl who meant much to him. She was standing staring out over the black waters; and, with wildly beating heart, he approached her, not knowing what to say, but feeling that a start must be made somehow.
“Please pardon me for addressing you,” he began. “But I want to tell you — ”
She turned, startled; and then smiled an odd little smile, which he could not see in the dark.
“I beg your pardon,” she said. “I haven’t met you, that I recall
“I know,” he answered. “That’s going to be arranged tomorrow. Mrs. Tommy Gray says you crossed with them — ”
“Mere steamer acquaintances,” the girl replied coldly.
Of course! But Mrs. Gray is a darling — she’ll fix that all right. I just want to say, before tomorrow comes — ”
“Wouldn’t it be better to wait?”
“I can’t! I’m on this ship without a ticket. I’ve got to go down in a minute and tell the purser that. Maybe he’ll throw me overboard; maybe he’ll lock me up. I don’t know what they do with people like me. Maybe they’ll make a stoker of me. And then I shall have to stoke, with no chance of seeing you again. So that’s why I want to say now — I’m sorry I have such a keen imagination. It carried me away — really it did! I didn’t mean to deceive you with those letters; but, once I got started You know, don’t you, that I love you with all my heart? From the moment you came into the Carlton that morning I
“Really — Mr. — Mr. — ”
“West — Geoffrey West. I adore you! What can I do to prove it? I’m going to prove it — before this ship docks in the North River. Perhaps I’d better talk to your father, and tell him about the Agony Column and those seven letters — ”
“You’d better not! He’s in a terribly bad humor. The dinner was awful, and the steward said we’d be looking back to it and calling it a banquet before the voyage ends. Then, too, poor dad says he simply cannot sleep in the stateroom they’ve given him — ”
“All the better! I’ll see him at once. If he stands for me now he’ll stand for me any time! And, before I go down and beard a harsh-looking purser in his den, won’t you believe me when I say I’m deeply in love — ”
“In love with mystery and romance! In love with your own remarkable powers of invention! Really, I can’t take you seriously — ”
“Before this voyage is ended you’ll have to. I’ll prove to you that I care. If the purser lets me go free — ”
“You have much to prove,” the girl smiled. “Tomorrow — when Mrs. Tommy Gray introduces us — I may accept you — as a builder of plots. I happen to know you are good. But as — as — It’s too silly! Better go and have it out with that purser.”
Reluctantly he went. In five minutes he was back. The girl was still standing by the rail.
“It’s all right!” West said. “I thought I was doing something original, but there were eleven other people in the same fix. One of them is a billionaire from Wall Street. The purser collected some money from us and told us to sleep on the deck — if we could find room.”
“I’m sorry,” said the girl. “I rather fancied you in the role of stoker.” She glanced about her at the dim deck. “Isn’t this exciting? I’m sure this voyage is going to be filled with mystery and romance.”
“I know it will be full of romance,” West answered. “And the mystery will be — can I convince you — ”
“Hush!” broke in the girl. “Here comes father! I shall be very happy to meet you — tomorrow. Poor dad! He’s looking for a place to sleep.”
Five days later poor dad, having slept each night on deck in his clothes while the ship plowed through a cold drizzle, and having starved in a sadly depleted dining saloon, was a sight to move the heart of a political opponent. Immediately after a dinner that had scarcely satisfied a healthy Texas appetite he lounged gloomily in the deck chair which was now his stateroom. Jauntily Geoffrey West came and sat at his side.
“Mr. Larned,” he said, “I’ve got something for you.”
And, with a kindly smile, he took from his pocket and handed over a large, warm baked potato. The Texan eagerly accepted the gift.
“Where’d you get it?” he demanded, breaking open his treasure.
“That’s a secret,” West answered. “But I can get as many as I want. Mr. Larned, I can say this — you will not go hungry any longer. And there’s something else I ought to speak of. I am sort of aiming to marry your daughter.”
Deep in his potato the Congressman spoke:
“What does she say about it?”
“Oh, she says there isn’t a chance. But”
“Then look out, my boy! She’s made up her mind to have you.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that. I really ought to tell you who I am. Also, I want you to know that, before your daughter and I had met, I wrote her seven letters”
“One minute,” broke in the Texan. “Before you go into all that, won’t you be a good fellow and tell me where you got this potato?”
“Sure!” he said; and, leaning over, he whispered.
For the first time in days a smile appeared on the face of the older man.
“My boy,” he said, “I feel I’m going to like you. Never mind the rest. I heard all about you from your friend Gray; and as for those letters — they were the only thing that made the first part of this trip bearable. Marian gave them to me to read the night we came on board.”
Suddenly from out of the clouds a long lost moon appeared, and bathed that overcrowded ocean liner in a flood of silver. West left the old man to his potato and went to find the daughter.
She was standing in the moonlight by the rail of the forward deck, her eyes staring dreamily ahead toward the great country that had sent her forth light-heartedly for to adventure and to see. She turned as West came up.
“I have just been talking with your father,” he said. “He tells me he thinks you mean to take me, after all.”
“Tomorrow night,” she answered, “will be our last on board. I shall give you my final decision then.”
“But that is twenty-four hours away! Must I wait so long as that?”
“A little suspense won’t hurt you. I can’t forget those long days when I waited for your letters
“I know! But can’t you give me — just a little hint — here — tonight?”
“I am without mercy — absolutely without mercy!”
And then, as West’s fingers closed over her hand, she added softly: “Not even the suspicion of a hint, my dear — except to tell you that — my answer will be — yes.”
Featured image: “Last night I walked on the embankment while the hansoms jogged by and the lights of the tramcars danced on Westminster Bridge.” Illustrated by Will Grefé / SEPS
In part two of this classic crime serial, Earl Derr Biggers continues to weave a story of intrigue and deceit centered around a mysterious newspaper column. Biggers 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.
Published on July 15, 1916
The third letter from her correspondent of the Agony Column increased in the mind of the lovely young woman at the Carlton the excitement and tension the second had created. For a long time, on the Saturday morning of its receipt, she sat in her room puzzling over the mystery of the house in Adelphi Terrace. When first she had heard that Captain Fraser-Freer, of the Indian Army, was dead of a knife wound over the heart, the news had shocked her like that of the loss of some old and dear friend. She had desired passionately the apprehension of his murderer, and had turned over and over in her mind the possibilities of white asters, a scarab pin and a Homburg hat.
Perhaps the girl longed for the arrest of the guilty man thus keenly because this jaunty young friend of hers — a friend whose name she did not know — to whom, indeed, she had never spoken — was so dangerously entangled in the affair. For, from what she knew of Geoffrey West, from her casual glance in the restaurant and, far more, from his letters, she liked him extremely.
And now came his third letter, in which he related the connection of that hat, that pin and those asters with the column in the Mail which had first brought them together. As it happened, she, too, had copies of the paper for the first four days of the week. She went to her sitting room, unearthed these copies, and — gasped! For from the column in Monday’s paper stared up at her the cryptic words to Rangoon concerning asters in a garden at Canterbury. In the other three issues as well, she found the identical messages her strawberry man had quoted. She sat for a long time deep in thought; sat, in fact, until at her door came the enraged knocking of a hungry parent who had been waiting a full hour in the lobby below for her to join him at breakfast.
“Come, come!” boomed her father, entering at her invitation. “Don’t sit here all day mooning. I’m hungry if you’re not.”
With quick apologies she made ready to accompany him downstairs. Firmly, as she planned their campaign for the day, she resolved to put from her mind all thought of Adelphi Terrace. How well she succeeded may be judged from a speech made by her father that night just before dinner:
“Have you lost your tongue, Marian? You’re as uncommunicative as a newly elected officeholder. If you can’t get a little more life into these expeditions of ours we’ll pack up and head for home.”
She smiled, patted his shoulder, and promised to improve. But he appeared to be in a gloomy mood.
“I believe we ought to go, anyhow,” he went on. “In my opinion this war is going to spread like a prairie fire. The Kaiser got back to Berlin yesterday. He’ll sign the mobilization orders today as sure as fate. For the past week, on the Berlin Bourse, Canadian Pacific stock has been dropping. That means they expect England to come in.”
He gazed darkly into the future. It may seem that, for an American statesman, he had an unusual grasp of European politics. This is easily explained by the fact that he had been talking with the bootblack at the Carlton Hotel.
“Yes,” he said with sudden decision, “I’ll go down to the steamship offices early Monday morning — ”
His daughter heard these words with a sinking heart. She had a most unhappy picture of herself boarding a ship and sailing out of Liverpool or Southampton, leaving the mystery that so engrossed her thoughts forever unsolved. Wisely she diverted her father’s thoughts toward the question of food. She had heard, she said, that Simpson’s, in the Strand, was an excellent place to dine. They would go there, and walk. She suggested a short detour that would carry them through Adelphi Terrace. It seemed she had always wanted to see Adelphi Terrace.
As they passed through that silent street she sought to guess, from an inspection of the grim, forbidding house fronts, back of which lay the lovely garden, the romantic mystery. But the houses were so very much dike one another. Before one of them, she noted, a taxi waited.
After dinner her father pleaded for a music hall as against what he called “some highfaluting, teacup English play.” He won. Late that night, as they rode back to the Carlton, special editions were being proclaimed in the streets. Germany was mobilizing!
The girl from Texas retired, wondering what epistolary surprise the morning would bring forth. It brought forth this:
Dear Daughter of the Senate:
Or is it Congress? I could not quite decide. But surely in one or the other of those august bodies your father sits when he is not at home in Texas or viewing Europe through his daughter’s eyes. One look at him and I had gathered that.
But Washington is far from London, isn’t it? And it is London that interests us most — though father’s constituents must not know that. It is really a wonderful, an astounding city, once you have got the feel of the tourist out of your soul. I have been reading the most enthralling essays on it, written by a newspaper man who first fell desperately in love with it at seven — an age when the whole glittering town was symbolized for him by the fried fish shop at the corner of the High Street. With him I have been going through its gray and furtive thoroughfares in the dead of night, and sometimes we have kicked an ash barrel and sometimes a romance. Someday I might show that London to you — guarding you, of course, from the ash barrels, if you are that kind. On second thoughts, you aren’t.
But I know that it is of Adelphi Terrace and a late captain in the Indian Army that you want to hear now. Yesterday, after my discovery of those messages in the Mail and the call of Captain Hughes, passed without incident. Last night I mailed you my third letter, and after wandering for a time amid the alternate glare and gloom of the city, I went back to my rooms and smoked on my balcony while about me the inmates of six million homes sweltered in the heat.
Nothing happened. I felt a bit disappointed, a bit cheated, as one might feel on the first night spent at home after many successive visits to exciting plays. Today, the first of August, dawned, and still all was quiet. Indeed, it was not until this evening that further developments in the sudden death of Captain Fraser-Freer arrived to disturb me. These developments are strange ones surely, and I shall hasten to relate them.
I dined tonight at a little place in Soho. My waiter was Italian, and on him I amused myself with the Italian in Ten Lessons of which I am foolishly proud. We talked of Fiesole, where he had lived. Once I rode from Fiesole down the hill to Florence in the moonlight. I remember endless walls on which hung roses, fresh and blooming. I remember a gaunt nunnery and two gray-robed sisters clanging shut the gates. I remember the searchlight from the military encampment, playing constantly over the Arno and the roofs — the eye of Mars that, here in Europe, never closes. And always the flowers nodding above me, stooping now and then to brush my face. I came to think that at the end Paradise, and not a second-rate hotel, was waiting. One may still take that ride, I fancy. Some day — some day —
I dined in Soho. I came back to Adelphi Terrace in the hot, reeking August dusk, reflecting that the mystery in which I was involved was, after a fashion, standing still. In front of our house I noticed a taxi waiting. I thought nothing of it as I entered the murky hallway and climbed the familiar stairs. My door stood open. It was dark in my study, save for the reflection of the lights of London outside. As I crossed the threshold there came to my nostrils the faint, sweet perfume of lilacs. There are no lilacs in our garden, and if there were it is not the season. No, this perfume had been brought there by a woman — a woman who sat at my desk and raised her head as I entered.
“You will pardon this intrusion,” she said in the correct, careful English of one who has learned the speech from a book. “I have come for a brief word with you — then I shall go.”
I could think of nothing to say. I stood gaping like a schoolboy.
“My word,” the woman went on, “is in the nature of advice. We do not always like those who give us advice. None the less, I trust that you will listen.”
I found my tongue then.
“I am listening,” I said stupidly. “But first — light.” And I moved toward the matches on the mantelpiece.
Quickly the woman rose and faced me. I saw then that she wore a veil — not a heavy veil, but a fluffy, attractive thing that was yet sufficient to screen her features from me.
“I beg of you,” she cried, “no light!” And as I paused, undecided, she added, in a tone which suggested lips that pout: “It is such a little thing to ask — surely you will not refuse.”
I suppose I should have insisted. But her voice was charming, her manner perfect, and that odor of lilacs reminiscent of a garden I knew long ago, at home.
“Very well,” said I.
“Oh — I am grateful to you,” she answered. Her tone changed. “I understand that, shortly after seven o’clock last Thursday evening, you heard in the room above you the sounds of a struggle. Such has been your testimony to the police?”
“It has,” said I.
“Are you quite certain as to the hour?” I felt that she was smiling at me. “Might it not have been later — or earlier?”
“I am sure it was just after seven,” I replied. “I’ll tell you why: I had just returned from dinner and while I was unlocking the door Big Ben on the House of Parliament struck — “
She raised her hand.
“No matter,” she said, and there was a touch of irony in her voice. “You are no longer sure of that. Thinking it over, you have come to the conclusion that it may have been barely six-thirty when you heard the noise of a struggle.”
“Indeed?” said I. I tried to sound sarcastic, but I was really too astonished by her tone.
“Yes — indeed!” she replied. “That is what you will tell Inspector Bray when next you see him. ‘It may have been six-thirty,’ you will tell him. ‘I have thought it over and I am not certain.”
“Even for a very charming lady,” I said, “I cannot misrepresent the facts in a matter so important. It was after seven — ”
“I am not asking you to do a favor for a lady,” she replied. “I am asking you to do a favor for yourself. If you refuse the consequences may be most unpleasant.”
“I’m rather at a loss — ” I began.
She was silent for a moment. Then she turned and I felt her looking at me through the veil.
“Who was Archibald Enright?” she demanded. My heart sank. I recognized the weapon in her hands. “The police,” she went on, “do not yet know that the letter of introduction you brought to the captain was signed by a man who addressed Fraser-Freer as Dear Cousin, but who is completely unknown to the family. Once that information reaches Scotland Yard, your chance of escaping arrest is slim.
“They may not be able to fasten this crime upon you, but there will be complications most distasteful. One’s liberty is well worth keeping — and then, too, before the case ends, there will be wide publicity — ”
“Well?” said I.
“That is why you are going to suffer a lapse of memory in the matter of the hour at which you heard that struggle. As you think it over, it is going to occur to you that it may have been six-thirty, not seven. Otherwise — ”
“Otherwise the letter of introduction you gave to the captain will be. sent anonymously to Inspector Bray.”
“You have that letter!” I cried.
“Not I,” she answered. “But it will be sent to Bray. It will be pointed out to him that you were posing under false colors. You could not escape!”
I was most uncomfortable. The net of suspicion seemed closing in about me. But I was resentful, too, of the confidence in this woman’s voice.
“Nonetheless,” said I, “I refuse to change my testimony. The truth is the truth — ”
The woman had moved to the door. She turned.
“Tomorrow,” she replied, “it is not unlikely you will see Inspector Bray. As I said, I came here to give you advice. You had better take it. What does it matter — a half hour this way or that? And the difference is prison for you. Good night.”
She was gone. I followed into the hall. Below, in the street, I heard the rattle of her taxi.
I went back into my room and sat down. I was upset, and no mistake. Outside my windows the continuous symphony of the city played on — the busses, the trams, the never-silent voices. I gazed out. What a tremendous acreage of dank brick houses and dank British souls! I felt horribly alone. I may add that I felt a bit frightened, as though that great city were slowly closing in on me.
Who was this woman of mystery? What place had she held in the life — and perhaps in the death — of Captain Fraser-Freer? Why should she come boldly to my rooms to make her impossible demand?
I resolved that, even at the risk of my own comfort, I would stick to the truth. And to that resolve I would have clung had I not shortly received another visit — this one far more inexplicable, far more surprising, than the first.
It was about nine o’clock when Walters tapped at my door and told me two gentlemen wished to see me. A moment later into my study walked Lieutenant Norman Fraser-Freer and a fine old gentleman with a face that suggested some faded portrait hanging on an aristocrat’s wall. I had never seen him before.
“I hope it is quite convenient for you to see us,” said young Fraser-Freer.
I assured him that it was. The boy’s face was drawn and haggard; there was terrible suffering in his eyes, yet about him hung, like a halo, the glory of a great resolution.
“May I present my father?” he said. “General Fraser-Freer, retired. We have come on a matter of supreme importance. The old man muttered something I could not catch.”
I could see that he had been hard hit by the loss of his elder son. I asked them to be seated; the general complied, but the boy walked the floor in a manner most distressing.
“I shall not be long,” he remarked. “Nor at a time like this is one in the mood to be diplomatic. I will only say, sir, that we have come to ask of you a great favor — a very great favor indeed. You may not see fit to grant it. If that is the case we cannot well reproach you. But if you can —”
“It is a great favor, sir!” broke in the general. “And I am in the odd position where I do not know whether you will serve me best by granting it or by refusing to do so.”
“Father — please — if you, don’t mind — ” The boy’s voice was kindly but determined. He turned to me.
“Sir — you have testified to the police that it was a bit past seven when you heard in the room above the sounds of the struggle which — which — You understand.”
In view of the mission of the caller who had departed a scant hour previously, the boy’s question startled me.
“Such was my testimony,” I answered. “It was the truth.”
“Naturally,” said Lieutenant Fraser-Freer. “Buter — as a matter of fact, we are here to ask that you alter your testimony. Could you, as a favor to us who have suffered so cruel a loss — a favor we should never forget — could you not make the hour of that struggle half after six?”
I was quite overwhelmed. “Your — reasons?” I managed at last to ask.
“I am not able to give them to you in full,” the boy answered. “I can only say this: It happens that at seven o’clock last Thursday night I was dining with friends at the Savoy — friends who would not be likely to forget the occasion.”
The old general leaped to his feet.
“Norman,” he cried, “I cannot let you do this thing! I simply will not — ”
“Hush, father,” said the boy wearily. “We have threshed it all out. You have promised — ”
The old man sank back into the chair and buried his face in his hands.
“If you are willing to change your testimony,” young Fraser-Freer went on to me, “I shall at once confess to the police that it was I who — who murdered my brother. They suspect me. They know that late last Thursday afternoon I purchased a revolver, for which, they believe, at the last moment I substituted the knife. They know that I was in debt to him; that we had quarreled about money matters; that by his death I, and I alone, could profit.”
He broke off suddenly and came toward me, holding out his arms with a pleading gesture I can never forget.
“Do this for me!” he cried. “Let me confess! Let me end this whole horrible business here and now.”
Surely no man had ever to answer such an appeal before.
“Why?” I found myself saying, and over and over I repeated it — “Why? Why?”
The lieutenant faced me, and I hope never again to see such a look in a man’s eyes.
“I loved him!” he cried. “That is why. For his honor, for the honor of our family, I am making this request of you. Believe me, it is not easy. I can tell you no more than that. You knew my brother?”
“Then, for his sake — do this thing I ask.”
“But — murder — ”
“You heard the sounds of a struggle. I shall say that we quarreled — that I struck in self defense.” He turned to his father. “It will mean only a few years in prison — I can bear that!” he cried. “For the honor of our name!”
The old man groaned, but did not raise his head. The boy walked back and forth over my faded carpet like a lion caged. I stood wandering what answer I should make.
“I know what you are thinking,” said the lieutenant. “You cannot credit your ears. But you have heard correctly. And now — as you might put it — it is up to you. I have been in your country.” He smiled pitifully. “I think I know you Americans. You are not the sort to refuse a man when he is sore beset — as-I am.”
I looked from him to the general and back again.
“I must think this over,” I answered, my mind going at once to Colonel Hughes. “Later — say tomorrow — you shall have my decision.”
“Tomorrow,” said the boy, “we shall both be called before. Inspector Bray. I shall know your answer then — and I hope with all my heart it will be yes.”
There were a few mumbled words of farewell and he and the broken old man went out. As soon as the street door closed behind them I hurried to the telephone and called a number Colonel Hughes had given me. It was with a feeling of relief that I heard his voice come back over the wire. I told him I must see him at once. He replied that by a singular chance he had been on the point of starting for my rooms.
In the half hour that elapsed before the coming of the colonel I walked about like a man in a trance. He was barely inside my door when I began pouring out to him the story of those two remarkable visits. He made little comment on the woman’s call beyond asking me whether I could describe her; and he smiled when I mentioned lilac perfume. At mention of young Fraser-Freer’s preposterous request he whistled.
“By gad!” he said. “Interesting — most interesting! I am not surprised, however. That boy has the stuff in him.”
“But what shall I do?” I demanded.
Colonel Hughes smiled. “It makes little difference what you do,” he said.
“Norman Fraser-Freer did not kill his brother, and that will be proved in due time.”
He considered for a moment. “Bray no doubt would be glad to have you alter your testimony, since he is trying to fasten the crime on the young lieutenant. On the whole, if I were you, I think that when the opportunity comes tomorrow I should humor the inspector.”
“You mean — tell him I am no longer certain as to the hour of that struggle?”
“Precisely. I give you my word that young Fraser-Freer will not be permanently incriminated by such an act on your part. And incidentally you will be aiding me.”
“Very well,” said I. “But I don’t understand this at all.”
“No — of course not. I wish I could explain to you; but I cannot. I will say this — the death of Captain Fraser-Freer is regarded as a most significant thing by the War Office. Thus it happens that two distinct hunts for his assassin are underway — one conducted by Bray, the other by me. Bray does not suspect that I am working on the case and I want to keep him in the dark as long as possible.
You may choose which of these investigations you wish to be identified with.”
“I think,” said I, “that I prefer you to Bray.”
“Good boy!” he answered. “You have not gone wrong. And you can do me a service this evening, which is why I was on the point of coming here, even before you telephoned me. I take it that you remember and could identify the chap who called himself Archibald Enwright — the man who gave you that letter to the captain.”
“I surely could,” said I. “Then, if you can spare me an hour, get your hat.”
And so it happens, lady of the Carlton, that I have just been to Limehouse. You do not know where Limehouse is and I trust you never will. It is picturesque; it is revolting; it is colorful and wicked. The weird odors of it still fill my nostrils; the sinister portrait of it is still before my eyes. It is the Chinatown of London — Limehouse. Down in the dregs of the town — with West India Dock Road for its spinal column — it lies, redolent of ways that are dark and tricks that are vain: Not only the heathen Chinee so peculiar shuffles through its dim-lit alleys, but the scum of the earth, of many colors and of many climes. The Arab and the Hindu, the Malayan and the Jan, black men from the Congo and fair men from Scandinavia — these you may meet there — the outpourings of all the ships that sail the Seven Seas. There many drunken beasts, with their pay in their pockets, seek each his favorite sin; and for those who love most the opium, there is, at all too regular intervals, the Sign of the Open Lamp.
We went there, Colonel Hughes and I. Up and down the narrow Causeway, yellow at intervals with the light from gloomy shops, dark mostly because of-tightly closed shutters through which only thin jets found their way, we walked until we came and stood at last in shadow outside the black doorway of Harry San Li’s so-called restaurant. We waited ten -minutes, fifteen minutes, and then a man came down the Causeway and paused before that door. There was something familiar in his jaunty walk. Then the faint glow of the lamp that was the indication of Harry San’s real business lit his pale face, and P knew that I had seen him last-in the cool evening at Interlaken, Where Limehouse could not have lived a moment, with the Jungfrau frowning down upon it.
“Enwright?” whispered Hughes. “Not a doubt of it!” said I.
“Good” he replied with fervor. And now another man shuffled down the street and stood suddenly straight and waiting before the colonel. “Stay with him,” said Hughes softly. “Don’t let him get out of your sight.”
“Good, sir,” said the man; and, saluting, he passed on up the stairs and whistled softly at that black, depressing door.
The clock above the Millwall Docks was striking eleven as the colonel and I caught a bus that should carry us back to a brighter, happier London. Hughes spoke but seldom on that ride; and, repeating his advice that I humor Inspector Bray on the morrow, he left me in the Strand.
So, my lady, here I sit in my study, waiting for that most important day that is shortly to dawn. A full evening, you must admit. A woman with the perfume of lilacs about her has threatened that unless I lie I shall encounter consequences most unpleasant. A handsome young lieutenant has begged me to tell that same lie for the honor of his family, and thus condemn him to certain arrest and imprisonment. And I have been down into hell tonight and seen Archibald Enwright, of Interlaken, conniving with the devil.
I presume I should go to bed; but I know I cannot sleep. Tomorrow is to be, beyond all question, a red letter day in the matter of the captain’s murder. And once again, against my will, I am down to play a leading part.
The symphony of this great, gray, sad city is a mere hum in the distance now, for it is nearly midnight. I shall mail this letter to you — post it, I should say, since I am in London — and then I shall wait in my dim rooms for the dawn. And as I wait I shall be thinking not always of the captain, or his brother, or of Hughes, or Limehouse and Enwright, but often — oh, very often — of you.
In my last letter I scoffed at the idea of a great war. But when we came back from Limehouse tonight the papers told us that the Kaiser had signed the order to mobilize. Austria in; Serbia in; Germany, Russia and France in. Hughes tells me that England is shortly to follow, and I suppose there is no doubt of it. It is a frightful thing — this future that looms before us; and I pray that for you at least it may hold only happiness.
For, ray-lady, when I write good night, I speak it aloud as I write; and there is in my voice more than I dare tell you of now.
THE AGONY COLUMN MAN.
Not unwelcome to the violet eyes of the girl from Texas were the last words of this letter, read in her room that Sunday morning. But the lines predicting England’s early entrance into the war recalled to her mind a most undesirable contingency. On the previous night, when the war extras came out confirming the forecast of his favorite bootblack, her usually calm father had shown signs of panic. He was not a man slow to act. And she knew that, putty though he was in her hands in matters which he did not regard as important, he could also be firm where he thought firmness necessary. America looked even better to him than usual, and he had made-up his mind to go there immediately. There was no use in arguing with him.
At this point came a knock at her door and her father entered. One look at his face — red, perspiring and decidedly unhappy — served to cheer his daughter.
“Been down to the steamship offices,” he panted, mopping his bald head. “They’re open today, just like it was a weekday — but they might as well be closed. There’s nothing doing. Every boat’s booked up to the rails and we can’t get out of here for two weeks — maybe more.”
“I’m sorry,” said his daughter.
“No, you ain’t! You’re delighted. You think it’s romantic to get caught like this. Wish I had the enthusiasm of youth.” He fanned himself with a newspaper. “Lucky I went over to the express office yesterday and loaded up on gold. I reckon when the blow falls it’ll be tolerable hard to cash checks in this man’s town.”
“That was a good idea.”
“Ready for breakfast?” he inquired.
“Quite ready,” she smiled.
They went below, she humming a song from a revue, while he glared at her. She was very glad they were to be in London a little longer. She felt she could not go, with that mystery still unsolved.
The last peace Sunday London was to know in many weary months went by, a tense and anxious day. Early on Monday the fifth letter from the young man of the Agony Column arrived, and when the girl from Texas read it she knew that under no circumstances could she leave London now. It ran:
Dear Lady from Home:
I call you that because the word home has for me, this hot afternoon in London, about the sweetest sound word ever had. I can see, when I close my eyes, Broadway at midday; Fifth Avenue, gay and colorful, even with all the best people away; Washington Square, cool under the trees, lovely and desirable despite the presence everywhere of alien neighbors from the district to the South. I long for home with an ardent longing; never was London so cruel, so hopeless, so drab, in ink eyes. For, as I write this, a constable sits at my elbow, and he and I are shortly to start for Scotland Yard: I have been arrested as a suspect in the case of Captain Fraser-Freer’s murder!
I predicted last night that this was to be a red letter day in the history of that case, and I also saw myself an unwilling actor in the drama. But little did I suspect the series of astonishing events that was to come with the morning; little did I dream that the net I have been dreading would today engulf me. I can scarcely blame Inspector Bray for holding me; what I cannot understand is why Colonel Hughes —
But you want, of course, the whole story from the beginning; and I shall give it to you. At eleven o’clock this morning a constable called on me at my rooms and informed me that I was wanted at once by the Chief Inspector at the Yard.
We climbed — the constable and I — a narrow stone stairway somewhere at the back of New Scotland Yard, and so came to the inspector’s room. Bray was waiting for us, smiling and confident. I remember — silly as the detail is — that he wore in his buttonhole a white rose. His manner of greeting me was more genial than usual. He began by informing me that the police had apprehended the man who, they believed, was guilty of the captain’s murder.
“There is one detail to be cleared up,” he said. “You told me the other night that it was shortly after seven o’clock when you heard the sounds of struggle in the room above you. You were somewhat excited at the time, and under similar circumstances men have been known to make mistakes. Have you considered the matter since? Is it not possible that you were in error in regard to the hour?”
I recalled Hughes’ advice to humor the inspector; and I said that; having thought it over, I was not quite sure. It might have been earlier than seven — say six-thirty.
“Exactly,” said Bray. He seemed rather pleased. “The natural stress of the moment — I understand. Wilkinson, bring in your prisoner.”
The constable addressed turned and left the room, coming back a moment later with Lieutenant Norman Fraser-Freer. The boy was pale; I could see at a glance that he had not slept for several nights.
“Lieutenant,” said Bray very sharply, “will you tell me — is it true that your brother, the late captain, had loaned you a large sum of money a year or so ago?”
“Quite true,” answered the lieutenant in a low voice.
“You and he had quarreled about the amount of money you spent? Yes!”
“By his death you became the sole heir of your father, the general. Your position with the money-lenders was quite altered. Am I right?”
“I fancy so.”
“Last Thursday afternoon you went to the Army and Navy Stores and-purchased a revolver. You already had your service weapon, but to shoot a man with a bullet from that would be to make the hunt of the police for the murderer absurdly simple.
The boy made no answer.
“Let us suppose,” Bray went on, “that last Thursday evening at half after six you called on your brother in his rooms at Adelphi Terrace. There was an argument about money. You became enraged. You saw him and him alone between you and the fortune you needed so badly. Then — 1 am only supposing — you noticed on his table an odd knife he had brought from India — safer — more silent — than a gun. You seized it — ”
“Why suppose?” the boy broke in. “I’m not trying to conceal anything. You’re right — I did it! I killed my brother! Now let us get the whole business over as soon as may be.”
Into the face of Inspector Bray there came at that moment a look that has been puzzling me ever since — a look that has recurred to my mind again and again, even in the stress and storm of this eventful day. It was only too evident that this confession came to him as a shock. I presume so easy a victory seemed hollow to him; he was wishing the boy had put up a fight. Policemen are probably that way.
“My boy,” he said, “I am sorry for you. My course is clear. If you will go with one of my men — ”
It was at this point that the door of the inspector’s room opened and Colonel Hughes, cool and smiling, walked in. Bray chuckled at the sight of the military man.
“Ah, colonel,” he cried, “you make a good entrance! This morning, when I discovered I had the honor of having you associated with me in the search for the captain’s murderer, you were foolish enough to make a little wager
“I remember,” Hughes answered. “A scarab pin against — a Homburg hat.”
“Precisely,” said Bray. “You wagered that you, and not I, would discover the guilty man. Well, colonel, you owe me a scarab. Lieutenant Norman Fraser-Freer has just told me that he killed his brother, and I was on the point of taking down his full confession.”,
“Indeed!” replied Hughes calmly. “Interesting — most interesting! But before we consider the wager lost — before you force. the lieutenant to confess in full — I should like the floor.”
“Certainly,” smiled Bray.
“When you were kind enough to let me have two of your men this morning,” said Hughes, “I told you I contemplated the arrest of a lady. I have brought that lady to Scotland Yard with me.” He stepped to the door, opened it and beckoned. A tall, blond, handsome woman of about thirty-five entered; and instantly to my nostrils came the pronounced odor of lilacs. “Allow me, inspector,” went on the colonel, “to introduce to you the Countess Sophie de Graf, late of Berlin, late of Delhi and Rangoon, now of 17 Leitrim Grove, Battersea Park Road.”
The woman faced Bray; and there was a terrified, hunted look in her eyes.
“You are the inspector?” she asked. “I am,” said Bray.
“And a man — I can see that,” she went on, her eyes flashing angrily at Hughes. “I appeal to you to protect me from the brutal questioning of this — this fiend.”
“You are hardly complimentary, countess,” Hughes smiled. “But I am willing to forgive you if you will tell the inspector the story that you have recently related to me.”
The woman shut her lips tightly and for a long moment gazed into the eyes of Inspector Bray.
“He” — she said at last, nodding in the direction of Colonel Hughes — “he got it out of me — how, I don’t know.”
“Got what out of you?” Bray’s little eyes were blinking.
“At six-thirty o’clock last Thursday evening,” said the woman, “I went to the rooms of Captain Fraser-Freer, in Adelphi Terrace. An argument arose. I seized from his table an Indian dagger that was lying there — I stabbed him just above the heart!”
In that room in Scotland Yard a tense silence fell. For the first time we were all conscious of the tiny clock on the inspector’s desk, for it ticked now with a loudness sudden and startling. I gazed at the faces about me. Bray’s showed a momentary surprise — then the mask fell again. Lieutenant Fraser-Freer was plainly amazed. On the face of Colonel Hughes I saw what struck me as an open sneer.
“Go on, countess,” he smiled.
She shrugged her shoulders and turned toward him a disdainful back. Her eyes were all for Bray.
“It’s very brief, the story,” she said hastily — I thought almost apologetically. “I had known the captain in Rangoon. My husband was in business there — an exporter of rice — and Captain Fraser-Freer came often to our house. We — he was a charming man, the captain — “
“Go on!” ordered Hughes.
“We fell desperately in love,” said the countess. “When he returned to England, though supposedly on a furlough, he told me he would never return to Rangoon. He expected a transfer to Egypt. So it was arranged that I should desert my husband and follow on the next boat. I did so — believing in the captain — thinking he really cared for me — I gave up everything for him. And then her voice broke and she took out a handkerchief. Again that odor of lilacs in the room.
“For a time I saw the captain often in London; and then I began to notice a change. Back among his own kind, with the lonely days in India a mere memory — he seemed no longer to — to care for me. Then — last Thursday morning — he called on me to tell me that he was through; that he would never see me again — in fact, that he was to marry a girl of his own people who had been waiting.
The woman looked piteously about at us.
“I was desperate,” she pleaded. “I had given up all that life held for me — given it up for a man who now looked at me coldly and spoke of marrying another. Can you wonder that I went in the evening to his rooms — went to plead with him — to beg, almost on my knees? It was no use. He was done with me — he said that over and over. Overwhelmed with blind rage and despair, I snatched up that knife from the table and plunged it into his heart. At once I was filled with remorse.
“One moment,” broke in Hughes. “You may keep the details of your subsequent actions until later. I should like to compliment you, countess. You tell it better each time.”
He came over and faced Bray. I thought there was a distinct note of hostility in his voice.
“Checkmate, inspector!” he said.
Bray made no reply. He sat there staring up at the colonel, his face turned to stone.
“The scarab pin,” went on Hughes, “is not yet forthcoming. We are tied for honors, my friend. You have your confession, but I have one to match it.”
“All this is beyond me,” snapped Bray.
“A bit beyond me, too,” the colonel answered. “Here are two people who wish us to believe that on the evening of Thursday last, at half after six of the clock, each sought out Captain Fraser-Freer in his rooms and murdered him.”
He walked to the window and then wheeled dramatically.
“The strangest part of it all is,” he added, “that at six-thirty o’clock last Thursday evening, at an obscure restaurant in Soho — Frigacci’s — these two people were having tea together!”
I must admit that, as the colonel calmly offered this information, I suddenly went limp all over at a realization of the endless maze of mystery in which we were involved. The woman gave a little cry and Lieutenant Fraser-Freer leaped to his feet.
“How the devil do you know that?” he cried.
“I know it,” said Colonel Hughes, “because one of my men happened to be having tea at a table nearby. He happened to be having tea there for the reason that ever since the arrival of this lady in London, at the request of her friends in India, I have been keeping track of her every move; just as I kept watch over your late brother, the captain.”
Without a word Lieutenant Fraser-Freer dropped into a chair and buried his face in his hands.
“I’m sorry, my son,” said Hughes. “Really, I am. You made a heroic effort to keep the facts from coming out — a man’s-size effort it was. But the War Office knew long before you did that your brother had succumbed to this woman’s lure — that he was serving her and Berlin, and not his own country, England.”
Fraser-Freer raised his head. When he spoke there was in his voice an emotion vastly more sincere than that which had moved him when he made his absurd confession.
“The game’s up,” he said. “I have done all I could. This will kill my father, I am afraid. Ours has been an honorable name, colonel; you know that — a long line of military men whose loyalty to their country has never before been in question. I thought my confession would end the whole nasty business, that the investigations would stop, and that I might be able to keep forever unknown this horrible thing about him — about my brother.”
Colonel Hughes laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and the latter went on:
“They reached me — those frightful insinuations about Stephen — in a roundabout way; and when he came home from India I resolved to watch him. I saw him go often to the house of this woman. I satisfied myself that she was the same one involved in the stories coming from Rangoon; then, under another name; I managed to meet her. I hinted to her that I myself was none too loyal; not completely, but to a limited extent, I won her confidence. Gradually I became convinced that my brother was indeed disloyal to his country, to his name, to us all. It was at that tea time you have mentioned when I finally made up my mind. I had already bought a revolver; and, with it in my pocket, I went to the Savoy for tea.”
He rose and paced the floor.
“After tea I went to Stephen’s rooms. I was resolved to have it out with him, to put the matter to him bluntly; and if he had no explanation to give me I intended to kill him then and there. So, you see, I was guilty in intention if not in reality. I entered his study. It was filled with strangers. On his sofa I saw my brother Stephen lying — stabbed above the heart — dead!” There was a moment’s silence. “That is all,” said Lieutenant Fraser-Freer.
“I take it,” said Hughes kindly, “that we have finished with the lieutenant. Eh, inspector?”
“Yes,” said Bray shortly. “You may go.”
“Thank you,” the boy answered. As he went out he said brokenly to Hughes: “I must find him — my father.”
Bray sat in his chair, staring hard ahead, his jaw thrust out angrily. Suddenly he turned on Hughes.
“You don’t play fair,” he said. “I wasn’t told anything of the status of the captain at the War Office. This is all news to me.”
“Very well,” smiled Hughes. “The bet is off if you like.”
“No, by heaven!” Bray cried. “It’s still on, and I’ll win it yet. A fine morning’s work I suppose you think you’ve done. But are we any nearer to finding the murderer? Tell me that.”
“Only a bit nearer, at any rate,” replied Hughes suavely. “This lady, of course, remains in custody.”
“Yes, yes,” answered the inspector. “Take her away!” he ordered.
A constable came forward for the countess and Colonel Hughes gallantly held open the door.
“You will have an opportunity, Sophie,” he said, “ to think up another story. You are clever — it will not be hard.”
She gave him a black look and went out. Bray got up from his desk. He and Colonel Hughes stood facing each other across a table, and to me there was something in the manner of each that suggested eternal conflict.
“Well?” sneered Bray.
“There is one possibility we have overlooked,” Hughes answered. He turned toward me and I was startled by the coldness in his eyes. “Do you know, inspector,” he went on, “that this American came to London with a letter of introduction to the captain — a letter from the captain’s cousin, one Archibald Enwright? And do you know that Fraser-Freer had no cousin of that name?”
“No!” said Bray.
“It happens to be the truth,” said Hughes. “The American has confessed as much to me.”
“Then,” said Bray to me, and his little blinking eyes were on me with a narrow calculating glance that sent the shivers up and down my spine, “you are under arrest. I have exempted_ so far because of your friend at the United States consulate. That exemption ends now.”
I was thunderstruck. I turned to the colonel, the man who had suggested that I seek him out if I needed a friend — the man I had looked to save me from just such a contingency as this. But his eyes were quite fishy and unsympathetic.
“Quite correct, inspector,” he said. “Lock him up!” And as I began to protest he passed very close to me and spoke in a low voice: “Say nothing. Wait!”
I pleaded to be allowed too back to my rooms, to communicate with my friends, and pay a visit to our consulate and to the Embassy; and at the colonel’s suggestion Bray agreed to this somewhat irregular course. So this afternoon I have been abroad with a constable, and while I wrote this long letter to you he has been fidgeting in my easy-chair. Now he informs me that his patience is exhausted and that I must go at once.
So there is no time to wonder; no time to speculate as to the future, as to the colonel’s sudden turn against me or the promise of his whisper in my ear. I shall, no doubt, spend the night behind those hideous, forbidding walls that your guide has pointed out to you as New Scotland Yard. And when I shall write again, when I shall end this series of letters so filled with
The constable will not wait. He is as impatient as a child. Surely he is lying when he says I have kept him here an hour.
Wherever I am, dear lady, whatever be the end of this amazing tangle, you may be sure the thought of you
Confound the man!
YOURS, IN DURANCE VILE.
TO BE CONTINUED
Featured image: “You will pardon this intrusion. I have come for a brief word with you.” (Illustrated by Will Grefé / SEPS)
Halloween is upon us once again. Last year, the Post looked at the question, “What’s the right horror film for the whole family?” And while staying in for movies is still an excellent choice for this spooky season, especially with the pandemic still present, films aren’t your only choice for eerie entertainment. So the new question becomes, “What are the right horror reads for the whole family?”
Every family’s view of content is different, and every family has a different standard for when it’s okay for the kids to indulge in scary fare. What we have here are some baseline recommendations, standout books that you might check out as starters, along with some appropriate ages. Again, your own idea of what’s appropriate and when may vary, but that’s why comment sections were created.
1.The Littles (9 and under): Scary, Scary Halloween by Eve Bunting and Jan Brett (1988)
Halloween-themed picture books abound, with lots of great, funny reads like Goblin Walk, but this one is a superlative effort from two huge talents. Eve Bunting has more than 250 books to her credit; she moves as easily from fiction to non-fiction as she does from picture books to novels. Jan Brett has been writing and drawing books for kids since the 1970s, and she’s received effusive praise for her lovely, intricate art. Scary, Scary Halloween brings them together in a delightful way, with rhyming verse and outstanding visual renditions of a scary Halloween night. An unseen narrator talks of monsters stalking through the neighborhood before the story takes not one, but two, surprise twists. It’s a great one to read to the little ones, and to have them read back to you as they get bigger.
2. Kids to Tweens: The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury (1972)
Let’s be clear: Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree is for EVERYONE, but it serves this particular demographic extremely well. Bradbury is, of course, one of the most exalted names in science fiction and fantasy, but he might also be the King of Halloween. His loving and nuanced takes on the holiday cause his name to appear repeatedly (and deservedly) on this list. The Halloween Tree is a touching story about friendship that also delves into the history of the holiday and its antecedent, Samhain. After a boy named Pipkin disappears, eight of his friends come together with the strange Mr. Moundshroud to travel through time to find their friend; along the way, they learn about the traditions of the Greeks, Romans, and Celts, visit medieval France, and witness what happens at Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration. When the cost of saving Pipkin becomes clear, his friends come together for their friend in a moving finale.
3. Teens: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962)
Today’s teens have access to a steady diet of horror material in both print and film; between libraries and streaming services, there’s not a lot that they haven’t already seen. That’s what makes Something Wicked This Way Comes special, in a way, because they might not have seen it. Bradbury’s 1962 masterpiece is all about the transition from youth to adulthood, while also baking in the regrets of age. When a strange carnival arrives in Green Town, Illinois on October 23, 13-year-old best friends Will Halloway (born one minute before midnight on October 30) and Jim Nightshade (born one minute after on October 31) are drawn into its orbit. At first, only Will and Jim seem aware of the unnatural events unfolding from the Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, but they find an unexpected ally in Will’s 54-year-old father. You can smell the autumn air in Bradbury’s rich descriptions of the season. The story, by turns wistful and terrifying, is one of the gold standards of dark fantasy. Teens can easily identify with the protagonists, as one of the primary forces in their own lives is the pull of adulthood.
4. Adults: A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazney (1993) and October Dreams: A Celebration of Halloween (edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish, 2000)
A Night in the Lonesome October (not to be confused with Night in the Lonesome October by Richard Laymon, which is great in its own right) is creepy, funny, delightful, and demented. Zelazney was the celebrated writer of the bestselling The Chronicles of Amber series and dozens of other works; he won the Hugo Award six times and the Nebula three. 1993’s ANITLO was one his favorites of his own work; it was also his last novel, as he died in 1995. But what a great final statement it is. After an introduction, the 31 remaining chapters each take place on one day in October leading to Halloween in late 1800s London. The story is told from the point of view of Snuff, the canine companion and magical familiar of one Jack the Ripper. However, Jack is actually trying to save the world in a story that involves (either directly or by clever parody) the Lovecraft mythos, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, the Wolf Man, the Frankenstein Monster, Rasputin, and more. The book is by turns haunting and hilarious, with Snuff and the other familiars alternately trying to help their masters save or destroy the world. Surprise alliances and betrayals abound, and it’s a real feat of imagination.
On the darker side, the 2000 anthology October Dreams: A Celebration of Halloween is simply one of the best collections about Halloween ever put to print. Collecting short stories along with non-fiction Halloween reminiscences by a murderer’s row of talent, the book includes the likes of Bradbury, Dean Koontz, Poppy Z. Brite, Christopher Golden, Jack Ketchum, Gahan Wilson, Richard Laymon, Dennis Etchison, Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub, and many more. At over 650 pages, it’s a slab of fiendish goodness.
5. The Adult History Buff: Halloween: The History of America’s Darkest Holiday by David J. Skal (2016)
An October surprise bonus category! Yes, The Halloween Tree digs into the roots of the holiday, but this is a phenomenal book by one of the most authoritative writers on horror. Skal has written essential non-fiction like The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, Hollywood Gothic, and Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula. Here, he turns his keen insights to Halloween itself. Skal’s real talent lies in engaging a topic on both the macro and micro level, juxtaposing how that topic impacts the culture as a whole while also using laser-precise examples to show just how deeply that impact runs. Skal’s examination runs the gamut from the early Celtic days to a present where we (in non-pandemic years) spend about $9 billion celebrating the holiday.
6. Grandparents: Ghost Story by Peter Straub (1979)
This one goes off theme just a tiny bit, but bear with it. Yes, Ghost Story takes place across multiple time periods with one of the most climactic sequences occurring during a blizzard. But it is one of the grand champions of scary storytelling, and the initial protagonists are a group of older gentlemen and one gentleman’s wife. With many mature main characters and Straub’s deep appreciation for the canon and history of American horror (references to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Donald Wandrei abound, and nods are clearly made to George Romero and Straub’s pal Stephen King), Straub crafts a particularly literary story that thrives on human emotion. There is some really dark stuff, but there are also seeds of hope, especially when the older men reach out to two other protagonists (one much younger) to help them navigate the terror that has them under siege.
And there you have it: like the film list, it’s a list to get you started (and to start discussions). Enjoy this very strange season, get lost in the books that you intend to read, and maybe, just maybe, leave a light on.
Featured image: Marsan / Shutterstock
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
For Vera, the transition from seeing a ghost to becoming one began subtly, like the first leaf sailing down to her sunny marigolds in September. It was not terrifying, because the ghost was so beautifully dressed. In a rusty-rose, tweed jacket with a peplum, a full skirt, straw hat and big, pearl earrings, she reminded Vera of her Auntie Jane, who had died when Vera was 12. As she faded, Vera detected the nocturnal smell of moonflowers — which grew, long ago, in Auntie Jane’s garden but never in Vera’s. Although pleasant, this encounter was jarring for Vera because she knew something about death. She had watched her father slowly pass away at St. Otto’s Nursing Home. She remembered him gazing past her and conversing with numerous invisible people, sometimes her recently departed mother and sometimes strangers. “Don’t lean back!” he had once warned her, laughing, with an amazed expression on his face. “There’s a man with a long white moustache right behind you and, look out, you are almost in his lap.” The nurse-practitioner’s theory — that chemicals flooding his brain were likely causing hallucinations — was more than offset by the observations of daily attendants who whispered that it was not uncommon for dying patients to have visitors from the other side. So Vera interpreted this visit as a friendly warning of her own demise. Well, at least I have time to prepare, she figured.
At breakfast the next morning, Vera perused the local newspaper for Driscoll’s Department Store advertisements. She had regrets about the suit her father was laid out in. No one could find the navy blue business suit he had worn to work on Madison Avenue, nor the one he had danced in, after retirement, aboard the QE2. So they selected the one he had worn to his wife’s funeral, which they found in his closet, still fresh from the cleaners, sadly waiting for the next grim affair. Vera swore she would go out in style and, luckily for her, Driscoll’s was having a sale.
A dress on page two caught her eye. It was a green, botanical print with long sleeves. “Fetch your leash, Toby,” she commanded her brown, miniature dachshund. “We are going shopping.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Maddie from Misses hurried across the parking lot to punch in at Driscoll’s.
The Misses’ Fitting Rooms were already full. Women with armloads of autumn dresses and recently marked down pants and blouses stood in line, waiting to get in; husbands yawned on couches; howling toddlers tried to jiggle free from strollers. All the while, Maddie’s friend, Olivia, merrily chatted with the shoppers as she hung up clothing.
“Hey, Maddie,” her voice sang out above the din.
“What’s up, Liv? You look great today,” said Maddie. And she meant it. Olivia, in her leaner days, could have been a model, with her stature, lush lashes, and long-layered hair, and simple outfits accessorized with eye-catching jewelry.
“Thanks. So do you,” she said, but Maddie was not convinced. With her wiry, red hair, square chin, and craft-loving hands, she never felt movie-star-beautiful.
“Excuse me, do you work here?” asked a shopper with a brittle voice, iridescent, white hair, and designer eyeglasses. A dachshund wearing a harness perked up in her shopping cart.
“How adorable! Look, Liv! What is his name?”
“Toby,” she said, proudly. “I take him everywhere.”
“May I help you?” asked Maddie.
“Yes, please. Can you tell me where to find this?” she said, pointing to a dress in a Driscoll’s ad.
Maddie recognized it immediately because it was one she had planned to buy herself the next day, when a special sale for associates was starting. She loved the silky fabric with little teal vines unfurling on a jade background. She had one hidden, tagged with her name, behind the folding table in the Fitting Room.
“Sure … follow me,” said Maddie, leading the customer to the new line of autumn dresses. As they meandered in and around the sportswear, Vera explained why finding that particular dress was important to her.
“I am going to be the guest of honor at a big party, with all of my friends and relatives, so I need something special to wear.”
“A milestone?” Maddie guessed it might be her 75th birthday.
“Yes,” said Vera, thinking more like a gravestone.
Looking through the dresses, Maddie asked, “What size do you wear?”
Same as me, thought Maddie, checking the tags disingenuously. She knew that the one she had stashed away was the only size-extra-small, botanical-print dress they had in the store.
“I think we’re plumb out of luck. Sorry. Want to try small?” Maddie asked. “Or maybe another color? We have an extra-small in aubergine … ”
“No. Thank you anyway,” said Vera, wheeling her cart, with Toby in it, around toward the back of the store.
Marisol, who was folding jeans on a table nearby, sniped, “They expect us to be personal shoppers!”
“They do,” said Maddie, tackling a heap of long-sleeve t-shirts on the other side, sorting them by color, folding and laying them one exactly on top of the other.
“People are pigs,” said Marisol, jingling bracelets as she twisted her long, black hair up into a knot. Meanwhile, Olivia pushed two z-rails full of clothing out into the aisles.
“Crystal wants you to run these now,” she said, meaning they had to hang everything where it belonged. Crystal, the assistant manager, had a strong build, a powerful laugh, and a glare that could make anyone’s stomach churn.
Marisol looked at the rails and sighed.
“At least we’re burning calories,” said Maddie. Shoulders aching, she grabbed one of the z-rails and pushed it down toward Misses, opposite Seasonal, where Christmas decorations were already encroaching on Halloween. A few children were playing with the interactive items — the display models of a light-up jack-o-lantern and a light-up haunted house; and a device for previewing holiday music CDs.
Maddie hung a few blouses in Clearance, where she spotted Vera and her dog a second time. Her cart was now brimming with Housewares sale items. Four cherry bath towels, a wicker bread basket, and two sunflower pillows were piled around Toby. A wind chime dangled from the cart handle.
Vera still believed her death was imminent, but her head asked how imminent. And her heart replied that surely she still had time to enjoy a few more bargains from Driscoll’s — a few more mornings in the garden, a few more loaves of crusty bread, a few more baths, a few more evenings on the sofa, watching TV with Toby. Maybe we’ll celebrate Christmas a little early this year, she thought, eyeing the snowglobes, tree ornaments, and scented candles across the aisle.
“Did you find a dress?” asked Maddie, feeling a tad guilty about the one she had kept hidden.
“Not yet,” she said.
Maddie, quite familiar with the size extra-small Clearance merchandise, deftly extracted a prussian-blue dress from the “Nautical Nights” collection and held it up.
“I love it,” said Vera, squinting to see the yellow price tag marking it down to $9.80.
“Try it on,” said Maddie, adding it to her cart, behind Toby.
About an hour later, in the fitting room, she saw the customer a third time as she emerged from one of the cubicles, wearing the prussian-blue dress. She looked fabulous.
“Very nice! Fits you perfectly,” said Olivia.
“Thank you,” said Vera. Then she did something odd. She laid down on the couch in the Fitting Room, folded her hands across her chest and closed her eyes. And asked Maddie to snap her picture with her cell phone.
Maddie looked at Olivia. “I don’t get it,” she whispered.
“Neither do I,” whispered Olivia. “But just do it and let’s get her out of here. Crystal is watching, and you have to finish those rails.”
Maddie took the snapshot and handed the cell phone back to the customer.
Vera opened her eyes, studied the photo, and imagined herself in a mahogany box, tastefully asleep in the prussian-blue dress. Not the one I had in mind, she thought, but it will do. She considered asking Maddie to call other Driscoll’s stores to inquire if they had the botanical-print dress in her size, but did not want to overburden Maddie, who seemed so kind. Besides, the one she had on was a great bargain. Blue dress, it is, she decided.
Maddie ran the rails until her shift ended.
On her way out, she saw Vera smile as a cashier rang up her purchases, wowing her with how much money she saved.
No one expected that as Vera exited the store, the giant letter “D” from big green DRISCOLL’S sign would snap off the building’s exterior and come pounding down on her head. Maddie, who was walking to her car, heard the noise and turned around to see the customer lying face down near the entrance, under the big letter. Toby, still strapped inside the cart, barked and wriggled, making the cart roll forward, toward the parking lot. Maddie ran back and stopped the cart, and waited with Toby until the police and the ambulance arrived.
The news coverage of the Driscoll’s accident started out on the front page, but shrank daily with each subsequent report. The stories focused on what could cause a letter to separate from a store’s signage (some speculated that bird droppings had deteriorated the fixture’s metal supports); whether a lawsuit for negligence would follow (one eventually did); Vera’s fate (she died of head trauma at the hospital, a few hours after her injury); and Toby’s fate (Vera’s sister adopted him).
No one reported the full impact on Driscoll’s employees.
Maddie arrived early the next morning. The store felt peaceful, devoid of customers, with the rain drumming on the roof. Vera’s death had not hit the news yet.
After punching in, Maddie retrieved the botanical-print dress from behind the table in the fitting room. She tried it on, and gazed into the tall, three-fold mirror in one of the cubicles. Maddie could not remember the last time a dress made her feel so beautiful. Mesmerized by her own reflection, it was minutes before Maddie realized she was not alone. An older woman wearing a sweet-but-nauseating perfume was standing behind her, dressed in an odd, rose-colored outfit and big pearl earrings. She tapped Maddie on the shoulder.
“What a lovely dress, dear,” is all Maddie heard her say. But she also whispered, under her breath, “If Vera can’t have it, no one can.”
When Maddie turned around, she was gone.
How strange, Maddie thought. She considered alerting Loss Prevention about the suspicious shopper but didn’t, because she couldn’t remember the correct number to call.
Around noon, Vera’s death was reported on the local television network. Everyone at Driscoll’s who happened to be eating lunch in the Break Room at the time heard the news from the giant flat-screen over the dining table. Maddie nearly choked on a potato chip.
“Isn’t that the lady you were helping yesterday?” asked Deirdre from Customer Service.
“Yes,” said Maddie.
“How sad,” said Deirdre, munching a sandwich. “I saw her in Seasonal, listening to the Christmas CDs … with her little dog in the cart. She looked sweet.”
“She was,” said Maddie, going back to the floor.
The sky outside the glass doors darkened. Lightning zig-zagged over the parking lot and, as the day wore on, little, random, unsettling things happened throughout the store. Sally from Kids noticed an unattended cart rolling down the aisle between Toys and Ladies’ Denim. Bill from Housewares observed the Haunted House and the Jack-O-Lantern lighting up on their own. Evan from Shoes got annoyed because a shoe box refused to stay put, repeatedly poking out an inch or so from the perfect wall of shoe boxes it had taken him over an hour to create. Deirdre heard a Christmas CD playing on its own. And in Misses, Maddie heard the sound of hangers sliding over rails from an area where no one was rummaging. Then she got paged by the robotic voice of Customer Call Box — “Misses … Misses” — only to find an abandoned shopping cart with windchimes dangling from the handle.
The rumor that Driscoll’s was haunted rapidly ignited and spread throughout the store.
Tara from Beauty, a college student with an elfin face, rainbow hair, and a nose-ring, reacted joyously. She had a passion for all things occult. Heart beating wildly, she ran to her locker to retrieve her prized possession — a mint tin that resembled a tiny ouija board — and brought it back to Beauty. There, a small crowd of associates gathered to watch her hold the tin very steadily in her palm, place a mint “plank” on top of it, and quietly asked the spirit its name. “It’s moving,” she said, gasping as the plank floated over the letters “V,” “E,” “R,” and “A.”
“It’s definitely Vera,” said Tara.
“I knew it,” said Sally.
“What does she want?” asked Deirdre.
Tara tapped on the mint tin some more and, seconds later, the tiny plank floated once more over the letters.
“What she came for,” Tara replied.
“Huh?” asked Deirdre. “Let’s ask Maddie what she was shopping for. She helped Vera yesterday.”
“Good idea,” said Tara.
“Heads up. Here comes Crystal,” said Bill.
Tara furtively tapped “Goodbye” on the tin and stashed it in her pocket, while the little gathering dispersed.
Meanwhile, Sal from Freight was delivering a fresh tote of hangers to Olivia in the fitting room. He said all this talk about a Driscoll’s ghost was “ridiculous” and “about the stupidest thing” he had ever heard. “Listen to me,” he said. “Everything has a logical explanation. Electrical malfunctions on account of the storm are probably to blame for everything weird that’s been happening.”
Olivia agreed, and reminded Maddie to buy her dress before going home.
Maddie’s eyes welled up with tears.
“What’s the matter?” asked Olivia.
“I can’t buy it now,” said Maddie. “It’s the one Vera wanted, and now she’s dead!”
“Sure you can. It’s not your fault,” said Sal, “that a sign fell on her head.”
“And you knocked yourself out for her,” said Olivia. “Who found her that gorgeous, blue dress?”
“But she really wanted the dress I hid for myself. I should have offered it to her.”
“Well, she can’t use it now,” said Sal, smirking, “unless she wants to be buried in it.”
Maddie knew Sal was only teasing her, but this comment made her recall Vera lying down on the fitting room couch with her arms folded across her chest, and she suddenly wondered if that was not exactly what the customer had in mind.
“Maybe,” said Maddie, “I should try to contact the family and let them know I found the dress she was shopping for, you know, in case they want to bring it to the funeral parlor.”
“Are you crazy?” said Olivia. “You want to contact a grieving family who doesn’t know you … ”
“ … and who is probably suing the store already,” said Sal.
“Crystal will have a fit!” said Olivia.
“I guess you’re right,” said Maddie, drying her eyes with a tissue. “So what should I do with the dress?”
“Buy it and wear it in good health, you nutjob,” said Olivia.
So Maddie bought the dress after punching out that day. Guiltily gleeful at all the money she saved, she carried her purchase out to her car, hopping over puddles in the parking lot. Maddie tossed the Driscoll’s bag onto the back seat and turned the radio on to her usual classical station which featured medieval music that day. As she drove, the music soothed her nerves — even though one of the songs was a long, flute and harp rendition of “Greensleeves” — until, about halfway home, she heard a rustling noise in the background. Was it static? She turned off the radio, but the noise continued. No, not static. Could it be the wind? No, it was coming from inside the car, behind her. When she stopped at the traffic light, she glanced at the back seat, and saw the Driscoll’s bag moving like something was crawling inside it. Nonsense, she told herself, like Olivia. It’s just the car jostling the bag around. Don’t panic, she told herself, like Sal.
At last, Maddie turned onto her street and pulled into her driveway. When she parked the car, the noise stopped. But she opened the back door to find the Driscoll’s bag empty and the dress sitting up like a passenger. It was just too absurd! How ridiculous, thought Maddie, laughing nervously. Then she spoke to the dress. “I don’t care how that happened,” she said, stuffing it firmly back inside the bag, “you are nothing but a piece of clothing and you won’t get the better of me!”
Maddie went inside. The house was empty, with everyone else still at work or school. Maddie poured herself a generous glass of Chablis. She went upstairs and changed into her new dress so she could see how it looked, with the proper shoes on, in her cheval mirror.
But for the zipper, which nipped a tiny piece of skin at the base of her neck, the dress went on easily and it looked amazing. Minutes later, however, although it didn’t look tight, the dress began to feel very tight. The silky-but-stretchy fabric compressed her arms and her middle.
She took it off, letting it drop to the floor, threw on a robe, and finished her wine. She decided to take a cat nap before making dinner, and sank into a dream in which the little teal vines on the botanical-print transformed into blue snakes with tiny red eyes and pointy, yellow fangs. They wrapped around her body, constricting her respiration, and bit into her flesh.
Luke was in the bedroom, hanging up his jacket and tie, when she awoke.
“Hard day, honey?” he asked. “I hope you don’t mind, but while you were sleeping, I ordered take-out — sesame chicken, pork fried rice, wonton soup and a couple of egg rolls.”
“What a husband,” said Maddie, hugging him.
“New dress?” he said, picking it up off the floor.
“Yes, but it’s going back tomorrow.”
“I don’t like it. I’ll buy you socks instead,” she said on the way downstairs to wait for the food delivery.
Maddie exchanged the dress at Customer Service the next morning. Within weeks, Driscoll’s sold out of every other dress in the same collection, both in-store and online because it was so popular; however, the extra-small, botanical-print one inexplicably remained in the store. Many women tried it on, and rejected it. Others bought the dress and later returned it for a refund. It became a running joke among the Misses associates to encounter the dress “hiding” in different places — crouched on a shelf behind some sweaters, dangling from the overhead trolley in the stock room, or burrowing under the disrespected, fallen clothing in Clearance. But Maddie never laughed. She never told anyone about the day she found it sitting upright in the back of her car — they’d think she was losing it, and maybe they would be right. And she had an additional reason to dislike that dress.
One day, while she was up on a stepladder, organizing the blouses that hung against the wall above a row of trousers, she fell and broke her wrist. She also suffered numerous contusions, and had to file an accident report.
“What happened?” Crystal asked her.
“I have no idea. I felt the ladder jiggle and I lost my balance.”
“The ladder moved?”
“Yeah, I don’t know why. I guess I’m just clumsy,” she replied.
Crystal asked Sam in Loss Prevention to run the videotape caught on the store’s surveillance camera, which showed the botanical-print dress coiled around the bottom of one leg of the stepladder. Tugging it, it appeared to Maddie. She gulped. That dress hates me. It’s trying to kill me.
“Next time, be more careful when you use the ladder. Make sure there’s nothing under it,” said Crystal.
“Of course,” said Maddie, although she knew for certain that she had not placed the ladder on top of the dress.
At night, when the lights dimmed after the robotic announcement, “Driscoll’s is now closed,” the dress creeped among the shelves and slithered along the floors throughout the store. Maddie found it one morning with a trail of dust on one side.
“Well, we can’t sell it like this,” Maddie decided, so she took it to the cash register to print out a “damaged” ticket. The dress writhed as Maddie stapled the ticket to the sleeve with vengeance. Then she tossed it onto a pile of “discards” in Customer Service. “Goodbye,” she said to the botanical-print dress. Why didn’t I think of this before?
But that night, the dress escaped from the bin, wriggled free of the ticket, and made its way to the fitting room where Vera’s ghost waited, as always, to try it on.
Featured image: Two Women on the Shore (1898) by Edvard Munch, The Art Institute of Chicago
It’s unusual, but not unheard of, for a TV series to break out into theaters as the regular show continues to run on television. It’s slightly more common with animation (or puppetry), with examples like The Simpsons, South Park, and The Muppet Show all pulling it off during their runs. In terms of live-action, the list is much smaller, with notable efforts being the 1960s Batman and The X-Files, which scored a hit film between seasons five and six of the series. However, Dark Shadows managed to put a feature film on the big screen featuring a number of main cast members while the series continued to run daily. It wasn’t a surprise that the show bucked tradition or expectations; after all, it had been doing just that since its 1966 debut.
Dark Shadows was the brainchild of Dan Curtis, a writer, director, and producer whose output had a seismic impact on the horror television genre. Over the years, Curtis hopped back and forth between television and film. His 1975 TV movie Trilogy of Terror, based on three stories by Richard Matheson, is routinely listed among the best horror films ever made for the medium. He adapted a number of classic horror novels for TV to great success, including the 1973 version of Dracula with Jack Palance in the lead. In the 1980s, he adapted Herman Wouk’s World War II novels The Winds of War and War and Remembrance into a pair of mini-series that were nominated for a combined 19 Emmy Awards, Remembrance winning for Best Mini-Series. He also directed The Night Stalker, the film that introduced Jeff Rice’s intrepid reporter character Carl Kolchak to wider audiences; the 1972 TV film was the highest rated TV film of all time at that point, with 48 percent of all TV viewers in the U.S. tuned into the movie on the night it ran. That film led to a hit sequel, The Night Strangler, and the spin-off series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
Curtis formed the idea of Dark Shadows around a dream he had of a woman on a train. Encouraged by his wife, his successfully pitched his concept of a Gothic soap opera to ABC in 1965. He teamed up with Art Wallace, a seasoned writer with years of genre TV experience, to flesh out the overall idea and story bible for the new series. Wallace and Curtis wrote the first eight weeks of the series (40 episodes), and then Wallace traded back and forth with screenwriter and playwright Francis Swann on the next nine weeks.
The series began by leaning on the more traditional tropes of Gothic romance, with Curtis’s “woman on the train” becoming Victoria Winters, who was drawn into a Jane Eyre-inspired plotline. Less than a year into the run of the show, ratings were less than great. In an effort to boost interest, Curtis went all-in on the horror angle by introducing vampire Barnabas Collins, played by Jonathan Frid. The show exploded in popularity, picking up three million viewers in a year. The daily timeslot (usually 4 p.m., though it had runs at 3:30 p.m.) gave teens the chance to discover the show after school, and they became a solid component of the audience. Emboldened by their success with Barnabas, the creators went full steam ahead with ghosts, witches, werewolves, and more. Time-travel became a component, with entire weeks of the series spent in different time periods; of course, Barnabas (as a vampire) and others could appear up and down the timeline, while some actors simply played their ancestors or descendants as needed.
With the show, and Barnabas in particular, taking off, Curtis started pitching for a theatrical film spin-off and sold MGM on the idea. One early concept had the creative team re-editing series episodes into a film, but that was abandoned in favor of doing a tight, film-length version of Barnabas’s main story. Curtis and the writers and producers of the daily show coordinated to write out the necessary members of the main cast for when they would needed during the six-week film shoot. Some of the same sets and locations were used. However, the film milieu obviously provided greater leverage for violence and scares, allowing for things that were out on TV (like dripping blood from vampire fang-induced neck wounds) to be shown. The film was released on August 25, 1970, and while it wasn’t a runaway success, it did double its budget, allowing MGM to greenlight a second film.
The Night of Dark Shadows trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Warner Bros. Entertainment)
Unfortunately, the ratings for the daily show started to taper off. After a high of seven to nine million viewers a day in mid-to-late 1969, viewership went into a skid. There are a number of theories for this, running from the 1970 recession forcing budget cuts, to the loss of ratings leading to local stations dropping the show and feeding a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Whatever the final reason, Dark Shadows aired its last episode on April 2, 1971. A few months later, the second film, Night of Dark Shadows, hit theaters. This time, due to the unavailability of Jonathan Frid, who had gone on to other projects after the cancellation of the series, the movie focused on Barnabas Collins’s descendant Quentin and the witch Angelique. At the last minute, MGM forced Curtis to cut more than 35 minutes from the film to get its run-time down; all involved felt this hurt the film in a number of ways. When the movie opened, it made back its budget, but that was it for the original TV and film incarnations of Dark Shadows.
Over the years, the show has been subject to a number of reboot attempts. NBC put a new version on the air in early 1991, starring Ben Cross as Barnabas. Initial ratings were huge, but the show was quickly derailed by pre-emptions brought on by ongoing coverage of the Gulf War. The show was cancelled after a single season. A pilot was made for the WB in 2004, but didn’t get a series order. Tim Burton directed a new big-screen version in 2012, which starred his frequent collaborator Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins; although the film made money, it was something of an overall miss. Jonathan Frid put in a cameo for the film, which was his last screen appearance before he passed away that year. Since the fall of 2019, Warner Bros. Television and The CW have been developing a sequel to the original series, tentatively titled Dark Shadows: Reincarnation. Dan Curtis passed in 2006, but his daughters Tracy and Cathy hold the rights to the series and are involved in the production of the potential new version.
The work of Dan Curtis in general and Dark Shadows in particular continues to resonate across media. The X-Files creator Chris Carter spoken often of the debt his show owed to Kolchak. You can see its echoes in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, among others, and in the number of daytime soaps that adopted supernatural plotlines, including Days of Our Lives and the almost entirely supernatural General Hospital spin-off, Port Charles. Perhaps a new version will jump up and seize the zeitgeist again; maybe it will even be popular enough to produce new films while the new series runs. If Dark Shadows has taught us anything, it’s that nothing stays dead for long.
Featured image: Ironika / Shutterstock
Having performed in both the touring and London productions of Hair in the early 1970s, Richard O’Brien combined his love of science fiction, horror, and comic books with his stage background into writing the musical The Rocky Horror Show. The play rapidly grew in popularity, moving from theatre to bigger theatre in England. When the opportunity came to take the tale to the screen in 1975, little did anyone involved know that their film would still be playing around the world 45 years later. I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey . . . this is the story of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
O’Brien was born in England in 1942 and moved to New Zealand with his family in the 1950s. After college, he went back to England in 1964 and began working on stage and in film. O’Brien played both an Apostle and Leper in the London production of Jesus Christ Superstar; the director who cast him was Jim Sharman. Sharman would cast him again, and O’Brien shared his idea for They Came from Denton High, a musical send-up of the things that he loved, like 1950s science-fiction movies. Sharman came on board as director and gave O’Brien the idea for a new name: The Rocky Horror Show. In June 1973, the show kicked off at London’s Theatre Upstairs; it quickly became a hit, moving to bigger venues until making it to the U.K’s equivalent of Broadway, the West End.
Lou Adler was already a big name in American music when he saw Rocky in London. Adler had produced Carole King’s Tapestry, the Monterey Pop Festival, and six hits for The Mamas and The Papas, including “California Dreamin’.” He bought the U.S. theatrical rights, taking the show to the Roxy in L.A. Soon after, Michael White, who had produced the London shows, Adler, O’Brien, and Sharman were collaborating on a film version. Adler and White produced with Sharman directing and co-writing the screen adaptation with O’Brien.
In terms of casting, several members of the London cast made the jump to screen. Tim Curry (Dr. Frank-N-Furter), O’Brien (Riff Raff), Patricia Quinn (Magenta), and “Little Nell” Campbell (Columbia) had all been in productions in England. The ostensible lead roles of Brad and Janet were trickier, as studio 20th Century Fox wanted American actors in the parts; those ended up being filled by Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon. Charles Gray, a two-time Bond villain, played the criminologist/narrator and Jonathan Adams was cast as Dr. Scott. Marvin Lee Aday, better known as Meat Loaf, was a veteran of Broadway’s Hair and had played Eddie in the L.A. cast; he reprised Eddie for the movie, two years before the release of his massively successful Bat Out of Hell album. Background character Betty Munroe (whose wedding Brad and Janet attend early in the film) was played by Hilary Labow, which was the screen name of Hilary Farr, known today as the designer on the long-running renovation series Love It or List It.
Much of the Gothy, classic horror mood of the film came from the location at Oakley Court. The estate had been used in several Hammer Studios films, including The Brides of Dracula and The Plague of the Zombies. In Sharman’s direction, you can occasionally note some of the same wide angles and sudden zooms prevalent in Hammer features, which were meant to echo styles prevalent in the genre. Richard Hartley produced the soundtrack and handled musical arrangements on the songs that O’Brien had written. The soundtrack lists 21 official numbers, although “Once in a While” came from a deleted scene and “Super Heroes” was only seen in the U.K. until the eventual video release.
The film opened 45 years ago this week in London, with the U.S. opening a few weeks later. It was not an immediate success. Outside of L.A., it was quickly pulled from theatres. Tim Deegan, a Fox executive, suggested an alternative strategy; figuring that the film might do well on the midnight circuit, as John Waters films had, Deegan got the ball rolling in New York. The Waverly Theater became ground zero for a cult phenomenon, fostering audience participation in the form of recited remarks and props. Audience members began coming to the show in costume, and screenings started to have live casts that would act out the film as it ran on the screen. Within a couple of years, the movie had become a legit cult sensation and defined the notion of the “Midnight Movie.”
The movie has actually never closed, making it the longest-running release in the history of film. Some fans and film history buffs were concerned about the status of the film when the Walt Disney Company finished its acquisition of 20th Century Fox in 2019. However, even though Disney “vaulted” a number of Fox titles, they were conscious of Rocky’s status and fandom and decided to keep it in release so that the screenings would go on.
So, just what has made it endure? At the top, the music is insanely catchy, particularly “The Time Warp.” The notion of attending a movie as a sort of costume party is fun, and the props and interaction make it a shared experience that you can join in over and over. But a deeper undercurrent is that Rocky Horror celebrates the outsider. It’s been embraced by the LGBTQ+ community, theater kids, punks, goths, comic book fans, horror and science fiction fans who get the in-jokes, and more, all of whom find connection to the film. Its influence has reverberated through the years, turning up in sitcoms like The Drew Carey Show or a 2010 episode of Glee or in films like The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Fox’s 2016 TV remake. It has endured for four-and-a-half decades, and there’s no sign that it will go away anytime soon. One supposes that it’s comforting to know that as much as some cult phenoms come and go, there will always be a light over at the Frankenstein place.
Featured image: UA Cinema Merced. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, opening night, January of 1978. (Photo by Robin Adams, General Manager, UA Cinema, Merced California, 1978. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.; Wikimedia Commons)
The storytelling tradition of horror stretches back thousands of years across the myths and legends of practically every culture on Earth. Medieval writings featured monster stories, and the Gothic tradition that began in the 1700s informed the atmosphere of future horror tales. Our perception of the horror story took shape in the 1800s as the Brothers Grimm, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, and many more created timeless characters and published some of the most well-known short stories and novels in western literature. The American tradition sprouted from masters like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe and spread through pulps, radio, television, film, and more, growing a veritable forest of story populated by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Anne Rice, Ira Levin, Octavia Butler, Joyce Carol Oates, and countless others. Today, the tradition continues. Though there are far too many to name in just one piece, here’s a solid beginning for a journey into great modern American horror.
1. A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay (2015)
A Head Full of Ghosts won the Horror Writer Association’s Bram Stoker Award for Novel in 2015, and it earned every bit of it. Tremblay combines a number of narrative elements that approach the main story of a girl’s possible possession, and the reality show that documents it, from multiple directions. Tremblay skillfully depicts moments as seen from a younger sister’s point of view and throws them into sharp contrast using passages written by a blogger who is convinced the whole thing is a sham. Somehow, the book manages to be terrifying and sad in equal measure while functioning as an indictment of religious fanaticism, the destructive power of reality celebrity, and the ways that we fail our children. It’s a wholly remarkable work, and possibly the best horror novel of the century so far.
2. You by Caroline Kepnes (2014)
It’s all about you, isn’t it? Kepnes gives us a protagonist who is a truly terrible person that still keeps us enthralled. Joe Goldberg falls for Guinevere Beck when she drops by the bookstore where he works, and the novel becomes a whirlwind of obsession and quickly escalating consequences. Told through an unusual second-person style that makes you feel uncomfortably close to Joe, You is nightmarish in many ways because so many pieces of it are plausible. This isn’t the horror of the misty moors; this is the horror of society and dating as it exists right now. Which, of course, is a huge part of what makes it so unsettling.
3. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (2009)
Between 2006 and 2012, former Entertainment Weekly television critic Gillian Flynn dropped three cracking thrillers. The first, Sharp Objects, became the award-winning HBO series, while the third, Gone Girl, became a zeitgeist-rattling phenomenon in both book and film form. The middle child, Dark Places, was a bestseller and adapted into a Charlize Theron film, but tends to get overlooked. It shouldn’t be. Flynn writes a nerve-wracking tale of a childhood killing-spree survivor who comes to realize that maybe her brother wasn’t guilty of the crime after all. In between expertly juggled flashbacks and taut suspense, Flynn throws a light on poverty and the reckless consequences of the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s.
4. Horns by Joe Hill (2010)
Some readers call Horns dark fantasy, and that’s fine; the horror heritage is certainly there. Hill hasn’t been a stranger to best-of lists; his novels Heart-Shaped Box and NOS482 have drawn particular praise, as have his short-story collections and his comic book series (with artist Gabriel Rodriguez) Locke & Key. This Gothic tale of love, loss, and supernatural vengeance belongs in the discussion of his best work. It’s not for the faint-hearted by any stretch, but it is loaded with heart in its own way.
5. The Five by Robert R. McCammon (2011)
If you‘re a regular reader of McCammon and were forced to pick a first novel for a potential new fan, you’d be facing a truly tough task. McCammon’s been turning out bestselling and award-winning fiction for decades. From historical mysteries of his Matthew Corbett series to the critically acclaimed Swan Song to the utterly badass spy-for-Allies-who’s-also-a-werewolf insanity of The Wolf’s Hour, you’d have no end of choices. However, The Five has its own kind of brutal beauty, containing a feeling that’s akin to the desperation of ’70s thrillers or the unsettling relatability of The Devil’s Rejects. The Five is the story of a band on the road that runs afoul of a malignant presence, and the suspense builds as the relationships fray due to forces from within and without.
6. The Ruins by Scott Smith (2006)
Scott Smith has been quiet on the novel front since The Ruins, as he’s been working more in film and television. However, this book takes the familiar notion of “young American travelers in over their heads” and inverts it with a sinister, implacable antagonist. We won’t even tell you what the challenge is, partially because it sounds almost too outlandish on the face of it. Nevertheless, Smith turns a difficult idea into an exercise in grueling terror that will definitely make you rethink ever camping again.
7. Snowblind by Christopher Golden (2014)
The insanely prolific Golden presents a similar challenge to McCammon, except there’s amazingly even more to recommend. Golden has done a little bit of everything, including writing series, licensed novels, and YA fare and editing multiple top-notch collections. 2014’s Snowblind is a gut-wrenching tour de force, mainly for the way that it weaponizes grief into a blunt instrument of horror. It’s a ghost story that approaches the level of (no pun intended) Peter Straub’s 1979 classic Ghost Story; both use a winter setting and the specters of loss and regret to maximum effect. Golden, equally effective in science fiction (Tin Men) and the horror pocket (Ararat) is reliably good, but this one sticks with you.
Honorable Mention, Canadian Division: The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena (2016)
We started with a focus on American novels, but there are a couple more from the wider world that we wanted to mention. Shari Lapena delivered a bone-chiller for the ages with The Couple Next Door. With a premise rotating around an infant that disappears while the parents are right next door, the story plugs easily into latent parental tension. As the characters plunge further into investigation and recrimination, the unease digs at the reader’s mind and makes one wonder what they would do in a similar situation.
Honorable Mention, European Division: Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindquist (2004)
Lindquist’s debut novel shook up our expectations of what the vampire novel could be. By taking a radically different approach that would result in two successful film adaptations (one in Sweden in 2008, the other in the U.S. in 2010 as Let Me In), Lindquist took one of the most frequently used creatures in horror and crafted a parable that deals with loneliness, bullying, and any manner of abuse. Packed with twists that you won’t see coming and never taking the easy path, Let the Right One In shocks and startles even between the horror scenes.
All-Time Honorable Mention: Stephen King
Any list of great American horror novelists has to include King. It’s also fair to say that few artists have created horror that’s as uniquely American as King has. The true genius of the man is that he takes things that are part of everyday life in the U.S. and turns them toward the darkness. Only King could turn high school bullying into Carrie or Thornton Wilder into Salem’s Lot or alcoholism into The Shining, and those were just his first three novels. Over the years, he’s booked any manner of monsters into the supernatural funhouse of his work, but he’s always found the humanity in the characters and exploited the familiarity of their surroundings for maximum effect. Lot remains one of his best for how he transplants the European vampire tradition into a small Maine town and lets the encroaching horror expose the rot that was already there. The book also gives us two King archetypes in Ben Mears (his first writer protagonist) and Mark Petrie (a brave youngster who has a better understanding of the threat than the adults around him). King would return to those character models again over the years, with both echoing in Bill Denbrough from IT. Today, 45 years after Carrie, King shows no sign of letting up. His latest novel, The Institute, arrived in September, and 2019 has seen five film or TV adaptations, with another HBO series and a new novella collection already on tap for 2020. With a Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, a National Book Award Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and a National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment of the Arts to his credit, it’s hard to argue that King is anything but the American Master of Horror.
Featured image: Shutterstock.com
Is Stephen King having a moment? Just this month, the second half of the film adaptation of his classic horror novel, It (titled It: Chapter Two), pulled in more than $150 million in America alone in its first nine days. Last week, his 61st novel, The Institute, hit stores. The movie version of his sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, arrives in November. And streaming services positively hum with ongoing and upcoming adaptations of his work, including a new version of The Stand. It may seem like “a moment,” but the truth is that he’s been having an ongoing collection of moments since he became a pop culture force 45 years ago with the release of Carrie. Twenty-five years ago, King was in the middle of another pivotal September, one that would see the release of both a classic film and a novel that fundamentally changed the universe for King’s “constant readers.”
In 1982, King published Different Seasons, a collection of four novellas: The Breathing Method, The Body, Apt Pupil, and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. The stories were distinguished from his novels at the time by mostly falling outside of the horror genre. Owing in part to King’s popularity, Hollywood came knocking for the non-horror material, too. The Body was adapted as Stand by Me in 1985, and Apt Pupil, after an abortive attempt ran out of money in 1987, saw screens in 1998.
The film adaptation of Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption eventually came to life through a writer and director who King had previously allowed to film one of his short stories. Frank Darabont had been one of King’s first “Dollar Babies.” That was the nickname given to beneficiaries of King’s policy of allowing students or otherwise aspiring filmmakers to license one of his short stories for one dollar.
Darabont cast Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in the leads for the period prison drama. Despite King’s best-selling writer status and proven track record in generating box office dollars, the studio decided to keep King’s name out of the marketing due to his association with horror. In various interviews, King himself has remarked on this disconnect, including a frequently memed conversation he had with an older lady in a supermarket who, when he pointed out that he’d written Shawshank, retorted, “No, you didn’t.” Upon its September 1994 release, the film had a slow start; Forrest Gump was in the middle of its dominating 42-week box office run, and Shawshank went into wide release on the day that Pulp Fiction opened. Squished between two pop culture phenomena and the ongoing runs of The Lion King and lingering action films like Speed and True Lies, the film stiffed.
In a King-like twist, Shawshank came back from the dead due to the necromancy of home video. Warner Home Video shipped more than 300,000 rental copies of the film to outlets like Blockbuster, sensing that the movie might get a second life. They guessed right, and it went on to do huge rental business and was subsequently nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay (for Darabont), Best Actor (for Freeman), and Best Picture. While it didn’t win, the nominations cemented the image of the film in the public eye as a quality work. It’s thrived on video and television airings ever since. For the past 11 years, it has been #1 on IMDB.com’s user-created list of Top Films. It has also been preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Within a few days of the initial limited September release of The Shawshank Redemption, King put out a new novel called Insomnia. The book came two years after his 1992 one-two punch of Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne, a pair of novels about women endangered by abusive men and linked by an eclipse. This time, the protagonist, Ralph Roberts, was an elderly widower dealing with his increasing inability to sleep. As the plot runs further and further into a supernatural direction, King pulls out his big surprise roughly three-quarters of the way through: Roberts’s real mission is to save the life of young boy whose existence is critical to the success of another mission, that of The Gunslinger, Roland Deschain, protagonist of King’s The Dark Tower series.
This bombshell revelation did something that King had never done before. Whereas readers understood that the “Castle Rock” books (like Cujo, The Dead Zone, and Needful Things) were connected, and that It and Insomnia both took place in Derry, for example, here was the author planting a flag that the entire span of his stories were connected in one overarching narrative. That meant that seemingly disconnected threads like The Dark Tower and Insomnia were not only connected, but could impact one another. King would make this even more explicit in the fourth Dark Tower book, Wizard and Glass, in 1997, when the main characters crossed over into the world of The Stand. King’s own notes in the book stated that, “I am coming to understand that Roland’s world actually contains all the others of my making.”
The implication from that point forward was that whenever you read a King book, you weren’t just reading a story in isolation; you were reading something that could also been seen as part of a vast tapestry of interconnected worlds, stories, and ideas. The author’s multiverse has been tracked in two editions of The Stephen King Universe, a book compiled by writers Stanley Wiater, Christopher Golden, and Hank Wagner. And though The Dark Tower has ended (we think), King isn’t slowing down with the connections; after Holly Gibney, a protagonist of King’s Bill Hodges Trilogy, popped up in 2018’s The Outsider, King has since promised that she’s the lead character in next year’s If It Bleeds.
Decades after his commercial breakthrough, King never seems to stop having “moments.” He’s earned Grandmaster status from both the Mystery Writers of America and the World Horror Convention. In 2003, he received the National Book Award Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters; in 2014, he was also awarded a National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment of the Arts. His short stories, novels, and the various adaptations of his work continue to be wildly popular. If such moments are themselves stories, then it’s easy to understand in this way: everyone has stories; it’s just that Stephen King is more prolific than the rest of us.
Featured image: Atlaspix / Alamy Stock Photo.
Published on October 31, 1964
We couldn’t have been more pleased. Deep in Clay Canyon we came upon the lot abruptly at a turn in the winding road. There was a crudely lettered board nailed to a dead tree which read, LOT FOR SALE — $1500 OR BEST OFFER, and a phone number.
“Fifteen hundred dollars — in Clay Canyon? I can’t believe it,” Ellen said.
“Or best offer,” I corrected.
“I’ve heard you can’t take a step without bumping into some movie person here.”
“We’ve come three miles already without bumping into one. I haven’t seen a soul.”
“But there are the houses.” Ellen looked about breathlessly.
There indeed were the houses — to our left and our right, to our front and our rear — low, ranch-style houses, unostentatious, prosaic, giving no hint of the gay and improbable lives we imagined went on inside them. But as the houses marched up the gradually climbing road there was not a single person to be seen. The cars — the Jaguars and Mercedeses and Cadillacs and Chryslers — were parked unattended in the driveways, their chrome gleaming in the sun; I caught a glimpse of one corner of a pool and a white diving board, but no one swam in the turquoise water. We climbed out of the car, Ellen with her rather large, short-haired head stooped forward as if under a weight. Except for the fiddling of a cicada somewhere on the hill, a profound hush lay over us in the stifling air. Not even a bird moved in the motionless trees.
“There must be something wrong with it,” Ellen said.
“It’s probably already been sold, and they just didn’t bother to take down the sign … There was something here once, though.” I had come across several ragged chunks of concrete that lay about randomly as if heaved out of the earth.
“A house, do you think?”
“It’s hard to say. If it was a house it’s been gone for years.”
“Oh, Ted,” Ellen cried. “It’s perfect! Look at the view!” She pointed up the canyon toward the round, parched hills. Through the heat shimmering on the road they appeared to be melting down like wax.
“Another good thing,” I said. “There won’t be much to do to get the ground ready except for clearing the brush away. This place has been graded once. We save a thousand dollars right there.”
Ellen took both my hands. Her eyes shone in her solemn face. “What do you think, Ted? What do you think?”
Ellen and I had been married four years, having both taken the step relatively late — in our early thirties — and in that time had lived in two different places, first an apartment in Santa Monica, then, when I was promoted to office manager, in a partly furnished house in the Hollywood Hills, always with the idea that when our first child came we would either buy or build a larger house of our own. But the child had not come. It was a source of anxiety and sadness to us both and lay between us like an old scandal for which each of us took on the blame.
Then I made an unexpected killing on the stock market and Ellen suddenly began agitating in her gentle way for the house. As we shopped around she dropped hints along the way — “This place is really too small for us, don’t you think?” or “We’d have to fence off the yard of course” — that let me know that the house had become a talisman for her; she had conceived the notion that perhaps, in some occult way, if we went ahead with our accommodations for a child the child might come. The notion gave her happiness. Her face filled out, the gray circles under her eyes disappeared, the quiet gaiety, which did not seem like gaiety at all but a form of peace, returned.
As Ellen held on to my hands, I hesitated. I am convinced now that there was something behind my hesitation — something I felt then only as a quality of silence, a fleeting twinge of utter isolation. “It’s so safe,” she said. “There’s no traffic at all.”
I explained that. “It’s not a through street. It ends somewhere up in the hills.”
She turned back to me again with her bright, questioning eyes. The happiness that had grown in her during our months of house-hunting seemed to have welled into near rapture.
“We’ll call the number,” I said, “but don’t expect too much. It must have been sold long ago.”
We walked slowly back to the car. The door handle burned to the touch. Down the canyon the rear end of a panel truck disappeared noiselessly around a bend.
“No,” Ellen said, “I have a feeling about this place. I think it was meant to be ours.”
And she was right, of course.
Mr. Carswell Deeves, who owned the land, was called upon to do very little except take my check for $1,500 and hand over the deed to us, for by the time Ellen and I met him we had already sold ourselves. Mr. Deeves, as we had suspected from the unprofessional sign, was a private citizen. We found his house in a predominantly Mexican section of Santa Monica. He was a chubby, pink man of indeterminate age dressed in white ducks and soft, white shoes, as if he had had a tennis court hidden away among the squalid, asphalt-shingled houses and dry kitchen gardens of his neighbors.
“Going to live in Clay Canyon, are you?” he said. “Ros Russell lives up there, or used to.” So, we discovered, did Joel McCrea, Jimmy Stewart, and Paula Raymond, as well as a cross-section of producers, directors and character actors. “Oh, yes,” said Mr. Deeves, “it’s an address that will look extremely good on your stationery.”
Ellen beamed and squeezed my hand.
Mr. Deeves turned out to know very little about the land other than that a house had been destroyed by fire there years ago and that the land had changed hands many times since. “I myself acquired it in what may strike you as a novel way,” he said as we sat in his parlor — a dark, airless box which smelled faintly of camphor and whose walls were obscured with yellowing autographed photographs of movie stars. “I won it in a game of hearts from a makeup man on the set of Quo Vadis. Perhaps you remember me. I had a close-up in one of the crowd scenes.”
“That was a number of years ago, Mr. Deeves,” I said. “Have you been trying to sell it all this time?”
“I’ve nearly sold it dozens of times,” he said, “but something always went wrong somehow.”
“What kind of things?”
“Naturally, the fire-insurance rates up there put off a lot of people. I hope you’re prepared to pay a high premium — ”
“I’ve already checked into that.”
“Good. You’d be surprised how many people will let details like that go till the last minute.”
“What other things have gone wrong?”
Ellen touched my arm to discourage my wasting any more time with foolish questions.
Mr. Deeves spread out the deed before me and smoothed it with his forearm. “Silly things, some of them. One couple found some dead doves … ”
“Dead doves?” I handed him the signed article. With one pink hand Mr. Deeves waved it back and forth to dry the ink. “Five of them, if I remember correctly. In my opinion they’d sat on a wire and were electrocuted somehow. The husband thought nothing of it, of course, but his wife became so hysterical that we had to call off the transaction.”
I made a sign at Mr. Deeves to drop this line of conversation. Ellen loves animals and birds of all kinds with a devotion that turns the loss of a household pet into a major tragedy, which is why, since the death of our cocker spaniel, we have had no more pets. But Ellen appeared not to have heard; she was watching the paper in Mr. Deeves’s hand fixedly, as if she were afraid it might vanish.
Mr. Deeves sprang suddenly to his feet. “Well!” he cried. “It’s all yours now. I know you’ll be happy there.”
Ellen flushed with pleasure. “I’m sure we will,” she said, and took his pudgy hand in both of hers.
“A prestige address,” called Mr. Deeves from his porch as we drove away. “A real prestige address.”
Ellen and I are modern people. Our talk in the evenings is generally on issues of the modern world. Ellen paints a little and I do some writing from time to time — mostly on technical subjects. The house that Ellen and I built mirrored our concern with present-day aesthetics. We worked closely with Jack Salmanson, the architect and a friend, who designed a steel module house, low and compact and private, which could be fitted into the irregularities of our patch of land for a maximum of space. The interior decor we left largely up to Ellen, who combed the home magazines and made sketches as if she were decorating a dozen homes.
I mention these things to show that there is nothing Gothic about my wife and me: We are as thankful for our common sense as for our sensibilities, and we flattered ourselves that the house we built achieved a balance between the aesthetic and the functional. Its lines were simple and clean; there were no dark corners, and it was surrounded on three sides by houses, none of which were more than eight years old.
There were, however, signs from the very beginning, ominous signs which can be read only in retrospect, though it seems to me now that there were others who suspected but said nothing. One was the Mexican who cut down the tree.
As a money-saving favor to us, Jack Salmanson agreed to supervise the building himself and hire small, independent contractors to do the labor, many of whom had dilapidated equipment that appeared to run only by some mechanical miracle. The Mexican, a small, forlorn workman with a stringy moustache, had already burned out two chainsaw blades and still had not cut halfway through the tree. It was inexplicable. The tree, the same one on which Ellen and I had seen the original FOR SALE sign, had obviously been dead for years, and the branches that already lay scattered on the ground were rotted through.
“You must have run into a batch of knots,” Jack said. “Try it again. If the saw gets too hot, quit and we’ll pull it down with the bulldozer.” As if answering to its name, the bulldozer turned at the back of the lot and lumbered toward us in a cloud of dust, the black shoulders of the operator gleaming in the sun.
The Mexican need not have feared for his saw. He had scarcely touched it to the tree when it started to topple of its own accord. Startled, he backed away a few steps. The tree had begun to fall toward the back of the lot, in the direction of his cut, but now it appeared to arrest itself, its naked branches trembling as if in agitation; then with an awful rending sound it writhed upright and fell back on itself, gaining momentum and plunging directly at the bulldozer. My voice died in my throat, but Jack and the Mexican shouted, and the operator jumped and rolled on the ground just as the tree fell high on the hood, shattering the windshield to bits. The bulldozer, out of control and knocked off course, came directly at us, gears whining and gouging a deep trough in the earth. Jack and I jumped one way, the Mexican the other; the bulldozer lurched between us and ground on toward the street, the operator sprinting after it.
“The car!” Jack shouted “The car!”
Parked in front of the house across the street was a car, a car which was certainly brand new. The bulldozer headed straight for it, its blade striking clusters of sparks from the pavement. The Mexican waved his chain saw over his head like a toy and shouted in Spanish. I covered my eyes with my hands and heard Jack grunt softly, as if he had been struck in the midsection, just before the crash.
Two women stood on the porch of the house across the street and gaped. The car had caved in at the center, its steel roof wrinkled like tissue paper; its front and rear ends were folded around the bulldozer as if embracing it. Then, with a low whoosh, both vehicles were enveloped in creeping blue flame.
“Rotten luck,” Jack muttered under his breath as we ran into the street. From the corner of my eye I caught the curious sight of the Mexican on the ground, praying, his chain saw lying by his knees.
In the evening Ellen and I paid a visit to the Sheffits’, Sondra and Jeff, our neighbors across the canyon road, where we met the owner of the ruined car, Joyce Castle, a striking blonde in lemon-colored pants. The shock of the accident itself wore off with the passing of time and cocktails, and the three of them treated it as a tremendous joke.
Mrs. Castle was particularly hilarious. “I’m doing better,” she rejoiced. “The Alfa-Romeo only lasted two days, but I held on to this one a whole six weeks. I even had the permanent plates on.”
“But you mustn’t be without a car, Mrs. Castle,” Ellen said in her serious way. “We’d be glad to loan you our Plymouth until you can — ”
“I’m having a new car delivered tomorrow afternoon. Don’t worry about me. A Daimler, Jeff, you’ll be interested to know. I couldn’t resist after riding in yours. What about the poor bulldozer man? Is he absolutely wiped out?”
“I think he’ll survive,” I said. “In any case he has two other ’dozers.”
“Then you won’t be held up,” Jeff said.
“I wouldn’t think so.”
Sondra chuckled softly. “I just happened to look out the window,” she said. “It was just like a Rube Goldberg cartoon. A chain reaction.”
“And there was my poor old Cadillac at the end of it,” Mrs. Castle sighed.
Suey, Mrs. Castle’s dog, who had been lying on the floor beside his mistress glaring dourly at us between dozes, suddenly ran to the front door barking ferociously, his red mane standing straight up.
“Suey!” Mrs. Castle slapped her knee. “Suey! Come here!”
The dog merely flattened its ears and looked from his mistress toward the door again as if measuring a decision. He growled deep in his throat.
“It’s the ghost,” Sondra said lightly. “He’s behind the whole thing.” Sondra sat curled up in one corner of the sofa and tilted her head to one side as she spoke, like a very clever child.
Jeff laughed sharply. “Oh, they tell some very good stories.”
With a sigh Mrs. Castle rose and dragged Suey back by his collar. “If I didn’t feel so self-conscious about it I’d take him to an analyst,” she said. “Sit, Suey! Here’s a cashew nut for you.”
“I’m very fond of ghost stories,” I said, smiling.
“Oh, well,” Jeff murmured, mildly disparaging.
“Go ahead, Jeff,” Sondra urged him over the rim of her glass. “They’d like to hear it.”
Jeff was a literary agent, a tall, sallow man with dark oily hair that he was continually pushing out of his eyes with his fingers. As he spoke he smiled lopsidedly as if defending against the probability of being taken seriously. “All I know is that back in the late seventeenth century the Spanish used to have hangings here. The victims are supposed to float around at night and make noises.”
“Criminals?” I asked.
“Of the worst sort,” said Sondra. “What was the story Guy Relling told you, Joyce?” She smiled with a curious inward relish that suggested she knew the story perfectly well herself.
“Is that Guy Relling, the director?” I asked.
“Yes,” Jeff said. “He owns those stables down the canyon.”
“I’ve seen them,” Ellen said. “Such lovely horses.”
Joyce Castle hoisted her empty glass into the air. “Jeff, love, will you find me another?”
“We keep straying from the subject,” said Sondra gently. “Fetch me another too, darling” — she handed her glass to Jeff as he went by — “like a good boy … I didn’t mean to interrupt, Joyce. Go on.” She gestured toward us as the intended audience. Ellen stiffened slightly in her chair.
“It seems that there was one hombre of outstanding depravity,” Joyce Castle said languidly. “I forget the name. He murdered, stole, raped . . . one of those endless Spanish names with a ‘Luis’ in it, a nobleman I think Guy said. A charming sort. Mad, of course, and completely unpredictable. They hanged him at last for some unsavory escapade in a nunnery. You two are moving into a neighborhood rich with tradition.”
We all laughed.
“What about the noises?” Ellen asked Sondra. “Have you heard anything?”
“Of course,” Sondra said, tipping her head prettily. Every inch of her skin was tanned to the color of coffee from afternoons by the pool. It was a form of leisure that her husband, with his bilious coloring and lank hair, apparently did not enjoy.
“Everywhere I’ve ever lived,” he said, his grin growing crookeder and more apologetic, “there were noises in the night that you couldn’t explain. Here there are all kinds of wildlife — foxes, raccoons, possums — even coyotes up on the ridge. They’re all active after sundown.”
Ellen’s smile of pleasure at this news turned to distress as Sondra remarked in her offhand way, “We found our poor kitty-cat positively torn to pieces one morning. He was all blood. We never did find his head.”
“A fox,” Jeff put in quickly. Everything he said seemed hollow. Something came from him like a vapor. I thought it was grief.
Sondra gazed smugly into her lap as if hugging a secret to herself. She seemed enormously pleased. It occurred to me that Sondra was trying to frighten us. In a way it relieved me. She was enjoying herself too much, I thought, looking at her spoiled, brown face, to be frightened herself.
After the incident of the tree everything went well for some weeks. The house went up rapidly. Ellen and I visited it as often as we could, walking over the raw ground and making our home in our mind’s eye. The fireplace would go here, the refrigerator here, our Picasso print there. “Ted,” Ellen said timidly, “I’ve been thinking. Why don’t we fix up the extra bedroom as a children’s room?”
“Now that we’ll be living out here our friends will have to stay overnight more often. Most of them have young children. It would be nice for them.”
I slipped my arm around her shoulders. She knew I understood. It was a delicate matter. She raised her face and I kissed her between her brows. Signal and countersignal, the keystones of our life together — a life of sensibility and tact.
“Hey, you two!” Sondra Sheffits called from across the street. She stood on her front porch in a pink bathing suit, her skin brown, her hair nearly white. “How about a swim?”
“Come on, we’ve got plenty.”
Ellen and I debated the question with a glance, settled it with a nod.
As I came out onto the patio in one of Jeff’s suits, Sondra said, “Ted, you’re pale as a ghost. Don’t you get any sun where you are?” She lay in a chaise longue behind huge elliptical sunglasses encrusted with glass gems.
“I stay inside too much, writing articles,” I said.
“You’re welcome to come here any time you like” — she smiled suddenly, showing me a row of small, perfect teeth — “and swim.”
Ellen appeared in her borrowed suit, a red one with a short, limp ruffle. She shaded her eyes as the sun, glittering metallically on the water, struck her full in the face.
Sondra ushered her forward as if to introduce my wife to me. “You look much better in that suit than I ever did.” Her red nails flashed on Ellen’s arm. Ellen smiled guardedly. The two women were about the same height, but Ellen was narrower in the shoulders, thicker through the waist and hips. As they came toward me it seemed to me that Ellen was the one I did not know. Her familiar body became strange. It looked out of proportion. Hairs that on Sondra were all but invisible except when the sun turned them to silver, lay flat and dark on Ellen’s pallid arm.
As if sensing the sudden distance between us, Ellen took my hand. “Let’s jump in together,” she said gaily. “No hanging back.”
Sondra retreated to the chaise longue to watch us, her eyes invisible behind her outrageous glasses, her head on one side.
Incidents began again and continued at intervals. Guy Relling, whom I never met but whose pronouncements on the supernatural reached me through others from time to time like messages from an oracle, claims that the existence of the living dead is a particularly excruciating one as they hover between two states of being. Their memories keep the passions of life forever fresh and sharp, but they are able to relieve them only at a monstrous expense of will and energy which leaves them literally helpless for months or sometimes even years afterward. This was why materializations and other forms of tangible action are relatively rare. There are of course exceptions, Sondra, our most frequent translator of Relling’s theories, pointed out one evening with the odd joy that accompanied all of her remarks on the subject: some ghosts are terrifically active — particularly the insane ones who, ignorant of the limitations of death as they were of the impossibilities of life, transcend them with the dynamism that is exclusively the property of madness. Generally, however, it was Relling’s opinion that a ghost was more to be pitied than feared. Sondra quoted him as having said, “The notion of a haunted house is a misconception semantically. It is not the house but the soul itself that is haunted.”
On Saturday, August 6, a workman laying pipe was blinded in one eye by an acetylene torch.
On Thursday, September 1, a rockslide on the hill behind us dumped four tons of dirt and rock on the half-finished house and halted work for two weeks.
On Sunday, October 9 — my birthday, oddly enough — while visiting the house alone, I slipped on a stray screw and struck my head on a can of latex paint which opened up a gash requiring ten stitches. I rushed across to the Sheffits’. Sondra answered the door in her bathing suit and a magazine in her hand. “Ted?” She peered at me. “I scarcely recognized you through the blood. Come in, I’ll call the doctor. Try not to drip on the furniture, will you?”
I told the doctor of the screw on the floor, the big can of paint. 1 did not tell him that my foot had slipped because I had turned too quickly and that I had turned too quickly because the sensation had grown on me that there was someone behind me, close enough to touch me, perhaps, because something hovered there, fetid and damp and cold and almost palpable in its nearness; I remember shivering violently as I turned, as if the sun of this burning summer’s day had been replaced by a mysterious star without warmth. I did not tell the doctor this nor anyone else.
In November Los Angeles burns. After the long drought of summer the sap goes underground and the baked hills seem to gasp in pain for the merciful release of either life or death — rain or fire. Invariably fire comes first, spreading through the outlying parts of the country like an epidemic, till the sky is livid and starless at night and overhung with dun-colored smoke during the day.
There was a huge fire in Tujunga, north of us, the day Ellen and I moved into our new house — handsome, severe, aggressively new on its dry hillside — under a choked sky the color of earth and a muffled, flyspeck sun. Sondra and Jeff came over to help, and in the evening Joyce Castle stopped by with Suey and a magnum of champagne.
Ellen clasped her hands under her chin. “What a lovely surprise!”
“I hope it’s cold enough. I’ve had it in my refrigerator since four o’clock. Welcome to the canyon. You’re nice people. You remind me of my parents. God, it’s hot. I’ve been weeping all day on account of the smoke. You’ll have air conditioning I suppose?”
Jeff was sprawled in a chair with his long legs straight in front of him in the way a cripple might put aside a pair of crutches. “Joyce, you’re an angel. Excuse me if I don’t get up. I’m recuperating.”
“You’re excused, doll, you’re excused.”
“Ted,” Ellen said softly. “Why don’t you get some glasses?”
Jeff hauled in his legs. “Can I give you a hand?”
“Sit still, Jeff.”
He sighed. “I hadn’t realized I was so out of shape.” He looked more cadaverous than ever after our afternoon of lifting and shoving. Sweat had collected in the hollows under his eyes.
“Shall I show you in the house, Joyce? While Ted is in the kitchen?”
“I love you, Ellen,” Joyce said. “Take me on the whole tour.”
Sondra followed me into the kitchen. She leaned against the wall and smoked, supporting her left elbow in the palm of her right hand. She didn’t say a word. Through the open door I could see Jeff’s outstretched legs from the calves down.
“Thanks for all the help today,” I said to Sondra in a voice unaccountably close to a whisper. I could hear Joyce and Ellen as they moved from room to room, their voices swelling and dying: “It’s all steel? You mean everything? Walls and all? Aren’t you afraid of lightning?”
“Oh, we’re all safely grounded, I think.”
Jeff yawned noisily in the living room. Wordlessly, Sondra put a tray on the kitchen table as I rummaged in an unpacked carton for the glasses. She watched me steadily and coolly, as if she expected me to entertain her. I wanted to say something further to break a silence which was becoming unnatural and oppressive. The sounds around us seemed only to isolate us in a ring of intimacy. With her head on one side Sondra smiled at me. I could hear her rapid breathing.
“What’s this, a nursery? Ellen, love!”
“No, no! It’s only for our friends’ children.”
Sondra’s eyes were blue, the color of shallow water. She seemed faintly amused, as if we were sharing in a conspiracy — a conspiracy I was anxious to repudiate by making some prosaic remark in a loud voice for all to hear, but a kind of pain developed in my chest as the words seemed dammed there, and I only smiled at her foolishly. With every passing minute of silence, the more impossible it became to break through and the more I felt drawn in to the intrigue of which, though I was ignorant, I was surely guilty. Without so much as a touch she had made us lovers.
Ellen stood in the doorway, half turned away as if her first impulse had been to run. She appeared to be deep in thought, her eyes fixed on the steel, cream-colored doorjamb.
Sondra began to talk to Ellen in her dry, satirical voice. It was chatter of the idlest sort, but she was destroying, as I had wished to destroy, the absurd notion that there was something between us. I could see Ellen’s confusion. She hung on Sondra’s words, watching her lips attentively, as if this elegant, tanned woman, calmly smoking and talking of trifles, were her savior.
As for myself, I felt as if I had lost the power of speech entirely. If I joined in with Sondra’s carefully innocent chatter I would only be joining in the deception against my wife; if I proclaimed the truth and ended everything by bringing it into the open … but what truth? What was there in fact to bring into the open? What was there to end? A feeling in the air? An intimation? The answer was nothing, of course. I did not even like Sondra very much. There was something cold and unpleasant about her. There was nothing to proclaim because nothing had happened. “Where’s Joyce?” I asked finally, out of a dry mouth. “Doesn’t she want to see the kitchen?”
Ellen turned slowly toward me, as if it cost her a great effort. “She’ll be here in a minute,” she said tonelessly, and I became aware of Joyce’s and Jeff’s voices from the living room. Ellen studied my face, her pupils oddly dilated under the pinkish fluorescent light, as if she were trying to penetrate to the bottom of a great darkness that lay beneath my chance remark. Was it a code of some kind, a new signal for her that I would shortly make clear? What did it mean? I smiled at her and she responded with a smile of her own, a tentative and formal upturning of her mouth, as if I were a familiar face whose name escaped her for the moment.
Joyce came in behind Ellen. “I hate kitchens. I never go into mine.” She looked from one to the other of us. “Am I interrupting something?”
At two o’clock in the morning I sat up in bed, wide awake. The bedroom was bathed in the dark red glow of the fire which had come closer in the night. A thin, autumnal veil of smoke hung in the room. Ellen lay on her side, asleep, one hand cupped on the pillow next to her face as if waiting for something to be put in it. I had no idea why I was so fully awake, but I threw off the covers and went to the window to check on the fire. I could see no flame, but the hills stood out blackly against a turgid sky that belled and sagged as the wind blew and relented.
Then I heard the sound.
I am a person who sets store by precision in the use of words — in the field of technical writing this is a necessity. But I can think of no word to describe that sound. The closest I can come with a word of my own invention is “vlump.” It came erratically, neither loud nor soft. It was, rather, pervasive and without location. It was not a solid sound. There was something vague and whispering about it, and from time to time it began with the suggestion of a sigh — a shuffling dissipation in the air that seemed to take form and die in the same instant. In a way I cannot define, it was mindless, without will or reason, yet implacable. Because I could not explain it immediately I went to seek an explanation.
I stepped into the hall and switched on the light, pressing the noiseless button. The light came down out of a fixture set flush into the ceilings and diffused through a milky plastic like Japanese rice paper. The clean, indestructible walls rose perpendicularly around me. Through the slight haze of smoke came the smell of the newness, sweet and metallic — more like a car than a house. And still the sound went on. It seemed to be coming from the room at the end of the hall, the room we had designed for our friends’ children. The door was open and I could see a gray patch that was a west window. Vlump … vlump … vlumpvlump …
Fixing on the gray patch, I moved down the hall while my legs made themselves heavy as logs, and all the while I repeated to myself, “The house is settling. All new houses settle and make strange noises.” And so lucid was I that I believed I was not afraid. I was walking down the bright new hall of my new steel house to investigate a noise, for the house might be settling unevenly, or an animal might be up to some mischief — raccoons regularly raided the garbage cans, I had been told. There might be something wrong with the plumbing or with the radiant-heating system that warmed our steel and vinyl floors. And now, like the responsible master of the house, I had located the apparent center of the sound and was going responsibly toward it. In a second or two, very likely, I would know. Vlump vlump. The gray of the window turned rosy as I came near enough to see the hillside beyond it: That black was underbrush and that pink the dusty swath cut by the bulldozer before it had run amok. I had watched the accident from just about the spot where I stood now, and the obliterated hole where the tree had been, laid firmly over with the prefabricated floor of the room whose darkness I would eradicate by touching with my right hand the light switch inside the door.
Blood boomed in my ears. I had the impression that my heart had burst. I clutched at the wall for support. Yet of course I knew it was Ellen’s voice, and I answered her calmly. “Yes, it’s me.”
“What’s the matter?” I heard the bedclothes rustle.
“Don’t get up, I’m coming right in.” The noise had stopped. There was nothing. Only the almost inaudible hum of the refrigerator, the stirring of the wind.
Ellen was sitting up in bed. “I was just checking on the fire,” I said. She patted my side of the bed and in the instant before I turned out the hall light I saw her smile.
“I was just dreaming about you,” she said softly, as I climbed under the sheets. She rolled against me. “Why, you’re trembling.”
“I should have worn my robe.”
“You’ll be warm in a minute.” Her fragrant body lay against mine, but I remained rigid as stone and just as cold, staring at the ceiling, my mind a furious blank. After a moment she said, “Ted?” It was her signal, always hesitant, always tremulous, that meant I was to roll over and take her in my arms.
Instead I answered, “What?” just as if I had not understood.
For a few seconds I sensed her struggling against her reserve to give me a further sign that would pierce my peculiar distraction and tell me she wanted love. But it was too much for her — too alien. My coldness had created a vacuum she was too unpracticed to fill — a coldness sudden and inexplicable, unless …
She withdrew slowly and pulled the covers up under her chin. Finally she asked, “Ted, is there something happening that I should know about?” She had remembered Sondra and the curious scene in the kitchen. It took, I knew, great courage for Ellen to ask that question, though she must have known my answer.
“No, I’m just tired. We’ve had a busy day. Goodnight, dear.” I kissed her on the cheek and sensed her eyes, in the shadow of the fire, searching mine, asking the question she could not give voice to. I turned away, somehow ashamed because I could not supply the answer that would fulfill her need. Because there was no answer at all.
The fire was brought under control after burning some eight hundred acres and several homes, and three weeks later the rains came. Jack Salmanson came out one Sunday to see how the house was holding up, checked the foundation, the roof and all the seams and pronounced it tight as a drum. We sat looking moodily out the glass doors onto the patio — a flatland of grayish mud which threatened to swamp with a thin ooze of silt and gravel the few flagstones I had set in the ground. Ellen was in the bedroom lying down; she had got into the habit of taking a nap after lunch, though it was I, not she, who lay stark awake night after night explaining away sounds that became more and more impossible to explain away. The gagging sound that sometimes accompanied the vlump and the strangled expulsion of air that followed it were surely the result of some disturbance in the water pipes; the footsteps that came slowly down the hall and stopped outside our closed door and then went away again with something like a low chuckle were merely the night contracting of our metal house after the heat of the day. Through all this Ellen slept as if in a stupor; she seemed to have become addicted to sleep. She went to bed at nine and got up at ten the next morning; she napped in the afternoon and moved about lethargically the rest of the time with a Mexican shawl around her shoulders, complaining of the cold. The doctor examined her for mononucleosis but found nothing. He said perhaps it was her sinuses and that she should rest as much as she wanted.
After a protracted silence Jack put aside his drink and stood up. “I guess I’ll go along.”
“I’ll tell Ellen.”
“What the hell for? Let her sleep. Tell her I hope she feels better.” He turned to frown at the room of the house he had designed and built. “Are you happy here?” he asked suddenly.
“Happy?” I repeated the word awkwardly. “Of course we’re happy. We love the house. It’s … just a little noisy at night, that’s all.” I stammered it out, like the first words of a monstrous confession, but Jack seemed hardly to hear it. He waved a hand. “House settling.” He squinted from one side of the room to the other. “I don’t know. There’s something about it … It’s not right. Maybe it’s just the weather … the light … It could be friendlier, you know what I mean? It seems cheerless.”
I watched him with a kind of wild hope, as if he might magically fathom my terror — do for me what I could not do for myself, and permit it to be discussed calmly between two men of temperate mind. But Jack was not looking for the cause of the gloom but the cure for it. “Why don’t you try putting down a couple of orange rugs in this room?” he said.
I stared at the floor as if two orange rugs were an infallible charm. “Yes,” I said, “I think we’ll try that.”
Ellen scuffed in, pushing back her hair, her face puffy with sleep. “Jack,” she said, “when the weather clears and I’m feeling livelier, you and Anne and the children must come and spend the night.”
“We’d like that. After the noises die down,” he added satirically to me.
“Noises? What noises?” A certain blankness came over Ellen’s face when she looked at me now. The expression was the same, but what had been open in it before was now merely empty. She had put up her guard against me; she suspected me of keeping things from her.
“At night,” I said. “The house is settling. You don’t hear them.”
When Jack had gone, Ellen sat with a cup of tea in the chair where Jack had sat, looking out at the mud. Her long purple shawl hung all the way to her knees and made her look armless. There seemed no explanation for the two white hands that curled around the teacup in her lap. “It’s a sad thing,” she said tonelessly. “I can’t help but feel sorry for Sondra.”
“Why is that?” I asked guardedly.
“Joyce was here yesterday. She told me that she and Jeff have been having an affair off and on for six years.” She turned to see how I would receive this news.
“Well, that explains the way Joyce and Sondra behave toward each other,” I said, with a pleasant glance straight into Ellen’s eyes; there I encountered only the reflection of the glass doors, even to the rain trickling down them, and I had the eerie sensation of having been shown a picture of the truth, as if she were weeping secretly in the depths of a soul I could no longer touch. For Ellen did not believe in my innocence; I’m not sure I still believed in it myself; very likely Jeff and Joyce didn’t either. It is impossible to say what Sondra believed. She behaved as if our infidelity were an accomplished fact. In its way it was a performance of genius, for Sondra never touched me except in the most accidental or impersonal way; even her glances, the foundation on which she built the myth of our liaison, had nothing soft in them; they were probing and sly and were always accompanied by a furtive smile, as if we merely shared some private joke. Yet there was something in the way she did it — in the tilt of her head perhaps — that plainly implied that the joke was at everyone else’s expense. And she had taken to calling me “darling.”
“Sondra and Jeff have a feeble-minded child off in an institution somewhere,” Ellen said. “That set them against each other, apparently.”
“Joyce told you all this?”
“She just mentioned it casually as if it were the most natural thing in the world — she assumed we must have known … But I don’t want to know things like that about my friends.”
“That’s show biz, I guess. You and I are just provincials at heart.”
“Sondra must be a very unhappy girl.”
“It’s hard to tell with Sondra.”
“I wonder what she tries to do with her life … If she looks for anything — outside.”
“Probably not,” Ellen answered her own question. “She seems very selfcontained. Almost cold … ”
I was treated to the spectacle of my wife fighting with herself to delay a wound that she was convinced would come home to her sooner or later. She did not want to believe in my infidelity. I might have comforted her with lies. I might have told her that Sondra and I rendezvoused downtown in a cafeteria and made love in a second-rate hotel on the evenings when I called to say that I was working late. Then the wound would be open and could be cleaned and cured. It would be painful of course, but I would have confided in her again and our old system would be restored. Watching Ellen torture herself with doubt, I was tempted to tell her those lies. The truth never tempted me: To have admitted that I knew what she was thinking would have been tantamount to an admission of guilt. How could I suspect such a thing unless it were true? And was I to explain my coldness by terrifying her with vague stories of indescribable sounds which she never heard?
And so the two of us sat on, dumb and chilled, in our watertight house as the daylight began to go. And then a sort of exultation seized me. What if my terror were no more real than Ellen’s? What if both our ghosts were only ghosts of the mind which needed only a little common sense to drive them away? And I saw that if I could drive away my ghost, Ellen’s would soon follow, for the secret that shut me away from her would be gone. It was a revelation, a triumph of reason.
“What’s that up there?” Ellen pointed to something that looked like a leaf blowing at the top of the glass doors. “It’s a tail, Ted. There must be some animal on the roof.”
Only the bushy tip was visible. As I drew close to it I could see raindrops clinging as if by a geometrical system to each black hair. “It looks like a raccoon tail. What would a coon be doing out so early?” I put on a coat and went outside. The tail hung limply over the edge, ringed with white and swaying phlegmatically in the breeze. The animal itself was hidden behind the low parapet. Using the ship’s ladder at the back of the house I climbed up to look at it.
The human mind, just like other parts of the anatomy, is an organ of habit. Its capabilities are bounded by the limits of precedent; it thinks what it is used to thinking. Faced with a phenomenon beyond its range it rebels, it rejects, sometimes it collapses. My mind, which for weeks had steadfastly refused to honor the evidence of my senses that there was Something Else living in the house with Ellen and me, something unearthly and evil, largely on the basis of insufficient evidence, was now forced to the subsequent denial by saying, as Jeff had said, “fox.” It was, of course, ridiculous. The chances of a fox’s winning a battle with a raccoon were very slight at best, let alone what had been done to this raccoon. The body lay on the far side of the roof. I didn’t see the head at all until I had stumbled against it and it had rolled over and over to come to rest against the parapet where it pointed its masked, ferret face at me.
Only because my beleaguered mind kept repeating, like a voice, “Ellen mustn’t know, Ellen mustn’t know,” was I able to take up the dismembered parts and hurl them with all my strength onto the hillside and answer when Ellen called out, “What is it, Ted?” “Must have been a coon. It’s gone now,” in a perfectly level voice before I went to the back of the roof and vomited.
I recalled Sondra’s mention of their mutilated cat and phoned Jeff at his agency. “We will discuss it over lunch,” I told myself. I had a great need to talk, an action impossible within my own home, where every day the silence became denser and more intractable. Once or twice Ellen ventured to ask, “What’s the matter, Ted?” but I always answered, “Nothing.” And there our talk ended. I could see it in her wary eyes: I was not the man she had married; I was cold, secretive. The children’s room, furnished with double bunks and wallpaper figured with toys, stood like a rebuke. Ellen kept the door closed most of the time, though once or twice, in the late afternoon, I had found her in there moving about aimlessly, touching objects as if half in wonder that they should still linger on after so many long, sterile months; a foolish hope had failed. Neither did our friends bring their children to stay. They did not because we did not ask them. The silence had brought with it a profound and debilitating inertia. Ellen’s face seemed perpetually swollen, the features cloudy and amorphous, the eyes dull; her whole body had become bloated, as if an enormous cache of pain had backed up inside her. We moved through the house in our orbits like two sleepwalkers, going about our business out of habit. Our friends called at first, puzzled, a little hurt, but soon stopped and left us to ourselves. Occasionally we saw the Sheffitses. Jeff was looking seedier and seedier, told bad jokes, drank too much and seemed always ill at ease. Sondra did most of the talking, chattering blandly on indifferent subjects and always hinting by gesture, word or glance at our underground affair.
Jeff and I had lunch at the Brown Derby on Vine Street under charcoal caricatures of show folk. At a table next to ours an agent was eulogizing an actor in a voice hoarse with trumped-up enthusiasm to a large, purple-faced man who was devoting his entire attention to a bowl of vichyssoise.
“It’s a crazy business,” Jeff said to me. “Be glad you’re not in it.”
“I see what you mean,” I replied. Jeff had not the faintest idea of why I had brought him there, nor had I given him any clue. We were “breaking the ice.” Jeff grinned at me with that crooked trick of his mouth, and I grinned back. “We are friends” — presumably that is the message we were grinning at each other. Was he my friend? Was I his friend? He lived across the street; our paths crossed perhaps once a week; we joked together; he sat always in the same chair in our living room twisting from one sprawl to another; there was a straight white chair in his living room that I preferred. Friendships have been founded on less, I suppose. Yet he had an idiot child locked off in an asylum somewhere and a wife who amused herself with infidelity by suggestion; I had a demon loose in my house and a wife gnawed with suspicion and growing remote and old because of it. And I had said, “I see what you mean.” It seemed insufferable. I caught Jeff’s eye. “You remember we talked once about a ghost?” My tone was bantering; perhaps I meant to make a joke.
“Sondra said something about a cat of yours that was killed.”
“The one the fox got.”
“That’s what you said. That’s not what Sondra said.”
Jeff shrugged. “What about it?”
“I found a dead raccoon on our roof.”
“Yes. It was pretty awful.”
Jeff toyed with his fork. All pretense of levity was at an end. “No head?”
For a few moments he was silent. I felt him struggle with himself before he spoke. “Maybe you’d better move out, Ted,” he said.
He was trying to help — I knew it. With a single swipe he had tried to push through the restraint that hung between us. He was my friend; he was putting out his hand to me. And I suppose I must have known what he’d suggest. But I could not accept it. It was not what I wanted to hear. “Jeff, I can’t do that,” I said tolerantly, as if he had missed my point. “We’ve only been living there five months. It cost me twenty-two thousand to build that place. We have to live in it at least a year under the GI loan.”
“Well, you know best, Ted.” The smile dipped at me again.
“I just wanted to talk,” I said, irritated at the ease with which he had given in. “I wanted to find out what you knew about this ghost business.”
“Not very much. Sondra knows more than I do.”
“I doubt that you would advise me to leave a house I had just built for no reason at all.”
“There seems to be some sort of jinx on the property, that’s all. Whether there’s a ghost or not I couldn’t tell you,” he replied, annoyed in his turn at the line the conversation was taking. “How does Ellen feel about this?”
“She doesn’t know.”
“About the raccoon?”
“You mean there’s more?”
“There are noises — at night … ”
“I’d speak to Sondra if I were you. She’s gone into this business much more deeply than I. When we first moved in, she used to hang around your land a good deal … just snooping … particularly after the cat was killed … ” He was having some difficulty with his words. It struck me that the conversation was causing him pain. He was showing his teeth now in a smiling grimace. Dangling an arm over the back of his chair he seemed loose to the point of collapse. We circled warily about his wife’s name.
“Look, Jeff,” I said, and took a breath, “about Sondra … ”
Jeff cut me off with a wave of his hand. “Don’t worry, I know Sondra.”
“Then you know there’s nothing between us?”
“It’s just her way of amusing herself. Sondra’s a strange girl. She does the same thing with me. She flirts with me but we don’t sleep together.” He picked up his spoon and stared at it unseeingly. “It started when she became pregnant. After she had the boy, everything between us stopped. You knew we had a son? He’s in a sanitarium in the Valley.”
“Can’t you do anything?”
“Sure. Joyce Castle. I don’t know what I’d have done without her.”
“I mean divorce.”
“Sondra won’t divorce me. And I can’t divorce her. No grounds.” He shrugged as if the whole thing were of no concern at all to him. “What could I say? I want to divorce my wife because of the way she looks at other men? She’s scrupulously faithful.”
“To whom, Jeff? To you? To whom?”
“I don’t know — to herself, maybe,” he mumbled.
Whether with encouragement he might have gone on I don’t know, for I cut him off. I sensed that with this enigmatic remark he was giving me my cue and that if I had chosen to respond to it he would have told me what I had asked him to lunch to find out — and all at once I was terrified; I did not want to hear it; I did not want to hear it at all. And so I laughed in a quiet way and said, “Undoubtedly, undoubtedly,” and pushed it behind the closed door of my mind where I had stored all the impossibilities of the last months — the footsteps, the sounds in the night, the mutilated raccoon — or else, by recognizing them, go mad.
Jeff suddenly looked me full in the face; his cheeks were flushed, his teeth clamped together. “Look, Ted,” he said, “can you take the afternoon off? I’ve got to go to the sanitarium and sign some papers. They’re going to transfer the boy. He has fits of violence and does … awful things. He’s finally gotten out of hand.”
“What about Sondra?”
“Sondra’s signed already. She likes to go alone to visit him. She seems to like to have him to herself. I’d appreciate it, Ted — the moral support … You don’t have to come in. You can wait in the car. It’s only about thirty miles from here, you’d be back by dinnertime … ” His voice shook, tears clouded the yellow-stained whites of his eyes. He looked like a man with fever. I noticed how shrunken his neck had become as it revolved in his collar, how his head caved in sharply at the temples. He fastened one hand on my arm, like a claw. “Of course I’ll go, Jeff,” I said. “I’ll call the office. They can get along without me for one afternoon.”
He collected himself in an instant. “I’d appreciate it, Ted. I promise you it won’t be so bad.”
The sanitarium was in the San Fernando Valley, a complex of new stucco buildings on a newly seeded lawn. Everywhere there were signs that read, PLEASE KEEP OFF, FOLKS. Midget saplings stood in discs of powdery earth along the cement walks angling white and hot through the grass. On these walks, faithfully observing the signs, the inmates strolled. Their traffic, as it flowed somnolently from one avenue to another, was controlled by attendants stationed at intersections, conspicuous in white uniforms and pith helmets.
After a time, it became unbearably hot in the car, and I climbed out. Unless I wished to pace in the parking lot among the cars, I had no choice but to join the inmates and their visitors on the walks. I chose a nearly deserted walk and went slowly toward a building that had a yard attached to it surrounded by a wire fence. From the slide and the jungle gym in it, I judged it to be for the children. Then I saw Jeff come into it. With him was a nurse pushing a kind of cart railed around like an oversized toddler. Strapped into it was “the boy.”
He was human, I suppose, for he had all the equipment assigned to humans, yet I had the feeling that if it were not for the cart the creature would have crawled on his belly like an alligator. He had the eyes of an alligator too — sleepy, cold and soulless — set in a swarthy face and a head that seemed to run in a horizontal direction rather than the vertical, like an egg lying on its side. The features were devoid of any vestige of intelligence; the mouth hung open and the chin shone with saliva. While Jeff and the nurse talked, he sat under the sun inert and repulsive.
I turned on my heel and bolted, feeling that I had intruded on a disgrace. I imagined that I had been given a glimpse of a diseased universe, the mere existence of which constituted a threat to my life; the sight of that monstrous boy with his cold, bestial eyes made me feel as if, by stumbling on this shame I somehow shared in it with Jeff. Yet I told myself that the greatest service I could do him was to pretend that I had seen nothing, knew nothing, and not place on him the hardship of talking about something which obviously caused him pain.
He returned to the car pale and shaky and wanting a drink. We stopped first at a place called Joey’s on Hollywood Way. After that it was the Cherry Lane on Vine Street, where a couple of girls propositioned us, and then a stop at the Brown Derby again, where I had left my car. Jeff downed the liquor in a joyless, businesslike way and talked to me in a rapid, confidential voice about a book he had just sold to Warner Brothers Studio for an exorbitant sum of money — trash in his opinion, but that was always the way — the parasites made it. Pretty soon there wouldn’t be any good writers left: “There’ll only be competent parasites and incompetent parasites.” This was perhaps the third time we had had this conversation. Now Jeff repeated it mechanically, all the time looking down at the table where he was painstakingly breaking a red swizzle stick into ever tinier pieces.
When we left the restaurant, the sun had gone down, and the evening chill of the desert on which the city had been built had settled in. A faint pink glow from the vanished sun still lingered on the top of the Broadway Building. Jeff took a deep breath, then fell into a fit of coughing. “Goddam smog,” he said. “Goddam city. I can’t think of a single reason why I live here.” He started toward his Daimler, tottering slightly.
“How about driving home with me?” I said. “You can pick your car up tomorrow.”
He fumbled in the glove compartment and drew out a packet of small cigars. He stuck one between his teeth where it jutted unlit toward the end of his nose. “I’m not going home tonight, Ted friend,” he said. “If you’ll just drop me up the street at the Cherry Lane I’ll remember you for life.”
“Are you sure? I’ll go with you if you want.”
Jeff shook a forefinger at me archly. “Ted, you’re a gentleman and a scholar. But my advice to you is to go home and take care of your wife. No, seriously. Take care of her, Ted. As for myself I shall go quietly to seed in the Cherry Lane Café.” I had started toward my car when Jeff called out to me again. “I just want to tell you, Ted friend … My wife was once just as nice as your wife … ”
I had gone no more than a mile when the last glimmer of light left the sky and night fell like a shutter. The sky above the neon of Sunset Boulevard turned jet black, and a sickly half-moon rose and was immediately obscured by thick fog that lowered itself steadily as I traveled west, till at the foot of Clay Canyon it began to pat my windshield with little smears of moisture.
The house was dark, and at first I thought Ellen must have gone out, but then seeing her old Plymouth in the driveway I felt the grip of a cold and unreasoning fear. The events of the day seemed to crowd around and hover at my head in the fog; and the commonplace sight of that car, together with the blackness and silence of the house, sent me into a panic as I ran for the door. I pushed at it with my shoulder as if expecting it to be locked, but it swung open easily and I found myself in the darkened living room with no light anywhere and the only sound the rhythm of my own short breathing. “Ellen!” I called in a high, querulous voice I hardly recognized. “Ellen!” I seemed to lose my balance; my head swam; it was as if this darkness and silence were the one last iota that the chamber of horrors in my mind could not hold, and the door snapped open a crack, emitting a cloudy light that stank of corruption, and I saw the landscape of my denial, like a tomb. It was the children’s room. Rats nested in the double bunks, mold caked the red wallpaper, and in it an insane Spanish don hung by his neck from a dead tree, his heels vlumping against the wall, his foppish clothes rubbing as he revolved slowly in invisible currents of bad air. And as he swung toward me, I saw his familiar reptile eyes open and stare at me with loathing and contempt.
I conceded: It is here and It is evil, and I have left my wife alone in the house with It, and now she has been sucked into that cold eternity where the dumb shades store their plasms against an anguished centenary of speech — a single word issuing from the petrified throat, a scream or a sigh or a groan, syllables dredged up from a lifetime of eloquence to slake the bottomless thirst of living death.
And then a light went on over my head, and I found myself in the hall outside the children’s room. Ellen was in her nightgown, smiling at me. “Ted? Why on earth are you standing here in the dark? I was just taking a nap. Do you want some dinner? Why don’t you say something? Are you all right?” She came toward me; she seemed extraordinarily lovely; her eyes, a deeper blue than Sondra’s, looked almost purple; she seemed young and slender again; her old serenity shone through like a restored beacon.
“I’m all right,” I said hoarsely. “Are you sure you are?”
“Of course I am,” she laughed. “Why shouldn’t I be? I’m feeling much, much better.” She took my hand and kissed it gaily. “I’ll put on some clothes and then we’ll have our dinner.” She turned and went down the hall to our bedroom, leaving me with a clear view into the children’s room. Though the room itself was dark, I could see by the hall light that the covers on the lower bunk had been turned back and that the bed had been slept in. “Ellen,” I said. “Ellen, were you sleeping in the children’s room?”
“Yes,” she said, and I heard the rustle of a dress as she carried it from the closet. “I was in there mooning around, waiting for you to come home. I got sleepy and lay down on the bunk. What were you doing, by the way? Working late?”
“And nothing happened?”
“Why? What should have happened?”
I could not answer; my head throbbed with joy. It was over — whatever it was, it was over. All unknowing Ellen had faced the very heart of the evil and had slept through it like a child, and now she was herself again without having been tainted by the knowledge of what she had defeated; I had protected her by my silence, by my refusal to share my terror with this woman whom I loved. I reached inside and touched the light button; there was the brave red wallpaper scattered over with toys, the red-and-white curtains, the blue-and-red bedspreads. It was a fine room. A fine, gay room fit for children.
Ellen came down the hall in her slip. “Is anything wrong, Ted? You seem so distraught. Is everything all right at the office?”
“Yes, yes,” I said. “I was with Jeff Sheffits. We went to see his boy in the asylum. Poor Jeff; he leads a rotten life.” I told Ellen the whole story of our afternoon, speaking freely in my house for the first time since we had moved there. Ellen listened carefully as she always did, and wanted to know, when I had finished, what the boy was like.
“Like an alligator,” I said with disgust. “Just like an alligator.”
Ellen’s face took on an unaccountable expression of private glee. She seemed to be looking past me into the children’s room, as if the source of her amusement lay there. At the same moment I shivered in a breath of profound cold, the same clammy draft that might have warned me on my last birthday had I been other than what I am. I had a sense of sudden dehydration, as if all the blood had vanished from my veins. I felt as if I were shrinking. When I spoke, my voice seemed to come from a throat rusty and dry with disuse. “Is that funny?” I whispered.
And my wife replied, “Funny? Oh, no, it’s just that I’m feeling so much better. I think I’m pregnant, Ted.” She tipped her head to one side and smiled at me.