Even in business class, with an empty seat beside her, Becca couldn’t sleep. She turned on the overhead light and read the conference materials, Tort Law in Transition, 1982-1992: A Transatlantic Perspective.
She hadn’t wanted to go to London. She knew she should be chuffed, as Liam would put it, being asked to stand in for a senior partner and speak about American class actions. It was March 1992; the partner’s typed notes rambled on about patients suing the manufacturer of faulty heart valves; female coal miners alleging harassment; Vietnam vets suing Dow Chemical for diseases from Agent Orange. Becca had little experience with class actions; she suspected she was asked because she spent her first six months assigned to the firm’s London office. A coveted gig, that one, too, even if in reality it was a glorified document review. It changed her life forever. While living there, she met Liam, at the London Apprentice Pub in Isleworth.
“Didn’t I hear you have an English husband?” the partner asked when he showed up in her office Friday afternoon. “He can go too, if you like. You’d only have to pay his airfare.”
Becca said her husband couldn’t miss work. The partner stared at the only picture on her wall — a Hogarth reproduction: a bewigged barrister on a throne, scrawny clerks scrivening below, scales of justice lurking in a corner. The partner was looking for a wedding picture or at least a photo of Becca and Liam engaged in some sport, standard décor for recently-married lawyers. But there was no photo of Liam, or of Becca either, only an empty space on the wall above her desk, where a picture-hook remained.
The partner didn’t know that Becca’s English husband had left her. None of the lawyers and staff with whom she worked knew. Nor did her mother, who had moved to Florida and barely knew Liam. Nor her best friend from law school, who lived in Chicago and worked crazy hours, like Becca.
Later than she should have, Becca realized Liam wasn’t coming back. After Liam had been gone two weeks, it was her birthday. She thought she’d hear from him. When Becca’s mother called from Florida, she was all excited about the play her drama club was doing, Moor Born, about the Brontes. She was playing Anne, the least famous, least creative sister; nonetheless, the competition had been fierce. “By the way,” she asked, “what did Liam get you for your birthday?”
“It’s a surprise,” Becca said. “For tonight.” Her mother asked her to report back. Becca knew she wouldn’t ask again unless Becca brought it up.
Nine months later, the opportunity to tell someone — anyone — was gone.
Liam left in June, at the end of his second year teaching science at Manhattan Prep in Yorkville. He said he needed time to himself after the intense push of proctoring, grading, and graduation. He’d gone off this way before, beginning when they lived in Isleworth. He always returned the next day, or the day after.
This time, days became weeks; weeks became months. She wondered if he had returned to London. His passport was missing. But if so, where would she begin to look for him? With his cousin Saul? The two didn’t get along. Becca and Saul were more simpatico than Liam and Saul had ever been. Their six months in London now seemed a dream, fleeting and unreal. Liam had introduced her to only one friend, a struggling actor named Trevor Thorn, who was heading to Australia to appear in an independent film. There were Aunt Lillian and Aunt Rachel, both around 80, older sisters of Liam’s father, who died of a heart attack at 65. Liam referred to his spinster aunts and his cousin Saul as “the Jewish side of the family”; stuck in the Old World, he said, even though born in Leeds. The aunts had lived together for decades in a small flat in North London. When Liam learned that Becca was Jewish, he said, “I have some people I’d like you to meet.” Soon afterwards, he took her to visit the aunts. It was as if his Jewish lineage, for once in his life, enhanced his standing.
Several times after that first visit she went to see the aunts on her own. During her time in London, they were exceptionally kind to her. Aunt Lillian, with her erect posture and stark white cap of hair, her take-charge voice, grasped Becca’s hands to welcome her to their flat. Aunt Rachel was softer, rounder, her gaze transparent and direct. She listened intently to Becca, nodding encouragement, as if she knew what Becca was going to say before she said it.
Then, on a Saturday when Liam was gone, Becca ran a fever. She tried to reach the London office manager, but couldn’t. Her heart and head pounded; the room spun. She phoned the aunts. Eventually a knock. Aunt Lillian directed the driver to a North London clinic, near the aunts’ flat. A nurse wheeled Becca into a room so white she had to close her eyes. Someone undressed her and put her in a hospital gown, hooked her up to an IV, although Becca had no memory of any of this.
Becca woke in the North London hospital and there they were: Lillian in a chair, Rachel fussing with a tray. The smell wasn’t the normal hospital smell. “The sweetness of the soup,” Aunt Rachel had explained one Friday evening, “is from parsnips. On Fridays the grocer saves some for me.” Rachel settled on the side of the bed and brought a spoon to Becca’s lips. “Warm,” she said. “Not scalding.” Becca didn’t know how long she’d been in hospital, how long the aunts had been there. She wondered where Liam was.
That time, he came home the next day.
One of the aunts had died in January. Liam’s cousin Saul had written to her about it. She and Saul corresponded a few times a year since she left England, even after she married Liam. They’d spoken on the phone, too, usually when she was in the office, working late. Sometimes they discussed their legal work (Saul was a solicitor, specializing in wills and estates) or items in the news. But the main subject was Saul’s involvement with the Jewish East End Society, which promoted the work of Isaac Rosenberg, a World War I poet. Becca majored in English in college and concentrated on early 20th century English poetry. Yet she had never heard of Isaac Rosenberg until that first afternoon in the aunts’ flat, when Saul showed up late, his voice breaking with excitement about the new installation devoted to World War I poets, including Rosenberg, in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. “This is rather childish,” Saul said that day, “but I got interested in Isaac Rosenberg because of his last name, same as ours.” He included the aunts and his cousin Liam in the sweep of his hand. “Turns out we’re not related.”
“My last name isn’t Rosenberg,” Liam interjected. His father had shortened it soon after Liam was born, erasing all evidence of his Jewishness. “From my research,” Liam joked, “Rose is a good Scottish-Irish name, dating back to 1273 and Thomas, son of Rose, of Cambridgeshire.”
The day before the flight to London, Becca called Saul from her office in Manhattan. She dialed his work number, expecting an answering machine. She would leave a message that she was coming for a conference. That was all. She didn’t know if Saul would want to see her, or what she would say if he did.
To her surprise, he answered. “Funny you should call. I was over on Finchley Road and came here to clear up some things. We were speaking about you. My aunt’s taking it hard. Her little sister’s death. I told her I had let you know. She was wondering.”
“I’m so sorry. I should have written.”
Saul said he would pick her up from the airport. She protested that she could take a taxi and get reimbursed. Rush hour traffic was horrendous, he said; he could navigate the arteries of London better than most.
She gave him her flight number.
“I’ll be there,” he said, and for a moment her heart lifted.
On Sunday, she went to the office of the Jewish National Fund to plant a tree in memory of Aunt Rachel. “It’s not simply planting memorial trees anymore. We have other options,” the woman said, hair in a bun, tendrils escaping, glasses on a chain around her neck. On the wall were samples of different certificates and before-and-after photographs of bare deserts transformed into woodlands; the blueprint for a water reclamation project. “Here’s one that might interest you. The certificate recites a line from Isaiah, I will make of the wilderness a pool of water. The donation will support a JNF-sponsored water project.”
Becca explained that the donation was in memory of an elderly Jewish woman who lived in London, and that the certificate would go to the woman’s sister. The JNF lady considered that information. “Of course, there are always the trees. The British love to plant trees in the Negev, whatever the occasion.”
At Becca’s office, the mailroom clerk told her she was in luck; normally the pouch didn’t go out Sunday nights, but there was a bond offering on Tuesday and some notarized documents were going by courier to the firm’s London office for Monday morning delivery. They would deliver her envelope to Finchley Road on Monday morning, too. She wrote a condolence note on the firm stationery, which she inserted in the envelope with the certificate. Dear Aunt Lillian: I was so sorry to learn from Saul of Aunt Rachel’s passing. I know how close the two of you were. I will never forget the kindness both of you showed Liam and me when we came to your flat. On the holidays, you made me feel like a member of the family. I’ve made a donation to the Jewish National Fund in Aunt Rachel’s memory — the certificate is enclosed. Love, Becca
She brought her envelope to the mailroom and put it in the London pouch, with instructions to deliver it Monday morning. She wanted her condolence note and the JNF certificate to arrive before she did, to make up for not acknowledging Aunt Rachel’s death earlier.
On the plane, she read the conference materials, which covered new developments in England and America; insurance; cases against public authorities; and mass torts. For the last day, they highlighted a provocative panel on Tort Law as a System of Personal Responsibility, which posed several questions. Shouldn’t a rational person protect against mishaps or injury when planning a future action? Isn’t the failure to do so responsible for any misery that ensues?
She thought then of Liam, the source of her misery. She had done nothing to protect herself.
The evening meal service began. Becca said, no, nothing for her, but the cabin was cold and the flight attendant urged her to have the soup, chicken broth with noodles. A surprisingly tasty soup, it made Becca think of the soup Aunt Rachel brought her all those years ago, when Becca was stricken with pneumonia and too weak to eat. Aunt Rachel spoon-fed Becca, her grey head bent over the task; Aunt Lillian urging her not to spill.
Becca took Saul’s letter from her briefcase. Reliable Saul, who would be there to meet her. She felt warmed by that as much as by the soup. “I’m sorry to have to tell you that Aunt Lillian has died. No one expected it and as you can imagine, Aunt Rachel is beside herself with grief.”
She read it again.
Surely that wasn’t right. Surely Saul was mistaken.
By her third reading she knew she had made the donation and had JNF print the certificate in memory of the wrong aunt. Aunt Lillian had died, not Aunt Rachel. The packet being hand-delivered by the firm’s London office was addressed to Lillian but Aunt Rachel would be the one to receive it at the Finchley Road flat. She would open it eagerly, longingly, wondering what it could be.
The first time she met the aunts, she and Liam were invited to Finchley Road for tea. She expected Earl Grey and biscuits; instead, there was sherry, followed by pistachio-encrusted plaice, crisp roast potatoes, fresh peas, and strawberries with condensed milk. Aunt Lillian led the conversation, questioning Becca about her work, her family, how she and Liam met. Becca described her walk from Richmond to Isleworth. She was tired, hungry, and thirsty, and there it was, overlooking the river, The London Apprentice, with swans from central casting. And Liam.
Eventually, the only sound in the aunts’ flat was spoons scraping plates. Becca said she would do the washing up; both aunts protested mildly, but a fleeting look passed between them. Liam, who lounged at the table, his long legs extended, his chair tipped back precariously, made no move to get up. She assumed his aunts wished to speak to him alone.
In the kitchen, over the sound of water running in the sink, Becca heard raised voices: Lillian’s: “sleeping with others” and “Sarita and Ned” and “he’s your son.” Liam’s “I told her.”
What had he told her? Was the her in question Becca?
Liam had told her he had a son from a prior marriage. His ex-wife didn’t permit him to see the boy much. When the boy was older, presumably that would change. “For now,” Liam said, “there’s not much I can do.”
The first time Liam disappeared from Isleworth for two nights, after his return Becca asked him whether he had seen Ned. “I’d rather not talk about it,” he said. She didn’t ask him again.
On New Year’s Eve, 1987, Becca was alone in the Isleworth flat when the aunts called. “Where’s Leo?” Lillian asked. “Isn’t he with you?”
“You mean Liam.”
“Well, he calls himself that now. But he was born Leo, and he’ll always be Leo to me. Where is he?”
Becca said New Year’s Eve was a rare time when Liam’s ex-wife allowed him to spend the evening with Ned, who was 15. He’d stay overnight in Sussex.
“Is that what he told you?” Aunt Lillian asked.
She must have dozed, because she woke suddenly when the lights in the cabin came on. Damp croissants, English butter, and tea were served. The conference materials were still in the seat pocket, open to the page about the theory of personal responsibility in tort law. Often the victim is in the best position to consider the potential harm that might befall her.
At Heathrow, as promised, Saul was waiting. He greeted her with a bear hug, with his warm brown eyes, with obvious pleasure. His beard was trimmer than she remembered; his curly hair neat and trim, too.
Surely the envelope addressed to Aunt Lillian had arrived, and Aunt Rachel had opened it. But plainly she hadn’t spoken to Saul yet. Saul was chatty and light-hearted in the car; Becca, anxious and wary.
She hadn’t wept on the flight but felt like weeping now. She hadn’t been hugged like that in a while. The damp mist of the London air held her in check, like the cold water she splashed on her face in the plane’s lavatory.
“Are you nervous?” Saul asked. She looked at him blankly. “About your speech? It’s an honor, isn’t it? To represent your firm. But probably nerve-racking too.”
Saul was right. She should be worrying about her talk, rehearsing it, anticipating the questions. Instead she was consumed with being back in England, without Liam; consumed with her mistake.
According to the conference materials, she couldn’t register at the hotel until 3 p.m.
Saul was delighted. “There’s a Rosenberg exhibit at the Imperial War Museum. We can go before you get busy.”
He had taken the day off to be with Becca. “Yesterday I told Aunt Rachel you were coming. She insists we come for tea this afternoon. It’s the most cheerful she’s been since Aunt Lillian died. You know Aunt Rachel. She’ll serve us something.”
At the museum, Becca tried not to think of Aunt Rachel’s inevitable distress. Rosenberg was a painter as well as a poet. In the trenches, he turned exclusively to poetry. He wrote from the view of the lowly infantryman about the lice that tormented them, the shrieking near-dead, the rats that traversed the no-man’s land between Englishman and German. The men shipping out:
Grotesque and queerly huddled
We lie all sorts of ways
And cannot sleep.
Becca read and reread his earliest war poem, written before he enlisted:
Three lives hath one life
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone
Left is the hard and cold.
Honey was love; gold was work. That much she knew. Iron was war, hard and cold. Becca stood before a photograph of Isaac in an ill-fitting suit, the jacket buttoned tight across his chest; his younger brother Elkon in army uniform, his arm flung around Isaac’s shoulders. Both Isaac’s brothers fought in the war too. Their mother’s calmest moments came when her boys were in army hospitals. But the hospitalizations didn’t last long enough – or at least not long enough to save Isaac.
“I love that photo,” Saul said. “The suit Isaac is wearing was the family suit. He and his two brothers shared it. But look how he and Elkon are smiling.” The photo was taken in September 1917. Isaac’s last leave.
Becca imagined how Isaac’s mother felt when she learned her eldest son had been blown to bits on French soil. His remains were never identified. He and the other members of his company who went out that morning were buried in a cemetery in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, the authorities unable to separate the remains of one soldier from another.
All disappearances are not equal, Becca thought. How poorly she had dealt with Liam’s disappearance. How cavalier she had been about an aunt’s death – as Liam himself would have been. Had she simply thought, absently, one of them died, as if which one it was didn’t bear noting? She couldn’t remember.
By what pale light or moon-pale shore
Drifts my soul in lonely flight?
Rosenberg was 23 when he wrote that; not quite 28 when he died.
“Look at this.” Saul drew her to an oil painting, “Head of a Woman ‘Grey and Red,’” from 1912. “Quick — who does she remind you of?” Becca didn’t know. “Isn’t she like a younger version of Rachel? The soft mouth, the clear blue-grey eyes, paying attention, always paying attention, and the hair pulled back the same way.”
“She’s pretty,” Becca said.
“Aunt Rachel is too, isn’t she?”
Becca had never thought so. She hadn’t thought Rachel wasn’t pretty either. But then, she had never really looked.
Saul deftly navigated the side streets on the way to Aunt Rachel’s, turning to avoid the traffic jam near Hyde Park. That’s when she saw him, or thought she saw him. Liam. A tall man with flowing blonde hair, shoulders hunched, a grey tweed overcoat, walking fast. She used to tease Liam about that coat. “All you need is a pipe,” she’d said. “And a Deerstalker.”
“The hat, never. The pipe, who knows?”
The tweed coat was gone from the closet in New York. When Liam left he knew it wasn’t for a summer weekend. He knew. She followed the figure as long as she could. He had Liam’s limber gait and long strides. But traffic was stopped, with only occasional lurches forward and she lost him. Her stomach lurched too, with hunger, with loss, with the debacle to come.
Saul hadn’t noticed the man she thought might be Liam. “The other night when you called,” he said, “I thought it was to resume our midnight talks. We hadn’t had one for a while. It wasn’t midnight in New York of course. But I figured that was the reason.”
Becca was half-listening, wondering whether the man she saw was Liam. For a moment, she had no idea what Saul was talking about. Had she actually engaged in midnight conversations with Saul?
Of course. One night three years ago, long after she and Liam were married and living in New York, she was in the office at 11:30 on a Saturday night, working on an emergency motion. Liam was off somewhere. Part of her wanted him to return and find her gone, wanted him to wonder where’s Becca? The phone rang. She let it ring, but picked it up before it went into voicemail. Suppose the partner was looking for her draft? “This is Becca.”
First, silence; then, Saul’s voice. “I didn’t expect to find you. Just woke up. Can you hear the birds?” He paused, then continued, not quite coherent. “Our last conversation, the war poets. A new book. Going to leave a message.” His voice husky, the barely awake morning voice of a man before he turns to you, filled with desire. It was 5 a.m. in London. “I know attorneys work late in New York. But midnight on Saturday?”
And so their midnight conversations began. They continued sporadically after that, always when she worked late. Sometimes she initiated them; sometimes Saul did. Often they made her feel unsteady. A discussion of Isaac Rosenberg’s portrayal of Adam and Eve — a painting, not a poem — disturbed her dreams. Then there were lines from an unfinished verse play that Saul particularly liked: Aghast and naked, I am flung in the abyss of days. After Liam’s disappearance, abyss of days seemed a familiar, even comforting, way to think of her existence.
Once she and Liam had skipped up the steps of the red-brick Victorian. The building had white pillars and an old-world air even though it had been converted to flats. Liam had kissed her on the landing. Now four years later she climbed the same steps, trailing behind Saul. The flat was in the back on the first floor; a slim dark mezuzah of burnished metal to the right of the door. Saul rapped lightly.
“It’s open,” Aunt Rachel called. She sat on the dark green velvet sofa. Three places were set around an oval dining table, the soup bowls in a quaint country pattern, rose and white. The apartment smelled of chicken soup.
Aunt Rachel wore a long-sleeved dress — a soft blue-grey color — with pearl buttons. Her eyes were the same color, the color of the girl’s eyes in Rosenberg’s painting.
Becca spotted her envelope on the end table near the sofa. She saw the JNF certificate and her condolence note on the floor beside it. She saw the certificate’s artistic depiction of a tree, its sheltering branches, designed to provide comfort after a death.
Only Aunt Rachel hadn’t died. Her sister Lillian had. Becca expected Rachel to be angry or bereft or weepy. She expected her to tell her devoted nephew Saul about the carelessness or cruelty Becca had perpetrated. Saul wouldn’t find Becca’s mistake funny.
In fact, it was the kind of thing Liam might have done. A failure to pay attention, a feckless act bordering on malice.
“Becca!” Aunt Rachel said. “Welcome! How was your flight?” She stood up, grasped Becca’s hands. Becca replied that it hadn’t been bad. Her first time in business class, paid for by her firm.
“Aunt Rachel!” Saul said. “Don’t I get a kiss?”
“Certainly. But first I want to look at Becca. How are you? And how’s Liam?”
“Working as we speak. We both work a lot. Sometimes we barely see each other.” Her voice sounded plaintive, self-pitying, not what she intended. The lie was not what she intended either. She thought she could dodge questions about Liam. But instead she had lied.
“How does he like New York? Do you miss your little flat in Isleworth?”
Saul intervened. “You lived opposite The London Apprentice, didn’t you? If you have a free afternoon, the three of us could drive there for lunch. It’s a lovely spot.”
Becca wasn’t sure she’d be able to leave the conference at lunchtime. “It is a nice pub, isn’t it?” she said, glad to change the subject. The day she met Liam she’d been so pleased to find it, a beautiful location on the Thames, mentioned in her guidebook. She was tired and a bit lonely. A shadow, the late afternoon sun in her eyes. She looked up from her bread and cheese, her shandy. He asked if she came often to The London Apprentice. She said it was her first time. Did she know about the secret tunnel used by smugglers? “What did they smuggle?” she asked, meeting his eyes.
“Booty. Isn’t that what they call it? Mostly booze, I think. To avoid customs duties. After William Pitt abolished the duties in the 1780s, the smugglers lost ground. Proof that laws create crimes, not the other way around.” He was casually erudite as well as handsome.
Later, after they moved in together, she told Liam he didn’t need to tell her where he was going. The worst thing would be forcing someone to lie. For whatever reason. Even if what you were lying about didn’t mean a thing.
“Speaking of lunch at the pub, let me go warm up the soup. With parsnips. Becca’s favorite.” Aunt Rachel stood up with effort, more unsteady on her feet than Becca remembered. Becca saw how Aunt Lillian’s death had affected Rachel, reminding her perhaps of her own fragility, her mortality, her need to take care.
With Becca’s note and the JNF certificate to make things worse.
“You sit down and I’ll warm up the soup,” said Becca.
“But you must be exhausted from the flight. You shouldn’t have to do anything. You just arrived.”
Saul explained that they went directly from the airport to the Isaac Rosenberg exhibit, how Becca couldn’t check in at her hotel until 3 p.m.
“All the more reason Becca must be exhausted.”
“Ladies, I’ll take care of the soup.”
“A very low flame,” Rachel said.
Saul left them alone together. Instead of sitting back on the sofa, Rachel, without looking at Becca, gathered up Becca’s note and the JNF certificate. She brushed off some invisible dust and placed the items face down on some oversized books lying horizontally on a bookshelf.
She sat at the head of the dining table, summoned Becca to sit beside her.
Now was the time to apologize. But how to begin?
Rachel looked at Becca with the direct glance of the woman in Rosenberg’s painting. “Tell me really. How are things with Liam?”
It was as if she knew. Saul emerged from the kitchen carrying a covered soup tureen and a ladle.
“Saul, dear, there’s bread and a knife on the counter.”
Becca breathed in the sweet smell of the soup. She wanted to be quiet now, to sit and eat, but couldn’t. “Liam left me. Perhaps you knew?” Becca spoke rapidly, hoping to finish before Saul returned, but there he was with the bread, looking at her fondly.
“What did you say?” he asked.
“Nine months ago. It was mid-June, end of term. He said he needed a break. But he didn’t come back, didn’t call. A week later,” she struggled, “a week later, a letter arrived from the school, confirming that Liam had declined to accept the contract for another year. It said that if he ever changed his mind and returned to New York, they would welcome him.”
There was no retreat, no graceful way out. Were they angry she had lied? That she didn’t let them know earlier? “You’re the first people I’ve told. Not even my mother, or my friends.”
“How could you stand it?” Saul asked softly. “Alone?”
She quoted Rosenberg’s lines to him, the ones he loved. “It was an abyss of days. I got through by working. I thought of telling you, Saul. I wondered if he had returned to England. Perhaps he missed his son, or didn’t like New York. Or me.”
“That couldn’t happen,” Saul said. He looked away, picked up an apple from a bowl in the center of the table.
“I remember how after the two of you met, when you were living in Isleworth, Liam disappeared sometimes,” said Aunt Rachel. “Aunt Lillian and I worried about it.”
“I know you did. The two of you would ask, how’s our wayward nephew Liam? And Becca, how are you doing? You tried to warn me.”
“We didn’t know what to think. We thought he loved you, as much as he could love anyone. But maybe it wasn’t enough.”
“I realize something,” Becca said to Aunt Rachel and to Saul. Saul of the midnight phone calls, Saul who was managing to eat an apple quietly — not an easy task. “I thought love was one thing, and now it seems to be something else. What I thought it was, was the absence of lies. That’s odd, isn’t it?”
All three of them were silent after that. Saul looked for a place to throw out his apple core. “Here,” said Becca. She took the core and went into the kitchen, tossed it in the compost, wiped her eyes on a dishtowel. When she came back, no one said a word.
“Thank you for waiting,” she said.
They sipped the soup and ate the bread. “This is as delicious as I remember, Aunt Rachel. And it’s reviving me, too. Like it did when you brought it to the hospital.”
“You remember that?” Aunt Rachel looked pleased. She took another sip of soup and put down her spoon. “You both practice law. How long does someone have to be missing before you can dissolve a marriage, or declare them dead?”
Saul nearly choked on his soup.
Becca murmured that she didn’t know.
Someone would have to look it up.
In April 2005, Chad Cook bought a home in Anderson, Indiana, and moved in with his pregnant wife and their 1- and 3-year-old children. While Cook noticed spiders during his initial inspection, he assumed they were ordinary household spiders. By August, he began to suspect they were dangerous brown recluse spiders. Experts at Purdue University confirmed his suspicion in September and advised Cook to immediately move his family out of the home.
That month, Cook contacted his insurer, Allstate, requesting coverage — a request he continued to make by telephone and in person over the next eight months, to no avail.
In the meantime, Cook had the home treated by pest control professionals. In December 2005, he moved his family back into the house but, finding more spiders, moved out again the next week. Thereafter, Cook hired various professional exterminators to treat his home, but the brown recluse problem persisted.
On June 23, 2006, Allstate finally responded to Cook’s claim. In the letter, the company denied coverage based on Allstate’s exclusion for losses “consisting of or caused by … insects, rodents, birds, or domestic animals.”
Cook filed suit against Allstate seeking coverage under Allstate’s Deluxe Homeowners Policy for an infestation of brown recluse spiders at his home. Cook claimed that Allstate’s “insect” exclusion did not apply because spiders are not insects, but belong to a class of animals known as arachnids. He cited encyclopedias, a dictionary, and scientific articles to establish that spiders are not insects. For example, spiders have two main body parts; insects have three. Spiders have eight legs; insects have six.
In response, Allstate quoted one Merriam-Webster definition of insects as “any of numerous small invertebrate animals (such as spiders or centipedes) that are more or less obviously segmented.” Allstate also argued that an infestation of brown recluse spiders was not covered under the policy because there was no “sudden and accidental direct physical loss” to the property; in short, no event or disaster caused damage to the home.
How Would You Rule?
In its decision, the court cited Indiana case law establishing that if any ambiguity exists in a policy term, and particularly in an exclusion, the term must be interpreted in favor of the policyholder and ruled that spiders were not excluded and should be covered by Allstate.
The court further found that a physical condition that renders property unsuitable for its intended use constitutes a “direct physical loss” even when the building’s structural integrity remains. “Brown recluse spiders living, breeding, and hunting on and within surfaces of the home are a physical condition that renders the home unsuitable for its intended use. The undisputed evidence is that the brown recluse spiders make it unsafe for Cook and his very young children to live in the home.” The Court entered a partial summary judgment in favor of Cook, but Allstate settled the suit before trial.
—Cook v. Allstate 2007
Addendum: Across the nation, companies are filing insurance claims for business interruption losses due to government-mandated closure of nonessential businesses because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The insurance industry is denying these damage claims because businesses have not suffered any “direct physical loss,” such as from a fire or flood. Businesses are fighting back in court, arguing that the presence of a contaminant — whether a chemical agent or a contagion such as COVID-19 that can survive on doorknobs, faucets, phones, toilets, and other surfaces in buildings — constitutes direct physical loss or damage to the property, triggering business interruption coverage.
This article is featured in the July/August 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Shutterstock
Want even more laughs? Subscribe to the magazine for cartoons, art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Want even more laughs? Subscribe to the magazine for cartoons, art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Jack London’s short stories in the Post concerned adventurers, criminals, workingmen, society folks, and — sometimes — wild animals. In “The Benefit of the Doubt,” from 1910, a class-concerned sociologist gets a hands-on lesson in justice and corruption when he ducks in to the wrong dive bar in his hometown.
Published on November 12, 1910
With a current magazine under his arm, Carter Watson strolled slowly along, gazing about him curiously. Twenty years had elapsed since he had been on this particular street, and the changes were great and stupefying. This Western city of three hundred thousand souls had contained but thirty thousand when, as a boy, he had been wont to ramble along its streets. In those days the street he was now on had been a quiet residence street in the respectable working-class quarter. On this late afternoon he found that it had been submerged by a vast and vicious tenderloin. Chinese and Japanese shops and dens abounded, all confusedly intermingled with low bars and boozing kens. This quiet street of his youth had become the toughest quarter of the city.
He looked at his watch. It was half past five. It was the slack time of the day in such a region, as he well knew, yet he was curious to see. In all his score of years of wandering and studying social conditions over the world he had carried with him the memory of his old town as a sweet and wholesome place. The metamorphosis he now beheld was startling. He certainly must continue his stroll and glimpse the infamy to which his town had descended.
Another thing: Carter Watson had a keen social and civic consciousness. Independently wealthy, he had been loath to dissipate his energies in the pink teas and freak dinners of society, while actresses, race-horses and kindred diversions had left him cold. He had the ethical bee in his bonnet and was a reformer of no mean pretension, though his work had been mainly in the line of contributions to the heavier reviews and quarterlies and to the publication over his name of brightly, cleverly written books on the working classes and the alum-dwellers. Among the twenty-seven to his credit occurred titles such as, If Christ Came to New Orleans, The Worked-Out Worker, Tenement Reform in Berlin, The Rural Slums of England, The People of the East Side, Reform Versus Revolution, The University Settlement as a Hotbed of Radicalism and The Cave Man of Civilization.
But Carter Watson was neither morbid nor fanatic. He did not lose his head over the horrors he encountered, studied and exposed. No hare-brained enthusiasm branded him. His humor saved him, as did his wide experience and his conservative, philosophic temperament. Nor did he have any patience with lightning-change reform theories. As he saw it, society would grow better only through the painfully slow and arduously painful processes of evolution. There were no short cuts, no sudden regenerations. The betterment of mankind must be worked out in agony and misery just as all past social betterments had been worked out.
But on this late summer afternoon Carter Watson was curious. As he moved along he paused before a gaudy drinking place. The sign above read, The Vendome. There were two entrances. One evidently led to the bar. This he did not explore. The other was a narrow hallway. Passing through this he found himself in a huge room filled with chair-encircled tables and quite deserted. In the dim light he discerned a piano in the distance. Making a mental note that he would come back some time and study the class of persons that must sit and drink at those multitudinous tables, he proceeded to circumnavigate the room.
Now at the rear a short hallway led off to a small kitchen, and here, at a table, alone, sat Patsy Horan, proprietor of The Vendome, consuming a hasty supper ere the evening rush of business. Also, Patsy Horan was angry with the world. He had got out on the wrong side of bed that morning, and nothing had gone right all day. Had his barkeepers been asked, they would have described his mental condition as a grouch. But Carter Watson did not know this. As he passed the little hallway Patsy Horan’s sullen eyes lighted on the magazine he carried under his arm. Patsy did not know Carter Watson, nor did he know that what he carried under his arm was a magazine. Patsy, out of the depths of his grouch, decided that this stranger was one of those pests who marred and scarred the walls of his back rooms by tacking up or pasting up advertisements. The color on the front cover of the magazine convinced him that it was such an advertisement. Thus the trouble began. Knife and fork in hand, Patsy leaped for Carter Watson.
“Out wid yeh!” Patsy bellowed. “I know yer game!”
Carter Watson was startled. The man had come upon him like the eruption of a jack-in-the-box.
“Adefacin’ me walls,” cried Patsy, at the same time emitting a string of vivid and vile, rather than virile, epithets of opprobrium.
“If I have given any offense, I did not mean to — ”
“But that was as far as the visitor got. Patsy interrupted.
“Get out wid yeh; yeh talk too much wid yer mouth!” quoth Patsy, emphasizing his remarks with flourishes of the knife and fork.
Carter Watson caught a quick vision of that eating fork inserted uncomfortably between his ribs, knew that it would be rash to talk further with his mouth, and promptly turned to go. The sight of his meekly retreating back must have further enraged Patsy Horan, for that worthy, dropping the table implements, sprang upon him.
Patsy weighed one hundred and eighty pounds. So did Watson. In this they were equal. But Patsy was a rushing, rough-and-tumble saloon fighter, while Watson was a boxer. In this the latter had the advantage, for Patsy came in wide open, swinging his right in a perilous sweep. All Watson had to do was to straight-left him and escape. But Watson had another advantage. His boxing and his experience in the slums and ghettos of the world had taught him restraint.
He pivoted on his feet and, instead of striking, ducked the other’s swinging blow and went into a clinch. But Patsy, charging like a bull, had the momentum of his rush, while Watson, whirling to meet him, had no momentum. As a result, the pair of them went down with all their three hundred and sixty pounds of weight, in a long, crashing fall, Watson underneath. He lay with his head touching the rear wall of the large room. The street was a hundred and fifty feet away, and he did some quick thinking. His first thought was to avoid trouble. He had no wish to get into the papers of this his childhood town where many of his relatives and family friends still lived.
So it was that he locked his arms around the man on top of him, held him close and waited for the help to come that must come in response to the crash of the fall. The help came — that is, six men ran in from the bar and formed about in a semicircle.
“Take him off, fellows!” Watson said. “I haven’t struck him, and I don’t want any fight.”
But the semicircle remained silent. Watson held on and waited. Patsy, after various vain efforts to inflict damage, made an overture.
“Leggo o’ me an’ I’ll get off o’ yeh,” said he.
Watson let go, but when Patsy scrambled to his feet he stood over his recumbent foe ready to strike.
“Get up!” Patsy commanded.
His voice was stern and implacable, like the voice of one calling to judgment, and Watson knew there was no mercy there.
“Stand back and I’ll get up,” he countered.
“If yer a gentleman get up,” quoth Patsy, his Celtic eyes aflame with wrath, his fist ready for a crushing blow.
At the same moment he drew his foot back to kick the other in the face. Watson blocked the kick with his crossed arms and sprang to his feet so quickly that he was in a clinch with his antagonist before the latter could strike. Holding him, Watson spoke to the onlookers.
“Take him away from me, fellows. You see I am not striking him. I don’t want to fight. I want to get out of here.”
The circle did not move or speak. Its silence was ominous and sent a chill to Watson’s heart. Patsy made an effort to throw him, which culminated in his putting Patsy on his back. Tearing loose from him, Watson sprang to his feet and made for the door. But the circle of men was interposed like a wall. He noticed the white, pasty faces, the kind that never see the sun, and knew that the men who barred his way were the night prowlers and preying beasts of the city jungle. By them he was thrust back upon the pursuing, bull-rushing Patsy.
Again it was a clinch, in which, in momentary safety, Watson appealed to the gang. And again his words fell on deaf ears. Then it was that he knew fear. For he had known of many similar situations in low dens like this, when solitary men were manhandled, their ribs and features caved in, themselves beaten and kicked to death. And he knew further that if he were to escape he must neither strike his assailant nor any of the men who opposed him.
Yet in him was righteous indignation. Under no circumstance could seven to one be fair. Also, he was angry, and there stirred in him the fighting beast that is in all men. But he remembered his wife and children, his unfinished book, the ten thousand rolling acres of the up-country ranch he loved so well. He even saw in flashing visions the blue of the sky, the golden sun pouring down on his flower-spangled meadows, the lazy cattle knee-deep in the brooks, and the flash of trout in the riffles. Life was good — too good for him to risk it for a moment’s sway of the beast. In short, Carter Watson was cool and scared.
His opponent, locked by his masterly clinch, was striving to throw him. Again Watson put him on the floor, broke away, and was thrust back by the pasty-faced circle to duck Patsy’s swinging right and effect another clinch. This happened many times. And Watson grew even cooler, while the baffled Patsy, unable to inflict punishment, raged wildly and more wildly. He took to batting with his head in the clinches. The first time, he landed his forehead flush on Watson’s nose. After that the latter, in the clinches, buried his face in Patsy’s breast. But the enraged Patsy batted on, striking his own eye and nose and cheek on the top of the other’s head. The more he was thus injured the more and the harder did Patsy bat.
This one-sided contest continued for twelve minutes. Watson never struck a blow and strove only to escape. Sometimes, in the free moments, circling about among the tables as he tried to win the door, the pasty-faced men gripped his coat-tails and flung him back at the swinging right of the on-rushing Patsy. Time upon time and times without end he clinched and put Patsy on his back, each time first whirling him around and putting him down in the direction of the door and gaining toward that goal by the length of the fall.
In the end, hatless, disheveled, with streaming nose and one eye closed, Watson won to the sidewalk and into the arms of a policeman.
“Arrest that man!” Watson panted.
“Hello, Patsy!” said the policeman. “What’s the mix-up?”
“Hello, Charley!” was the answer. “This guy comes in — ”
“Arrest that man, officer!” Watson repeated.
“G’wan! Beat it!” said Patsy.
“Beat it!” added the policeman. “If you don’t I’ll pull you in.”
“Not unless you arrest that man. He has committed a violent and unprovoked assault on me.”
“Is it so, Patsy?” was the officer’s query.
“Nah. Lemme tell you, Charley, an’ I got the witnesses to prove it, so help me God. I was settin’ in me kitchen eatin’ a bowl of soup, when this guy comes in an’ gets gay wid me. I never seen him in me born days before. He was drunk f — ”
“Look at me, officer,” protested the indignant sociologist. “Am I drunk?”
The officer looked at him with sullen, menacing eyes and nodded to Patsy to continue.
“This guy gets gay wid me. ‘I’m Tim McGrath,’ says he, ‘an’ I can do the likes of you,’ says he. ‘Put up yer hands.’ I smiles an’, wid that, bill, bill, he lands me twice an’ spills me soup. Look at me eye. I’m fair murdered.”
“What are you going to do, officer?” Watson demanded.
“Go on, beat it,” was the answer, “or I’ll pull you sure!”
Then the civic righteousness of Carter Watson flamed up.
“Mr. Officer, I protest — ”
But at that moment the policeman grabbed his arm with a savage jerk that nearly overthrew him.
“Come on, you’re pulled!”
“Arrest him, too!” Watson demanded.
“Nix on that play,” was the reply. “What did you assault him for, him apeacefully eatin’ his soup?”
Carter Watson was genuinely angry. Not only had he been wantonly assaulted, badly battered and arrested, but the morning papers without exception came out with lurid accounts of his drunken brawl with the proprietor of the notorious Vendome.
Not one accurate or truthful line was published. Patsy Horan and his satellites described the battle in detail. The one incontestable thing was that Carter Watson had been drunk. Thrice he had been thrown out of the place and into the gutter, and thrice he had come back, breathing blood and fire and announcing that he was going to clean out the place.
EMINENT SOCIOLOGIST JAGGED AND JUGGED
was the first headline he read on the front page, accompanied by a large portrait of himself. Other headlines were:
CARTER WATSON ASPIRED TO CHAMPIONSHIP HONORS
CARTER WATSON GETS HIS
NOTED SOCIOLOGIST ATTEMPTS TO CLEAN OUT A TENDERLOIN CAFE
CARTER WATSON KNOCKED OUT BY PATSY HORAN IN THREE ROUNDS
At the police court next morning, under bail, appeared Carter Watson to answer the complaint of the People versus Carter Watson for the latter’s assault and battery on one Patsy Horan. But first the prosecuting attorney, who was paid to prosecute all offenders against the People, drew him aside and talked with him privately.
“Why not let it drop?” said the prosecuting attorney. “I tell you what you do, Mr. Watson. Shake hands with Mr. Horan and we’ll drop the case right here. A word to the judge and the case against you will be dismissed.”
“But I don’t want it dismissed,” was the answer. “Your office being what it is, you should be prosecuting me instead of asking me to make up with this — this fellow.”
“Oh, I’ll prosecute you all right,” retorted the other.
“Also you will have to prosecute this Patsy Horan,” Watson advised; “for I shall now have him arrested for assault and battery.”
“You’d better shake and make up,” the prosecuting attorney repeated, with a threat in his voice.
The trials of both men were set for a week later, on the same morning, in Police Judge Witberg’s court.
“You have no chance,” Watson was told by an old friend of his boyhood, the retired manager of the biggest paper in the city. “Everybody knows you were beaten up by this man. His reputation is most unsavory. But it won’t help you in the least. Both cases will be dismissed. This will be because you are you. Any ordinary man would be convicted.”
“But I do not understand,” objected the perplexed sociologist. “Without warning I was attacked by this man and badly beaten. I did not strike a blow. I — ”
“That has nothing to do with it,” the other cut him off.
“Then what is there that has anything to do with it?”
“I’ll tell you. You are now up against the local police and political machine. Who are you? You are not even a legal resident in this town. You live up in the country. You haven’t a vote of your own here. Much less do you swing any votes. This dive proprietor swings a string of votes in his precinct — a mighty long string.”
“Do you mean to tell me that this Judge Witberg will violate the sacredness of his office and oath by letting this brute off?” Watson demanded.
“Watch him,” was the grim reply. “Oh, he’ll do it nicely enough! He will give an extra-legal, extra-judicial decision abounding in every word in the dictionary that stands for fairness and right.”
“But there are the newspapers,” Watson cried.
“They are not fighting the administration at present. They’ll give it to you hard. You see what they have already done to you.”
“Then these snips of boys on the police detail won’t write the truth.”
“They will write something so near like the truth that the public will believe it. They write their stories under instruction, you know. They have their orders to twist and color, and there won’t be much left of you when they get done. Better drop the whole thing right now. You are in bad.”
“But the trials are set.”
“Give the word and they’ll drop them now. A man can’t fight a machine unless he has a machine behind him — and shall I tell you a secret? Judge Witberg pays the taxes on Patsy Horan’s resort.”
“You don’t mean it?”
“No, I don’t. I am just telling you.”
But Carter Watson was stubborn. He was convinced that the machine would beat him, but all his days he had sought social experience, and this was certainly something new.
The morning of the trial the prosecuting attorney made another attempt to patch up the affair.
“If you feel that way I should like to get a lawyer to prosecute the case,” said Watson.
“No, you don’t!” said the prosecuting attorney. “I am paid by the People to prosecute, and prosecute I will. But let me tell you: You have no chance. We shall lump both cases into one, and you watch out!”
Judge Witberg looked good to Watson. He was a fairly young man, with an intelligent face, smiling lips and wrinkles of laughter in the corners of his black eyes. Looking at him and studying him, Watson felt almost sure that his old friend’s prognostication was wrong.
But Watson was soon to learn. Patsy Horan and the two of his satellites testified to a most colossal aggregation of perjuries. Watson could not have believed it possible without having experienced it. They denied the existence of the other four men. And of the two that testified, one claimed to have been in the kitchen, a witness to Watson’s unprovoked assault on Patsy, while the other, remaining in the bar, had witnessed Watson’s second and third rushes into the place as he attempted to annihilate the unoffending Patsy. The vile language ascribed to Watson was so voluminously and unspeakably vile that he felt they were injuring their own case — it was so impossible that he should utter such things. But when they described the brutal blows he had rained on poor Patsy’s face, and the chair he demolished when he vainly attempted to kick Patsy, Watson waxed secretly hilarious and at the same time sad. The trial was a farce; but such lowness of life was depressing to contemplate when he considered the long upward climb humanity must make.
Watson could not recognize himself, nor could his worst enemy have recognized him, in the swashbuckling, roughhousing picture that was painted of him. But, as in all cases of complicated perjury, rifts and contradictions in the various stories appeared. The judge somehow failed to notice them, while the prosecuting attorney and Patsy’s attorney shied off from them gracefully. Watson had not bothered to get a lawyer for himself, and he was now glad that he had not.
Still, he retained a semblance of faith in Judge Witberg when he went himself on the stand and started to tell his story.
“I was strolling casually along the street, your Honor,” Watson began, but was interrupted by the judge.
“We are not here to consider your previous actions,” bellowed Judge Witberg. “Who struck the first blow?”
“Your Honor,” Watson pleaded, “I have no witnesses of the actual fray, and the truth of my story can only be brought out by telling the story fully — ”
Again he was interrupted.
“We do not care to publish any magazines here,” Judge Witberg roared, looking at him so fiercely and malevolently that Watson could scarcely bring himself to believe that this was the same man he had studied a few minutes previously.
“Who struck the first blow?” Patsy’s attorney asked.
The prosecuting attorney interposed, demanding to know which of the two cases lumped together this was, and by what right Patsy’s lawyer, at that stage of the proceedings, should take the witness. Patsy’s attorney fought back. Judge Witberg interfered, professing no knowledge of any two cases being lumped together. All this had to be explained. Battle royal raged, terminating in both attorneys apologizing to the court and to each other. And so it went, and to Watson it had the seeming of a group of pickpockets ruffling and bustling an honest man as they took his purse. The machine was working, that was all.
“Why did you enter this place of unsavory reputation?” was asked him.
“It has been my custom for many years, as a student of economics and sociology, to acquaint myself — ”
But this was as far as Watson got.
“We want none of your ologies here,” snarled Judge Witberg. “It is a plain question. Answer it plainly. Is it true or not true that you were drunk? That is the gist of the question.”
When Watson attempted to tell how Patsy had injured his face in his attempts to bat with his head, Watson was openly scouted and flouted, and Judge Witberg again took him in hand.
“Are you aware of the solemnity of the oath you took to testify to nothing but the truth on this witness stand?” the judge demanded. “This is a fairy story you are telling. It is not reasonable that a man would so injure himself, and continue to injure himself, by striking the soft and sensitive parts of his face against your head. You are a sensible man. It is unreasonable, is it not?”
“Men are unreasonable when they are angry,” Watson answered meekly.
Then it was that Judge Witberg was deeply outraged and righteously wrathful.
“What right have you to say that?” he cried. “It is gratuitous. It has no bearing on the case. You are here as a witness, sir, of events that have transpired. The court does not wish to hear any expressions of opinion from you at all.”
“I but answered your question, your Honor,” Watson protested humbly.
“You did nothing of the sort,” was the next blast. “And let me warn you, sir, let me warn you that you are laying yourself liable to contempt by such insolence. And I will have you know that we know how to observe the law and the rules of courtesy down here in this little courtroom. I am ashamed of you.”
And, while the next punctilious legal wrangle between the attorneys interrupted his tale of what happened in the Vendome, Carter Watson, without bitterness, amused and at the same time sad, saw rise before him the machines, large and small, that dominated his country, the unpunished and shameless grafts of a thousand cities perpetrated by the spidery and verminlike creatures of the machines. Here it was before him, a courtroom and a judge bowed down in subservience by the machine to a divekeeper who swung a string of votes. Petty and sordid as it was, it was one face of the many-faced machine that loomed colossally in every city and state, in a thousand guises overshadowing the land.
A familiar phrase rang in his ears: “It is to laugh.” At the height of the wrangle he giggled once aloud, and earned a sullen frown from Judge Witberg. Worse a myriad times, he decided, were these bullying lawyers and this bullying judge than the bucko mates in first-quality hellships, who not only did their own bullying but protected themselves as well. These petty rapscallions, on the other hand, sought protection behind the majesty of the law. They struck, but no one was permitted to strike back, for behind them were the prison cells and the clubs of the stupid policemen — paid and professional fighters and beaters-up of men. Yet he was not bitter. The grossness of it was forgotten in the simple grotesqueness of it.
Nevertheless, hectored and heckled though he was, he managed in the end to give a simple, straightforward version of the affair, and despite a belligerent cross-examination his story was not shaken in any particular. Quite different it was from the perjuries of Patsy.
Both Patsy’s attorney and the prosecuting attorney rested their cases, letting everything go before the court without argument. Watson protested against this, but was silenced when the prosecuting attorney told him that he was the public prosecutor and knew his business.
“Patrick Horan has testified that he was in danger of his life and that he was compelled to defend himself,” Judge Witberg’s verdict began. “Mr. Watson has testified to the same thing. Each has sworn that the other struck the first blow; each has sworn that the other made an unprovoked assault on him. It is an axiom of the law that the defendant should be given the benefit of the doubt. A very reasonable doubt exists. Therefore, in the case of the People versus Carter Watson the benefit of the doubt is given to said Carter Watson and he is herewith ordered discharged from custody. The same reasoning applies to the case of the People versus Patrick Horan. He is given the benefit of the doubt and discharged from custody. My recommendation is that both defendants shake hands and make up.”
In the afternoon papers the first headline that caught Watson’s eye was:
CARTER WATSON ACQUITTED
In the second paper it was:
CARTER WATSON ESCAPES A FINE
But what capped everything was the one beginning:
CARTER WATSON A GOOD FELLOW
In the text he read how Judge Witberg had advised both fighters to shake hands, which they promptly did. Further, he read:
“‘Let’s have a nip on it,’ said Patsy Horan.
“‘Sure!’ said Carter Watson.
“And arm in arm they ambled to the nearest saloon.”
Now from the whole adventure Watson carried away no bitterness. It was a social experience of a new order and it led to the writing of another book, which he entitled Police Court Procedure: A Tentative Analysis.
One summer morning a year later, on his ranch, he left his horse and clambered through a miniature canyon to inspect the rock ferns he had planted the previous winter. Emerging from the upper end of the canyon he came out on one of his flower-spangled meadows, a delightful, isolated spot screened from the world by low hills and clumps of trees. And here he found a man, evidently on a stroll from the summer hotel down at the little town a mile away. They met face to face and the recognition was mutual. It was Judge Witberg. Also it was a clear case of trespass, for Watson had trespass signs up on his boundaries, though he never enforced them.
Judge Witberg held out his hand, which Watson refused to see.
“Politics is a dirty trade, isn’t it, Judge?” he remarked. “Oh, yes! I see your hand, but I don’t care to take it. The papers said I shook hands with Patsy Horan after the trial. You know I didn’t; but let me tell you that I’d a thousand times rather shake hands with him and his vile following of curs than with you.”
Judge Witberg was painfully flustered, and as he hemmed and hawed and essayed to speak, Watson, looking at him, was struck by a sudden whim, and he determined on a grim and facetious antic.
“I should scarcely expect any animus from a man of your acquirements and knowledge of the world,” the judge was saying.
“Animus?” Watson replied. “Certainly not. I haven’t such a thing in my nature. And to prove it let me show you something curious, something you have never seen before.” Casting about him, Watson picked up a rough stone the size of his fist. “See this? Watch me.”
So saying, Carter Watson tapped himself a sharp blow on the cheek. The stone laid the flesh open and the blood spurted forth.
“The stone was too sharp,” he announced to the astounded police judge, who thought he had gone mad. “I must bruise it a trifle. There is nothing like being realistic in such matters.”
Whereupon Carter Watson found a smooth stone and with it pounded his cheek nicely several times.
“Ah!” he cooed. “That will turn beautifully green and black in a few hours. It will be most convincing.”
“You are insane,” Judge Witberg quavered.
“Don’t use such vile language to me,” said Watson. “You see my bruised and bleeding face? You did that with that right hand of yours. You hit me twice — biff, biff. It is a brutal and unprovoked assault. I am in danger of my life. I must protect myself.”
Judge Witberg backed away in alarm before the menacing fists of the other.
“If you strike me I’ll have you arrested,” Judge Witberg threatened.
“That is what I told Patsy,” was the answer. “And do you know what he did when I told him that?”
And at the same moment Watson’s right fist landed flush on Judge Witberg’s nose, putting that legal gentleman over on his back on the grass.
“Get up!” commanded Watson. “If you are a gentleman, get up — that’s what Patsy told me, you know.”
Judge Witberg declined to rise, and was dragged to his feet by the coat-collar, only to have one eye blacked and be put on his back again. After that it was a red Indian massacre. Judge Witberg was humanely and scientifically beaten up. His cheeks were boxed, his ears cuffed, and his face was rubbed in the turf. And all the time Watson exposited the way Patsy Horan had done it. Occasionally and very carefully the facetious sociologist administered a real bruising blow. Once, dragging the poor judge to his feet, he deliberately bumped his own nose on the gentleman’s head. The nose promptly bled.
“See that!” cried Watson, stepping back and deftly shedding his blood all down his own shirtfront. “You did it. With your fist you did it. It is awful. I am fair murdered. I must again defend myself.”
And once more Judge Witberg impacted his features on a fist and was sent down to grass.
“I will have you arrested,” he sobbed as he lay.
“That’s what Patsy said.”
“A brutal [sniff, sniff] and unprovoked [sniff, sniff] assault.”
“That’s what Patsy said.”
“I will surely have you arrested.”
“Speaking slangily, not if I can beat you to it.”
And with that Carter Watson departed down the canyon, mounted his horse and rode to town.
An hour later as Judge Witberg limped up the grounds to his hotel he was arrested by a village constable on a charge of assault and battery preferred by Carter Watson.
“Your honor,” Watson said next day to the village justice, a well-to-do farmer and graduate thirty years before from a cow college, “since this Sol Witberg has seen fit to charge me with battery, following upon my charge of battery against him, I would suggest that both cases be lumped together. The testimony and the facts are the same in both cases.”
To this the justice agreed, and the double case proceeded. Watson, as prosecuting witness, first took the stand and told his story.
“I was picking flowers,” he testified — “picking flowers on my own land, never dreaming of danger. Suddenly this man rushed upon me from behind the trees. ‘I am the Dodo,’ he says, ‘and I can do you to a frazzle. Put up your hands.’ I smiled; but, with that, biff, biff, he struck me, knocking me down and spilling my flowers. The language he used was frightful. It was an unprovoked and brutal assault. Look at my cheek. Look at my nose. I could not understand it. He must have been drunk. Before I recovered from my surprise he had administered this beating. I was in danger of my life and was compelled to defend myself. That is all, your Honor, though I must say in conclusion that I cannot get over my perplexity. Why did he say he was the Dodo? Why did he so wantonly attack me?”
And thus was Sol Witberg given a liberal education in the art of perjury. Often from his high seat he had listened indulgently to police court perjuries in cooked-up cases; but for the first time perjury was directed against him, and he no longer sat above the court, with bailiffs, the policemen’s clubs and prison cells behind him.
“Your Honor,” he cried, “never have I heard such a pack of lies told by so barefaced a liar — ”
Watson here sprang to his feet.
“Your Honor, I protest. It is for your Honor to decide truth or falsehood. The witness is on the stand to testify to actual events that have occurred. His personal opinion upon things in general and upon me has no bearing on the case whatever.”
The justice scratched his head and waxed phlegmatically indignant.
“The point is well taken,” he decided. “I am surprised at you, Mr. Witberg, claiming to be a judge and skilled in the practice of the law, and yet being guilty of such unlawyerlike conduct. Your manner, sir, and your methods remind me of a shyster. This is a simple case of assault and battery. We are here to determine who struck the first blow, and we are not interested in your estimates of Mr. Watson’s personal character. Proceed with your story.”
Sol Witberg would have bitten his bruised and swollen lip in chagrin had it not hurt so much. But he contained himself and told a simple, straightforward, truthful story.
“Your Honor,” Watson said, “I would suggest that you ask him what he was doing on my premises.”
“A very good question. What were you doing, sir, on Mr. Watson’s premises?”
“I did not know they were his premises.”
“It was a trespass, your Honor,” Watson cried. “The warnings are posted conspicuously.”
“I saw no warnings,” said Sol Witberg.
“I have seen them myself,” snapped the justice. “They are very conspicuous. And I would warn you, sir, that if you palter with the truth in such little matters you may darken your more important statements with suspicion. Why did you strike Mr. Watson?”
“Your Honor, as I have testified, I did not strike a blow.”
The justice looked at Carter Watson’s bruised and swollen visage, and turned to glare at Sol Witberg.
“Look at that man’s cheek!” he thundered. “If you did not strike a blow how comes it that he is so disfigured and injured?”
“As I testified — ”
“Be careful,” the justice warned.
“I will be careful, sir. I will say nothing but the truth. He struck himself with a rock. He struck himself with two rocks.”
“Does it stand to reason that a man, any man not a lunatic, would so injure himself and continue to injure himself by striking the soft and sensitive parts of his face with a stone?” interposed Watson.
“It sounds like a fairy story,” was the justice’s comment. “Mr. Witberg, had you been drinking?”
“Do you ever drink?”
The justice meditated on this answer with an air of astute profundity.
Watson took advantage of the opportunity to wink at Sol Witberg, but that much-abused gentleman saw nothing humorous in the situation.
“A very peculiar case, a very peculiar case,” the justice announced as he began his verdict. “The evidence of the two parties is flatly contradictory. There are no witnesses outside the two principals. Each claims the other committed the assault, and I have no legal way of determining the truth. But I have my private opinion, Mr. Witberg, and I would recommend that henceforth you keep off of Mr. Watson’s premises and keep away from this section of the country — ”
“This is an outrage!” Sol Witberg blurted out.
“Sit down, sir!” was the justice’s thundered command. “If you interrupt the court in this manner again I shall fine you for contempt. And I warn you I shall fine you heavily — you, a judge yourself, who should be conversant with the courtesy and dignity of courts. I shall now give my verdict:
“It is a rule of law that the defendant shall be given the benefit of the doubt. As I have said, and I repeat, there is no legal way for me to determine who struck the first blow. Therefore, and much to my regret” — here he paused and glared at Sol Witberg — “in each of these cases I am compelled to give the defendant the benefit of the doubt. Gentlemen, you are both dismissed.”
“Let us have a nip on it,” Watson said to Witberg as they left the courtroom; but that outraged person refused to lock arms and amble to the nearest saloon.
Illustrated by P.V.E. Ivory (©SEPS)
When he died, in 1970, Erle Stanley Gardner was the best-selling American fiction author of the century. His detective stories sold all over the globe, especially those with his most famous defense attorney protagonist, Perry Mason. His no-nonsense prose and neat, satisfying endings delighted detective fans for decades. Gardner wrote several stories that were serialized in the Post. In Country Gentleman, his 1936 serial “The Thread of Truth” follows a fresh D.A. in a clergyman murder case that comes on his first day on the job.
Published on September 1, 1936
The room held a subtle atmosphere of burnt-out activity. Physically, it had the littered appearance of a vacant lot from which a carnival had moved away. The walls were decorated with posters. “ELECT DOUGLAS SELBY DISTRICT ATTORNEY” screamed one poster. Above the words appeared the likeness of a handsome young man with curly hair, a devil-may-care glint in his penetrating eyes, and a forceful, although shapely, mouth. Hanging beside it, a twin poster showed a man some twenty-five years older, wearing a big sombrero, his leathery face creased into a friendly smile. It required a close inspection to show the hard determination of the gray eyes. That poster bore the words, “VOTE FOR REX BRANDON FOR SHERIFF.”
Half a dozen small desks and tables had been crowded into the room. They were littered with envelopes, pamphlets, windshield stickers, and other campaign paraphernalia.
Douglas Selby, newly elected district attorney, grinned across the room at Sheriff Brandon. It had been a bitterly contested battle, involving an election contest, a recount of ballots, and an action in mandamus. The actual election had been history for weeks, but the political backers of the two men had kept the room in the Madison Hotel for post-election activities.
Selby, crossing his long legs, ran his hand through his thick shock of curly hair and said, “Well, Rex, in fifteen minutes we start for the courthouse to take charge. Personally, now that it’s all over, I’m going to miss the fight of the campaign.”
Rex Brandon fished a cloth sack from his pocket, shook flakes of tobacco into a brown cigarette paper. His thick fingers rolled the cigarette with an expert twist. He moistened the edge of the paper with his tongue, stroked the cigarette into a smooth cylinder and said, “You’ll have plenty of fighting, son. It ain’t all over — not by a long ways.”
Selby had the knack of completely relaxing his muscles when he was at ease. He seemed as completely untensed as a cat sprawled in the sunlight. “Not much they can do once we get in office,” he drawled.
Sheriff Brandon snapped a match into flame with a quick flip of his thumbnail. “Listen, Doug, I’m twenty-five years older than you are. I haven’t got as much book learnin’, but I know men. I’m proud of this county. I was born and raised here. I’ve seen it change from horse and buggy to automobile and tractor. I remember when you’d never walk down the street without stopping three or four times in a block to pass the time of day with friends. Now things are different. Everyone’s in a hurry.”
The sheriff paused to apply the match to the end of his cigarette.
“What’s that got to do with us?” Selby asked.
“Just this, son: People used to know pretty much what was going on in the county and officeholders used to get a square deal. Now people are too busy and too selfish to care. They’ve got too many worries of their own to bother very much about seeing that other people get a square deal.
“If it was just politics, it wouldn’t be so bad. But during the last four years the doors have been opened to all the scum from the big cities. Chaps who haven’t been big enough to work a racket in the Big Time have drifted in with a lot of little, vicious, chiseling, crooked stuff. Sam Roper, the old district attorney, either got a cut or should have had one. You know that as well as I do.
“Now, then, it’s up to you and me to clean up this mess.”
“It’s already cleaned up,” Selby pointed out. “The crooks read their death sentences in the election returns. They’ve been getting out. Little hole-in-the-wall joints have closed up, or turned honest.”
“Some of ’em have, and some of ’em haven’t,” Brandon said. “But the main thing is that we’ve got to watch our step, particularly at the start. If we make just one major mistake, they’ll hoot us out of office.”
Selby looked at his watch, got to his feet and said grimly, “It’s going to take a lot of hooting to get me out of office. Come on, Rex, let’s go.”
Campaign headquarters had been located on the top floor of the Madison Hotel. As the two men stepped through the door into the carpeted hotel corridor, a door opened midway down the hall on the right-hand side. An apologetic little man, attired in a black frock coat and wearing a ministerial collar, slipped out into the hallway. He seemed to be tiptoeing as he walked rapidly toward the elevator and pressed the button.
It was several seconds before the elevator cage rumbled up to the top floor, and Douglas Selby utilized the time studying the little minister. He was between forty-five and fifty-five, and fully a head shorter than the district attorney. The small-boned frame seemed almost fragile beneath the shiny cloth of the well-worn frock coat.
As the elevator operator opened the sliding door, the little clergyman stepped into the cage and said, in the precise tones of one accustomed to making announcements from a pulpit, “The third floor. Let me off at the third floor, please.”
Selby and the sheriff entered the elevator. Over the top of the minister’s unsuspecting head, Rex Brandon gave the tall young district attorney a solemn wink. When the elevator had discharged its passenger at the third floor, the sheriff grinned and said, “Bet there’s more funerals than weddings where he comes from.”
The district attorney, immersed in thoughtful silence, didn’t answer until they were halfway across the hotel lobby. Then he said, “If I were going to indulge in a little deductive reasoning, I’d say his parish was controlled by one very wealthy and very selfish individual. That minister’s learned to walk softly so as not to offend some selfish big shot.”
“Or maybe he’s that way because his wife has a natural talent for debate,” the sheriff grinned. “But, say, buddy, don’t forget that this speculating business ain’t just a game. Did it ever occur to you that during the next four years whenever a crime’s committed in this county it’s going to be up to us to solve it?”
Selby took the sheriff’s arm and headed toward the white marble courthouse.
“You solve the crimes, sheriff,” he said, grinning. “I simply prosecute the criminals you arrest.”
“You go to the devil, Doug Selby,” the sheriff rumbled.
Douglas Selby had been in office just twenty-four hours. He surveyed the littered material on his desk, reached a decision and summoned his three deputies.
Waving them to seats, he studied the three men. Frank Gordon, full of a black-eyed, youthful enthusiasm; Miles Deckner, tall, gangling, slow of speech, with straw-colored hair; Bob Kentley, a holdover from the other regime, a studious, rather innocuous individual, with a bulging forehead, horn-rimmed glasses, and eyes which had a habit of staring intently at the floor near the tip of his shoe.
“Boys,” Selby said, “I’m tackling a job I don’t know much about. You boys have got to carry most of the load. You, Gordon, are full of energy and enthusiasm, with a great capacity for work. You don’t know as much about this job as I do, and that’s next to nothing. You, Deckner, aren’t as fast a worker as Gordon, but you’ve a certain native caution, which gives you a pretty good perspective. You, Kentley, were loyal to Sam Roper, the former district attorney. Frankly, the only reason I kept you on was because you knew the routine of the office. I suppose you’re wondering what your future is going to be. Is that right?”
Kentley kept his eyes lowered and nodded.
“Go ahead,” Selby said, “speak up.”
“I figure,” Kentley remarked sullenly, “that you’ll let me go as soon as I’ve broken in these other two deputies.”
“All right,” Selby told him, “forget it, and snap out of it. Quit being sullen. You aren’t ready to go out and tackle private practice. You need the job. You fought me during the campaign, but I figure you know something about the office, and I think you’re honest. I figure you worked against me because you wanted to hold your job. Now I’m going to give you a chance to hold it.
“You play ball with me and I’ll play ball with you. It’s up to you to instruct these boys in the duties of the office. Among you, you’ve got to handle the routine. I’m going to hold myself in reserve for the big things.
“Here’s a bunch of stuff which has piled up on my desk. There’s everything here, from a complaint about a neighbor’s dog scratching up a front lawn to a tip that a next-door house is a speakeasy. You boys take this stuff into the law library and divide it up. Don’t write any more letters than you have to — telephone people, get them to come in, reason with them, straighten things out by diplomacy. Don’t fight unless you have to. When you once start to fight, never back up. Remember that The Clarion will give us a square deal and The Blade will be fighting us all the way. You’ll make mistakes, but don’t let the fear of making mistakes keep you from reaching decisions. Whatever happens, don’t let anyone bluff you. Whenever you … ”
The telephone rang. Selby said, “Just a minute until I see what this is.”
He held the receiver to his ear and said, “Hello.”
Rex Brandon’s voice, sounding rather strained, said, “Doug, drop whatever you’re doing and come down to the Madison Hotel right away. They’ve found a dead man in one of the rooms.”
“What is it,” Selby asked — “murder, suicide or natural death?”
“They don’t know. They say it’s a minister … I have an idea it’s the same chap who rode down in the elevator with us yesterday.”
“Where are you now?” Selby asked.
“I’m at the City Hall, picking up the chief of police. We’ll get to the hotel a few minutes before you do. The room is number 321. Go right on up. We’ll meet there.”
Selby said, “Okay, Rex,” hung up the telephone receiver and turned to his deputies. “You boys go to it,” he instructed.
“You’ll have to handle the routine business of the office.”
Grabbing his hat, Selby raced down the marble corridor of the courthouse, took the steps of the wide staircase two at a time, jumped into his car and drove to the Madison Hotel.
He noticed that Brandon was ahead of him. The sheriff’s car, equipped with red spotlight and siren, was parked in the red “no parking” zone in front of the hotel. Moreover, a portion of the street was closed off where a force of men were installing one of the new ornamental lighting fixtures the city had recently purchased. Selby found himself caught in a traffic jam and it took him nearly ten minutes to extricate himself, find a parking place for his car and return to the hotel.
George Cushing, owner of the hotel, and the one to whom Selby had been indebted for the room used as campaign headquarters, approached with smiling affability.
A man in his early fifties, Cushing tried to maintain an air of smart, urban sophistication. He wore a pin-striped blue serge suit, meticulously pressed, and cut on a style which obviously had been designed for men twenty years his junior.
His pale, filmed eyes had puffy circles beneath them. His wan skin looked as though it had never known the sting of a biting wind, nor the warm touch of outdoor sunlight.
But those pale, filmed eyes could be coldly insistent, and ten years of hotel management had taught him not to be backward in his demands.
“Now, listen, Doug,” he said, “this is just a natural death, see? It isn’t a suicide. The man took a dose of sleeping medicine, but that didn’t have anything to do with his death.”
“What’s his name?” the district attorney asked.
“The Reverend Charles Brower. He came from Millbank, Nevada. I don’t want it to be suicide. That gets unpleasant newspaper notoriety for the hotel.”
Walking toward the elevator Selby hoped that the man would at least have tact enough to refrain from referring to campaign obligations, but Cushing’s well-manicured, pudgy hand rested on the sleeve of Selby’s coat as the door of the elevator opened.
“You know,” Cushing said, “I did everything I could for you boys during the election, and I’d like to have you give me the breaks.”
Cushing said, “The number’s 321,” and waved to the elevator operator to close the door.
On the third floor, Selby found no difficulty in locating 321. He knocked on the panels, and Rex Brandon’s voice called, “Is that you, Doug?”
“Go over to 323, Doug, and come in that way. That door’s unlocked.”
Selby walked to the adjoining room. It was a typical hotel bedroom. He saw that the connecting door into 321 was ajar. A long sliver had been smashed from the side of the doorjamb. Rex Brandon called, “Come on in, Doug.” Selby entered the room.
The little minister seemed strangely wistful as he lay cold and motionless on the bed. The eyes were closed and the jaw had sagged, but there was a smiling lift to the corners of the lips. The mantle of death had invested him with a dignity which his clerical garments had failed to achieve. The door had been locked and a chair propped against it in such a way that the back of the chair was braced directly underneath the knob of the door.
The room seemed filled with silence.
Otto Larkin, big, heavy-voiced chief of police, made haste to greet the district attorney.
“Everything’s just as we found it,” he assured. “He’d left a call for ten o’clock. The switchboard operator rang and rang and didn’t get any answer. A bellboy knocked and heard nothing. He tried a passkey and found the door was bolted from the inside. He climbed up and looked through the transom. He could see the man lying on the bed. He called to him two or three times and then reached inside and pushed down the transom. Then he saw that a chair had been propped under the doorknob. He notified Cushing. Cushing busted in through 323. That’s why the lock’s smashed. The connecting door has a double bolt, one on each side.
“Now, listen, Selby, I was pretty friendly with Sam Roper, and I supported him in the campaign. But I want to work with you boys now you’re in office. This is the first case we’ve had, so let’s not have any hard feelings that’ll keep us from working in harmony.”
Selby said, “All right. What’s that paper in the typewriter? It isn’t a suicide note, is it?”
“No,” Brandon said, “it’s a letter to his wife, Doug.”
The district attorney leaned over the machine and read:
My dearest wife: Well, I’ve been in Madison City a couple of days now, and so far haven’t accomplished much. I may be here another week, perhaps longer.
The weather has been perfect. A fine warm sun blazing down from a deep blue sky, windless days and cool nights.
I’ll have a surprise for you when I come back. If I can contact just the right people, we’re going to have our financial troubles completely eliminated. And don’t think they won’t listen to me. They’ll have to listen. I wasn’t born yesterday, you know.
I didn’t sleep well on the train. I had some sleeping medicine to take, but it didn’t do much good, so tonight I took a double dose. I think I’m going to sleep fine. In fact, I’m sleepy right now.
This is a busy little city, with a streetcar line and several nice hotels. It’s less than a hundred miles from Hollywood, and I am going to go there before I get back, if I can spare the time. I’m sorry you can’t be here with me. I’m getting pretty sleepy now. I think I’ll go to bed and finish this in the morning. I’m awfully sleepy, dear. I’ll have a nice rest tonight. I’m going to leave a call for ten o’clock in the morning. Tomorrow I’ll look around some more … No use, I’m too sleepy to see the keyboard now.
There followed a word which had been crossed out by x’s.
On the table near the typewriter was an envelope addressed to “Mrs. Chas. Brower, 613 Center Street, Millbank, Nevada.”
“Looks as though he took an overdose of the sleeping medicine,” Rex Brandon said. “We’ve checked up on the hotel register. He filled out a card when he checked in. He’s Charles Brower and he comes from Millbank, Nevada. He lives at 613 Center Street, the address on the envelope. So everything checks okay. The poor chap wanted to sleep … Well, he’s sleeping all right.”
Selby nodded. “Why do you suppose he locked the door and then propped a chair against it?” he asked. “
“You can search me,” Brandon answered.
“Have you notified the coroner?” Selby asked.
“Yeah, sure. He’s out on a funeral right now. We expect him in any minute.”
“Look through his things?” Selby asked of Brandon.
“Not yet. We were sort of waiting for the coroner.”
“I’ve been on lots of cases with Harry Perkins, the coroner,” Larkin said. “He ain’t a bit fussy about red tape. If we want to save time by taking a look through things, it’ll be all right with Harry. As a matter of fact, I don’t think there’s anything to it. He probably had a bum ticker and taking a double dose of sleeping medicine put him out.”
“I was wondering,” Selby said, “if perhaps he had something very valuable he was trying to guard. I still can’t see why he should have gone to all that trouble to lock the door and then prop the chair against it.”
Walking over to the bed, Selby gently turned back the bedclothes and said, “No sign of any foul play. Well, I guess it’s just a routine matter. We’ll notify his wife.”
“I told George Cushing to send the wife a wire,” Sheriff Brandon said.
The chief of police frowned slightly. “I’m sorry you did that, Sheriff. That’s one of the things the coroner likes to do. You know, he’s an undertaker, and he usually mentions in his telegrams that he can prepare the body for burial,”
The sheriff drawled, “Harry was out on a funeral and I wanted to get some action. He can send her a wire when he comes in, if he wants to.”
Selby looked around the room.
The dead man’s coat and vest were in the closet, carefully placed on a hanger. The trousers had been caught by the cuffs in the top of the bureau drawer, and hung down almost to the floor. A single suitcase was on the chair, open.
“That his only baggage,” Selby asked — “a suitcase and a portable typewriter?”
“There’s an overcoat and a brief case in the closet,” Brandon said.
“What’s in the brief case?” Selby asked.
“Just some newspaper clippings and some typewritten stuff; either a sermon or a story or something — a lot of words slung together.”
The suitcase, Selby found, was packed with scrupulous care. The garments were neatly folded. He noticed two clean shirts, some light underwear, several starched collars, a leather-backed and worn Bible, a pair of spectacles in a case bearing the imprint of a San Francisco optician, and half a dozen pairs of plain black socks. He saw an oblong pasteboard medicine box with a label on which had been written in pen and ink, “For Restlessness.” There was also a leather case containing an expensive, foreign-made miniature camera.
“Hello,” Selby said, “this is a pretty good outfit for a small-town minister to be sporting. They cost about a hundred and fifty dollars.”
“Lots of people like this guy was are camera fiends,” the chief of police pointed out. “A man has to have some hobby, you know. Heaven knows, his clothes are shiny enough, and the overcoat’s badly worn at the elbows.”
“Where was his wallet?” Selby asked.
“In his coat pocket,” Brandon said.
“Yes, a few printed cards bearing the name, ‘Charles Brower, D.D., Millbank, Nevada,’ ninety-six dollars in cash, and about two dollars in small silver. There’s also a driving license.”
Selby looked once more at the still figure on the bed.
Somehow, a feeling of indecency gripped him. The man had been a human being; had had his hopes, fears, ambitions, disappointments, and now Selby was prying into his private life.
“All right,” he said, “I guess there’s nothing to it. Have the coroner take charge. He’ll probably want an inquest. By the way, George Cushing would appreciate it if there wasn’t any publicity and no talk of suicide.”
He turned away toward the door of 321, noticed the splintered casing where the bolt had been forced, and said casually, What’s the room on the other side, Rex?”
“I suppose the same as this,” the sheriff remarked.
“I think it has a bath,” the chief of police volunteered. “The way the hotel is laid out, there’s a bath in between rooms, and the room can be rented either with or without a bath. This room didn’t have the bath connected with it, so the bath’s probably connected with the other room.”
Selby idly inspected the knurled knob on the door which led to the shut-off bathroom. He twisted the knob and said, “Let’s see if this door’s open on the other side.”
Suddenly he frowned, and said, “Wait a minute. This door wasn’t bolted. Did someone twist this knob?”
“I don’t think so,” Larkin said. “The bellboy reported to Cushing, and Cushing told everyone nothing in the room was to be touched.”
“Then why didn’t Cushing get in through 319? He could have unlocked the door from the other side and wouldn’t have had to force the other one open.”
“I think that room’s occupied,” Larkin said. “Cushing told me 323 was vacant, but someone’s in 319.”
A knock sounded on the door of 321. Brandon called out, “Who is it?”
“Harry Perkins, the coroner.”
“Go around to 323, Harry, and come in that way.”
A moment later the tall figure of the bony-faced coroner came through the connecting door.
Larkin made explanations.
“We were just looking around a bit, Harry. You were out on a funeral, and we wanted to make sure what it was. It’s just a combination of an overdose of sleeping medicine and a bum pump. There won’t be enough of an estate to bother with. The sheriff wired his wife. Perhaps you’d better send her another wire and ask her if she wants you to take charge.”
The sheriff said, “I’m sorry, Harry, I didn’t know you liked to send those wires yourself.”
“That’s all right,” the coroner said. He walked over to the bed, looked down at the still form with a professional air and asked, “When do I move him?”
“Any time,” Larkin said. “Ain’t that right, Sheriff?”
“I’m going back to the office,” Selby said.
Douglas Selby cleaned up the more urgent correspondence on his desk, went to a picture show, lay in bed and read a detective story. Reading the mystery yarn, he suddenly realized that it held a personal message for him.
Murder had ceased to be an impersonal matter of technique by which a writer used a corpse merely to serve as a peg on which to hang a mystery. Somehow, the quiet form of the wistful little minister lying in the hotel bedroom pushed its way into his mind, dominated his thoughts.
Selby closed the book with a slap. Why, he thought, was the little minister insidiously dominant in death? In life, the man, with his painfully precise habits, quiet, self-effacing, almost apologetic manner, would never have given Selby any mental reaction other than, perhaps, an amused curiosity.
Selby knew he had gone into the district-attorneyship battle primarily because of the fight involved. It had not been because he wanted to be district attorney. It was most certainly not because he wanted the salary. He had, of course, as a citizen, noticed certain signs of corruption in the preceding administration. Nothing had ever been proved against Sam Roper; but plenty had been surmised. There had been ugly rumors, which had been gradually magnified until the time had become ripe for someone to come forward and lead the fight. And the fact that Selby had been the one to lead that fight was caused more by a desire to do battle than by any wish to better the county administration.
Selby switched out the light, but the thought of what he had seen in that hotel bedroom persisted in his mind.
He tried to sleep and couldn’t, and even his futile attempt at slumber reminded him of the apologetic little man who had sought to woo sleep with a sedative. At twelve-thirty he put his pride to one side and called Rex Brandon on the telephone.
“Rex,” he said, “you’re probably going to laugh at me, but I can’t sleep.”
“What’s the matter, Doug?”
“I can’t get over that minister.”
“What about him, Doug; what’s the matter?”
“I can’t understand why he should have barricaded the door from the corridor, yet neglected to turn the knob in the door which communicated with the bathroom of 319.”
Brandon’s voice sounded incredulous. “For heaven’s sake, Doug, are you really worrying about that, or are you kidding me?”
“No, I’m serious.”
“Why, forget it. The man died from an overdose of sleeping medicine. The stuff he was taking was in that pasteboard box.”
“But why did he barricade his door as well as lock it?”
“He was nervous.”
“But that business of the pants being held in place in the bureau drawer,” Douglas persisted. “That’s an old trick of the veteran traveling salesman. No man who’d get nervous when he was away from home would do that.”
The sheriff said, “The man’s wife called up the coroner this afternoon. She’s coming on by plane. She told Perkins, Brower carried five thousand in insurance, and she seems to want to collect that in a hurry. She’s due here in the morning. She’s a second wife, married to him less than two years. His first wife died three or four years ago. Mrs. Brower said he’d had a nervous breakdown and the doctor advised a complete rest, so Brower took his flivver and started camping. He’d been raising money for a new church and had around five thousand dollars, but it had been too much of a strain on him. She thinks he must have had some mental trouble, to wind up here. So that shows everything’s okay. He took that sleeping medicine because he’d been nervous. There’s nothing to it.”
Selby laughed apologetically and said, “I guess it’s because we saw him in the hotel when he rode down in the elevator with us. Somehow, I couldn’t get over the feeling that if there had been … Well, you know what I mean, Rex — Oh, well, forget it. I’m sorry I bothered you.”
The sheriff laughed and said, “Better take two or three days and go fishing yourself, Doug. That campaign was pretty strenuous for a young chap like you.”
Selby laughed, dropped the receiver back on the hook and then fought with sleep for an hour. This sleep finally merged into a dead stupor, from which Selby emerged to grope mechanically for the jangling telephone.
It was broad daylight. Birds were singing in the trees. The sun was streaming through his windows, dazzling his sleep-swollen eyes. He put the receiver to his ear, said, “Hello,” and heard Rex Brandon’s voice, sounding curiously strained.
“Doug,” he said, “something’s gone wrong. I wonder if you can get over to your office right away?”
Selby flashed a glance at the electric clock in his bedroom. The hour was 8:30. He strove to keep the sleep out of his voice. “Certainly,” he said, making his tone crisply efficient.
“We’ll be waiting for you,” Brandon said, and hung up.
Selby reached his office on the stroke of nine.
Amorette Standish, his secretary, said, “The sheriff and a woman are in your private office.”
He nodded. Entering his private office, his eyes focused immediately upon a matronly, broad-hipped, ample-breasted woman of some fifty years, whose gloved hands were folded on her lap. Her eyes surveyed him with a certain quiet capability. There was the calm of cold determination about her.
Rex said, “This is Mary Brower, from Millbank, Nevada.”
Selby bowed and said, “It’s too bad about your husband, Mrs. Brower. It must have come as very much of a shock to you. I’m sorry there wasn’t any way we could have broken the news gently … ”
“But he wasn’t my husband,” the woman interrupted, with the simple finality of one announcing a very definite and self-evident fact.
“Then you have come here from Nevada because of a mistake?” Selby asked. “That certainly is … ”
He stopped mid-sentence. “Good Lord,” he said, and sat down in the swivel chair beside his desk to stare dazedly from the woman to Rex Brandon.
“You see,” the sheriff explained, “he had cards and a driving license in his wallet, and there was a letter he’d started to write to you, so we thought, of course, he was Charles Brower.”
“He isn’t my husband,” the woman insisted in the same tone of dogged finality. “I never saw him in my life.”
“But,” Selby pointed out, his mind groping through a sudden maze of contradictory facts, “why should he have written you if … How did he sign the register in the hotel, Rex?”
“As Reverend Charles Brower, 613 Center Street, Millbank, Nevada.”
Selby reached for his hat. “Come on, Rex,” he said. “We’re going down to get to the bottom of this thing.”
The woman in the faded brown suit with brown gloved hands still folded upon her lap, said, with dogged determination: “He is not my husband. Who’s going to pay my traveling expenses from Nevada here? Don’t think I’ll quietly turn around and go home without getting paid my carfare, because I won’t. I suppose I really could make serious trouble, you know. It was a great shock to me.”
A trimly efficient young woman clad in a serviceable tailored suit sat waiting in the outer office as Selby started out.
“Hello, Sylvia,” he said. “Did you want to see me?”
“I’m frightfully busy right now. I’ll see you sometime this afternoon.”
“Sometime this afternoon won’t do,” she told him.
Her laughing, reddish-brown eyes smiled up at him, but there was a touch of determination about her jaw. “You are now talking,” she said, “to Miss Sylvia Martin, a reporter on The Clarion, who has been ordered to get an interview, or else.”
“But can’t it wait, Sylvia?”
“Not a chance,” she told him.
“But, hang it, it’ll have to wait.”
She turned resignedly toward the door and said, “Oh, all right, if that’s your attitude, of course I’m not running the paper. My boss sent me out to get this interview, and he said it was vitally important; that if you wouldn’t co-operate with us … Well, you know how he is. If you want to antagonize him, it’s all right with me.”
The sheriff frowned at Selby and said, “Of course, Doug, I could start investigating this thing and … ”
Selby turned back toward his office and said, “Okay, come on in, Sylvia.”
She laughed when the door of his private office had clicked shut behind them. “Forgive me for lying, Doug?” she asked.
“About being sent to get an interview.”
“No, I was just playing a hunch.”
His face showed swift annoyance.
“Now don’t be like that,” she told him, “because it isn’t nice. Don’t take the duties of your office too seriously.”
“Snap out of it, Sylvia,” he told her. “Just what are you trying to do? I’m working on an important case, and you’ve thrown me off my stride.”
She crossed her knees, smoothed her skirt, produced a notebook and pencil and started making intricate little patterns on the upper left-hand corner of the page. “You know, Doug,” she said, “The Clarion supported you in the campaign. The Blade fought you. We want the breaks.”
“You’ll get them as soon as there are any breaks.”
“How about this minister’s wife?” she asked. “I’ve heard she won’t identify the body.”
“Well,” he asked, “what of it?”
Her eyes rested steadily on his. “Doug,” she said slowly, “you know what an awful thing it would be, if some important case turned up right at the start and you muffed it.”
He nodded. “What makes you think I’m muffing it, Sylvia?”
“Call it womanly intuition, if you want. You know how hard I worked for you during the campaign, and how proud I am you’re elected. I … ”
He laughed, and said, “Okay, Sylvia, you win. Here’s the low-down. That woman was Mrs. Mary Brower, of Millbank, Nevada, and she says the body isn’t that of her husband. And she’s inclined to be peeved about everything.”
“Where does that leave you?” she asked.
“Frankly,” he told her, “I don’t know.”
“But didn’t the dead man have a letter in his typewriter plainly addressed to his dear wife? And wasn’t the envelope addressed to Mrs. Charles Brower at Millbank?”
“That’s right,” Doug admitted.
“And what does that mean?”
“It might mean either one of two things,” Selby said slowly. “If the man who registered as Brower wanted to impress some visitor that he really was Brower, it would have been quite natural for him to write this letter and leave it in the typewriter as a part of the deception. Then he might have left the room for a moment, figuring his visitor would read the letter while he was gone.”
Sylvia Martin nodded her head slowly and said, “Yes, that’s right. Let me see if I can guess the other alternative, Doug.”
She held up her hand for silence, frowned at him in thoughtful concentration for a moment, then suddenly exclaimed, “I’ve got it.”
“What is it?”
“If someone was in the room after the man had died and wanted to make it appear the cause of death was an overdose of sleeping medicine, he couldn’t have hit on a better scheme than to write a letter like that and leave it in the typewriter.”
“Exactly,” Selby interrupted. “Thank heavens, you agree with me on that. It seemed such a bizarre theory that I couldn’t even entertain it.”
“But, if that’s true,” she pointed out, “the man who wrote the letter must have known the wife. Otherwise, he couldn’t have known the street address.”
Selby said, “No, the man could have gotten the address from the hotel registrations. However, supposing he didn’t, let’s now take a look at Mary Brower, a matronly, capable woman who certainly wouldn’t be cavorting around with people who’d want to murder her husband. She’s obstinate, perhaps a bit selfish, but certainly no Cleopatra.”
Sylvia Martin was staring at him with wide, fascinated eyes. “But let’s suppose you’re wrong, Doug. Suppose someone did know her rather well and wanted her husband out of the way. Suppose this dead man sensed something of the situation and was a close friend of the husband. The husband didn’t know anything at all about what was going on, so this friend came to the hotel to take the part of the husband, and in order to do so masqueraded as Charles Brower.”
Selby said slowly, “That’s a nice theory, Sylvia, and if you publish any part of it, your newspaper will be defendant in about a dozen libel suits. This Mrs. Brower looks like a perfectly capable woman.”
Sylvia left her chair and came to stand by his desk.
“Listen, Doug,” she said, “my boss got a straight tip that The Blade is laying for you on this case. Don’t muff it, Doug. Keep your head and outsmart them.”
“You mean The Blade knows something?” Selby asked.
“I don’t know what they know, but we’ve got a tip they’re going to stir up some trouble about this case. You know Otto Larkin, the chief of police, is friendly with the managing editor. I think Larkin would double-cross you in a minute, if he had a chance. Any stuff The Blade has must have come from him.”
“Larkin isn’t any Sherlock Holmes,” Selby pointed out.
“Just the same,” she said, “I’ve given you the tip. Tell me, Doug, will you let me know if anything new develops?”
“I won’t release any information for publication until I’m satisfied it won’t hamper a solution of the case,” he said slowly.
“But can’t you just talk things over with me, not for publication, and let me have something to say about whether it’s safe to publish them?”
“Well,” Selby told her, “we might do that.”
She closed her notebook and said, “It’s definite, then, that this Mrs. Brower insists the man is not her husband?”
“And,” she asked him slowly, “how do you know that this woman is Mrs. Brower?”
He eyed her speculatively for a moment and said, “Now that’s a thought.”
“I think,” she told him, “we can find out from our Nevada correspondents.”
“And I,” he told her, “will also do a little investigating.”
He saw her to the door, then said to Amorette Standish, “Take a wire to the chief of police at Millbank, Nevada, asking him for a description of the Reverend Charles Brower and of Mary Brower his wife. Also find out if he knows where both of them are at present. Tell him to wire.”
Selby strode into the coroner’s office and said, “Harry, I want to go over everything you took from that minister’s room.”
“The stuff is sealed up and in this room over here,” the coroner told him. “Funny thing about putting a wrong tag on him, wasn’t it? What a sweet spot I’d have been in, if I’d sent the body by express to Nevada.”
Selby said, “Well, either he wasn’t Charles Brower, or she isn’t Mary Brower. She looks genuine. You get Doctor Trueman to make an examination. And I want a thorough examination made. Have the contents of the stomach analyzed and analyze all of the vital organs to find traces of poison.”
“You don’t think it’s anything like that, do you?” the coroner protested.
“I don’t know what I think. I’m going to find out when I’ve got something to think on.”
“Aw, shucks, it’s just a case of mistaken identity. It’ll be all straightened out within another twenty-four hours.”
“Nevertheless,” Selby said, “I want to know just how the man died.”
He took the suitcase, the portable typewriter and the brief case which the coroner handed him.
Selby said, “I think you’d better sit in here with me, Harry, and make a list of all this stuff.”
“I’ve already listed it,” the coroner replied.
“How did you describe it?”
“Personal papers, newspaper clippings, and such stuff.”
“I think we’d better make a more detailed list.”
He sat down in the chair, cut the sealed tape, opened the brief case and took out a number of papers from the leather pockets. He started sorting the newspaper clippings.
“Here’s one of Shirley Arden, the motion-picture star,” he said, “showing her in her new play, Mended Hearts. Here’s another one of her in a ‘still’ taken during the filming of that picture. Here’s one of her in Page the Groom. Here’s some publicity about her from one of the motion-picture fan magazines. Why all the crush on Shirley Arden, Harry?”
The coroner said, “That’s nothing. We see that every day. Almost everyone has some favorite motion-picture star. People collect all sorts of stuff. You remember this chap said in his letter that he might go on to Hollywood? I’ll bet you he’s gone on Shirley Arden, and was hoping he’d have a chance to meet her.”
The district attorney, forced to accept the logic of the remark, nodded, turned to the rest of the papers.
“Hello,” he said, “here’s some newspaper clippings about the Perry estate.”
“I was wondering about that, too,” the coroner said. “I just took a quick look through them. That’s the Perry estate that’s being fought over in our Superior Court, isn’t it? It says the man who’s trying to prove he’s the heir is H.F. Perry. That’ll be Herbert Perry, won’t it?”
Selby read through the clippings and nodded.
“They aren’t clippings from our papers, are they?”.
“No. They’re Associated Press dispatches, sent out to a number of papers which subscribe for that service.”
“Why do you suppose he saved them?”
“That’s one of the things we’re going to find out.”
“What are they fighting about in that case, anyway?”
“Charles Perry,” Selby said, “was married and got an interlocutory decree of divorce. Then, before the final decree was issued, he went over to Yuma, and married an Edith Fontaine. At the time of the marriage she had a son, Herbert. Herbert took the name of Perry, but Charles Perry wasn’t his father. The marriage, having been performed while an interlocutory decree was in effect, and before a final decree had been entered, was void. That was years ago. Apparently Perry never knew his marriage wasn’t legal. His first wife died, but he never had another marriage ceremony with Edith. He died without a will, and his brother, H. Franklin Perry, is contesting Herbert Perry’s share in the estate.”
“Isn’t there some law about marriage not being necessary where people live openly as man and wife?”
“That’s a common-law marriage.” Selby said. “It doesn’t apply in this state.”
“Well, Perry thought he was married to her all right. He died first, didn’t he?”
“Yes, they were in an automobile accident. He was killed instantly. She lived for a week with a fractured skull and died.”
“So the boy doesn’t get any of the money?” Perkins asked. “I know the brother. He’s a veterinary. He treated my dog once. He’s a good man.”
“Who gets the money is something for the courts to decide,” Selby said. “What I’m wondering about right now is what interested Charles Brower in that particular case.”
“Do you think he was Brower?”
“No, Harry, I don’t. I’m just calling him that because I don’t know anything else to call him.”
Selby looked through other clippings. One of them, from a fan magazine, listed the motion-picture actors and actresses in the order of their popularity. Another one gave what purported to be a tabulation of the gross earnings of the various stars during the preceding year.
A second pocket in the brief case contained a sheaf of typewritten papers. Evidently the typewriting had been done on the minister’s portable typewriter. It was a ragged job filled with crossed-out words and strike-overs. The district attorney noticed that at the top of page 1 appeared a title reading, “Lest Ye Be Judged.”
There followed a story written in a laborious, pedantic style. Selby started to wade through the story. It was the story of an old, irascible judge, entirely out of sympathy with the youth of the day, who had passed a harsh judgment upon a delinquent girl who had come before him. The judgment had been entirely without understanding and without mercy. The girl, declared to be an incorrigible, had been sentenced to a reformatory, but friends rallied to her support, led by a man whose status was not entirely clear. He was referred to as a lover of humanity.
The district attorney, searching the manuscript for some clue which would indicate this man’s love might have had a more personal focal point, became lost in a maze of pointless writing. He finally gathered that the man was much older; that his love was, in fact, really impersonal. The girl had taken up the study of medicine in the second chapter and had become a noted surgeon before the end of the chapter.
In chapter three the judge’s granddaughter, suffering with a brain tumor, was taken to the “greatest specialist in the world,” and when the judge, tears streaming down his face, called to plead with the surgeon to do his best, he found that the surgeon was none other than the girl he had sentenced as an incorrigible.
There were several pages of psychological explanations, the general purport of which was that the girl had been filled with a certain excess of vitality, a certain animal energy which required a definite ambition upon which to concentrate. The man who had saved her had been shrewd enough to place her in school and to dare her to accomplish the impossible. The very difficulty of the task had served to steady her.
“What’s it about?” the coroner asked, when the district attorney had turned over the last page.
“It’s a proof of the old axiom,” Selby said, grinning, “that there lives no man with soul so dead who hasn’t tried to write a picture scenario.”
“That what it is?”
“That’s what it was probably intended to be.”
“I’ll bet you he figured on going down to Hollywood to peddle that scenario.”
“If he did,” Selby pointed out, “he certainly made a peculiar detour. He was sneaking into Hollywood by the back way.”
There were no further papers in the brief case. The district attorney closed it and the coroner taped and sealed it.
Once more Selby went into the suitcase.
“There aren’t any laundry marks on any of those clothes,” the coroner said. “Not even on his starched collars. Ain’t that a little peculiar?”
“Probably the first trip he’d made with these clothes,” he said, “or he’d have had them laundered somewhere. And he couldn’t have been away from home very long. Also, he must have a very efficient wife who’s a hard-working housekeeper. That all indicates a ministerial background.”
Selby inspected the small pasteboard box containing a long roll of paper in which five-grain tablets had been folded.
“This the sedative?” he asked.
“And one of these tablets wouldn’t have brought about death?”
“Not a chance,” the coroner said. “I’ve known people to take four of them.”
“What did cause death then?”
“Probably a bad heart. A double dose of this stuff might have helped bring on the heart attack.”
“You have Doctor Trueman check carefully on that heart attack,” Selby instructed. “I want to know, absolutely, what caused this man’s death.”
The coroner fidgeted uneasily, finally said, “I wonder if you’d mind if I gave you a little advice, Douglas.”
“Go ahead, Harry, dish it out,” Selby said with a smile, “and I’ll try and take it.”
“This is your first case,” the coroner said. “You seem to be trying to make a murder case out of it. Now I wouldn’t go putting the cart before the horse. There’s a lot of sentiment against you in this county, and a lot of it for you. The people who are for you put you in office. The people who are against you hate to have you in office. You go along without attracting any great amount of attention for a month or two, and pretty quick people will forget all about the political end of things. Then those who hated you will be smiling and shaking hands when they see you on the street. But you get off on the wrong foot, and it’s going to hurt. Your enemies will be tickled to death and you’ll lose some of your friends.”
Selby said, “Harry, I don’t care how this thing looks to you. I’m not satisfied with it.”
“You get to looking at dead people through a microscope and you’ll never be satisfied with anything,” the coroner objected. “Things never do check out in real life. This guy was registered under a phony name. Nothing to get excited about in that — lots of people do it.”
Selby shook his head and laid down what was to be his primary code of conduct during his term of office.
“Harry,” he said, “facts fit. They’re like figures. If you get all the facts, your debit column adds up the same as your credit column. The facts balance with the result and the result balances with the facts. Any time they don’t, it’s because we haven’t all of the facts, and are trying to force a balance with the wrong figures. Now take that typewritten letter, for instance. It wasn’t written by the same man who wrote the scenario. The typing in the letter is perfect, evenly matched and free of strike-overs. The scenario is a hunt-and-peck affair, sloppy and ragged. Probably they were both written on the same machine, but they weren’t written by the same person. That’s an illustration of what I mean by saying that facts must balance, if they’re going to support theories.”
The coroner sighed. “Well, I told you, anyhow,” he remarked. “Go ahead and make a murder out of it, if you want to. You’ll find it’ll be a boomerang.”
Selby grinned, thanked him, left the mortuary and went at once to the Madison Hotel.
In the manager’s private office Selby had a showdown with George Cushing.
“Otto Larkin,” Cushing said reproachfully, “tells me you’re making a mountain out of a molehill on this Brower case, Selby. I didn’t think you’d do that to me.”
“I’m not doing it to you, George.”
“Well, you’re doing it to my business.”
“I’m not doing anything to your business. I’m going to find out the facts in this case, that’s all.”
“You’ve already got the facts.”
“No, I haven’t. The facts I’ve had have been wrong. The man isn’t Charles Brower.”
“Oh, that,” Cushing said, with a wave of his hand. “That frequently happens. Lots of people register under assumed names for one reason or another, and sometimes, if people happen to have a friend’s card in their pockets, they’ll register under the name of the friend, figuring they can produce the card, if anyone questions them.”
“Whom did this man know in the hotel?” the district attorney asked.
Cushing raised his eyebrows. “In the hotel?” he asked. “Why, I don’t suppose he knew anyone.” “Whom did he know in town?”
“I couldn’t tell you about that. No one that I know of. A man who hadn’t done much traveling and came here from Millbank, Nevada, wouldn’t be apt to know anyone here in the hotel or in the town either.”
“When Sheriff Brandon and I were coming out of campaign headquarters on the fifth floor the other morning,” Selby said, “this preacher was coming out of a room on the fifth floor. It was a room on the right-hand side of the corridor, and I’d say it was somewhere between 507 and 519.”
Cushing’s face showed emotion. He leaned forward. His breathing was distinctly audible.
“Now listen, Doug,” he said, “why not lay off of this thing? You’re not doing the hotel any good and you’re not doing yourself any good.”
“I’m going to find out who this man is and I’m going to find out how he died and why he died,” Selby said doggedly.
“He’s some bird from Millbank, Nevada, or some nearby place,” Cushing said. “He knows this man Brower in Millbank. He knew Brower was away on a fishing trip, so he figured it would be a good time to use Brower’s name.”
“Who occupied those rooms on the fifth floor?” Selby insisted.
“I’m sure I couldn’t tell you.”
“Get your register.”
“Now, listen, Doug, you’re carrying this thing too far.”
The district attorney said, “Get the register, George.”
Cushing got up, started for the door, hesitated for a moment, then came back and sat down.
“Well,” Selby said, “go ahead, get the register.”
“There’s something about this,” Cushing said slowly, “that I don’t want made public. It doesn’t concern this case in any way.”
“What is it?”
“It’s something that won’t be shown by the register, but you’ll probably find out about it, if you get to nosing around … And,” he added bitterly, “it looks like you’re going to nose around.”
“I am,” Selby promised.
“There was a guest here Monday who didn’t want her identity known.”
“What room was she in?”
“Who was she?”
“I can’t tell you that, Doug. It hasn’t anything to do with the case.”
“Why don’t you want to tell me then?”
“Because she came here on business. It was rather a confidential business. She was trying to keep it from becoming known. She signed a fictitious name on the register and made me agree I’d say nothing about her having been here. She only stayed a couple of hours and then went back. Her manager, I think, stayed on a little longer.”
“Who was she?”
“I can’t tell you. She’s famous and she didn’t want the newspapers making a lot of hullabaloo about her. I don’t want her to think I’ve broken my promise. She comes here sometimes when she wants to get away from everything, and always has the same room. I sort of keep it for her … and … well, that’s why I’m telling you all this. I don’t want you stirring up any publicity about room 515.”
A sudden realization crystallized in Selby’s mind, a realization of something so weirdly bizarre that it didn’t make sense, yet was entirely on a par with the other developments in the case.
“That woman,” he said with the calm finality of one who is absolutely certain of his statements, “was Shirley Arden, the motion-picture actress.”
George Cushing’s eyes widened. “How the devil did you know?”
Selby said, “Never mind that. Tell me all you know.”
“Ben Trask, her manager and publicity agent, was with her. Miss Arden went in by way of the freight elevator. Trask saw that the coast was clear.”
“Did anyone in the hotel call on her?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Did Trask have a room here?”
“What is this room, a bedroom?”
“It’s a suite; a bedroom, sitting room and bath.”
“Any outside telephone calls?” Selby asked.
“I wouldn’t know. I can find out by looking up the records.”
Cushing fidgeted uneasily and said, “This preacher left an envelope in the safe. I had forgotten about it until this morning. Do you want me to get it?”
“What’s in it?”
“A letter or something.”
“Yes,” Selby said, “get it.”
“I’d like to have you sign for it.”
“All right, bring a receipt and I’ll sign.”
The hotel manager stepped from the office for a few moments, then returned with a sealed envelope, across the flap of which appeared a scrawled signature, “Charles Brower.”
“Wait here,” Selby told him, “while I open the envelope. We’ll list the contents.”
He slit the end of the envelope with a knife and pulled out several folded sheets of hotel stationery.
“Well,” he said, “this looks . . .”
His voice trailed into silence as his fingers unfolded the sheets of stationery. Five one-thousand-dollar bills had been folded between two sheets of hotel stationery.
“Good Lord!” Cushing exclaimed.
“You sure the minister put this envelope in the safe?” Selby asked.
“No chance for any mistake?”
Selby turned the bills over in his fingers. Then, as a delicate scent was wafted to his nostrils, he raised the bills to his nose; Pushed them across the table and said to Cushing, “Smell.”
Cushing sniffed of the bills. “Perfume,” he said.
Selby folded the bills back in the paper and slipped both paper and bills back in the envelope.
“Take a strip of gummed paper,” he said. “Seal up that envelope and put it back in the safe. That’ll keep the odor of the perfume from being dissipated. I’ll want to check it later. . . Now, then, who had room 319?”
“When the body was discovered, a man by the name of Block was in the room.”
“Where’s he from? What does he do, and how long have you known him?”
“He’s a traveling salesman who works out of Los Angeles for one of the hardware firms.”
“Has he checked out yet?”
“I don’t think so, but he’s just about due to check out.”
“I want to talk with him.”
“I’ll see if he’s in.”
“Who had the room before Block?”
“I’ve looked that up. The room hadn’t been rented for three days.”
“The room on the other side — 323?”
“That was vacant when the body was discovered, but had been rented the night before to a young couple from Hollywood, a Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Smith.”
“Get their street number from the register. See if this salesman is in his room. I want to talk with him. Seal that envelope and put it back in the safe.”
Cushing excused himself, and this time was gone some five minutes. He returned, accompanied by a well-dressed man in the early thirties, whose manner radiated smiling self-assurance.
“This is Mr. Block, the man who’s in Room 319,” he said.
Block wasted no time in preliminaries. His face wreathed in a welcoming smile, he gripped Selby’s hand cordially.
“I’m very pleased to meet you, Mr. Selby. I understand you’re to be congratulated on winning one of the most bitterly contested elections ever held in the history of the county. I’ve been covering this territory several years, and I’ve heard everywhere about the splendid campaign you were putting up. My name’s Carl Block, and I’m with the Central Hardware Supplies Company. I come through here regularly once a month, making headquarters here for a couple of days, while I cover the outlying towns. Is there any way in which I can be of service to you?”
The man’s manner exuded a ready, rugged friendliness. Sizing him up, Selby knew why he held such a splendid sales record, knew also that it would be next to impossible to surprise any information from him.
“You got in yesterday morning, Mr. Block?”
“About what time?”
“Well, I got in pretty early. I find that these days the business comes to the man who goes after it.”
“Hear any unusual sounds from the adjoining room?”
“Not a sound.”
“Thank you,” Selby said, “that’s all.” He nodded to Cushing and said, “I’m going back to my office, George. Don’t give out any information.”
Cushing followed him to the door of the hotel. “Now, listen, Doug,” he said, “this thing was just a natural death. There’s no use getting worked up about it, and remember to keep that information about Miss Arden under your hat.”
Selby said to Frank Gordon, “Frank, I want you to find out everything you can about the litigation in the Perry Estate.”
“I think I can tell you all about it,” Gordon said. “I know John Baggs, the attorney for Herbert Perry. He’s discussed the case with me.”
“What are the facts?”
“Charles Perry married Edith Fontaine in Yuma. The marriage wasn’t legal because Perry only had an interlocutory decree. He had the mistaken idea he could leave the state and make a good marriage. Edith Fontaine had a son by a previous marriage — Herbert Fontaine. He changed his name to Perry. Perry and his wife were killed in an auto accident. If there wasn’t any marriage, the property goes to H. Franklin Perry, the veterinary, a brother of Charles. If the marriage was legal, the bulk of the property vested in Edith on the death of Charles, and Herbert is Edith’s sole heir. That’s the case in a nutshell.”
“Who’s representing H. Franklin Perry?”
“Get a picture of the dead minister. See if either of the litigants can identify him.”
He picked up the phone and said to the exchange operator,” I want Sheriff Brandon, please. Then I want Shirley Arden, the picture actress.” In a moment he heard Rex Brandon’s voice.
“Just had an idea,” Selby said. “There was a pair of reading spectacles in that suitcase. Get an oculist here to get the prescription. Get a photograph of the dead man. Rush the photograph and the prescription to the optician in San Francisco whose name is on the spectacle case. Have him look through his records and see if he can identify the spectacles.”
“Okay,” Brandon said cheerfully. “I’m running down a couple of other clues. I’ll see you later on.”
Selby’s secretary reported, “Miss Arden is working on the set. She can’t come to the telephone. A Mr. Trask says he’ll take the call. He says he’s her manager.”
“Very well,” Selby said, “put Trask on the line.”
He heard a click, then a masculine voice saying suavely, “Yes, Mr. Selby?”
Selby snapped words into the transmitter. “I don’t want to say anything over the telephone which would embarrass you or Miss Arden,” he said. “Perhaps you know who I am.”
“Yes, I do, Mr. Selby.”
“Day before yesterday,” Selby said, “Miss Arden made a trip. You were with her.”
“I want to question her about that trip.”
Selby said, “I think you’d prefer I didn’t answer that question over the telephone. I want to see both you and Miss Arden in my office sometime before nine o’clock tonight.”
“But, I say, that’s quite impossible,” Trask protested. “Miss Arden’s working on a picture and … ”
Selby interrupted. “I have ways,” he said, “of getting Miss Arden’s statement. There are hard ways and easy ways. This is the easy way — for you.”
There was a moment’s silence, then the voice said, “At ten o’clock tonight, Mr. Selby?”
“I’d prefer an earlier hour. How about seven or eight?”
“Eight o’clock would be the earliest time we could possibly make it. Miss Arden is under contract, and … ”
“Very well,” Selby said, “at eight o’clock tonight,” and hung up before the manager could think of additional excuse.
He had hardly hung up the telephone before it rang with shrill insistence. He took the receiver from the hook, said “Hello,” and heard the calmly professional voice of Dr. Ralph Trueman.
“You wanted information about that man who was found dead in the Madison Hotel,” Trueman said.
“Yes. What information have you?”
“I haven’t covered everything,” Doctor Trueman said, “but I’ve gone far enough to be morally certain of the cause of death.”
“What was it?”
“A lethal dose of morphine, taken internally.”
“Of morphine!” Selby exclaimed. “Why, the man had some sleeping tablets … ”
“Which hadn’t been taken at all, so far as I can ascertain,” Trueman interrupted. “But what he had taken was a terrific dose of morphine, which induced paralysis of the respiratory organs. Death probably took place between midnight and three o’clock yesterday morning.”
“And when was the morphine administered?”
“Any time from one to two hours prior to death.”
“Well, I’m not certain about that,” Trueman said, “but there’s some chance a tablet containing the deadly dose might have been inserted in the box of sedative which the man was carrying with him. In that event he’d have taken the morphia, thinking he was taking an ordinary sleeping tablet. The tablets were wrapped in paper so that they’d naturally be taken in a consecutive order. I’ve made a very delicate test with some of the paper remaining in the box and get a definite trace of morphia.”
“Could that have been a possible error on the part of the druggist filling the prescription?” Selby asked.
“In a tablet of that size, with that amount of morphia,” Doctor Trueman said, “the chance of honest error would be just about one in ten million.”
“Then … then it was deliberate, carefully planned murder!” Selby said.
Doctor Trueman’s voice retained its professional calm. “That,” he observed, “is a matter of law. I’m merely giving you the medical facts.”
TO BE CONTINUED (READ PART II)
Featured image: Illustrated by Dudley Gloyne Summers.
On July 22, 2016, a 15-year-old boy from Huntingburg, Indiana, was walking around a busy part of town when he spotted a Glock 9 mm handgun on the seat of a parked truck. Seeing no one around the truck, the boy opened the unlocked door and stole the firearm. Later that day, the boy showed the Glock to his best friend, Matthew Kendall, and in the process the loaded weapon discharged, shooting and killing Kendall.
Kendall’s mother, Shelley Nicholson, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the owner of the truck, Christopher Lee. She alleged that Lee’s storage of his handgun in open view inside an unlocked and unattended vehicle was negligent and that his actions led to her son’s death. Nicholson based her claim on an Indiana Supreme Court case that ruled gun owners have a “duty to exercise reasonable and ordinary care in the storage and safekeeping of their handgun.” In this case, the court advised that safe gun storage can be accomplished by numerous non-burdensome means, the least of which being “simply locking the front door, thereby preventing the public’s access.”
In his response, Lee admitted to owning and leaving the handgun in plain view inside an unlocked vehicle parked in a busy part of town, but claimed he was immune from liability, citing Indiana Code section 34-30-20-1 that states: “A person is immune from civil liability based on an act or omission related to the use of a firearm or ammunition for a firearm by another person if the other person directly or indirectly obtained the firearm or ammunition for a firearm through the commission of the following: burglary, robbery, theft, receiving stolen property, or criminal conversion.”
Lee asked the trial court to dismiss the case explaining he could not be held responsible for any harm — including Kendall’s death — because the gun had been stolen. The trial court agreed and the case was dismissed.
Nicholson appealed to the Indiana Court of Appeals. She claimed that the immunity statute should only provide immunity from liability for the accidental shooting by the boy who stole the gun. She argued that the statute should not be interpreted to extend immunity for the negligence that occurred before the theft. Nicholson asked the court to hold Lee responsible for his negligent disregard of his duty to store his gun safely.
The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s dismissal, denying Nicholson’s argument of negligence against the gun owner. The court ruled that the Indiana statute is unambiguous and was enacted to shield gun owners from liability even when “the gun that was unsafely stored is procured by a crime and then later used to commit another crime.” In other words, the statute immunized Lee from liability both for the deadly outcome and for his own failure to properly store the gun.
— Shelley Nicholson, as the Mother of Matthew Kendall v. Christopher S. Lee, 2019
Featured image: Shutterstock
American lawyer and writer, Arthur Train, was a prolific author of legal thrillers. His most popular work featured recurring fictional lawyer Mr. Ephraim Tutt. In “Mr. Tutt Fights a Draw” Mr. Tutt is disturbed when he learns about the burning of land nearby, and he immediately takes legal action against the arsonist.
Published August 8, 1936
The Santapedia, which flows into the Bay of Chaleur at Ste. Marie des Isles, is one of the most celebrated salmon streams in Canada. On it is located the Wanic Club, which owns, perhaps, the best fishing water in the world and is composed of six eminent men — Sewell T. Warburton, president of the Utopia Trust Company of New York; Sidney Arbuthnot, president of British Columbian Railways; George R. Norton, president of the British Colonial Trust Company; Chester L. Ives, president of the Royal British Bank of Canada; the Right Reverend Lionel Charteris, Bishop of St. Albans; and last, but not least, Mr. Ephraim Tutt, honorary member. How the latter achieved his place in this Olympian body of sportsmen may be read in a piscatorial chronicle entitled Mr. Tutt’s Revenge. But a lot of water has flowed over the rapids of “Push-and-be-damned” and through the Oxbow since that happened.
Mr. Tutt had had the happiest three weeks of his life in outdoor companionship with the most congenial men he knew. Regretfully, surrounded by his old friends, he left the clubhouse veranda and walked down to the little beach, where his seventy-nine-year old guide, Donald McKay, was waiting in the canoe to paddle him back to civilization. Clad in khaki breeches and high-laced boots, he, nevertheless, wore his ancient stovepipe hat tilted on the back of his head — the only way to carry it, as he explained. “Well, Eph,” said Bishop Charteris, taking both the gnarled old hands in his, “goodbye until next year, and God bless you.”
“Thanks, My Lord,” smiled the old lawyer. “Sorry I can’t bestow my episcopal benediction in return, but you’re a swell guy and I wish you luck.” “Goodbye! Goodbye, old man!”
“Here’s your lunch, Mr. Tutt,” interrupted Charles, the decrepit Negro functionary who had served as the Wanic’s butler, valet, cook, waiter, barkeep and private orchestra for the past thirty-five years. “I done slip in a bottle of the Bishop’s Madeira,” he added in a whisper.
“You old thief!” Mr. Tutt slapped him on the back… “Well, boys, so long! Leave a few fish!”
“If anyone hooks Leviathan again, send me a wire!” He stepped into the canoe, settled himself comfortably against a gunny sack and lighted a stogy.
“Do you expect to make Ste. Marie des Isles tonight?” asked Charteris. “Easily! Donald and I will ‘boil,’ as he calls it, at Portage Brook, reach the Nipsi by four o’clock and be at The George in Ste. Marie in time for supper. I’ll get a good night’s sleep and catch the Whooper when it comes through at five tomorrow morning.”
“I’ve got a better idea than that,” said the president of the British Colonial Trust Company. “You know where the Canadian Seaboard and Gaspe crosses the river below the Stillwater Pool, twenty miles above Ste. Marie? Old man Micklejohn, of Montreal, has a camp there. He’s leased most of the land on that part of the river — enough to give him a practical monopoly of the fishing rights, although I believe there’s a farmer owns a short strip on the other side. I’ll call up Micklejohn and tell him you’re coming, and you can spend the night with him. That will give you time to fish the Stillwater before dark.”
“But I’d have to get up by three o’clock tomorrow morning and paddle the twenty miles downriver to Ste. Marie or miss my train,” protested Mr. Tutt. “You forget I’m getting old.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” retorted Norton. “That’s the point. Micklejohn’s camp is just above the railroad and, under the law, the train has to stop there for three minutes because it’s a drawbridge.”
“You’re wrong about that,” said Sidney Arbuthnot, president of British Columbian Railways. “The train doesn’t have to stop unless the draw is open, which it hasn’t been in fifteen years. The reason it stops is that Micklejohn, who is president of the company, orders it to. He gets all his mail, ice, milk and eggs, everything he needs, that way fresh every morning, just as conveniently as if he was at home.”
“What a cinch you railroad men have!” laughed Sewell Warburton, shaking his head. “Imagine what would happen if the president of the New York, New Haven and Hartford ordered the Yankee Clipper stopped at his country place to deliver his groceries!” “Yes, but there’s some difference between the Whooper and the Yankee Clipper,” commented Chester Ives.
“A difference of about fifty-five miles an hour,” nodded the Bishop.” Well, anyhow,” continued Norton, “the point is that, whatever the reason, the Whooper stops at the bridge and that, by taking it there, you can save the trip by river to Ste. Marie, besides having a chance to fish the best pool in the province besides.”
“Sounds good to me,” declared Mr. Tutt. “I’ve always wanted to throw a fly over the Stillwater.” “I’ll call up Micklejohn at once,” said Norton, “and tell him to be sure to have the train stop for you. I know he’s there.” “Sure, he’s there!” grunted Donald McKay, and spat over the side of the canoe. “But will he want me to spend the night with him? Suppose he should be full,” said Mr. Tutt. “There’ll be plenty of room,” Norton assured him. “Micklejohn never has any guests.” “Well, goodbye!” Mr. Tutt waved. “Goodbye and tight lines to all! …Let her go, Donald!”
They pushed out into the stream. Against the high bank below the clubhouse stood his five friends waving their farewells. A lump came into his throat. God bless ‘em They were the best — the top! Fishermen always were!
For the first hour, with his long legs stretched comfortably before him, Mr. Tutt cast lazily with his trout rod, first right, then left, while Donald McKay paddled him swiftly down the Santapedia; then, as the sun grew hotter, he unjointed the rod, put it with the others in his leather case and abandoned himself to admiring the passing scenery and to ruminating upon the river’s history. To the north, as far as the St. Lawrence, stretched an unbroken wilderness, penetrated only by rough logging roads. At rare intervals the eye caught broken patches, thick with birch and maple, which had once been clearings, but the few pioneer settlers had vanished long ago, and now one could paddle half a day without encountering another human being. It had always been a great salmon river, the water closely held under individual leases, ever since a sporting governor general of the Dominion had discovered its possibilities half a century before; although, owing to the lumbering of its watersheds, it had steadily dwindled in size throughout that period and many former fishing camps had been abandoned.
Twenty miles below the Wanic, they passed a pine-covered bluff above a sand spit. “Joe Jefferson had a camp in those trees,” said Donald, pointing to a pile of rotting timber. “I poled him and Grover Cleveland upriver first time they come. Must ha’ been forty years ago. Boy! They was hell on fishin’.”
“And on telling stories?” suggested Mr. Tutt.
“And tellin’ stories!” agreed Donald. “Say, the loggers are tellin’ those same yarns up in the back country yet.”
At noon they beached the canoe to ‘boil’ at a bend beside a foaming stream where the woods had been cut back for, perhaps, a third of a mile, and while Donald built the fire and put on the teapot, Mr. Tutt followed the brook through the alders and undergrowth. All was still under the noonday heat except for the chitter of squirrels or the plash of a kingfisher, dipping in syncopated flight ahead of him. A hundred yards or so from the river, he came upon some overgrown depressions, their bottoms half filled with stones, and farther back, upon some elevated oblong mounds. Poking among the bushes, he stumbled upon a piece of rusted iron half eaten away.
“Must have been some houses in there once,” he remarked to Donald, exhibiting his find.
“Sure,” answered the old guide from where he squatted with the frying pan of bacon in his hand. “This is where the old French village used ‘to be. There’s treasure buried there, if you can find it. I’ve hunted for it many a time when I was a boy.”
“What kind of treasure?”
“Gold, money. A hundred and seventy years ago this was all French country. Ste. Marie des Isles was one of their big towns. When the war with the English come, the inhabitants all got scairt and moved upriver to where they thought they’d be safe. Three hundred came here with their children and everything they had. They settled along that stream and built their houses. Nobody came after ’em and they stayed here for twenty years or so. Then the smallpox killed ’em all off — nary one was left. There’s a pile of money buried in there somewhere.”
“How far are we from Ste. Marie?”
“About eighty miles.”
“And to the Stillwater?”
“Sixty. We’ll get there easy by six o’clock.”
They devoured Charles’ excellent lunch, carefully extinguished the tiny fire, drank a tin cup each of the Bishop’s Madeira, and pushed off again. Each of the old men had a stogy between his lips, while the bottle, with its remaining contents, stood embedded between Mr. Tutt’s legs. He was very happy, peaceful and satisfied. He had killed his limit, he was full of fresh air and good food, the sunlight flecked the ripples on the river, a soft breeze laden with the scent of balsam drew down the gullies — God was in his heaven, all was right with the world. Mr. Tutt unbuttoned his waistcoat, extended himself longitudinally as far as possible and took another drink. This was the life! Those French fleeing from their enemies had selected a good place. A bit cold in winter, perhaps. But what the fishing must have been in those old days! And yet they were all gone!
The sun lowered towards the pine tops in a cloudless sky; the breeze died; amid a silence unbroken save for the gurgle of the river against the sides of the canoe, they were swept swiftly downstream by the current. The shadows of the trees were lengthening across the river as, about five o’clock, they passed the Oxbow — the pool next above the Stillwater, ten miles farther on. A couple of sportsmen were just getting into their canoes for the evening fishing. Then the forest closed about them again, and they entered a long stretch of rapids, where Donald let the canoe run, steering it with his paddle.
“Another twenty minutes and we’ll be at the Stillwater,” he said. “Better set up your rod. There’s half a dozen drops and it’ll take us over an hour to fish it before we get to Micklejohn’s.”
By the time Mr. Tutt had put his rod together and selected his gear, they had shot the rapids and emerged into a smiling farmland, the river broadening to lush meadows high with grass. A mile ahead, below a series of sparkling reaches, lay the railroad bridge. They had reached the famous Stillwater.
Donald shoved the canoe into a shady backwater sheltered by tall trees while Mr. Tutt adjusted his leader.
“There was a town here once too,” he remarked. “Although you’d never guess it. There’s only one family left — Jim Ferguson’s.”
Mr. Tutt looked across the river. “Isn’t that the remains of an old wharf?”
“Yes, but it’s all fallen to pieces. This is a great place for hay. In the old days they used to barge it down to Ste. Marie des Isles. Jim made good money until he was burned out…. The first drop’s over there. It’ll be dark soon. I’d try a Black Gnat.”
While the old gentleman was tying on his fly, there rose from the woods beside them a series of birdcalls more melodious than anything he had ever heard. The notes rose and fell in chirpings, now like scattered drops of crystal, now in silver trills and quavers, followed by the mellow arpeggio of the Canadian thrush, until Mr. Tutt found himself, like Siegfried, staring entranced into the boughs above his head. “Exquisite,” he murmured. “The mellow ousel fluting in the elm!’ What sort of bird is it?”
“Burrd! That ain’t no burrd! It’s a woman! “Thrusting his paddle into the water, he silently shoved the canoe around a boulder that cut off the view of the bank fifty yards beyond.
The song ceased suddenly in the midst of a cadenza. A young girl, her black curls tied gypsy-like in a red handkerchief, was sitting on a log with her head thrown back against a rock, her open khaki shirt exposing her white throat. Her brown eyes, startled at their unheralded approach, quickly regained their confidence.
“Hello, Mr. McKay!” she called, in a voice as sweet as the notes she had been uttering.
“Please don’t stop!” begged Mr. Tutt. “I’d rather listen to you than fish.”
“He thought you was a burrd!” laughed Donald. “I don’t blame him neither. Many’s the time you’ve fooled me with your veery calls and your warblers.”
“They often answer me at this time of day,” she said. “The thrushes at twilight especially from the grove behind them echoed a golden canzonet. Hark! Do you hear that one?”
“Sure!” declared Donald. “Your mate’s a-callin’ you. Is your dad to home?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m sure he’d like to see you.”
“Tell him I’ll be over after supper, or maybe before,” answered Donald, with a grimace.
“Are you going to fish the Stillwater? There’s a run on. I saw a lot of big ones on their way up the river from the bridge last evening. Mr. Micklejohn killed a forty-pounder this morning.”
“Who is that lucky child?” asked Mr. Tutt, as, the Black Gnat having been properly fastened, he told Donald to shove off.
“Jim Ferguson’s girl. Clochette,’ they call her. Her mother’s French.”
“A charming creature. She has a wonderful voice.”
“You bet she has. Some folks say she could sing in grand opry.”
“Is she getting proper instruction?”
“Jim’s been sendin’ her to Boston every winter for the last three years. He’s mighty proud of her, I tell ye! We all are, for that matter. But she’s got to give it up.”
“Her dad lost everything he had in the fire. Ain’t even got a house no more. They’re campin’ out in tents this summer.”
The canoe slid out into midstream and floated toward the head of a wide sun-flecked stretch alive with ripples. Donald dropped the killick overboard into the translucent water, here only from three to six feet deep, dug in his paddle to steady the canoe, and Mr. Tutt, lifting his rod, cast at right angles across the stream. The fly settled lightly on the current and was sucked rapidly along and under. Gradually the arc of the line straightened out and he was just about to make another cast when the tip of the rod was drawn heavily downward, the water boiled as from the turn of a propeller, and the line began to run through the guides.
Mr. Tutt struck lightly against a dead weight. Next instant the reel was screaming, the line melting away, humming like a telegraph wire in a sixty-mile gale. He anchored the butt in his belt socket, braced his feet and held tight. It was as if he were connected with a plunging race horse. Far downstream, there was a silver gleam as the salmon broke. The strain slackened momentarily, and the old man reeled in as fast as he could. Then the reel began to scream again, and once more the spool melted away. “He’s headed for salt water!” shouted Donald, pulling the killick.” We got to follow him!” “Hurry!” gasped the old man, pressing down the drag of the reel with all his force. “I haven’t got more than thirty yards left!” Donald dropped the killick into the canoe with a thud, yanked free his paddle, threw his whole weight against it, and the canoe shot downstream. The reel stopped screaming and Mr. Tutt, heaving the rod against his ancient belly, began, foot by foot, to regain his line. But this did not disconcert the salmon, which had evidently made up its mind that it had important business in Ste. Marie des Isles and intended to get there immediately. Aided by Donald’s strenuous paddling and the strength of the current, the big fish towed them along at fifteen miles an hour. The shores slid by. The railroad bridge drew nearer and nearer. The half dozen buildings of Micklejohn’s camp, with the Canadian flag flapping above them, swept into view.
Suddenly the salmon broke again, hurling itself, end over end, high into the air in a rainbow of silver and dropping flat with a crash that churned the surface into foam. Mr. Tutt reeled furiously. The line came in slack, then gradually tightened, running out toward the riffle at the outlet of the pool just above the bridge. The salmon had decided that he needed a rest and that, for the moment at least, he had gone far enough. Swiftly the current carried them toward where the great fish lay skulking in mid channel, until they were almost directly above him. Mr. Tutt had regained most of his line and was ready for another dash — to Anticosti, if need be.
“Keep your line tight, or he may work free,” warned Donald. “He’s anchored there. Got his head agin’ a rock prob’ly.”
It was too deep to reach the salmon with a gaff or otherwise to dislodge him. Neither was it possible, in the face of the current, to maintain their position. So, while Mr. Tutt continued a steady strain upon the line, Donald swung the canoe inshore and held it firmly with the paddle.
“He’ll get sick of it ‘fore long,” he said. “We’ve got to be ready to start whenever he does.”
Mr. Tutt sat there, the butt of the rod against his diaphragm, his eyes upon the point where his taut line entered the water seventy feet distant, waiting for something to happen. It did.
There was a scattering of gravel from the bank behind them, the sound of heavy breathing and, before the old man could turn his head, a hunting knife held by a brawny hand descended and severed his line: “Ping!” Mr. Tutt, thus unexpectedly released from frontal strain, was only saved from falling backward into the canoe by the gunny sack behind him.
“Jumping Jehosaphat!” he ejaculated, grabbing at his stovepipe. “What’s happened!”
The owner of the knife, a huge bearded man in waders, stood lowering at him beneath shaggy black eyebrows.
“Get off my land!” he ordered. Donald drove the canoe back into the river.
“And off my water!” yelled their assailant.” Get off — and stay off!”
Mr. Tutt was trembling with outraged indignation. The line attached to the salmon had vanished into oblivion. No doubt, it was already on its way to Ste. Marie des Isles.
“Micklejohn,” muttered Donald shortly, squirting a thin brown stream in the direction of the shore.
“The man we expected to spend the night with?”
“We didn’t. Maybe you did. I’ve known him longer than Mr. Norton has.”
“That fellow the president of a railroad!”
“He owns it,” explained Donald. Micklejohn, having sheathed his hunting knife, was seated cross-legged upon the bank, watching them. “Get along!” he shouted. “Beat it!”
“Mr. Micklejohn” said Mr. Tutt raising his voice so that it would carry across the intervening distance, “You have made me lose a brand-new twelve-foot double leader and a hundred and fifty yards of line. I shall expect you to pay for them.”
“Like hell! They were forfeit under the statutes!” shouted Micklejohn. “I could have kept your rod too. I’m going to telephone the warden and lodge a complaint against you for trespass. I’ll teach you that we have laws in Canada.”
Then Mr. Tutt, eminent member of the New York Bar that he was, lost all his dignity. They were drifting rapidly downstream toward the bridge, and maybe his old voice was tired. Perhaps he believed that action spoke louder than words. At any rate, with or without excuse, the distinguished Mr. Tutt placed his antique thumb to the end of his long nose, wiggled his bony fingers at Mr. Micklejohn and gave vent to an inelegant sound known as “the raspberry,” or “Bronx cheer.”
By this time, it was nearly dark and a cold wind was blowing up the river.
“Want to go on to Ste. Marie?” asked Donald.
“It’s twenty miles. Supper would be over before we got there. And I’d rather meet the sheriff by daylight,” answered Mr. Tutt. “Where else can we go?”
“Jim Ferguson would put us up.”
“Okay. Let’s go there.”
A campfire in front of a small group of tents threw a cheerful gleam across the river, and it took Donald but a few moments to reach the opposite shore, where the genial Ferguson, his pleasant- faced French wife and Clochette welcomed them on the beach. A full moon was rising above the pines as they finished their modest but savory meal of potato soup, broiled salmon steak and peas, fresh strawberries and black coffee. Mr. Tutt produced what was left of the Bishop’s bottle of Madeira, and Clochette, without a trace of self- consciousness, her voice rising high and clear, sang for them while they smoked — boating songs of the voyageurs, Scottish border ballads, and chansons of old France, handed down in her mother’s family.
“Do you know Nanette?” she asked. “Nanette went down to bathe. That is what I’d been doing when you saw me this afternoon.”
“And Mr. Tutt thought she was a burrd, Jim!” chuckled old Donald; so Clochette laughed and sang A in Claire Fontaine, because it was about a bird.
“That’s what she should be called’ Nightingale’!” averred the old man. “And, as the song says, I shall never forget her either!”
While the women washed the dishes on the shore, Jim Ferguson told the story of Stillwater and the loss of his home. Years ago, it had been a thriving town of lumbermen and farmers, surrounded by cleared fields for a quarter mile back on either side of the river. Five generations of Fergusons had lived where the tents were now pitched. There had been a school, post office, a couple of stores, and daily a small river steamer had come up from Ste. Marie des Isles, bringing mail and supplies and keeping the settlement in touch with the outside world. Then the small- pox had ravaged the community, the logging industry had declined, the young folks had moved away, until at last the Fergusons were the only ones left.
As a partial compensation, Jim had been able to acquire a large tract of abandoned land for almost nothing. There was a good market for his hay, which he at first had barged down to the coast, and then, after the railroad had come through, had shipped by freight. He prospered, saving enough to add each year to his machinery tedders, mowers and sweep rakes, building barns in which to store his crop until he could sell to best advantage, and installing his own press to bale the hay for transportation.
He had married a girl of French descent and Clochette was their only child. During the winters they moved down river to Ste. Marie des Isles, so that she could go to school. When they discovered that she had a voice, they had sent her to Boston for training. Then the preceding summer, just at harvest time, when two of the barns had been filled and the rest of the crop was in cocks ready to be carried, a fire had started near the railroad track and, sweeping across the fields, had destroyed everything, including their dwelling house. Not a building had been left, and the insurance had been only sufficient to re-equip them with tents, canoes and a few tools, and keep them going through the winter.
The fire had probably been started by a spark from the Whooper, and the company was clearly responsible. Jim had brought suit for $25,000 through a firm in Ste. Marie des Isles, but his lawyers advised him that the evidence, though morally convincing, might be held insufficient to sustain a judgment, since there was nothing, from a legal point of view, to exclude the possibility that the fire had started through the carelessness of some fisherman, hunter or river driver. So they were going to have to start all over again, and Clochette would have to give up her musical career.
“Doesn’t Micklejohn know that a spark from one of his engines destroyed your property?” demanded Mr. Tutt.
“Sure he does. Everyone knows it. It’s true that the fire started over fifty yards from the track, but there was wind enough to carry a spark even farther than that. Besides, there weren’t no fishermen anywheres round here except Micklejohn. The skunk wouldn’t ha’ been above setting it himself!”
“You mean that he might have burned you out purposely?”
“Just what I mean. He’s wanted to get rid of me for years, so as to have all the fishing on both sides for himself. Y’see I was here first and had my quarter mile of shorefront before he located his camp over there and bought up all the land there was left.” Mr. Tutt had a momentary vision of a black-bearded man with the hunting knife in his hand.
“He’s not a good neighbor?”
“We don’t speak.”
The old lawyer sat smoking by the dying embers of the fire long after all but Donald had gone to bed. “Is everything Jim said true?” he asked.
“Honest to God!”
“How long has Micklejohn been here?”
“Eleven years. He bought soon as he got to be president of the road.”
“When was the bridge built?”
“Nineteen nineteen — sixteen years ago.”
“Was the town here then — Stillwater, I mean?”
“Sure! Quite a settlement. My sister lived here with her husband. The smallpox come in 1920. They didn’t discontinue the post office until a couple of years later.”
“How long since the steamer stopped running?”
“Just about.” Donald got up, stretched, and spat into the fire. “If we’re to take the Whooper at five tomorrow mornin’, what time shall I wake you?”
Mr. Tutt stared across at the bead of light that marked the presence of Local Public Enemy No. 1.
“You needn’t wake me,” he said. “We’re not taking the Whooper. If we go to Ste. Marie tomorrow, it will be by canoe.”
“I reckon I’ll turn in anyhow,” answered Donald. “You mayn’t be tired, but I be!”
The moon rode higher and higher, a silver dime in a starless sky, azure as by day. Mr. Tutt could see every stone upon the beach, the patches on the bottom of the overturned canoe, the gunny sack containing his personal belongings; could even read the label on a near-by tomato can. Opening the sack, he removed a bug light, put it in his pocket and, lighting a fresh stogy, he lay flat upon his stomach and peered down through the ties.
“H’m!” he said to himself, observing that the keys swung clear of the buttress by about six inches where it emerged from the surface. Getting to his feet, he untied the string and repeated the process at the other end of the draw.
“H’m!” he repeated in a tone of satisfaction.
Bug light in hand, having returned the string and key ring to his pocket, he examined the joints of the antiquated machinery, rusted and eaten away by the wind and rain of thirty years. The bolts in one counterweight had disappeared; the lever operating the trunnion was immovable, frozen, as if welded.
“H’m!” he ejaculated a third time.
“If I haven’t got that so-and-so, I’ll eat my tall hat.”
He was aroused by the crackling of a fire outside his tent and the pungent smell of bacon. From the beach below came the warble and trill of Clochette’s limpid coloratura:
“Au beau Blair de la tun’ m’en allant promener — ”
“How the devil did you know that?” he demanded as she ascended the bank, a pail of water in her hand.
“Oh, never mind,” he answered. “What time is it?”
“Six o’clock. Didn’t you hear the Whooper go by an hour ago?”
“Whooper! It would have taken Big Bertha to wake me up. I slept the sleep of a just man. Tell Donald to get the canoe ready. I’m going to Ste. Marie as soon as I’ve had my breakfast.”
“Are you leaving us for good?” she asked regretfully. “I hoped you’d spend the day with us.”
“Oh, I’ll be back, Nightingale! Never you fear!”
“I’m sorry for Mr. Micklejohn, I’m sorry to give him pain, but a hell of a spree there’s going to be When Tutt comes back again!”
The president of the Canadian Seaboard & Gaspe, smoking his after breakfast cigar on the veranda of his camp, saw the canoe with its tall hatted occupant skirt the opposite shore and disappear under the bridge.
“I taught that silly old ass a lesson, all right!” he gloated, for he had feared that the trespasser might stay on and fish the quarter mile of water he did not control. His worst nightmare was that Ferguson might build a sporting camp and thus destroy the practical monopoly of the Stillwater which he now enjoyed. But the farmer was too busy haymaking to do any fishing, hence Micklejohn, week in and week out, had the whole ten miles to himself.
It was another sparkling day and the president of the C. S. & G., having killed a couple of thirty pounders, was paddling back for lunch when the noonday silence was unexpectedly broken by an untoward sound — a sound that President Micklejohn had never before heard in that locality — the unmistakable whistle of a steamer just below the bridge.
“Toot, toot, toot! Toot, toot, toot!” “Damn his eyes!” he cried.” That fool will drive every salmon ten miles upriver!”
“Toot, toot, toot! Toot, toot; toot!” snorted the unseen visitor impatiently. “What in hell can that fellow want?” exclaimed the railroad man, for never once in the entire eleven years of his occupancy had he seen a steamboat on the Santapedia.
Then, as if with the deliberate intention of demonstrating its nuisance value, the whistle broke into a shrill, continuous and never-ending scream.
“I’ll fix that!” shouted Micklejohn in wrath, climbing the embankment.
A stubby little tug was holding herself in the channel, nosing the draw, tooting her head off.
“What are you making such a noise about?” he yelled above the racket. Then, to his amazement and disgust, he observed that the Silly Old Ass in the tall hat was sitting cross-legged on the roof of the pilothouse, puffing a curious looking, rat-tailed cigar, while on the deck below stood the sheriff of the county and a tall man in a gray felt hat whom Mr. Micklejohn did not recognize. Behind them were a group of strangers in mufti. Since the embankment was but twenty feet above the river, the entire party, including Mr. Micklejohn and Mr. Tutt, were in fairly close juxtaposition.
“Open your draw!” called the captain of the tug from the pilothouse window.
“What are you talking about?” answered the president of the C. S. & G.
The tug suddenly stopped tooting. “Let us through!”
“I’m no draw tender!” replied Micklejohn furiously.
“If you ain’t, where is he, then?” asked the captain.
“There isn’t any. This draw hasn’t been used in the last fifteen years.” The tug had laid alongside the bridge, and a deck hand now made it fast to the abutment. The tall man stepped forward.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I’m Sir Douglas Hartley, judge in Admiralty of the Exchequer Court for this district. This gentleman, through his local counsel, has made an informal application before me, in chambers, for a mandatory injunction to abate a nuisance and to compel the Canadian Seaboard & Gaspe Railroad to maintain its draw in this bridge in accordance with its license. He offered — very fairly, I must admit — since he does not wish to take the railroad company by surprise or to put you to any greater inconvenience than is necessary, to facilitate the proceeding by bringing the court here to see for itself — ”
“Birnam wood be come to Duns inane’!” chirped Mr. Tutt.” — what the actual conditions may be,” continued Sir Douglas, faintly smiling.” I take it that I am addressing Mr. Cyrus Micklejohn, president of the railroad?”
“You are,” snapped Micklejohn. “But I’m not here in my official capacity.”
“It would appear then that there was nobody here in an official capacity?” suggested Sir Douglas mildly.
“There has never been any reason why there should be.”
“Your Honor,” said Mr. Tutt from the roof, “this is a navigable stream and I have hired this steamer to take me to Stillwater. I want to go there. I insist on going there!”
“Well, you can’t go there!” roared Micklejohn.
“You’ve got a draw; open it!”
Mr. Micklejohn stared haughtily at the rusty levers and trunnions and the dilapidated counterweights.
“Nonsense!” he remarked.
“Won’t it work?” blandly inquired the sheriff.
“I — I don’t know! And I don’t care!” retorted Micklejohn.
A businesslike-looking young man stepped forward from the group behind the judge.
“My name’s McAvoy,” he said. “I’m Provincial Bridge Engineer. I have two of my assistants here. Suppose we take a look at it.”
They climbed up the abutment and examined the draw.
“You’re going to have a hard time opening that thing,” declared Mr. McAvoy. “The machinery’s all rotted to pieces, the iron has frozen, and, besides, the piers have sagged so far out of plumb that I don’t believe it would work anyway.”
Micklejohn took out his handkerchief and rubbed his forehead.
“Well,” he growled, “this is something I shall have to turn over to our law department.”
“I took the liberty of having my clerk telephone to your attorney, Mr. Cameron Hall, in Cardogan,” interjected Sir Douglas. “He said he’d order a special and come down.”
“Meanwhile, how am I going to get to Stillwater?” pressed Mr. Tutt. “Stillwater! There isn’t any Stillwater!” snorted Micklejohn.
“Oh, yes, there is!” replied the old lawyer.” Stillwater continues to be a geographical and legal entity, even if it is functus officio.”
“There aren’t any people living there!”
“I know of at least four,” answered Mr. Tutt. “Yourself, Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson and their daughter.” “This is all hocus-pocus!” hotly protested Micklejohn. “Ferguson doesn’t want to use the draw! And I’m sure I don’t!”
“Yes, I do!” shouted Ferguson, sticking his head out of the pilothouse window.” I want to go right up the river.”
Mr. Tutt descended from the roof of the pilothouse, Micklejohn glaring at him the while. The president of the C.S. & G. had begun to wish he hadn’t adopted such strenuous tactics with the Silly Old Ass.
“Your Honor,” said Mr. Tutt, landing on the deck, “I appreciate that this isn’t either the time or place for a legal argument, but since you’ve been so amiable as to lend your presence to an attempt at an adjustment of what might otherwise prove a long-drawn out and expensive litigation, I beg to assure you most emphatically that there is no hocus-pocus about it whatsoever. Under the Canadian Railway Act of 1919, no railroad company may build a bridge over any water, river, stream or canal so as to impede navigation, no matter how slight, except with the approval and subject to the directions of the Board of Railway Commissioners and the Department of Public Works. That authority, under the powers delegated to it by Parliament, approved the plans submitted in the year 1919 by the Canadian Seaboard & Gaspe for a drawbridge over the Santapedia at this point, on condition that it be operated as such. The condition having been violated, the authorization is void and the bridge becomes a public nuisance, which can be abated.”
“Rot!” bellowed President Micklejohn. “We don’t have to keep a man sitting here if the draw is never used.”
“You’re obliged to keep your draw in operation or your license lapses. The law says, ‘It is not the use which has been made of the water, but the use which may be made of it, without a change of conditions, that determines its navigability.”
“There has been a change,” declared Micklejohn sullenly. “There was a town here when the bridge was built, and it isn’t here now.”
“The phrase ‘change of condition’ in the law refers not to the number of inhabitants but to the navigability of the stream. So long as there is a single landowner upstream beyond the bridge, he has a right to insist on the railroad complying with the conditions under which it received its authority to build. It is a riparian right inherent in his ownership of the land.”
At that moment a distant whistle echoed through the forest, the rails began to hum, and presently an engine dragging a single day coach came thundering down the track and stopped at the other end of the bridge. Half a dozen men piled out, among them Cameron Hall, K. C., the railroad’s chief legal adviser, from Cardogan, the capital of the province. With him were two of the company engineers. By this time everyone from the tug, including Sir Douglas, Mr. Tutt and the sheriff, had ascended the embankment.
“Of course, I’m here purely ex officio,” said Sir Douglas. “Don’t bother about me. I’m enjoying this little excursion immensely. Suppose I take a walk and give you gentlemen a chance to get together?”
While the company engineers looked over the bridge, Cameron Hall, K. C., conferred with Micklejohn, after which they all went into a huddle at the other end of the bridge.
“May I speak to you a moment, sir?” at length said the lawyer, a dignified but kindly looking man, advancing toward the draw.
“With pleasure, so long as your client doesn’t share in our conversation,” answered Mr. Tutt. “How about a stroll down the tracks?”
They picked their way along the ties until they reached the opposite shore, where they sat down in the hot sunlight at the same spot where Mr. Tutt had climbed up the night before “au beau Blair de la lun’.”
“I’ve often heard of you, Mr. Tutt,” said Hall, K. C. as he accepted a stogy, “but somehow I never supposed you really existed. Certainly it’s a great surprise to meet you under circumstances such as these. What do you want us to do?”
“How much do your engineers say it will cost to install proper piers and rebuild the draw?”
Hall squinted at him over the end of his stogy.
“Do you trust me?”
“I know an honest man when I see one.”
“That compliment will probably cost me about fifty thousand dollars!” chuckled Hall.
“I could have found it out for myself. In fact, I have, rather roughly — only my estimate is thirty-five thousand.”
“I, too, know an honest man when he tells me a thing like that.”
“And that will probably cost me about ten thousand,” said Mr. Tutt significantly. “How shall we work it?” Hall, K. C., looked across at the ruined barns by the little group of tents.
“How much damage does Ferguson claim against the company on account of his fire?”
“Twenty-five thousand dollars.”
“Our engine didn’t set it, you know.” Mr. Tutt shrugged. “If not, I know who did.”
“I see that we agree — in principle. All right, but, as Eden said to Hitler, this isn’t an ultimatum. Suppose we settle the damage suit for twenty thousand and give Ferguson five thousand more for all his riparian rights, including his fishing. In that case, naturally, he’ll have to sign a special release waiving the discontinuance of the draw.”
Mr. Tutt shook his head. “There will be no surrender of any fishing rights whatever. That is an ultimatum!”
“Very good. I was instructed to ask for them, that’s all. Now I’ve done it. How about twenty-four thousand for the fire and a thousand for the bridge release?”
Hall, K.C., looked pained. “There is one more condition which I make as a sine qua non,” said Mr. Tutt sternly.
“Go easy on us!” begged Hall. “What is it?”
“Upon the signing of the papers, Micklejohn is to deliver to me one new twelve-foot, mist-colored double leader, two hundred yards of the best salmon line you can buy in Cardogan and — ”
Hall’s eyebrows had drawn together. “What the devil!” he seemed to be saying.
“Yes, and — ?”
“And his hunting knife.”
“That’s a queer one!” ejaculated the K.C.
“Otherwise the C.S.&G. can rebuild the bridge!”
Just then from the neighboring grove came a high, sweet song like that of a bird.
“What a beautiful voice!” exclaimed Hall in admiration.” It’s like what I’ve always supposed a nightingale’s would be!”
“Yes” Nodded Mr. Tutt. “The C.S.&G. isn’t paying for a fire, but for a girl’s career… well! Is it a deal?”
“It is” answered Hall, and shook hands.” Now I’ll go and give my most unpleasant client the glad tidings.”
“And be sure to tell him that I’ve discovered that they have laws in Canada.” Said Mr. Tutt
The old man climbed down the embankment and walked over to the grove. He hated to return to the city. New York was all right, but the woods were better. He’d spend all winter planning how to get back to them. His old house on 23rd Street, with its comfortable library and sea-coal fire — even with Miranda’s cooking — would be very lonely. It was hard to say goodbye.
Clochette was sitting against a tree, singing her heart out. “Hello, Mr. Tutt!” she cried. “What are all those people doing on the bridge? And why is that tug there?”
“It’s taking me back to New York,” answered the old man, looking down at her tenderly.” Would you like to go with me, Nightingale?”
Featured image: Arthur William Brown
When James Rowland asked his friend Nancy Christian to take him to the airport, she agreed and told him to come to her apartment when it was time to leave. While there, he used her bathroom and was injured when a porcelain handle on the water faucet broke. Rowland was rushed to the hospital, where he was treated for severed tendons and nerves in his right hand.
Rowland sued Christian for negligence, asking for reimbursement of medical expenses, lost wages, and damage to his clothing, plus $100,000 in general damages. His attorneys argued that Christian was aware of the dangerous conditions and had failed to warn her guest.
Christian acknowledged that she had noticed cracks in the handle several weeks before the accident; she even reported it to her landlord and was waiting for a replacement when her friend was injured. But she also noted that Rowland could have used his own “eyesight” to see the cracks and avoided the injury without a warning from her.
Christian’s attorneys made a motion for a summary judgment — a final decision by the court without a trial when the basic facts of the case are not in dispute. They argued that their client could not be held liable for negligence because well-established California law states that social guests (such as Rowland) are “obliged to take the premises as they find them insofar as any alleged defective condition, and that the possessor of the land owes them only the duty of refraining from wanton or willful injury.”
How Would You Rule?
Should Christian have given her guest fair warning about the defective faucet, or should Rowland accept responsibility for his own injury? Based on the aforementioned California law, the court granted the summary judgment in Christian’s favor.
But the story doesn’t end there. Rowland appealed the judgment, claiming the question of facts and liability should have been determined by a fair trial.
His appeal went to the California Supreme Court, which agreed that “the summary judgment procedure is drastic and should be used with caution so that it does not become a substitute for an open trial.” The court went on to say that even though evidence showed Rowland was a social guest, it had not been established that the faucet handle crack was obvious. The court wrote that Christian was aware of the condition of the faucet and therefore should have realized that it involved an unreasonable risk of harm to her guest. Ultimately it reversed the decision of the lower court, ruling that Christian did not exercise reasonable care to eliminate the danger or warn him of it, and that he did not know or have reason to know of the danger, and her failure to warn of or repair the condition constituted negligence.
Not only was Rowland’s appeal successful, but the proceedings also led to a substantial change in California law. In deciding for Rowland, the court reversed the existing law and replaced it with a higher standard of responsibility for property owners for the safety of their guests, stating, “A man’s life or limb does not become less worthy of protection by the law nor a loss less worthy of compensation under the law because he has come upon the land of another.”
The Rowland standard of requiring property owners to exercise “reasonable caution” has now been either fully or partially adopted by many other states, providing personal protection against negligence to many who would not have had it under the traditional rules.
This article is from the November/December 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.