In the third and final part of this classic crime serial, Earl Derr Biggers concludes the winding mystery of a newspaper column and the curious stranger who haunts it. Biggers is most famous for his recurring fictional sleuth Charlie Chan as well as his popular novel Seven Keys to Baldplate, which was adapted into a Broadway stage play and later into multiple films.
Published on July 22, 1916
The fifth letter from the young man of the Agony Column arrived at the Carlton Hotel, as the reader may recall, on Monday morning, August the third. And it represented to the girl from Texas the climax of the excitement she had experienced in the matter of the murder in Ade1phi Terrace. The news that her pleasant young friend — whom she did not know — had been arrested as a suspect in the case, inevitable as it had seemed for days, came none the less as an unhappy shock. She wondered whether there was anything she could do to help. She even considered going to Scotland Yard and, on the ground that her father was a Congressman from Texas, demanding the immediate release of her strawberry man. Sensibly, however, she decided that Congressmen from Texas meant little in the life of the London police. Besides, she might have difficulty in explaining to that same Congressman how she happened to know all about a crime that was as yet unmentioned in the newspapers.
So she reread the latter portion of the fifth letter, which pictured her hero marched off ingloriously to Scotland Yard and, with a worried little sigh, went below to join her father.
In the course of the morning she made several mysterious inquiries of her parent regarding nice points of international law as it concerned murder, and it is probable that he would have been struck by the odd nature of these questions had he not been unduly excited about another matter.
“I tell you, we’ve got to get home!” he announced gloomily. “The German troops are ready at Aix-la-Chapelle for an assault on Liege. Yes, sir — they’re going to strike through Belgium! Know what that means? England in the war! Labor troubles; suffragette troubles; civil war in Ireland — these things will melt away as quickly as that snow we had last winter in Texas. They’ll go in. It would be national suicide if they didn’t.”
His daughter stared at him. She was unaware that it was the bootblack at the Carlton he was now quoting. She began to think he knew more about foreign affairs than she had given him credit for.
“Yes, sir,” he went on; “we’ve got to travel — fast. This won’t be a healthy neighborhood for noncombatants when the ruction starts. I’m going if I have to buy a liner!”
“Nonsense!” said the girl. “This is the chance of a lifetime. I won’t be cheated out of it by a silly old dad. Why, here we are, face to face with history!”
“American history is good enough for me,” he spread-eagled. “What are you looking at?”
“Provincial to the death!” she said thoughtfully. “You old dear — I love you so! Some of our statesmen over home are going to look pretty foolish now in the face of things they can’t understand. I hope you’re not going to be one of them.”
“Twaddle!” he cried. “I’m going to the steamship offices again today and argue as I never argued for a vote.” His daughter saw that he was determined; and, wise from long experience, she did not try to dissuade him. London that hot Monday was a city on the alert, a city of hearts heavy with dread. The rumors in one special edition of the papers were denied in the next and reaffirmed in the next. Men who could look into the future walked the streets with faces far from happy. Unrest ruled the town. And it found its echo in the heart of the girl from Texas as she thought of her young friend of the Agony Column “in durance vile” behind the frowning wall of Scotland Yard.
That afternoon her father appeared, with the beaming mien of the victor, and announced that for a stupendous sum he had bought the tickets of a man who was to have sailed on the steamship Saronia three days hence.
“The boat train leaves at ten Thursday morning,” he said. “Take your last look at Europe and be ready.” Three days! His daughter listened with sinking heart. Could she in three days’ time learn the end of that strange mystery, know the final fate of the man who had first addressed her so unconventionally in a public print? Why, at the end of three days he might still be in Scotland Yard, a prisoner! She could not leave if that were true — she simply could not. Almost she was on the point of telling her father the story of the whole affair, confident that she could soothe his anger and enlist his aid. She decided to wait until the next morning; and, if no letter came then —
But on Tuesday morning a letter did come and the beginning of it brought pleasant news. The beginning — yes. But the end! This was the letter:
Dear Anxious Lady: Is it too much for me to assume that you have been just that, knowing as you did that I was locked up for the murder of a captain in the Indian Army, with the evidence all against me and hope a very still small voice indeed?
Well, dear lady, be anxious no longer. I have just lived through the most astounding day of all the astounding days that have been my portion since last Thursday. And now, in the dusk, I sit again in my rooms, a free man, and write to you in what peace and quiet I can command after the startling adventure through which I have recently passed.
Suspicion no longer points to me; constables no longer eye me; Scotland Yard is not even slightly interested in me. For the murderer of Captain Fraser-Freer has been caught at last!
Sunday night I spent ingloriously in a cell in Scotland Yard. I could not sleep. I had so much to think of — you, for example, and at intervals how I might escape from the folds of the net that had closed so tightly about me. My friend at the consulate, Watson, called on me late in the evening; and he was very kind.
But there was a note lacking in his voice, and after he was gone the terrible certainty came into my mind — he believed that I was guilty after all.
The night passed, and a goodly portion of today went by — as the poets say — with lagging feet. I thought of London, yellow in the sun. I thought of the Carlton — I suppose there are no more strawberries by this time. And my waiter — that stiff-backed Prussian — is home in Deutschland now, I presume, marching with his regiment. I thought of you.
At three o’clock this afternoon they came for me and I was led back to the room belonging to Inspector Bray. When I entered, however, the inspector was not there — only Colonel Hughes, immaculate and self-possessed, as usual, gazing out the window into the cheerless stone court. He turned when I entered. I suppose I must have had a most woebegone appearance, for a look of regret crossed his face.
“My dear fellow,” he cried, “my most humble apologies! I intended to have you released last night. But, believe me, I have been frightfully busy.”
I said nothing. What could I say? The fact that he had been busy struck me as an extremely silly excuse. But the inference that my escape from the toils of the law was imminent set my heart to thumping.
“I fear you can never forgive me for throwing you over as I did yesterday,” he went on. “I can only say that it was absolutely necessary — as you shall shortly understand.”
I thawed a bit. After all, there was an unmistakable sincerity in his voice and manner.
“We are waiting for Inspector Bray,” continued the colonel. “I take it you wish to see this thing through?”
“To the end,” I answered.
“Naturally. The inspector was called away yesterday immediately after our interview with him. He had business on the Continent, I understand. But fortunately I managed to reach him at Dover and he has come back to London. I wanted him, you see, because I have found the murderer of Captain Fraser-Freer.”
I thrilled to hear that, for from my point of view it was certainly a consummation devoutly to be wished. The colonel did not speak again. In a few minutes the door opened and Bray came in. His clothes looked as though he had slept in them; his little eyes were bloodshot. But in those eyes there was a fire I shall never forget. Hughes bowed.
“Good afternoon, inspector,” he said. “I’m really sorry I had to interrupt you as I did; but I most awfully wanted you to come back. I wanted you to know that you owe me a Homburg hat.” He went closer to the detective. “You know, I have won that wager. I have found the man who murdered Captain Fraser-Freer.”
Curiously enough, Bray said nothing. He sat down at his desk and idly glanced through the pile of mail that lay upon it. Finally he looked up and said in a weary tone:
“You’re very clever, I’m sure, Colonel Hughes.”
“Oh — I wouldn’t say that,” replied Hughes. “Luck was with me — from the first. I am really very glad to have been of service in the matter, for I am convinced that if I had not taken part in the search it would have gone hard with some innocent man.”
Bray’s big, pudgy hands still played idly with the mail on his desk. Hughes went on: “Perhaps, as a clever detective, you will be interested in the series of events which enabled me to win that Homburg hat? You have heard, no doubt, that the man I have caught is Von der Herts — ten years ago the best secret service man in the employ of the Berlin Government, but for the past few years mysteriously missing from our line of vision. We have been wondering about him — at the War Office.” The colonel dropped into a chair, facing Bray. “You know Von der Herts, of course?” he remarked casually. “Of course,” said Bray, still in that dead, tired voice. “He is the head of that crowd in England,” went on Hughes.
“Rather a feather in my cap to get him — but I mustn’t boast. Poor Fraser-Freer would have got him if I hadn’t — only Von der Herta had the luck to get the captain first.”
Bray raised his eyes. “You said you were going to tell me — “ he began. “And so I am,” said Hughes. “Captain Fraser-Freer got into rather a mess in India and failed of promotion. It was suspected that he was discontented, soured on the Service; and the Countess Sophie de Graf was set to beguile him with her charms, to kill his loyalty and win him over to her crowd.
“It was thought she had succeeded — the Wilhelmstrasse thought so — we at the War Office thought so, as long as he stayed in India.
“But when the captain and the woman came on to London we discovered that we had done him a great injustice. He let us know, when the first chance offered, that he was trying to redeem himself, to round up a dangerous band of spies by pretending to be one of them. He said that it was his mission in London to meet Von der Herts, the messages. From that column the man from Rangoon learned that he was to wear a white aster in his buttonhole, a scarab pin in his tie, a Homburg hat on his head, and meet Von der Herts at Ye Old Gambrinus Restaurant, in Regent Street, last Thursday night at ten o’clock. As we know, he made all arrangements to comply with those directions. He made other arrangements as well. Since it was out of the question for him to come to Scotland Yard, by skillful maneuvering he managed to interview an inspector of police at the Hotel Cecil. It was agreed that on Thursday night Von der Herts would be placed under arrest the moment he made himself known to the captain.”
Hughes paused. Bray still idled with his pile of letters, while the colonel regarded him gravely.
“Poor Fraser-Freer!” Hughes went on. “Unfortunately for him, Von der Herts knew almost as soon as did the inspector that a plan was afoot to trap him. There was but one course open to him: He located the captain’s lodgings, went there at seven that night, and killed a loyal and brave Englishman where he stood.”
A tense silence filled the room. I sat on the edge of my chair, wondering just where all this unwinding of the tangle was leading us.
“I had little, indeed, to work on,” went on Hughes. “But I had this advantage: The spy thought the police, and the police alone, were seeking the murderer. He was at no pains to throw me off his track, because he did not suspect that I was on it. For weeks my men had been watching the countess. I had them continue to do so. I figured that sooner or later Von der Herts would get in touch with her. I was right. And when at last I saw with my own eyes the man who must, beyond all question, be Von der Herta, I was astounded, my dear inspector. I was overwhelmed.”
“Yes?” said Bray.
“I set to work then in earnest to connect him with that night in Adelphi Terrace. All the finger marks in the captain’s study were for some reason destroyed, but I found others outside, in the dust on that seldom-used gate which leads from the garden. Without his knowing, I secured from the man I suspected the imprint of his right thumb. A comparison was startling. Next I went down into Fleet Street and luckily managed to get hold of the typewritten copy sent to the Mail bearing those four messages. I noticed that in these the letter a was out of alignment. I maneuvered to get a letter written on a typewriter belonging to my man. The a was out of alignment. Then Archibald Enwright, a renegade and waster well known to us as serving other countries, came to England. My man and he met — at Ye Old Gambrinus, in Regent Street. And finally, on a visit to the lodgings of this man who, I was now certain, was Von der Herts, under the mattress of his bed I found this knife.”
And Colonel Hughes threw down upon the inspector’s desk the knife from India that I had last seen in the study of Captain Fraser-Freer.
“All these points of evidence were in my hands yesterday morning in this room,” Hughes went on. “Still, the answer they gave me was so unbelievable, so astounding, I was not satisfied; I wanted even stronger proof. That is why I directed suspicion to my American friend here. I was waiting. I knew that at last Von der Herts realized the danger he was in. I felt that if opportunity were offered he would attempt to escape from England; and then our proofs of his guilt would be unanswerable, despite his cleverness. True enough, in the afternoon he secured the release of the countess, and together they started for the Continent. I was lucky enough to get him at Dover — and glad to let the lady go on.”
And now, for the first time, the startling truth struck me full in the face as Hughes smiled down at his victim.
“Inspector Bray,” he said, “or Von der Herts, as you choose, I arrest you on two counts: First, as the head of the Wilhelmstrasse spy system in England; second, as the murderer of Captain Fraser-Freer. And, if you will allow me, I wish to compliment you on your efficiency.”
Bray did not reply for a moment. I sat numb in my chair. Finally the inspector looked up. He actually tried to smile.
“You win the hat,” he said, “but you must go to Homburg for it. I will gladly pay all expenses.”
“Thank you,” answered Hughes. “I hope to visit your country before long; but I shall not be occupied with hats. Again I congratulate you. You were a bit careless, but your position justified that. As head of the department at Scotland Yard given over to the hunt for spies, precaution doubtless struck you as unnecessary. How unlucky for poor Fraser-Freer that it was to you he went to arrange for your own arrest! I got that information from a clerk at the Cecil. You were quite right, from your point of view, to kill him. And, as I say, you could afford to be rather reckless. You had arranged that when the news of his murder came to Scotland Yard you yourself would be on hand to conduct the search for the guilty man. A happy situation, was it not?”
“It seemed so at the time,” admitted Bray; and at last I thought I detected a note of bitterness in his voice.
“I’m very sorry — really,” said Hughes. “Today, or tomorrow at the latest, England will enter the war. You know what that means, Von der Herts. The Tower of London — and a firing squad!”
Deliberately he walked away from the inspector, and stood facing the window. Von der Herts was fingering idly that Indian knife which lay on his desk. With a quick, hunted look about the room, he raised his hand; and before I could leap forward to stop him he had plunged the knife into his heart.
Colonel Hughes turned round at my cry, but even at what met his eyes now that Englishman was imperturbable.
“Too bad!” he said. “Really too bad! The man had courage and, beyond all doubt, brains. But — this is most considerate of him. He has saved me such a lot of trouble.”
The colonel effected my release at once; and he and I walked down Whitehall together in the bright sun that seemed so good to me after the bleak walls of the Yard. Again he apologized for turning suspicion my way the previous day; but I assured him I held no grudge for that.
“One or two things I do not understand,” I said. “That letter I brought from Interlaken
“Simple enough,” he replied. “Enwright — who, by the way, is now in the Tower — wanted to communicate with Fraser-Freer, who he supposed was a loyal member of the band. Letters sent by post seemed dangerous. With your kind assistance he informed the captain of his whereabouts and the date of his imminent arrival in London. Fraser-Freer, not wanting you entangled in his plans, eliminated you by denying the existence of this cousin — the truth, of course.”
“Why,” I asked, “did the countess call on me to demand that I alter my testimony?”
“Bray sent her. He had rifled Fraser-Freer’s desk and he held that letter from Enwright. He was most anxious to fix the guilt upon the young lieutenant’s head. You and your testimony as to the hour of the crime stood in the way. He sought to intimidate you with threats — ”
“But — ”
“I know — you are wondering why the countess confessed to me next day. I had the woman in rather a funk. In the meshes of my rapid-fire questioning she became hopelessly involved. This was because she was suddenly terrified; she realized I must have been watching her for weeks, and that perhaps Von der Herta was not so immune from suspicion as he supposed. At the proper moment I suggested that I might have to take her to Inspector Bray. This gave her an idea. She made her fake confession to reach his side; once there, she warned him of his danger and they fled together.”
We walked along a moment in silence. All about us the lurid special editions of the afternoon were flaunting their predictions of the horror to come. The face of the colonel was grave.
“How long had Von der Herts held his position at the Yard’?” I asked.
“For nearly five years,” Hughes answered. “It seems incredible,” I murmured.
“So it does,” he answered; “but it is only the first of many incredible things that this war will reveal. Two months from now we shall all have forgotten it in the face of new revelations far more unbelievable.” He sighed. “If these men about us realized the terrible ordeal that lies ahead! Misgoverned; unprepared — I shudder at the thought of the sacrifices we must make, many of them in vain. But I suppose that somehow, someday, we shall muddle through.”
He bade me good-by in Trafalgar Square, saying that he must at once seek out the father and brother of the late captain, and tell them the news — that their kinsman was really loyal to his country.
“It will come to them as a ray of light in the dark–Lmy news,” he said. “And now, thank you once again.”
We parted and I came back here to my lodgings. The mystery is finally solved, though in such a way it is difficult to believe that it was anything but a nightmare at any time. But solved none the less; and I should be at peace, except for one great black fact that haunts me, will not let me rest. I must tell you, dear lady — And yet I fear it means the end of everything. If only I can make you understand!
I have walked my floor, deep in thought, in puzzlement, in indecision. Now I have made up my mind.. There is no other way — I must tell you the truth.
Despite.the fact that Bray was Von der Herts; despite the fact that he killed himself at the discovery — despite this and that, and everything Bray did not kill Captain Fraser-Freer!,
On last Thursday evening, at a little after seven o’clock, I myself climbed the stairs, entered the captain’s rooms, picked up that knife from his desk, and stabbed him just above the heart!
What provocation I was under, what stern necessity moved me — all this you must wait until tomorrow to know. I shall spend another anxious day preparing my defense, hoping that through some miracle of mercy you may forgive me — understand that there was nothing else I could do.
Do not judge, dear lady, until you know everything — until all my evidence is in your lovely hands.
YOURS, IN ALL HUMILITY
The first few paragraphs of this the sixth and next to the last letter from the Agony Column man had brought a smile of relief to the face of the girl who read. She was decidedly glad to learn that her friend no longer languished back of those gray walls on Victoria Embankment. With excitement that increased as she went along, she followed Colonel Hughes as — in the letter — he moved nearer and nearer his denouement, until finally his finger pointed to Inspector Bray sitting guilty in his chair. This was an eminently satisfactory solution, and it served the inspector right for locking up her friend. Then, with the suddenness of a bomb from a Zeppelin, came, at the end, her strawberry man’s confession of guilt. He was the murderer, after all! He admitted it! She could scarcely believe her eyes.
Yet there it was, in ink as violet as those eyes, on the note paper that had become so familiar to her during the thrilling week just past. She read it a second time, and yet a third. Her amazement gave way to anger; her cheeks flamed. Still — he had asked her not to judge until all his evidence was in. This was a reasonable request surely, and she could not in fairness refuse to grant it.
So began an anxious day, not only for the girl from Texas but for all London as well. Her father was bursting with new diplomatic secrets recently extracted from his bootblack adviser. Later, in Washington, he was destined to be a marked man because of his grasp of the situation abroad. No one suspected the bootblack, the power behind the throne; but the gentleman from Texas was destined to think of that able diplomat many times, and to wish that he still had him at his feet to advise him.
“War by midnight sure!” he proclaimed on the morning of this fateful Tuesday. “I tell you, Marian, we’re lucky to have our tickets on the Saronia. Five thousand dollars wouldn’t buy them from me today! I’ll be a happy man when we go aboard that liner day after tomorrow.”
Day after tomorrow! The girl wondered. At any rate, she would have that last letter then — the letter that was to contain whatever defense her young friend could offer to explain his dastardly act. She waited eagerly for that final epistle.
The day dragged on, bringing at its close England’s entrance into the war; and the Carlton bootblack was a prophet not without honor in a certain Texas heart. And on the following morning there arrived a letter which was torn open by eager, trembling fingers. The letter spoke:
Dear Lady Judge: This is by far the hardest to write of all the letters you have had from me. For twenty-four hours I have been planning it. Last night I walked on the Embankment while the hansoms jogged by and the lights of the tramcars danced on Westminster Bridge just as the fireflies used to in the garden back of our house in Kansas. While I walked I planned. Today, shut up in my rooms, I was also planning. And yet now, when I sit down to write, I am still confused; still at a loss where to begin and what to say, once I have begun.
At the close of my last letter I confessed to you that it was I who murdered Captain Fraser-Freer. That is the truth. Soften the blow as I may, it all comes down to that. The bitter truth!
Not a week ago — last Thursday night at seven — I climbed our dark stairs and plunged a knife into the heart of that defenseless gentleman. If only I could point out to you that he had offended me in some way; if I could prove to you that his death was necessary to me, as it really was to Inspector Bray — then there might be some hope of your ultimate pardon. But, alas! he had been most kind to me — kinder than I have allowed you to guess from my letters. There was no actual need to do away with him. Where shall I look for a defense?
At the moment the only defense I can think of is simply this — the captain knows I killed him!
Even as I write this, I hear his footsteps above me, as I heard them when I sat here composing my first letter to you. He is dressing for dinner. We are to dine together at Romano’s.
And there, my lady, you have finally the answer to the mystery that has — I hope — puzzled you. I killed my friend the captain in my second letter to you, and all the odd developments that followed lived only in my imagination as I sat here beside the green-shaded lamp in my study, plotting how I should write seven letters to you that would, as the novel advertisements say, grip your attention to the very end. Oh, I am guilty — there is no denying that! And, though I do not wish to ape old Adam and imply that I was tempted by a lovely woman, a strict regard for the truth forces me to add that there is also guilt upon your head. How so? Go back to that message you inserted in the Daily Mail: “The grapefruit lady’s great fondness for mystery and romance — ”
You did not know it, of course; but in those words you passed me a challenge I could not resist; for making plots is the business of life — more, the breath of life — to the. I have made many; and perhaps you have followed some of them, on Broadway. Perhaps you have seen a play of mine announced for early production in London. There was mention of it in the program at the Palace. That was the business which kept me in England. The project has been abandoned now and I am free to go back home.
Thus you see that when you granted me the privilege of those seven letters you played into my hands. So, said I, she longs for mystery and romance. Then, by the Lord Harry, she shall have them!
And it was the tramp of Captain Fraser-Freer’s boots above my head that showed me the way. A fine, stalwart, cordial fellow — the captain — who has been very kind to me since I presented my letter of introduction from his cousin, Archibald Enwright. Poor Archie! A meek, correct little soul, who would be horrified beyond expression if he knew that of him I had made a spy and a frequenter of Limehouse!
The dim beginnings of the plot were in my mind when I wrote that first letter, suggesting that all was not regular in the matter of Archie’s note of introduction. Before I wrote my second, I knew that nothing but the death of Fraser-Freer would do me. I recalled that Indian knife I had seen upon his desk, and from that moment he was doomed. At that time I had no idea how I should solve the mystery. But I had read and wondered at those four strange messages in the Mail, and I resolved that they must figure in the scheme of things.
The fourth letter presented difficulties until I returned from dinner that night and saw a taxi waiting before our quiet house. Hence the visit of the woman with the lilac perfume. I am afraid the Wilhelmstrasse would have little use for a lady spy who advertised herself in so foolish a manner. Time for writing the fifth letter arrived. I felt that I should now be placed under arrest. I had a faint little hope that you would be sorry about that. Oh, I’m a brute, I know! Early in the game I had told the captain of the cruel way in which I had disposed of him. He was much amused; but he insisted, absolutely, that he must be vindicated before the close of the series, and I was with him there. He had been so bully about it all! A chance remark of his gave me my solution. He said he had it on good authority that the chief of the Czar’s bureau for capturing spies in Russia was himself a spy. And so — why not a spy in Scotland Yard? I assure you, I am most contrite as I set all this down here. You must remember that when I began my story there was no idea of war. Now all Europe is aflame; and in the face of the great conflict, the awful suffering to come, I and my little plot begin to look — well, I fancy you know just how we look.
Forgive me. I am afraid I can never find the words to tell you how important it seemed to interest you in my letters — to make you feel that I am an entertaining person worthy of your notice. That morning when you entered the Carlton breakfast room was really the biggest in my life. I felt as though you had brought with you through that doorway — But I have no right to say it. I have the right to say nothing save that now — it is all left to you. If I have offended, then I shall never hear from you again.The captain will be here in a moment. It is near the hour set and he is never late. He is not to return to India, but expects to be drafted for the Expeditionary Force that will be sent to the Continent. I hope the German Army will be kinder to him than I was!My name is Geoffrey West. I live at 19 Adelphi Terrace — in rooms that look down on the most wonderful garden in London. That, at least, is real. It is very quiet there tonight, with the city and its continuous hum of war and terror seemingly a million miles away.Shall we meet at last? The answer rests entirely with you. But, believe me, I shall be anxiously waiting to know; and if you decide to give me a chance to explain — to denounce myself to you in person — then a happy man say good-by to this garden and these dim, dusty rooms and follow you to the ends of the earth — aye, to Texas itself!
Captain Fraser-Freer is coming down the stairs. Is this good-by forever, my lady? With all my soul, I hope not.
YOUR CONTRITE STRAWBERRY MAN.
Words are futile things with which to attempt a description of the feelings of the girl at the Carlton as she read this, the last letter of seven written to her through the medium of her maid, Sadie Haight. Turning the pages of the dictionary casually, one might enlist a few — for example, amazement, anger, unbelief, wonder. Perhaps, to go back to the letter a, even amusement. We may leave her with the solution to the puzzle in her hand, the Saronia little more than a day away, and a weirdly mixed company of emotions struggling in her soul.
And leaving her thus, let us go back to Adelphi Terrace and a young man exceedingly worried.
Once he knew that his letter was delivered, Mr. Geoffrey West took his place most humbly on the anxious seat. There he writhed through the long hours of Wednesday morning. Not to prolong this painful picture, let us hasten to add that at three o’clock that same afternoon came a telegram that was to end suspense. He tore it open and read:
Strawberry Man: I shall never, never forgive you. But we are sailing tomorrow on the Saronia. Were you thinking of going home soon?
MARIAN A. LARNED
Thus it happened that, a few minutes later, to the crowd of troubled Americans in a certain steamship booking office there was added a wild-eyed young man who further upset all who saw him. To weary clerks he proclaimed in fiery tones that he must sail on the Saronia. There seemed to be no way of appeasing him. The offer of a private liner would not have interested him.
He raved and tore his hair. He ranted. All to no avail. There was, in plain American, “nothing doing!”
Damp but determined, he sought among the crowd for one who had bookings on the Saronia. He could find, at first, no one so lucky; but finally he ran across Tommy Gray. Gray, an old friend, admitted when pressed that he had passage on that most desirable boat. But the offer of all the king’s horses and all the king’s gold left him unmoved. Much, he said, as he would have liked to oblige, he and his wife were determined. They would sail.
It was then that Geoffrey West made a compact with his friend. He secured from him the necessary steamer labels and it was arranged that his baggage was to go aboard the Saronia as the property of Gray.
“But,” protested Gray, “even suppose you do put this through; suppose you do manage to sail without a ticket — where will you sleep? In chains somewhere below, I fancy.”
“No matter!” bubbled West. “I’ll sleep in the dining saloon, in a lifeboat, on the lee scuppers — whatever they are. I’ll sleep in the air, without any visible support! I’ll sleep anywhere — nowhere — but I’ll sail! And as for irons — they don’t make ’em strong enough to hold me.”
At five o’clock on Thursday afternoon the Saronia slipped smoothly away from a Liverpool dock. Twenty-five hundred Americans — about twice the number of people the boat could comfortably carry — stood on her decks and cheered. Some of those in that crowd who had millions of money were booked for the steerage. All. of them were destined to experience during that crossing hunger, annoyance, discomfort. They were to be stepped on, sat on, crowded and jostled. They suspected as much when the boat left the dock. Yet they cheered!
Gayest among them was Geoffrey West, triumphant amid the confusion. He was safely aboard; the boat was on its way! Little did it trouble him that he went as a stowaway, since he had no ticket; nothing but an overwhelming determination to be on the good ship Saronia.
That night, as the Saronia stole along with all deck lights out and every porthole curtained, West saw on the dim deck the slight figure of a girl who meant much to him. She was standing staring out over the black waters; and, with wildly beating heart, he approached her, not knowing what to say, but feeling that a start must be made somehow.
“Please pardon me for addressing you,” he began. “But I want to tell you — ”
She turned, startled; and then smiled an odd little smile, which he could not see in the dark.
“I beg your pardon,” she said. “I haven’t met you, that I recall
“I know,” he answered. “That’s going to be arranged tomorrow. Mrs. Tommy Gray says you crossed with them — ”
“Mere steamer acquaintances,” the girl replied coldly.
Of course! But Mrs. Gray is a darling — she’ll fix that all right. I just want to say, before tomorrow comes — ”
“Wouldn’t it be better to wait?”
“I can’t! I’m on this ship without a ticket. I’ve got to go down in a minute and tell the purser that. Maybe he’ll throw me overboard; maybe he’ll lock me up. I don’t know what they do with people like me. Maybe they’ll make a stoker of me. And then I shall have to stoke, with no chance of seeing you again. So that’s why I want to say now — I’m sorry I have such a keen imagination. It carried me away — really it did! I didn’t mean to deceive you with those letters; but, once I got started You know, don’t you, that I love you with all my heart? From the moment you came into the Carlton that morning I
“Really — Mr. — Mr. — ”
“West — Geoffrey West. I adore you! What can I do to prove it? I’m going to prove it — before this ship docks in the North River. Perhaps I’d better talk to your father, and tell him about the Agony Column and those seven letters — ”
“You’d better not! He’s in a terribly bad humor. The dinner was awful, and the steward said we’d be looking back to it and calling it a banquet before the voyage ends. Then, too, poor dad says he simply cannot sleep in the stateroom they’ve given him — ”
“All the better! I’ll see him at once. If he stands for me now he’ll stand for me any time! And, before I go down and beard a harsh-looking purser in his den, won’t you believe me when I say I’m deeply in love — ”
“In love with mystery and romance! In love with your own remarkable powers of invention! Really, I can’t take you seriously — ”
“Before this voyage is ended you’ll have to. I’ll prove to you that I care. If the purser lets me go free — ”
“You have much to prove,” the girl smiled. “Tomorrow — when Mrs. Tommy Gray introduces us — I may accept you — as a builder of plots. I happen to know you are good. But as — as — It’s too silly! Better go and have it out with that purser.”
Reluctantly he went. In five minutes he was back. The girl was still standing by the rail.
“It’s all right!” West said. “I thought I was doing something original, but there were eleven other people in the same fix. One of them is a billionaire from Wall Street. The purser collected some money from us and told us to sleep on the deck — if we could find room.”
“I’m sorry,” said the girl. “I rather fancied you in the role of stoker.” She glanced about her at the dim deck. “Isn’t this exciting? I’m sure this voyage is going to be filled with mystery and romance.”
“I know it will be full of romance,” West answered. “And the mystery will be — can I convince you — ”
“Hush!” broke in the girl. “Here comes father! I shall be very happy to meet you — tomorrow. Poor dad! He’s looking for a place to sleep.”
Five days later poor dad, having slept each night on deck in his clothes while the ship plowed through a cold drizzle, and having starved in a sadly depleted dining saloon, was a sight to move the heart of a political opponent. Immediately after a dinner that had scarcely satisfied a healthy Texas appetite he lounged gloomily in the deck chair which was now his stateroom. Jauntily Geoffrey West came and sat at his side.
“Mr. Larned,” he said, “I’ve got something for you.”
And, with a kindly smile, he took from his pocket and handed over a large, warm baked potato. The Texan eagerly accepted the gift.
“Where’d you get it?” he demanded, breaking open his treasure.
“That’s a secret,” West answered. “But I can get as many as I want. Mr. Larned, I can say this — you will not go hungry any longer. And there’s something else I ought to speak of. I am sort of aiming to marry your daughter.”
Deep in his potato the Congressman spoke:
“What does she say about it?”
“Oh, she says there isn’t a chance. But”
“Then look out, my boy! She’s made up her mind to have you.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that. I really ought to tell you who I am. Also, I want you to know that, before your daughter and I had met, I wrote her seven letters”
“One minute,” broke in the Texan. “Before you go into all that, won’t you be a good fellow and tell me where you got this potato?”
“Sure!” he said; and, leaning over, he whispered.
For the first time in days a smile appeared on the face of the older man.
“My boy,” he said, “I feel I’m going to like you. Never mind the rest. I heard all about you from your friend Gray; and as for those letters — they were the only thing that made the first part of this trip bearable. Marian gave them to me to read the night we came on board.”
Suddenly from out of the clouds a long lost moon appeared, and bathed that overcrowded ocean liner in a flood of silver. West left the old man to his potato and went to find the daughter.
She was standing in the moonlight by the rail of the forward deck, her eyes staring dreamily ahead toward the great country that had sent her forth light-heartedly for to adventure and to see. She turned as West came up.
“I have just been talking with your father,” he said. “He tells me he thinks you mean to take me, after all.”
“Tomorrow night,” she answered, “will be our last on board. I shall give you my final decision then.”
“But that is twenty-four hours away! Must I wait so long as that?”
“A little suspense won’t hurt you. I can’t forget those long days when I waited for your letters
“I know! But can’t you give me — just a little hint — here — tonight?”
“I am without mercy — absolutely without mercy!”
And then, as West’s fingers closed over her hand, she added softly: “Not even the suspicion of a hint, my dear — except to tell you that — my answer will be — yes.”
Featured image: “Last night I walked on the embankment while the hansoms jogged by and the lights of the tramcars danced on Westminster Bridge.” Illustrated by Will Grefé / SEPS
In part two of this classic crime serial, Earl Derr Biggers continues to weave a story of intrigue and deceit centered around a mysterious newspaper column. Biggers is most famous for his recurring fictional sleuth Charlie Chan as well as his popular novel Seven Keys to Baldplate, which was adapted into a Broadway stage play and later into multiple films.
Published on July 15, 1916
The third letter from her correspondent of the Agony Column increased in the mind of the lovely young woman at the Carlton the excitement and tension the second had created. For a long time, on the Saturday morning of its receipt, she sat in her room puzzling over the mystery of the house in Adelphi Terrace. When first she had heard that Captain Fraser-Freer, of the Indian Army, was dead of a knife wound over the heart, the news had shocked her like that of the loss of some old and dear friend. She had desired passionately the apprehension of his murderer, and had turned over and over in her mind the possibilities of white asters, a scarab pin and a Homburg hat.
Perhaps the girl longed for the arrest of the guilty man thus keenly because this jaunty young friend of hers — a friend whose name she did not know — to whom, indeed, she had never spoken — was so dangerously entangled in the affair. For, from what she knew of Geoffrey West, from her casual glance in the restaurant and, far more, from his letters, she liked him extremely.
And now came his third letter, in which he related the connection of that hat, that pin and those asters with the column in the Mail which had first brought them together. As it happened, she, too, had copies of the paper for the first four days of the week. She went to her sitting room, unearthed these copies, and — gasped! For from the column in Monday’s paper stared up at her the cryptic words to Rangoon concerning asters in a garden at Canterbury. In the other three issues as well, she found the identical messages her strawberry man had quoted. She sat for a long time deep in thought; sat, in fact, until at her door came the enraged knocking of a hungry parent who had been waiting a full hour in the lobby below for her to join him at breakfast.
“Come, come!” boomed her father, entering at her invitation. “Don’t sit here all day mooning. I’m hungry if you’re not.”
With quick apologies she made ready to accompany him downstairs. Firmly, as she planned their campaign for the day, she resolved to put from her mind all thought of Adelphi Terrace. How well she succeeded may be judged from a speech made by her father that night just before dinner:
“Have you lost your tongue, Marian? You’re as uncommunicative as a newly elected officeholder. If you can’t get a little more life into these expeditions of ours we’ll pack up and head for home.”
She smiled, patted his shoulder, and promised to improve. But he appeared to be in a gloomy mood.
“I believe we ought to go, anyhow,” he went on. “In my opinion this war is going to spread like a prairie fire. The Kaiser got back to Berlin yesterday. He’ll sign the mobilization orders today as sure as fate. For the past week, on the Berlin Bourse, Canadian Pacific stock has been dropping. That means they expect England to come in.”
He gazed darkly into the future. It may seem that, for an American statesman, he had an unusual grasp of European politics. This is easily explained by the fact that he had been talking with the bootblack at the Carlton Hotel.
“Yes,” he said with sudden decision, “I’ll go down to the steamship offices early Monday morning — ”
His daughter heard these words with a sinking heart. She had a most unhappy picture of herself boarding a ship and sailing out of Liverpool or Southampton, leaving the mystery that so engrossed her thoughts forever unsolved. Wisely she diverted her father’s thoughts toward the question of food. She had heard, she said, that Simpson’s, in the Strand, was an excellent place to dine. They would go there, and walk. She suggested a short detour that would carry them through Adelphi Terrace. It seemed she had always wanted to see Adelphi Terrace.
As they passed through that silent street she sought to guess, from an inspection of the grim, forbidding house fronts, back of which lay the lovely garden, the romantic mystery. But the houses were so very much dike one another. Before one of them, she noted, a taxi waited.
After dinner her father pleaded for a music hall as against what he called “some highfaluting, teacup English play.” He won. Late that night, as they rode back to the Carlton, special editions were being proclaimed in the streets. Germany was mobilizing!
The girl from Texas retired, wondering what epistolary surprise the morning would bring forth. It brought forth this:
Dear Daughter of the Senate:
Or is it Congress? I could not quite decide. But surely in one or the other of those august bodies your father sits when he is not at home in Texas or viewing Europe through his daughter’s eyes. One look at him and I had gathered that.
But Washington is far from London, isn’t it? And it is London that interests us most — though father’s constituents must not know that. It is really a wonderful, an astounding city, once you have got the feel of the tourist out of your soul. I have been reading the most enthralling essays on it, written by a newspaper man who first fell desperately in love with it at seven — an age when the whole glittering town was symbolized for him by the fried fish shop at the corner of the High Street. With him I have been going through its gray and furtive thoroughfares in the dead of night, and sometimes we have kicked an ash barrel and sometimes a romance. Someday I might show that London to you — guarding you, of course, from the ash barrels, if you are that kind. On second thoughts, you aren’t.
But I know that it is of Adelphi Terrace and a late captain in the Indian Army that you want to hear now. Yesterday, after my discovery of those messages in the Mail and the call of Captain Hughes, passed without incident. Last night I mailed you my third letter, and after wandering for a time amid the alternate glare and gloom of the city, I went back to my rooms and smoked on my balcony while about me the inmates of six million homes sweltered in the heat.
Nothing happened. I felt a bit disappointed, a bit cheated, as one might feel on the first night spent at home after many successive visits to exciting plays. Today, the first of August, dawned, and still all was quiet. Indeed, it was not until this evening that further developments in the sudden death of Captain Fraser-Freer arrived to disturb me. These developments are strange ones surely, and I shall hasten to relate them.
I dined tonight at a little place in Soho. My waiter was Italian, and on him I amused myself with the Italian in Ten Lessons of which I am foolishly proud. We talked of Fiesole, where he had lived. Once I rode from Fiesole down the hill to Florence in the moonlight. I remember endless walls on which hung roses, fresh and blooming. I remember a gaunt nunnery and two gray-robed sisters clanging shut the gates. I remember the searchlight from the military encampment, playing constantly over the Arno and the roofs — the eye of Mars that, here in Europe, never closes. And always the flowers nodding above me, stooping now and then to brush my face. I came to think that at the end Paradise, and not a second-rate hotel, was waiting. One may still take that ride, I fancy. Some day — some day —
I dined in Soho. I came back to Adelphi Terrace in the hot, reeking August dusk, reflecting that the mystery in which I was involved was, after a fashion, standing still. In front of our house I noticed a taxi waiting. I thought nothing of it as I entered the murky hallway and climbed the familiar stairs. My door stood open. It was dark in my study, save for the reflection of the lights of London outside. As I crossed the threshold there came to my nostrils the faint, sweet perfume of lilacs. There are no lilacs in our garden, and if there were it is not the season. No, this perfume had been brought there by a woman — a woman who sat at my desk and raised her head as I entered.
“You will pardon this intrusion,” she said in the correct, careful English of one who has learned the speech from a book. “I have come for a brief word with you — then I shall go.”
I could think of nothing to say. I stood gaping like a schoolboy.
“My word,” the woman went on, “is in the nature of advice. We do not always like those who give us advice. None the less, I trust that you will listen.”
I found my tongue then.
“I am listening,” I said stupidly. “But first — light.” And I moved toward the matches on the mantelpiece.
Quickly the woman rose and faced me. I saw then that she wore a veil — not a heavy veil, but a fluffy, attractive thing that was yet sufficient to screen her features from me.
“I beg of you,” she cried, “no light!” And as I paused, undecided, she added, in a tone which suggested lips that pout: “It is such a little thing to ask — surely you will not refuse.”
I suppose I should have insisted. But her voice was charming, her manner perfect, and that odor of lilacs reminiscent of a garden I knew long ago, at home.
“Very well,” said I.
“Oh — I am grateful to you,” she answered. Her tone changed. “I understand that, shortly after seven o’clock last Thursday evening, you heard in the room above you the sounds of a struggle. Such has been your testimony to the police?”
“It has,” said I.
“Are you quite certain as to the hour?” I felt that she was smiling at me. “Might it not have been later — or earlier?”
“I am sure it was just after seven,” I replied. “I’ll tell you why: I had just returned from dinner and while I was unlocking the door Big Ben on the House of Parliament struck — “
She raised her hand.
“No matter,” she said, and there was a touch of irony in her voice. “You are no longer sure of that. Thinking it over, you have come to the conclusion that it may have been barely six-thirty when you heard the noise of a struggle.”
“Indeed?” said I. I tried to sound sarcastic, but I was really too astonished by her tone.
“Yes — indeed!” she replied. “That is what you will tell Inspector Bray when next you see him. ‘It may have been six-thirty,’ you will tell him. ‘I have thought it over and I am not certain.”
“Even for a very charming lady,” I said, “I cannot misrepresent the facts in a matter so important. It was after seven — ”
“I am not asking you to do a favor for a lady,” she replied. “I am asking you to do a favor for yourself. If you refuse the consequences may be most unpleasant.”
“I’m rather at a loss — ” I began.
She was silent for a moment. Then she turned and I felt her looking at me through the veil.
“Who was Archibald Enright?” she demanded. My heart sank. I recognized the weapon in her hands. “The police,” she went on, “do not yet know that the letter of introduction you brought to the captain was signed by a man who addressed Fraser-Freer as Dear Cousin, but who is completely unknown to the family. Once that information reaches Scotland Yard, your chance of escaping arrest is slim.
“They may not be able to fasten this crime upon you, but there will be complications most distasteful. One’s liberty is well worth keeping — and then, too, before the case ends, there will be wide publicity — ”
“Well?” said I.
“That is why you are going to suffer a lapse of memory in the matter of the hour at which you heard that struggle. As you think it over, it is going to occur to you that it may have been six-thirty, not seven. Otherwise — ”
“Otherwise the letter of introduction you gave to the captain will be. sent anonymously to Inspector Bray.”
“You have that letter!” I cried.
“Not I,” she answered. “But it will be sent to Bray. It will be pointed out to him that you were posing under false colors. You could not escape!”
I was most uncomfortable. The net of suspicion seemed closing in about me. But I was resentful, too, of the confidence in this woman’s voice.
“Nonetheless,” said I, “I refuse to change my testimony. The truth is the truth — ”
The woman had moved to the door. She turned.
“Tomorrow,” she replied, “it is not unlikely you will see Inspector Bray. As I said, I came here to give you advice. You had better take it. What does it matter — a half hour this way or that? And the difference is prison for you. Good night.”
She was gone. I followed into the hall. Below, in the street, I heard the rattle of her taxi.
I went back into my room and sat down. I was upset, and no mistake. Outside my windows the continuous symphony of the city played on — the busses, the trams, the never-silent voices. I gazed out. What a tremendous acreage of dank brick houses and dank British souls! I felt horribly alone. I may add that I felt a bit frightened, as though that great city were slowly closing in on me.
Who was this woman of mystery? What place had she held in the life — and perhaps in the death — of Captain Fraser-Freer? Why should she come boldly to my rooms to make her impossible demand?
I resolved that, even at the risk of my own comfort, I would stick to the truth. And to that resolve I would have clung had I not shortly received another visit — this one far more inexplicable, far more surprising, than the first.
It was about nine o’clock when Walters tapped at my door and told me two gentlemen wished to see me. A moment later into my study walked Lieutenant Norman Fraser-Freer and a fine old gentleman with a face that suggested some faded portrait hanging on an aristocrat’s wall. I had never seen him before.
“I hope it is quite convenient for you to see us,” said young Fraser-Freer.
I assured him that it was. The boy’s face was drawn and haggard; there was terrible suffering in his eyes, yet about him hung, like a halo, the glory of a great resolution.
“May I present my father?” he said. “General Fraser-Freer, retired. We have come on a matter of supreme importance. The old man muttered something I could not catch.”
I could see that he had been hard hit by the loss of his elder son. I asked them to be seated; the general complied, but the boy walked the floor in a manner most distressing.
“I shall not be long,” he remarked. “Nor at a time like this is one in the mood to be diplomatic. I will only say, sir, that we have come to ask of you a great favor — a very great favor indeed. You may not see fit to grant it. If that is the case we cannot well reproach you. But if you can —”
“It is a great favor, sir!” broke in the general. “And I am in the odd position where I do not know whether you will serve me best by granting it or by refusing to do so.”
“Father — please — if you, don’t mind — ” The boy’s voice was kindly but determined. He turned to me.
“Sir — you have testified to the police that it was a bit past seven when you heard in the room above the sounds of the struggle which — which — You understand.”
In view of the mission of the caller who had departed a scant hour previously, the boy’s question startled me.
“Such was my testimony,” I answered. “It was the truth.”
“Naturally,” said Lieutenant Fraser-Freer. “Buter — as a matter of fact, we are here to ask that you alter your testimony. Could you, as a favor to us who have suffered so cruel a loss — a favor we should never forget — could you not make the hour of that struggle half after six?”
I was quite overwhelmed. “Your — reasons?” I managed at last to ask.
“I am not able to give them to you in full,” the boy answered. “I can only say this: It happens that at seven o’clock last Thursday night I was dining with friends at the Savoy — friends who would not be likely to forget the occasion.”
The old general leaped to his feet.
“Norman,” he cried, “I cannot let you do this thing! I simply will not — ”
“Hush, father,” said the boy wearily. “We have threshed it all out. You have promised — ”
The old man sank back into the chair and buried his face in his hands.
“If you are willing to change your testimony,” young Fraser-Freer went on to me, “I shall at once confess to the police that it was I who — who murdered my brother. They suspect me. They know that late last Thursday afternoon I purchased a revolver, for which, they believe, at the last moment I substituted the knife. They know that I was in debt to him; that we had quarreled about money matters; that by his death I, and I alone, could profit.”
He broke off suddenly and came toward me, holding out his arms with a pleading gesture I can never forget.
“Do this for me!” he cried. “Let me confess! Let me end this whole horrible business here and now.”
Surely no man had ever to answer such an appeal before.
“Why?” I found myself saying, and over and over I repeated it — “Why? Why?”
The lieutenant faced me, and I hope never again to see such a look in a man’s eyes.
“I loved him!” he cried. “That is why. For his honor, for the honor of our family, I am making this request of you. Believe me, it is not easy. I can tell you no more than that. You knew my brother?”
“Then, for his sake — do this thing I ask.”
“But — murder — ”
“You heard the sounds of a struggle. I shall say that we quarreled — that I struck in self defense.” He turned to his father. “It will mean only a few years in prison — I can bear that!” he cried. “For the honor of our name!”
The old man groaned, but did not raise his head. The boy walked back and forth over my faded carpet like a lion caged. I stood wandering what answer I should make.
“I know what you are thinking,” said the lieutenant. “You cannot credit your ears. But you have heard correctly. And now — as you might put it — it is up to you. I have been in your country.” He smiled pitifully. “I think I know you Americans. You are not the sort to refuse a man when he is sore beset — as-I am.”
I looked from him to the general and back again.
“I must think this over,” I answered, my mind going at once to Colonel Hughes. “Later — say tomorrow — you shall have my decision.”
“Tomorrow,” said the boy, “we shall both be called before. Inspector Bray. I shall know your answer then — and I hope with all my heart it will be yes.”
There were a few mumbled words of farewell and he and the broken old man went out. As soon as the street door closed behind them I hurried to the telephone and called a number Colonel Hughes had given me. It was with a feeling of relief that I heard his voice come back over the wire. I told him I must see him at once. He replied that by a singular chance he had been on the point of starting for my rooms.
In the half hour that elapsed before the coming of the colonel I walked about like a man in a trance. He was barely inside my door when I began pouring out to him the story of those two remarkable visits. He made little comment on the woman’s call beyond asking me whether I could describe her; and he smiled when I mentioned lilac perfume. At mention of young Fraser-Freer’s preposterous request he whistled.
“By gad!” he said. “Interesting — most interesting! I am not surprised, however. That boy has the stuff in him.”
“But what shall I do?” I demanded.
Colonel Hughes smiled. “It makes little difference what you do,” he said.
“Norman Fraser-Freer did not kill his brother, and that will be proved in due time.”
He considered for a moment. “Bray no doubt would be glad to have you alter your testimony, since he is trying to fasten the crime on the young lieutenant. On the whole, if I were you, I think that when the opportunity comes tomorrow I should humor the inspector.”
“You mean — tell him I am no longer certain as to the hour of that struggle?”
“Precisely. I give you my word that young Fraser-Freer will not be permanently incriminated by such an act on your part. And incidentally you will be aiding me.”
“Very well,” said I. “But I don’t understand this at all.”
“No — of course not. I wish I could explain to you; but I cannot. I will say this — the death of Captain Fraser-Freer is regarded as a most significant thing by the War Office. Thus it happens that two distinct hunts for his assassin are underway — one conducted by Bray, the other by me. Bray does not suspect that I am working on the case and I want to keep him in the dark as long as possible.
You may choose which of these investigations you wish to be identified with.”
“I think,” said I, “that I prefer you to Bray.”
“Good boy!” he answered. “You have not gone wrong. And you can do me a service this evening, which is why I was on the point of coming here, even before you telephoned me. I take it that you remember and could identify the chap who called himself Archibald Enwright — the man who gave you that letter to the captain.”
“I surely could,” said I. “Then, if you can spare me an hour, get your hat.”
And so it happens, lady of the Carlton, that I have just been to Limehouse. You do not know where Limehouse is and I trust you never will. It is picturesque; it is revolting; it is colorful and wicked. The weird odors of it still fill my nostrils; the sinister portrait of it is still before my eyes. It is the Chinatown of London — Limehouse. Down in the dregs of the town — with West India Dock Road for its spinal column — it lies, redolent of ways that are dark and tricks that are vain: Not only the heathen Chinee so peculiar shuffles through its dim-lit alleys, but the scum of the earth, of many colors and of many climes. The Arab and the Hindu, the Malayan and the Jan, black men from the Congo and fair men from Scandinavia — these you may meet there — the outpourings of all the ships that sail the Seven Seas. There many drunken beasts, with their pay in their pockets, seek each his favorite sin; and for those who love most the opium, there is, at all too regular intervals, the Sign of the Open Lamp.
We went there, Colonel Hughes and I. Up and down the narrow Causeway, yellow at intervals with the light from gloomy shops, dark mostly because of-tightly closed shutters through which only thin jets found their way, we walked until we came and stood at last in shadow outside the black doorway of Harry San Li’s so-called restaurant. We waited ten -minutes, fifteen minutes, and then a man came down the Causeway and paused before that door. There was something familiar in his jaunty walk. Then the faint glow of the lamp that was the indication of Harry San’s real business lit his pale face, and P knew that I had seen him last-in the cool evening at Interlaken, Where Limehouse could not have lived a moment, with the Jungfrau frowning down upon it.
“Enwright?” whispered Hughes. “Not a doubt of it!” said I.
“Good” he replied with fervor. And now another man shuffled down the street and stood suddenly straight and waiting before the colonel. “Stay with him,” said Hughes softly. “Don’t let him get out of your sight.”
“Good, sir,” said the man; and, saluting, he passed on up the stairs and whistled softly at that black, depressing door.
The clock above the Millwall Docks was striking eleven as the colonel and I caught a bus that should carry us back to a brighter, happier London. Hughes spoke but seldom on that ride; and, repeating his advice that I humor Inspector Bray on the morrow, he left me in the Strand.
So, my lady, here I sit in my study, waiting for that most important day that is shortly to dawn. A full evening, you must admit. A woman with the perfume of lilacs about her has threatened that unless I lie I shall encounter consequences most unpleasant. A handsome young lieutenant has begged me to tell that same lie for the honor of his family, and thus condemn him to certain arrest and imprisonment. And I have been down into hell tonight and seen Archibald Enwright, of Interlaken, conniving with the devil.
I presume I should go to bed; but I know I cannot sleep. Tomorrow is to be, beyond all question, a red letter day in the matter of the captain’s murder. And once again, against my will, I am down to play a leading part.
The symphony of this great, gray, sad city is a mere hum in the distance now, for it is nearly midnight. I shall mail this letter to you — post it, I should say, since I am in London — and then I shall wait in my dim rooms for the dawn. And as I wait I shall be thinking not always of the captain, or his brother, or of Hughes, or Limehouse and Enwright, but often — oh, very often — of you.
In my last letter I scoffed at the idea of a great war. But when we came back from Limehouse tonight the papers told us that the Kaiser had signed the order to mobilize. Austria in; Serbia in; Germany, Russia and France in. Hughes tells me that England is shortly to follow, and I suppose there is no doubt of it. It is a frightful thing — this future that looms before us; and I pray that for you at least it may hold only happiness.
For, ray-lady, when I write good night, I speak it aloud as I write; and there is in my voice more than I dare tell you of now.
THE AGONY COLUMN MAN.
Not unwelcome to the violet eyes of the girl from Texas were the last words of this letter, read in her room that Sunday morning. But the lines predicting England’s early entrance into the war recalled to her mind a most undesirable contingency. On the previous night, when the war extras came out confirming the forecast of his favorite bootblack, her usually calm father had shown signs of panic. He was not a man slow to act. And she knew that, putty though he was in her hands in matters which he did not regard as important, he could also be firm where he thought firmness necessary. America looked even better to him than usual, and he had made-up his mind to go there immediately. There was no use in arguing with him.
At this point came a knock at her door and her father entered. One look at his face — red, perspiring and decidedly unhappy — served to cheer his daughter.
“Been down to the steamship offices,” he panted, mopping his bald head. “They’re open today, just like it was a weekday — but they might as well be closed. There’s nothing doing. Every boat’s booked up to the rails and we can’t get out of here for two weeks — maybe more.”
“I’m sorry,” said his daughter.
“No, you ain’t! You’re delighted. You think it’s romantic to get caught like this. Wish I had the enthusiasm of youth.” He fanned himself with a newspaper. “Lucky I went over to the express office yesterday and loaded up on gold. I reckon when the blow falls it’ll be tolerable hard to cash checks in this man’s town.”
“That was a good idea.”
“Ready for breakfast?” he inquired.
“Quite ready,” she smiled.
They went below, she humming a song from a revue, while he glared at her. She was very glad they were to be in London a little longer. She felt she could not go, with that mystery still unsolved.
The last peace Sunday London was to know in many weary months went by, a tense and anxious day. Early on Monday the fifth letter from the young man of the Agony Column arrived, and when the girl from Texas read it she knew that under no circumstances could she leave London now. It ran:
Dear Lady from Home:
I call you that because the word home has for me, this hot afternoon in London, about the sweetest sound word ever had. I can see, when I close my eyes, Broadway at midday; Fifth Avenue, gay and colorful, even with all the best people away; Washington Square, cool under the trees, lovely and desirable despite the presence everywhere of alien neighbors from the district to the South. I long for home with an ardent longing; never was London so cruel, so hopeless, so drab, in ink eyes. For, as I write this, a constable sits at my elbow, and he and I are shortly to start for Scotland Yard: I have been arrested as a suspect in the case of Captain Fraser-Freer’s murder!
I predicted last night that this was to be a red letter day in the history of that case, and I also saw myself an unwilling actor in the drama. But little did I suspect the series of astonishing events that was to come with the morning; little did I dream that the net I have been dreading would today engulf me. I can scarcely blame Inspector Bray for holding me; what I cannot understand is why Colonel Hughes —
But you want, of course, the whole story from the beginning; and I shall give it to you. At eleven o’clock this morning a constable called on me at my rooms and informed me that I was wanted at once by the Chief Inspector at the Yard.
We climbed — the constable and I — a narrow stone stairway somewhere at the back of New Scotland Yard, and so came to the inspector’s room. Bray was waiting for us, smiling and confident. I remember — silly as the detail is — that he wore in his buttonhole a white rose. His manner of greeting me was more genial than usual. He began by informing me that the police had apprehended the man who, they believed, was guilty of the captain’s murder.
“There is one detail to be cleared up,” he said. “You told me the other night that it was shortly after seven o’clock when you heard the sounds of struggle in the room above you. You were somewhat excited at the time, and under similar circumstances men have been known to make mistakes. Have you considered the matter since? Is it not possible that you were in error in regard to the hour?”
I recalled Hughes’ advice to humor the inspector; and I said that; having thought it over, I was not quite sure. It might have been earlier than seven — say six-thirty.
“Exactly,” said Bray. He seemed rather pleased. “The natural stress of the moment — I understand. Wilkinson, bring in your prisoner.”
The constable addressed turned and left the room, coming back a moment later with Lieutenant Norman Fraser-Freer. The boy was pale; I could see at a glance that he had not slept for several nights.
“Lieutenant,” said Bray very sharply, “will you tell me — is it true that your brother, the late captain, had loaned you a large sum of money a year or so ago?”
“Quite true,” answered the lieutenant in a low voice.
“You and he had quarreled about the amount of money you spent? Yes!”
“By his death you became the sole heir of your father, the general. Your position with the money-lenders was quite altered. Am I right?”
“I fancy so.”
“Last Thursday afternoon you went to the Army and Navy Stores and-purchased a revolver. You already had your service weapon, but to shoot a man with a bullet from that would be to make the hunt of the police for the murderer absurdly simple.
The boy made no answer.
“Let us suppose,” Bray went on, “that last Thursday evening at half after six you called on your brother in his rooms at Adelphi Terrace. There was an argument about money. You became enraged. You saw him and him alone between you and the fortune you needed so badly. Then — 1 am only supposing — you noticed on his table an odd knife he had brought from India — safer — more silent — than a gun. You seized it — ”
“Why suppose?” the boy broke in. “I’m not trying to conceal anything. You’re right — I did it! I killed my brother! Now let us get the whole business over as soon as may be.”
Into the face of Inspector Bray there came at that moment a look that has been puzzling me ever since — a look that has recurred to my mind again and again, even in the stress and storm of this eventful day. It was only too evident that this confession came to him as a shock. I presume so easy a victory seemed hollow to him; he was wishing the boy had put up a fight. Policemen are probably that way.
“My boy,” he said, “I am sorry for you. My course is clear. If you will go with one of my men — ”
It was at this point that the door of the inspector’s room opened and Colonel Hughes, cool and smiling, walked in. Bray chuckled at the sight of the military man.
“Ah, colonel,” he cried, “you make a good entrance! This morning, when I discovered I had the honor of having you associated with me in the search for the captain’s murderer, you were foolish enough to make a little wager
“I remember,” Hughes answered. “A scarab pin against — a Homburg hat.”
“Precisely,” said Bray. “You wagered that you, and not I, would discover the guilty man. Well, colonel, you owe me a scarab. Lieutenant Norman Fraser-Freer has just told me that he killed his brother, and I was on the point of taking down his full confession.”,
“Indeed!” replied Hughes calmly. “Interesting — most interesting! But before we consider the wager lost — before you force. the lieutenant to confess in full — I should like the floor.”
“Certainly,” smiled Bray.
“When you were kind enough to let me have two of your men this morning,” said Hughes, “I told you I contemplated the arrest of a lady. I have brought that lady to Scotland Yard with me.” He stepped to the door, opened it and beckoned. A tall, blond, handsome woman of about thirty-five entered; and instantly to my nostrils came the pronounced odor of lilacs. “Allow me, inspector,” went on the colonel, “to introduce to you the Countess Sophie de Graf, late of Berlin, late of Delhi and Rangoon, now of 17 Leitrim Grove, Battersea Park Road.”
The woman faced Bray; and there was a terrified, hunted look in her eyes.
“You are the inspector?” she asked. “I am,” said Bray.
“And a man — I can see that,” she went on, her eyes flashing angrily at Hughes. “I appeal to you to protect me from the brutal questioning of this — this fiend.”
“You are hardly complimentary, countess,” Hughes smiled. “But I am willing to forgive you if you will tell the inspector the story that you have recently related to me.”
The woman shut her lips tightly and for a long moment gazed into the eyes of Inspector Bray.
“He” — she said at last, nodding in the direction of Colonel Hughes — “he got it out of me — how, I don’t know.”
“Got what out of you?” Bray’s little eyes were blinking.
“At six-thirty o’clock last Thursday evening,” said the woman, “I went to the rooms of Captain Fraser-Freer, in Adelphi Terrace. An argument arose. I seized from his table an Indian dagger that was lying there — I stabbed him just above the heart!”
In that room in Scotland Yard a tense silence fell. For the first time we were all conscious of the tiny clock on the inspector’s desk, for it ticked now with a loudness sudden and startling. I gazed at the faces about me. Bray’s showed a momentary surprise — then the mask fell again. Lieutenant Fraser-Freer was plainly amazed. On the face of Colonel Hughes I saw what struck me as an open sneer.
“Go on, countess,” he smiled.
She shrugged her shoulders and turned toward him a disdainful back. Her eyes were all for Bray.
“It’s very brief, the story,” she said hastily — I thought almost apologetically. “I had known the captain in Rangoon. My husband was in business there — an exporter of rice — and Captain Fraser-Freer came often to our house. We — he was a charming man, the captain — “
“Go on!” ordered Hughes.
“We fell desperately in love,” said the countess. “When he returned to England, though supposedly on a furlough, he told me he would never return to Rangoon. He expected a transfer to Egypt. So it was arranged that I should desert my husband and follow on the next boat. I did so — believing in the captain — thinking he really cared for me — I gave up everything for him. And then her voice broke and she took out a handkerchief. Again that odor of lilacs in the room.
“For a time I saw the captain often in London; and then I began to notice a change. Back among his own kind, with the lonely days in India a mere memory — he seemed no longer to — to care for me. Then — last Thursday morning — he called on me to tell me that he was through; that he would never see me again — in fact, that he was to marry a girl of his own people who had been waiting.
The woman looked piteously about at us.
“I was desperate,” she pleaded. “I had given up all that life held for me — given it up for a man who now looked at me coldly and spoke of marrying another. Can you wonder that I went in the evening to his rooms — went to plead with him — to beg, almost on my knees? It was no use. He was done with me — he said that over and over. Overwhelmed with blind rage and despair, I snatched up that knife from the table and plunged it into his heart. At once I was filled with remorse.
“One moment,” broke in Hughes. “You may keep the details of your subsequent actions until later. I should like to compliment you, countess. You tell it better each time.”
He came over and faced Bray. I thought there was a distinct note of hostility in his voice.
“Checkmate, inspector!” he said.
Bray made no reply. He sat there staring up at the colonel, his face turned to stone.
“The scarab pin,” went on Hughes, “is not yet forthcoming. We are tied for honors, my friend. You have your confession, but I have one to match it.”
“All this is beyond me,” snapped Bray.
“A bit beyond me, too,” the colonel answered. “Here are two people who wish us to believe that on the evening of Thursday last, at half after six of the clock, each sought out Captain Fraser-Freer in his rooms and murdered him.”
He walked to the window and then wheeled dramatically.
“The strangest part of it all is,” he added, “that at six-thirty o’clock last Thursday evening, at an obscure restaurant in Soho — Frigacci’s — these two people were having tea together!”
I must admit that, as the colonel calmly offered this information, I suddenly went limp all over at a realization of the endless maze of mystery in which we were involved. The woman gave a little cry and Lieutenant Fraser-Freer leaped to his feet.
“How the devil do you know that?” he cried.
“I know it,” said Colonel Hughes, “because one of my men happened to be having tea at a table nearby. He happened to be having tea there for the reason that ever since the arrival of this lady in London, at the request of her friends in India, I have been keeping track of her every move; just as I kept watch over your late brother, the captain.”
Without a word Lieutenant Fraser-Freer dropped into a chair and buried his face in his hands.
“I’m sorry, my son,” said Hughes. “Really, I am. You made a heroic effort to keep the facts from coming out — a man’s-size effort it was. But the War Office knew long before you did that your brother had succumbed to this woman’s lure — that he was serving her and Berlin, and not his own country, England.”
Fraser-Freer raised his head. When he spoke there was in his voice an emotion vastly more sincere than that which had moved him when he made his absurd confession.
“The game’s up,” he said. “I have done all I could. This will kill my father, I am afraid. Ours has been an honorable name, colonel; you know that — a long line of military men whose loyalty to their country has never before been in question. I thought my confession would end the whole nasty business, that the investigations would stop, and that I might be able to keep forever unknown this horrible thing about him — about my brother.”
Colonel Hughes laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and the latter went on:
“They reached me — those frightful insinuations about Stephen — in a roundabout way; and when he came home from India I resolved to watch him. I saw him go often to the house of this woman. I satisfied myself that she was the same one involved in the stories coming from Rangoon; then, under another name; I managed to meet her. I hinted to her that I myself was none too loyal; not completely, but to a limited extent, I won her confidence. Gradually I became convinced that my brother was indeed disloyal to his country, to his name, to us all. It was at that tea time you have mentioned when I finally made up my mind. I had already bought a revolver; and, with it in my pocket, I went to the Savoy for tea.”
He rose and paced the floor.
“After tea I went to Stephen’s rooms. I was resolved to have it out with him, to put the matter to him bluntly; and if he had no explanation to give me I intended to kill him then and there. So, you see, I was guilty in intention if not in reality. I entered his study. It was filled with strangers. On his sofa I saw my brother Stephen lying — stabbed above the heart — dead!” There was a moment’s silence. “That is all,” said Lieutenant Fraser-Freer.
“I take it,” said Hughes kindly, “that we have finished with the lieutenant. Eh, inspector?”
“Yes,” said Bray shortly. “You may go.”
“Thank you,” the boy answered. As he went out he said brokenly to Hughes: “I must find him — my father.”
Bray sat in his chair, staring hard ahead, his jaw thrust out angrily. Suddenly he turned on Hughes.
“You don’t play fair,” he said. “I wasn’t told anything of the status of the captain at the War Office. This is all news to me.”
“Very well,” smiled Hughes. “The bet is off if you like.”
“No, by heaven!” Bray cried. “It’s still on, and I’ll win it yet. A fine morning’s work I suppose you think you’ve done. But are we any nearer to finding the murderer? Tell me that.”
“Only a bit nearer, at any rate,” replied Hughes suavely. “This lady, of course, remains in custody.”
“Yes, yes,” answered the inspector. “Take her away!” he ordered.
A constable came forward for the countess and Colonel Hughes gallantly held open the door.
“You will have an opportunity, Sophie,” he said, “ to think up another story. You are clever — it will not be hard.”
She gave him a black look and went out. Bray got up from his desk. He and Colonel Hughes stood facing each other across a table, and to me there was something in the manner of each that suggested eternal conflict.
“Well?” sneered Bray.
“There is one possibility we have overlooked,” Hughes answered. He turned toward me and I was startled by the coldness in his eyes. “Do you know, inspector,” he went on, “that this American came to London with a letter of introduction to the captain — a letter from the captain’s cousin, one Archibald Enwright? And do you know that Fraser-Freer had no cousin of that name?”
“No!” said Bray.
“It happens to be the truth,” said Hughes. “The American has confessed as much to me.”
“Then,” said Bray to me, and his little blinking eyes were on me with a narrow calculating glance that sent the shivers up and down my spine, “you are under arrest. I have exempted_ so far because of your friend at the United States consulate. That exemption ends now.”
I was thunderstruck. I turned to the colonel, the man who had suggested that I seek him out if I needed a friend — the man I had looked to save me from just such a contingency as this. But his eyes were quite fishy and unsympathetic.
“Quite correct, inspector,” he said. “Lock him up!” And as I began to protest he passed very close to me and spoke in a low voice: “Say nothing. Wait!”
I pleaded to be allowed too back to my rooms, to communicate with my friends, and pay a visit to our consulate and to the Embassy; and at the colonel’s suggestion Bray agreed to this somewhat irregular course. So this afternoon I have been abroad with a constable, and while I wrote this long letter to you he has been fidgeting in my easy-chair. Now he informs me that his patience is exhausted and that I must go at once.
So there is no time to wonder; no time to speculate as to the future, as to the colonel’s sudden turn against me or the promise of his whisper in my ear. I shall, no doubt, spend the night behind those hideous, forbidding walls that your guide has pointed out to you as New Scotland Yard. And when I shall write again, when I shall end this series of letters so filled with
The constable will not wait. He is as impatient as a child. Surely he is lying when he says I have kept him here an hour.
Wherever I am, dear lady, whatever be the end of this amazing tangle, you may be sure the thought of you
Confound the man!
YOURS, IN DURANCE VILE.
TO BE CONTINUED
Featured image: “You will pardon this intrusion. I have come for a brief word with you.” (Illustrated by Will Grefé / SEPS)
She was sitting up when I got into her room in the hospital and she turned to look at me, surprised to see someone, and I walked up to her bed and it wasn’t her. It took a minute for me to realize it. She looked like herself, her face and her body in the bed, except for her expression when she saw me. It wasn’t the way she always looked at me. She looked at me and she smiled, politely. That was the first moment of something impossible.
I had stepped right up to her bed and gripped her hands in mine before I stopped to wonder at that odd smile. My voice came out thin and wavering, startled when I expected to be glad. “Margaret?”
She looked at me, serious and sad at once, and said, “What? No. No.” After a pause, she added, “Where am I? What happened? Who are you?”
Amnesia, I thought, it had to be. She couldn’t remember anything, couldn’t remember a thing, couldn’t remember me. That happens when people hit their heads. I’ve read about it, and seen a movie about a character who forgot his life and had to get it back. Sometimes they end up remembering, as they heal. I thought, I hoped, that Margaret had just left her mind for the time being and she was lurking in the crevices of her wounded brain, waiting to come back and recognize me. It didn’t occur to me that something else might have happened in her head, that somebody else might be there.
I gripped her hands tighter and I said, “It’s me, sweetheart. You don’t recognize me? You don’t remember? You had a bad accident but you’re okay. You’re going to be fine.” I think I went on for a minute or two longer trying to be reassuring, listening to the tremor in my own voice and the rasp of her breath against the stifling air.
She shook her head when my words trickled to a stop, and she winced with the movement. She said, “I’m sorry.” Her face was so calm when she looked at me, and that’s when I started thinking that something was so different that I didn’t recognize what was happening at all. I kept my fingers wrapped around hers. Margaret wasn’t calm. She snapped and sniped at every little thing. She complained about the people at work or my messiness, and her words were sharp. They made me laugh until she laughed too, reluctantly, but we always ended up either bickering or laughing. She was never calm or still like this.
She didn’t apologize, not even when she’d done something wrong. When she ate my leftover Chinese food or forgot to pay the electricity bill, the most I ever got out of her was a shrug. She didn’t say sorry and she didn’t expect me to. This version of Margaret was apologizing even though she was the one hit and pummeled and sleeping in a hospital bed alone for too long a time. There were lines pressed into her forehead — she looked worried about me.
My mind was racing, weaving over and under this thing that had happened until it was all wrapped up in confusion and fear. I kissed her on the forehead, like a child, before I turned away. I left the hospital that night just like I had the first night after the crash, with the collision still shattering my thoughts and anxiety in little sparkling shards that dug into me all night. The train ride back was painfully long and slow, like the train ride there had been. Then, though, I’d been so eager to see my Margaret, to see her eyes open. On the way home I kept seeing her face in my mind, in its innocent unknowing. I’d expected a gasp of relief and the electricity of excitement.
The next day, luckily, was Saturday. I woke up and went straight to the hospital, so hurried I forgot to brush my teeth and cursed my sour breath the whole way over. Margaret was sitting up, smiling at the nurse who was taking away breakfast. She turned her head, cringing a little, to smile at me just as she had done the day before. It was so strange that I stopped there, in the pastel doorway, and looked at this lover I didn’t know at all.
When I walked up to her, she seemed pleased to see me again. Her whole face was happy, her eyes bright. I’d never seen her look quite like that. I said, “Margaret,” in a kind of curious croak. She shook her head again, gentle this time, and her smile turned rueful. I said,
She sighed, and there I saw a trace of my Margaret. That rhythm of breath was familiar to me. The inhale stretched the delicate lines of her throat and closed her eyes. The exhale seemed to take all the air from her body, and she had to gulp in more. When she sighed I felt my own chest burn as though my air were gone too. The cadence of her sigh was the same, and that linked my old Margaret to this new and strange one. Then she spoke and I noticed, for the first time, that her voice had changed. There was a new lilt to it. She said, “I don’t know. I’m not sure. I don’t know you, though, and I don’t know this place. The last thing I remember is going somewhere, to the market I think, with my brothers. I don’t understand what’s happening, and why my hands are so pale and my voice so high. I sound like a stranger to my ears.”
She sounded like a stranger to me too. Margaret didn’t have a brother, and this was not her voice, these were not her words. This woman pulled on her words in a way that my Margaret never did. She talked like somebody I’d never met. She was quiet, and careful with her speech, and she was terribly frightened. I sat by her bed, holding my hand over hers, and didn’t know what to say.
An hour later I said goodbye, and her face fell. There were familiar lines between her eyebrows, ones I recognized, snaking their way into her skin with worry. I clasped her hand, pressed too hard on her fingers, and I left. There was too much confusion gathered in my mind, a great spiky jumble of uncertainty that pricked and pulled at me the whole way home, and for most of the night too. The question that came to me, after a long while of tossing and turning and trying to get away from the anxiety that clung, seemed so obvious I was surprised at myself that it hadn’t occurred to me sooner. There was somebody else in Margaret. Presumably something like the crash had happened to this strange person from far away, with her voice that rose and fell like that. If she was here, in Margaret’s broken body, then where was Margaret?
The next night my anxiety wore all the way through me. My words bit at her with an edge I didn’t mean to put in them. “I don’t even know who you are, and I want my Margaret back. Why are you here? Who are you? God,” I said, standing and pacing, “I don’t even know if she’s still alive or anything. God.”
The fear came back to not-Margaret, her eyes wide and staring at me, but there was pity in them too. I think that’s what broke my heart a bit. That pity cracked me open. It’s the strangest thing that has ever happened to me, sitting at the bedside of the person I loved and missing her with a deep unending ache. I sat looking at her face and wishing she were there, watching some stranger look at me with pity through my lover’s eyes. Everything felt heavy then, and I thought my Margaret might just be gone. I put my head down on the squeaky mattress, closing my eyes against the glare and the linoleum. After a bit, not-Margaret traced timid fingers through my hair.
I stayed like that, feeling the warmth of her hand on my skull, until visiting hours were over.
Those quiet visits must have lasted for more than a week. I came and held not-Margaret’s hand and we looked at each other, lost in ourselves. Sometimes I played a song for her if it was stuck in my head, or brought her the paper or maybe a book. A couple of days I sat by her bed and flipped through the book I was reading or a newspaper, nudging her every once in a while to read something out loud. She would tell me which phrases struck her, and her voice would halt on some syllables as though words were unfamiliar. For that first week or so, we spoke in words that weren’t our own, and the words belonging to us stayed pushed down and silent. Then we had a true conversation.
She said, “Tell me a story about Margaret.” Her own name from her mouth, in her strange voice, hung like ice in my chest.
I drew in a breath and said, “Okay, let’s see. So Margaret’s best friend is named Jenny. She actually was a friend of mine in college, we almost dated for about two seconds, but we didn’t and then when I got together with Margaret I introduced them, and of course Margaret stole her completely.” Talking about her while looking at her face as if she were not there felt like something that happened in the dreams that slip into early mornings, half-dozing before you wake and realize that it makes no sense at all.
“We sometimes had Jenny over in the mornings on weekends, for breakfast. Margaret used to have breakfast with her mom, you know, after her dad died. I guess you don’t know, actually. Anyway, her dad died when she was 12 and her mom’s the distant type. They made French toast on Sundays though and they had kind of a ritual about it. So Jenny sometimes comes over and the three of us make French toast. I think Sundays are one of the few times Margaret is really content, peaceful, you know? She sort of lives in a state of perpetual stress but when Jenny is there it’s easier. She said, sometimes, that she was making her favorite meal with her favorite people.”
My throat hurt, talking about Margaret. I missed her, and missed seeing the way she shook when she laughed, as though she was trying to hold the mirth in and it burst out of her anyway. Jenny made Margaret laugh more than anybody else. I swallowed past the ache and kept talking.
“She and Jenny would play pranks on me, or make very complicated jokes that I didn’t get, or something. This one time they both, I guess, decided beforehand, and when Jenny came over they spoke French for the entire time. So they spent literally three hours, making breakfast and talking in French over my head and cracking up because they were being ridiculous and making up words and probably making fun of me while I understood about every tenth word they were saying.”
Not-Margaret laughed, and her laugh was not Margaret’s. It was lovely, though, one of those trills of sound that makes a person want to smile. It made me ache, deep and dull in my chest, for the unfamiliar beauty coming out of the person I loved.
I couldn’t pull out any more words, but not-Margaret saved me. She told me a little bit about her brothers, both older. She said, “They make me laugh the most, though they only let themselves joke about half the time with me. They could never make up their minds whether they wanted to tower over me and be scary or whether they wanted to be a big wall in front, making sure nobody else could get through to hurt me.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. “I have a little sister and I switch between being annoyed and being protective, that’s just part of being siblings.”
Her mouth twisted then, half-amused and half-wistful. “Either way, they were always around me. I always felt small beside them, threatened or safe, I was always small. Even now my brothers — ” She stopped talking, her breath whisked away.
She set her jaw and blinked hard, like a child trying not to cry. “They’re still protective and scary. We were going to the market, I think, walking along and they’re still trying to keep me out of the road. There weren’t any cars the way we were going, I was dancing all around and they’re torn between laughing at me and yelling at me, trying to get me to walk in a straight line out of the way.”
We looked at each other then, and the silence stretched between us. Her eyes were steady on mine, and finally she spoke. “I guess it’s a good thing I’m here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” she said, “I mean, not that I’m in someone else, somewhere strange. You know that’s not what I mean. But if I had to be changed like this, however long it goes on, I guess it could be worse, right?”
“I guess,” I said. “Anyway. I should probably get going sometime soon.”
She shook her head, mouth tightening. “No, don’t. It’s early yet. Stay and talk to me a little while longer. Please.”
I stayed, her hand warm in mine and her voice lilting and laughing at me, until visiting hours ended and the nurse came around to kick me out.
Every once in a while, I forgot that she had been Margaret. The person looking at me from her eyes wasn’t Margaret. It got easier to think of them as her eyes, not Margaret’s eyes. They were the same color, they didn’t change, but they stopped looking like Margaret. They didn’t have Margaret’s glint of mischief, they just looked at me plainly. After a time, I looked at her without really seeing Margaret at all. I just saw her, for all that her eyes were a familiar shade of hazel and her face was written in lines I’d memorized over and over, shadows whose shapes were pressed in my mind in all their shifting patterns.
We got comfortable around each other. I stopped talking about Margaret, comparing them. It felt like we talked for ages. I visited every night, mostly until I had to leave, and it was a lot of nights. There was some complication with blood clots or something, and then they worried about something else. A bundle of health problems appeared. They all spread over Margaret like ink on a wet page from that one car crash that had blotted out her mind, staining her with somebody else’s bright colors. She stayed in that hospital bed another week, then another. It felt like a long time.
Once I walked into the hospital room to find Jenny sitting beside Margaret’s bed. They were talking quietly, and Jenny started when she saw me. She let go of Margaret’s hand and stumbled over her words for a minute, and then got out, “Good to see you, Margaret. I hope you feel better. I’ll just leave you two alone then.” She put her hand on my shoulder and left it there for a moment before she left. I wondered if I was imagining the hesitation that trembled on her fingers before she retreated and fled the hospital.
I sat by not-Margaret and asked her what they had talked about. She answered me, “Not so much, really. She asked me many times how I was feeling, how things were going, that sort. She talked a bit about her husband, her job, other friends I think. I told her many times that I was all right but still shaken, and that you’ve been wonderful and have visited me near every day.
“She looked a little confused at that, would Margaret not have said it?”
I shook my head. “I doubt it matters anyway in a situation like this, you can’t predict how people would act. Right? But you don’t think she could tell?”
Not-Margaret’s lips curled. I could see the laugh she was holding in her throat. “To tell the truth, I think she mostly talked so much she barely heard me. You were right, she is funny. And I tried to act tired, nothing else. Also, a nurse came by and said that they only needed to keep me here one, maybe two more nights.”
I sucked in my breath and sat quiet for a minute. Neither of us knew what would happen if — when — Margaret was released from the hospital. Not-Margaret had never been to our cramped apartment. She’d never sat swinging her legs from atop the tiny kitchen counter, or lain in our bed buried under the pillows and blankets overflowing to the floor. I think we were both afraid of what would happen then. There wasn’t anyplace else to go.
“Okay,” I said finally, letting my breath rush out in a gust. “I guess then we’ll go home.”
We looked at each other, wondering what that meant.
On Friday afternoon I took not-Margaret home, back to the apartment I’d shared with Margaret. I held her hand as we got on the train and she leaned against me. We jounced and jostled in the hard plastic seats and the curve of her forehead bumped closer into the crook of my neck with each toss of the train. It should have been familiar, but it sent tension arching in my bones and curling my fingers. When the train slowed at the first stop, I shifted a bit to put my arm around her. She started to withdraw as I moved, but settled back against me. The slap of footsteps and murmur of voices registered blurrily, at the edges of my mind. For that twenty-minute train ride, for every jerk and rattle that shivered us together and apart again, it seemed that my whole being was concentrated in my arm braced around her and her warmth nestled against the indent of my shoulder.
When the name of our stop crackled from the speakers, I stirred, and nodded at not-Margaret. She nodded back, her face pale and her lips pinched. I should have told her which stop we were.
Everything looked different now that she was here. The kitchen was small and dim, the sofa was nubby, and our bedroom was a hasty mess of sheets and laundry. The sun was sneaking away and left dingy light scattered across the floor. Not-Margaret wandered the apartment. She sat on the nubby sofa, and opened the drawers and cabinets. I cooked. She sat on the bed, cross-legged and patient. I waved her into the kitchen when the pasta was done, and we were quiet while we ate. Our eyes met over mouthfuls of spaghetti. It was somehow comfortable. We finished and talked for a while. She told me stories about her brothers and her friends. I laughed, and the bright loud sound surprised me.
Soon it was late, and the windows were black screens with bright pinpricks. I found old pajamas of Margaret’s. We brushed our teeth next to one another, our eyes darting in the mirror. We spat into the sink at the same time and both laughed a little. She got into the bed without hesitation. I slid under the blanket and arranged myself with care, trying not to bump into her. She shifted closer, laying an arm around my waist and fitting her head in the curve of my neck again. I debated, and then pressed a kiss into her hair and felt her smile against my chest. I lay awake listening to her breathing slow and steady, feeling the warm comfort of Margaret’s body against mine and the strange thrill of not-Margaret curling her fingers over my ribs. The tension held me stiff for a long time, and then it drained away and I relaxed into sleep.
It was late when I woke up, and Margaret was smiling in her sleep, her head on my shoulder. I eased her away and sat up, nudging her a bit. She blinked awake and I froze. Something was different, some new hardness in her eyes or a cautiousness to her waking expression. I panicked, thinking she had awoken in a strange place with me, a near-stranger, and was suddenly afraid. Her eyes lingered on mine and then she smiled. It was different, and I watched her for a moment, unsure. She said my name, and her voice didn’t lilt. I opened my mouth, but had no words. She drew in a deep shaking breath, and then she closed her eyes for a moment. She opened them and looked at me with a steady, new, familiar gaze.
I found my voice, and spoke over the ringing in my ears and the desperate gasp suppressed in my lungs. “Margaret?”
I held her for a long time and we both cried a little. Finally I moved, backed away from her enough to crane my neck down, and asked her if she wanted me to make breakfast. She nodded against my shoulder, so I tugged her into the kitchen. While I whisked and poured, she sat on the counter and watched me. It took me longer than usual because my hands were shaking. My arms jerked, I couldn’t hold them steady, and I spilled across the countertop. Margaret let out a tremulous laugh that startled me, and when my eyes jumped to hers she smiled.
We sat next to each other at the table, eating French toast from the same plate. Margaret nudged over to me, her arm against mine. The surprise and rush of emotion was still swelling in my chest, and it bewildered me. We distracted one another from breakfast. I kept kissing her lips, sticky with syrup. I couldn’t believe I had her back. I couldn’t believe she’d been gone at all.
Later, when we’d nearly fallen asleep piled against the arm of the couch, I knew we had to talk about it. I said, “Margaret, you were gone. I mean, you know what I mean, there was somebody else here and you weren’t here. Do you know where you were?”
She shrugged, looking down. She said that she had woken up in a crowded hospital with a bandage around her head and a broken arm. There were two strange men there she didn’t know who told her they were her brothers and tried very hard not to cry. They all said she had amnesia and she didn’t know how to tell them otherwise. She went home with her brothers and stayed in their house with their mother, who fussed over her and made her soup. She spent weeks curled in the tiny bedroom she shared with the stranger’s mother, trying not to show her bewilderment and her anger.
Margaret paused for a long time, and I pulled her over to me. Her body was tight, tension threaded through her. When I put my arms around her, she leaned her head against my neck very slowly but she was still frozen.
The family worried over her and her new sharpness, she told me, the knife-edges they thought the accident had thrust into her. Margaret wasn’t very clear what had happened, but she didn’t want to know the wounds inflicted on the body that was not her own.
I set myself to washing dishes. In the kitchen, the morning sunlight peeked in with golden curiosity. Everything looked the same as it always had. I cleaned up our breakfast and put the dishes away. It looked like nothing had ever changed.
The day passed quietly. We talked in low voices. When it grew late, she drew in a sigh and let it fall out of her, and then she told me that she wanted to sleep. We went into the bedroom and I pulled the covers over her, slid in behind her, and put a hand on her waist. She moved to me and held onto me, so I wrapped myself around her. Her breath wavered in and out, and I listened and wondered if she was sleeping.
The next morning, she woke up before me. I could smell the coffee waiting in the kitchen. She was sipping, reading the paper, as if we could be back to normal already. It’s possible that she was just getting back to normal, easing into our life again like an old sweater that still held her shape. I was the one startling at its touch on my skin, right when I had begun to learn to shrug out of it. I sat down anyway and picked up my section of the paper, drinking my lukewarm coffee.
Margaret got up then, unfolding her legs gingerly and stretching upward. Her voice startled me. “I might call Jenny in a bit.”
“Oh,” I said, nodding. “That’s a good idea. I bet she’d love to hear from you now that you’re back home.”
“Yes,” said Margaret, “Exactly.”
I heated myself some food and brought her a plate, then returned to the kitchen. The food was still too cold, but it didn’t matter. I ate without thinking, typing one-handed as I tried to catch up on work. Margaret didn’t eat at all. I heard her voice, peaks and valleys of muffled sound, from the living room. Once in a while the crack of Jenny’s laughter rang through the phone.
The day faded more quickly than it had promised in the bright harsh morning. Days went by like that, more than a week, and we moved around one another as though careful not to break.
“What was she like?” she said, once, into the silence. I only shrugged. I was in bed with a book and Margaret with her laptop, and I fell asleep while she was still working or reading. When I woke up, too early, she was drawn tight into a knot, her arm clenched over her body and her face turned away. I watched her for a while, wondering if she dreamed she was still trapped in a sleeping body that belonged to somebody else. I was startled when she woke and turned to me.
Margaret was half-lit in the dawn sun, with a familiar caress of shadow clinging to her face. She looked up at me and she said, “This feels weird. It’s all the same but so much has happened. Do you know what I mean? We’re not ourselves anymore.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said, too hasty, “who else would we be?”
She looked at me, a long solid gaze. “Somebody else,” she said.
I didn’t know what to say, so I let the silence grow stale between us.
Margaret curled up and turned away. My head ached. I sat on the edge of the bed, resting my hands on the crumple of sheets, and looked at Margaret as if she was a stranger huddled on my bed. I don’t remember lying down, just the surprising feeling of being awake unexpectedly from a sleep I hadn’t noticed taking me over.
The morning was warm and the sun coming in from the window was insistent as always.
Margaret must have already eaten, because the scent of maple syrup was hanging in the kitchen. I made cereal and ate while I read the paper, as usual. Margaret was busy with something in the bedroom. There were erratic shufflings and thuds, and I was afraid to investigate. When I had gotten to the Arts section she came into the kitchen. “Come in the living room, I want to talk to you.”
As I stood up my stomach dropped. In the living room we sat on the couch. Margaret handed me a piece of paper. I looked at her. “We haven’t talked that much about what happened,” she said, “and mostly I just don’t want to. It was too strange and too wrong. You got to know this other person, and I got to know her life. Now that I’m back, you know, it’s just not the same. It’s just not. I’m going to leave — ”
I tried to say something, though I don’t know what. Her words hit me and sound came out, an undignified shocked squawk. So simple a sentence meant so great a change.
Margaret’s mouth wavered. She might have tried to smile. “I know. But what else is there? I guess — no, listen, it’ll be okay. Really it will. We’ll both be who we are now, or something. I don’t know. I wasn’t expecting this. I’ll be back later, somehow, for the rest of my stuff. Listen. I know some things about the other person, whose body, the one you met.” Her hand fell toward the paper I was holding before she pulled it back. “It’s her name, the address, anything else I remembered that I thought might be useful. Don’t open it until I leave, okay?”
I looked down at the folded slip of paper in my hand and Margaret bent to kiss my cheek as she went by. The door shut behind her, the same click as always, leaving me alone inside. I sat for a long time in my living room with the sunlight pooling at my feet, holding hope in my hand.
Featured image: Edvard Munch, Young Woman from the Latin Quarter, 1897, The Art Institute of Chicago, edited
Earl Derr Biggers worked as a journalist and humorist throughout the beginning of the 20th century, but found the most success as a writer of mystery stories. He is most famous for his recurring fictional sleuth Charlie Chan as well as his popular novel Seven Keys to Baldplate, which was adapted into a Broadway stage play and later into multiple films. “The Agony Column” finds Biggers working at the height of his whodunit powers, telling the story of a mysterious newspaper column and the elusive “Strawberry Man.”
Published on July 8, 1916
Two years ago, in July, London was almost unbearably hot. It seems, looking back, as though the big, baking city in those days was meant to serve as an anteroom of torture — an inadequate bit of preparation for the hell that was soon to break in the guise of the great war. About the soda-water bar in the drug store near the Hotel Cecil many American tourists found solace in the syrups and creams of home. Through the open windows of the Piccadilly tea shops you might catch glimpses of the English consuming quarts of hot tea in order to become cool. It is a paradox they swear by.
About nine o’clock on the morning of Friday, July 24th, in that memorable year nineteen hundred and fourteen, Geoffrey West left his apartments in Adelphi Terrace and set out for breakfast at the Carlton. He had found the breakfast room of that dignified hotel the coolest in London, and through some miracle, for the season had passed, strawberries might still be had there. As he took his way through the crowded Strand, surrounded on all sides by honest British faces wet with honest British perspiration, he thought longingly of his rooms in Washington Square, New York. For West, despite that Geoffrey was as American as Kansas, his native state, and only pressing business was at that moment holding him in England, far from the country that glowed unusually rosy because of its remoteness.
At the Carlton news stand West bought two morning papers — the Times for study and the Mail for entertainment — and then passed on into the restaurant. His waiter — a tall, soldierly Prussian, more blond than West himself — saw him coming and, with a nod and a mechanical German smile, set out for the plate of strawberries which he knew would be the first thing desired by the American. West seated himself at his usual table and, spreading out the Daily Mail, sought his favorite column. The first item in that column brought a delighted smile to his face:
“The one who calls me Dearest is not genuine or they would write to me.”
Anyone at all familiar with English journalism will recognize at once what department it was that appealed most to West. During his three weeks in London he had been following, with the keenest joy, the daily grist of Personal Notices in the Mail. This string of intimate messages, popularly known as the Agony Column, has long been an honored institution in the English press. In the days of Sherlock Holmes it was in the Times that it flourished, and many a criminal was tracked to earth after he had inserted some alluring, mysterious message in it. Later the Telegraph gave it room; but, with the advent of penny journalism, the simple souls moved en masse to the Mail.
Tragedy and comedy mingle in the Agony Column. Erring ones are urged to return for forgiveness; unwelcome suitors are warned that “Father has warrant prepared; fly, Dearest One!” Loves that would shame by their ardor Abelard and Héloïse are frankly published — at ten cents a word — for all the town to smile at. The gentleman in the brown derby states with fervor that the blond governess who got off the tram at Shepherd’s Bush has quite won his heart. Will she permit his addresses? Answer: this department. For three weeks West had found this sort of thing delicious reading. Best of all, he could detect in these messages nothing that was not open and innocent. At their worst they were merely an effort to sidestep old Lady Convention; this inclination was so rare in the British, he felt it should be encouraged. Besides, he was inordinately fond of mystery and romance, and these engaging twins hovered always about that column.
So, while waiting for his strawberries, he smiled over the ungrammatical outburst of the young lady who had come to doubt the genuineness of him who called her Dearest. He passed on to the second item of the morning. Spoke one whose heart had been completely conquered:
MY LADY sleeps. She of raven tresses. Corner seat from Victoria, Wednesday night. Carried program. Gentleman answering inquiry desires acquaintance. Reply here. — LE ROI.
West made a mental note to watch for the reply of raven tresses. The next message proved to be one of Aye’s lyrics — now almost a daily feature of the column:
DEAREST: Tender, loving wishes to my dear one. Only to be with you now and always. None
“fairer in my eyes.” Your name is music to me. I love you more than life itself, my own beautiful darling, my proud sweetheart, my joy, my all! Jealous of everybody. Kiss your dear hands for me. Love you only. Thine ever. — AYE.
Which, reflected West, was generous of Aye — at ten cents a word — and in striking contrast to the penurious lover who wrote, farther along in the column:
— loveu dearly; wantoou; longing; missu —
But those extremely personal notices ran not alone to love. Mystery, too, was present, especially in the aquatic utterance:
DEFIANT MERMAID: Not mine. Alligators bitingu now. ‘Tis well; delighted. — FIRST FISH.
And the rather sanguinary suggestion:
DE Box: First round; tooth gone. Finale. You will FORGET ME NOT.
At this point West’s strawberries arrived and even the Agony Column could not hold his interest. When the last red berry was eaten he turned back to read:
WATERLOO: Wed. 11:53 train. Lady who left in taxi and waved, care to know gent, gray coat? — SINCERE.
Also the more dignified request put forward in:
GREAT CENTRAL: Gentleman who saw lady in bonnet 9 Monday morning in Great Central Hotel lift would greatly value opportunity of obtaining introduction.
This exhausted the joys of the Agony Column for the day, and West, like the solid citizen he really was, took up the Times to discover what might be the morning’s news. A great deal of space was given to the appointment of a new principal for Dulwich College. The affairs of the heart, in which that charming creature, Gabrielle Ray, was at the moment involved, likewise claimed attention. And in a quite unimportant corner, in a most unimportant manner, it was related that Austria had sent an ultimatum to Serbia. West had read part way through this stupid little piece of news, when suddenly the Thunderer and all its works became an uninteresting blur.
A girl stood just inside the door of the Carlton breakfast room.
Yes; he should have pondered that dispatch from Vienna. But such a girl! It adds nothing at all to say that her hair was a dull sort of gold; her eyes violet. Many girls have been similarly blessed. It was her manner; the sweet way she looked with those violet eyes through a battalion of head waiters and resplendent managers; her air of being at home here in the Carlton or anywhere else that fate might drop her down. Unquestionably she came from oversea — from the States.
She stepped forward into the restaurant. And now slipped also into view, as part of the background for her, a middle-aged man, who wore the conventional black of the statesman. He, too, bore the American label unmistakably. Nearer and nearer to West she drew, and he saw that in her hand she carried a copy of the Daily Mail.
West’s waiter was a master of the art of suggesting that no table in the room was worth sitting at save that at which he held ready a chair. Thus he lured the girl and her companion to repose not five feet from where West sat. This accomplished, he whipped out his order book, and stood with pencil poised, like a reporter in an American play.
“The strawberries are delicious,” he said in honeyed tones. The man looked at the girl, a question in his eyes.
“Not for me, dad,” she said.
“I hate them! Grapefruit, please.”
As the waiter hurried past, West hailed him. He spoke in loud, defiant tones.
“Another plate of the strawberries!” he commanded. “ They are better than ever to-day.”
For a second, as though he were part of the scenery, those violet eyes met his with a casual, impersonal glance. Then their owner slowly spread out her own copy of the Mail.
“What’s the news?” asked the statesman, drinking deep from his glass of water. “Don’t ask me,” the girl answered without looking up. “I’ve found something more entertaining than news. Do you know — the English papers run humorous columns! Only they aren’t called that. They’re called Personal Notices. And such notices!” She leaned across the table. “Listen to this: ‘Dearest: Tender, loving wishes to my dear one. Only to be with you now and always. None “fairer in my eyes” —
The man looked uncomfortably about him. “Hush!” he pleaded. “It doesn’t sound very nice to me.”
“Nice!” cried the girl. “Oh, but it is — quite nice. And so deliciously open and aboveboard. Your name is music to me. I love you more — ”
“What do we see to-day?” put in her father hastily.
“We’re going down to the City and have a look at the Temple. Thackeray lived there once — and Oliver Goldsmith — ”
“All right — the Temple it is.”
“Then the Tower of London. It’s full of the most romantic associations. Especially the Bloody Tower, where those poor little princes were murdered. Aren’t you thrilled?”
“I am if you say so.”
“You’re a dear! I promise not to tell the people back in Texas that you showed any interest in kings and such — if you will show just a little. Otherwise I’ll spread the awful news that you took off your hat when King George went by.”
The statesman smiled. West felt that he, who had no business to, was smiling with him.
The waiter returned bringing grapefruit, and the strawberries West had ordered. Without another look toward West, the girl put down her paper and began her breakfasting. As often as he dared, however, West looked at her. With patriotic pride he told himself: “Six months in Europe, and the most beautiful thing I’ve seen comes from back home!”
When he rose reluctantly twenty minutes later his two compatriots were still at table, discussing their plans for the day. As is usual in such cases, the girl arranged, the man agreed.
With one last glance in her direction, West went out on the parched pavement of Haymarket.
Slowly he walked back to his rooms. There was work there waiting for him; hut, instead of getting down to it, he sat on the balcony of his study, gazing out on the courtyard that had been his chief reason for selecting those apartments. Here, in the heart of the city, was a bit of the countryside transported — the green, trim, neatly tailored countryside that is the most satisfying thing in England. There were walls on which the ivy climbed high, narrow paths that ran between blooming beds of flowers, and opposite his windows a seldom-opened, most romantic gate. As he sat looking down he seemed to see there below him the girl of the Carlton. Now she sat on the rustic bench; now she bent above the envious flowers; now she stood at the gate that opened out to a hot, sudden bit of the city.
And as he watched her there in the garden she would never enter, as he reflected unhappily that probably he would see her no more — the idea came to him.
At first he put it from him as absurd, impossible. She was, to apply a fine word much abused, a lady; he supposedly a gentleman. Their sort did not do such things. If he yielded to this temptation she would be shocked, angry, and from him would slip that one chance in a thousand he had — the chance of meeting her somewhere, some day.
And yet — and yet — She, too, had found the Agony Column entertaining and — quite nice. There was a twinkle in her eyes that bespoke a fondness for romance. She was human, fun-loving — and, above all, the joy of youth was in her heart.
Nonsense! West went inside and walked the floor. The idea was preposterous. Still — he smiled — it was filled with amusing possibilities. Too bad he must put it forever away and settle down to this stupid work!
Forever away? Well —
On the next morning, which was Saturday, West did not breakfast at the Carlton. The girl, however, did. As she and her father sat down, the old man said:
“I see you’ve got your Daily Mail.”
“Of course!” she answered. “I couldn’t do without it. Grapefruit — yes.”
She began to read. Presently her cheeks flushed and she put the paper down.
“What is it?” asked the Texas statesman.
“To-day,” she answered sternly, “you do the British Museum. You’ve put it off long enough.”
The old man sighed. Fortunately he did not ask to see the Mail. If he had, a quarter way down the column of personal notices he would have been enraged — or perhaps only puzzled — to read:
CARLTON RESTAURANT: Nine A. M., Friday morning. Will the young woman who preferred grapefruit to strawberries permit the young man who had two plates of the latter to say he will not rest until he discovers some mutual friend, that they may meet and laugh over this column together?
Lucky for the young man who liked strawberries that his nerve had failed him and he was not present at the Carlton that morning! He would have been quite overcome to see the stern, uncompromising look on the beautiful face of a lady at her grapefruit. So overcome, in fact, that he would probably have left the room at once, and thus not seen the mischievous smile that came in time to the lady’s face — not seen that she soon picked up the paper again and read, with that smile, to the end of the column.
The next day was Sunday; hence it brought no Mail. Slowly it dragged along. At a ridiculously early hour Monday morning Geoffrey West was on the street, seeking his favorite newspaper. He found it, found the Agony Column — and nothing else. Tuesday morning again he rose early, still hopeful. Then and there hope died. The lady at the Carlton deigned no reply.
Well, he had lost, he told himself. He had staked all on this one bold throw; no use. Probably if she thought of him at all it was to label him a cheap joker, a mountebank of the penny press. Richly he deserved her scorn.
On Wednesday he slept late. He was in no haste to look into the Daily Mail; his disappointments of the previous days had been too keen. At last, while he was shaving, he summoned Walters, the caretaker of the building, and sent him out to procure a certain morning paper.
Walters came back bearing rich treasure, for in the Agony Column of that day West, his face white with lather, read joyously:
STRAWBERRY MAN: Only the grapefruit lady’s kind heart and her great fondness for mystery and romance move her to answer. The strawberry-mad one may write one letter a day for seven days — to prove that he is an interesting person, worth knowing. Then — we shall see. Address: M. A. L., care Sadie Haight, Carlton Hotel.
All day West walked on air, but with the evening came the problem of those letters, on which depended, he felt; his entire future happiness. Returning from dinner, he sat down at his desk near the windows that looked out on his wonderful courtyard. The weather was still torrid, but with the night had come a breeze to fan the hot cheek of London. It gently stirred his curtains; rustled the papers on his desk.
He considered. Should he at once make known the eminently respectable person he was, the hopelessly respectable people he knew? Hardly! For then, on the instant, like a bubble bursting, would go for good all mystery and romance, and the lady of the grapefruit would lose all interest and listen to him no more. He spoke solemnly to his rustling curtains.
“No,” he said. “We must have mystery and romance. But where — where shall we find them?”
On the floor above he heard the solid tramp of military boots belonging to his neighbor, Captain Stephen Frasetro Freer, of the Twelfth Cavalry, Indian Army, on furlough from that colony beyond the seas. It was from that room overhead that romance and mystery were to come in mighty store; but Geoffrey West little suspected it at the moment. Hardly knowing what to say, but gaining inspiration as he went along, he wrote the first of seven letters to the lady at the Carlton. And the epistle he dropped in the post box at midnight follows:
Dear Lady of the Grapefruit: You are very kind. Also, you are wise. Wise, because into my clumsy little Personal you read nothing that was not there. You knew it immediately for what it was — the timid, tentative clutch of a shy man at the skirts of Romance in passing. Believe me, old Conservatism was with me when I wrote that message. He was fighting hard. He followed me, struggling, shrieking, protesting, to the post box itself. But I whipped him. Glory be! I did for him.
We are young but once, I told him. After that, what use to signal to Romance? The lady at least, I said, will understand. He sneered at that. He shook his silly gray head. I will admit he had me worried. But now you have justified my faith in you. Thank you a million times for that!
Three weeks I have been in this huge, ungainly, indifferent city, longing for the States. Three weeks the Agony Column has been my sole diversion. And then — through the doorway of the Carlton restaurant — you came —
It is of myself that I must write, I know. I will not, then, tell you what is in my mind — the picture of you I carry. It would mean little to you. Many Texan gallants, no doubt, have told you the same while the moon was bright above you and the breeze was softly whispering through the branches of — the branches of the — of the —
Confound it, I don’t know! I have never been in Texas. It is a vice in me I hope soon to correct. All day I intended to look up Texas in the encyclopedia. But all day I have dwelt in the clouds. And there are no reference books in the clouds.
Now I am down to earth in my quiet study. Pens, ink and paper are before me. I must prove myself a person worth knowing.
From his rooms, they say, you can tell much about a man. But, alas! these peaceful rooms in Adelphi Terrace — I shall not tell the number — were sublet furnished. So if you could see me now you would be judging me by the possessions left behind by one Anthony Bartholomew. There is much dust on them. Judge neither Anthony nor me by that. Judge rather Walters, the caretaker, who lives in the basement with his gray-haired wife. Walters was a gardener once, and his whole life is wrapped up in the courtyard on which my balcony looks down. There he spends his time, while up above the dust gathers in the corners —
Does this picture distress you, my lady? You should see the courtyard! You would not blame Walters then. It is a sample of Paradise left at our door — that courtyard. As English as a hedge, as neat, as beautiful. London is a roar somewhere beyond; between our court and the great city is a magic gate, forever closed. It was the court that led me to take these rooms.
And, since you are one who loves mystery, I am going to relate to you the odd chain of circumstances that brought me here.
For the first link in that chain we must go back to Interlaken. Have you been there yet? A quiet little town, lying beautiful between two shimmering lakes, with the great Jungfrau itself for scenery. From the dining room of one lucky hotel you may look up at dinner and watch the old-rose afterglow light the snow-capped mountain. You would not say then of strawberries: “I hate them!” Or of anything else in all the world.
A month ago I was in Interlaken. One evening after dinner I strolled along the main street, where all the hotels and shops are drawn up at attention before the lovely mountain. In front of one of the shops I saw a collection of walking sticks and, since I needed one for climbing, I paused to look them over. I had been at this only a moment when a young Englishman stepped up and also began examining the sticks.
I had made a selection from the lot and was turning away to find the shopkeeper, when the Englishman spoke. He was lean, distinguished-looking, though quite young, and had that well-tubbed appearance which I am convinced is the great factor which has enabled the English to assert their authority over colonies like Egypt and India, where men are not so thoroughly bathed.
“Er — if you’ll pardon me, old chap,” he said. “Not that stick — if you don’t mind my saying so. It’s not tough enough for mountain work. I would suggest — ”
To say that I was astonished is putting it mildly. If you know the English at all, you know it is not their habit to address strangers, even under the most pressing circumstances. Yet here was one of that haughty race actually interfering in my selection of a stick. I ended by buying the one he preferred, and he strolled along with me in the direction of my hotel, chatting meantime in a fashion far from British.
We stopped at the Kursaal, where we listened to the music, had a drink, and threw away a few francs on the little horses. He came with me to the veranda of my hotel. I was surprised, when he took his leave, to find that he regarded me in the light of an old friend. He said he would call on me the next morning.
I made up my mind that Archibald Enwright — for that, he told me, was his name — was an adventurer down on his luck, who chose to forget his British exclusiveness under the stern necessity of getting money somehow, somewhere. The next day, I decided, I should be the victim of a touch.
But my prediction failed; Enwright seemed to have plenty of money. On that first evening I had mentioned to him that I expected shortly to be in London, and he often referred to the fact. As the time approached for me to leave Interlaken he began to throw out the suggestion that he should like to have me meet some of his people in England. This, also, was unheard of — against all precedent.
Nevertheless, when I said good-by to him he pressed into my hand a letter of introduction to his cousin, Captain Stephen Fraser-Freer, of the Twelfth Cavalry, Indian Army, who, he said, would be glad to make me at home in London, where he was on furlough at the time — or would be when I reached there.
“Stephen’s a good sort,” said Enwright. “He’ll be jolly pleased to show you the ropes. Give him my best, old boy!”
Of course I took the letter. But I puzzled greatly over the affair. What could be the meaning of this sudden warm attachment that Archie had formed for me? Why should he want to pass me along to his cousin at a time when that gentleman, back home after two years in India, would be, no doubt, extremely busy. I made up my mind I would not present the letter, despite the fact that Archie had with great persistence wrung from me a promise to do so. I had met many English gentlemen, and I felt they were not the sort — despite the example of Archie — to take a wandering American to their bosoms when he came with a mere letter.
By easy stages I came on to London. Here I met a friend, just sailing for home, who told me of some sad experiences he had had with letters of introduction — of the cold, fishy, “My-dear-fellow-why trouble-me-with-it?” stares that had greeted their presentation. Good-hearted men all, he said, but averse to strangers; an ever-present trait in the English — always excepting Archie.
So I put the letter to Captain Fraser-Freer out of my mind. I had business acquaintances here and a few English friends, and I found these, as always, courteous and charming. But it is to my advantage to meet as many people as may be, and after drifting about for a week I set out one afternoon to call on my captain. I told myself that here was an Englishman who had perhaps thawed a bit in the great oven of India. If not, no harm would be done.
It was then that I came for the first time to this house on Adelphi Terrace, for it was the address Archie had given me. Walters let me in, and I learned from him that Captain Fraser-Freer had not yet arrived from India. His rooms were ready — he had kept them during his absence, as seems to be the custom over here — and he was expected soon. Perhaps — said Walters — his wife remembered the date. He left me in the lower hall while he went to ask her.
Waiting, I strolled to the rear of the hall. And then, through an open window that let in the summer, I saw for the first time that courtyard which is my great love in London — the old ivy-covered walls of brick; the neat paths between the blooming beds; the rustic seat; the magic gate. It was incredible that just outside lay the world’s biggest city, with all its poverty and wealth, its sorrows and joys, its roar and rattle. Here was a garden for Jane Austen to people with fine ladies and courtly gentlemen — here was a garden to dream in, to adore and to cherish.
When Walters came back to tell me that his wife was uncertain as to the exact date when the captain would return, I began to rave about that courtyard. At once he was my friend. I had been looking for quiet lodgings away from the hotel, and I was delighted to find that on the second floor, directly under the captain’s rooms, there was a suite to be sublet.
Walters gave me the address of the agents; and, after submitting to an examination that could not have been more severe if I had asked for the hand of the senior partner’s daughter, they let me come here to live. The garden was mine!
And the captain? Three days after I arrived I heard above me, for the first time, the tread of his military boots. Now again my courage began to fail. I should have preferred to leave Archie’s letter lying in my desk and know my neighbor only by his tread above me. I felt that perhaps I had been presumptuous in corning to live in the same house with him. But I had represented myself to Walters as an acquaintance of the captain’s and the caretaker lost no time in telling me that “ my friend” was safely home.
So one night, a week ago, I got up my nerve and went to the captain’s rooms. I knocked. He called to me to enter and I stood in his study, facing him. He was a tall, handsome man, fair-haired, mustached — the very figure that you, my lady, in your boarding-school days, would have wished him to be. His manner, I am bound to admit, was not cordial.
“Captain,” I began, “I am very sorry to intrude “ It wasn’t the thing to say, of course, but I was fussed. “However, I happen to be a neighbor of yours, and I have here a letter of introduction from your cousin, Archibald Enwright. I met him in Interlaken and we became very good friends.”
“Indeed!” said the captain.
He held out his hand for the letter, as though it were evidence at a court-martial. I passed it over, wishing I hadn’t come. He read it through. It was a long letter, considering its nature. While I waited, standing by his desk — he hadn’t asked me to sit down — I looked about the room. It was much like my own study, only I think a little dustier. Being on the third floor it was farther from the garden, consequently Walters reached there seldom.
The captain turned back and began to read the letter again. This was decidedly embarrassing. Glancing down, I happened to see on his desk an odd knife, which I fancy he had brought from India. The blade was of steel, dangerously sharp, the hilt of gold, carved to represent some heathen figure.
Then the captain looked up from Archie’s letter and his cold gaze fell full upon me.
“My dear fellow,” he said, “to the best of my knowledge, I have no cousin named Archibald Enwright.”
A pleasant situation, you must admit! It’s bad enough when you come to them with a letter from their mother, but here was I in this Englishman’s rooms, boldly flaunting in his face a warm note of commendation from a cousin who did not exist!
“I owe you an apology,” I said. I tried to be as haughty as he, and fell short by about two miles. “I brought the letter in good faith.”
“No doubt of that,” he answered.
“Evidently it was given me by some adventurer for purposes of his own,” I went on; “though I am at a loss to guess what they could have been.”
“I’m frightfully sorry — really,” said he. But he said it with the London inflection, which plainly implies: “I’m nothing of the sort.”
A painful pause. I felt that he ought to give me back the letter; but he made no move to do so. And, of course, I didn’t ask for it.
“Ah — er — good night,” said I, and hurried toward the door.
“Good night,” he answered; and I left him standing there, with Archie’s accursed letter in his hand.
That is the story of how I came to this house in Adelphi Terrace. There is mystery in it, you must admit, my lady. Once or twice since that uncomfortable call I have passed the captain on the stairs; but the halls are very dark, and for that I am grateful. I hear him often above me; in fact, I hear him as I write this.
Who was Archie? What was the idea? I wonder.
Ah, well, I have my garden, and for that I am indebted to Archie the garrulous. It is nearly midnight now. The roar of London has died away to a fretful murmur, and somehow across this baking town a breeze has found its way. It whispers over the green grass, in the ivy that climbs my wall, in the soft, murky folds of my curtains. Whispers — what?
Whispers, perhaps, the dreams that go with this, the first of my letters to you. They are dreams that even I dare not whisper yet.
And so — good night.
THE STRAWBERRY MAN.
With a smile that betrayed unusual interest, the daughter of the Texas statesman read that letter on Thursday morning in her room at the Carlton. There was no question about it — the first epistle from the strawberry-mad one had caught and held her attention. All day, as she dragged her father through picture galleries, she found herself looking forward to another morning, wondering, eager.
But on the following morning Sadie Haight, the maid through whom this odd correspondence was passing, had no letter to deliver. The news rather disappointed the daughter of Texas. At noon she insisted on returning to the hotel for luncheon, though, as her father pointed out, they were far from the Carlton at the time. Her journey was rewarded. Letter number two was waiting; and as she read she gasped.
Dear Lady at the Carlton: I am writing this at three in the morning, with London silent as the grave, beyond our garden. That I am so late in getting to it is not because I did not think of you all day yesterday; not because I did not sit down at my desk at seven last evening to address you. Believe me, only the most startling, the most appalling accident could have held me up.
That most startling, most appalling accident has happened.
I am tempted to give you the news at once in one striking and terrible sentence. And I could write that sentence. A tragedy, wrapped in mystery as impenetrable as a London fog, has befallen our quiet little house in Adelphi Terrace. In their basement room the Walters family, sleepless, overwhelmed, sit silent; on the dark stairs outside my door I hear at intervals the tramp of men on unhappy missions
But no; I must go back to the very start of it all:
Last night I had an early dinner at Simpson’s, in the Strand — so early that I was practically alone in the restaurant. The letter I was about to write you was uppermost in my mind and, having quickly dined, I hurried back to my rooms. I remember clearly that, as I stood in the street before our house fumbling for my keys, Big Ben on the Parliament Buildings struck the hour of seven. The chime of the great bell rang out in our peaceful thoroughfare like a loud and friendly greeting.
Gaining my study, I sat down at once to write. Over my head I could hear Captain Fraser-Freer moving about — attiring himself, probably, for dinner. I was thinking, with an amused smile, how horrified he would be if he knew that the crude American below him had dined at the impossible hour of six, when suddenly I heard, in that room above me, some stranger talking in a harsh, determined tone. Then came the captain’s answering voice, calmer, more dignified. This conversation went along for some time, growing each moment more excited. Though I could not distinguish a word of it, I had the uncomfortable feeling that there was a controversy on; and I remember feeling annoyed that anyone should thus interfere with my composition of your letter, which I regarded as most important, you may be sure.
At the end of five minutes of argument there came the heavy thump-thump of men struggling above me. It recalled my college days, when we used to hear the fellows in the room above us throwing each other about in an excess of youth and high spirits. But this seemed more grim, more determined, and I did not like it. However, I reflected that it was none of my business. I tried to think about my letter.
The struggle ended with a particularly heavy thud that shook our ancient ‘house to its foundations. I sat listening, somehow very much depressed. There was no further sound. I rose and went to the door of my room. It was not entirely dark outside — the long twilight — and the frugal Walters had not lighted the hall lamps. Somebody was coming down the stairs very quietly — but their creaking betrayed him. I waited for him to pass through the shaft of light that poured from the door open at my back. At the moment Fate intervened in the shape of a breeze through my windows, the door banged shut, and a heavy man rushed by me in the darkness and ran down the stairs. I knew he was heavy, because the passageway was narrow and he had to push me aside to get by. I heard him swear beneath his breath.
Quickly I went to a hall window at the far end that looked out on the street. But the front door did not open; no one came out. I was puzzled for a second; then I reentered my room and hurried to my balcony. I could make out the dim figure of a man running through the garden at the rear — that garden of which I have so often spoken. He did not try to open the gate; he climbed it, and so disappeared from sight into the alley.
For a moment I considered. These were odd actions, surely; but was it my place to interfere? I remembered the cold stare in the eyes of Captain Fraser-Freer when I presented that letter. I saw him standing motionless in his murky study, as amiable as a statue. Would he welcome an intrusion from me now?
Finally I made up my mind to forget these things and went down to find Walters. He and his wife were eating their dinner in the basement. I told him what had happened. He said he had let no visitor in to see the captain, and was inclined to view my misgivings with a cold British eye. However, I persuaded him to go with me to the captain’s rooms.
The captain’s door was open. Remembering that in England the way of the intruder is hard, I ordered Walters to go first. He stepped into the room, where the gas flickered feebly in an aged chandelier.
“My God, sir!” said Walters, a servant even now.
And at last I write that sentence: Captain Fraser-Freer of the Indian Army lay dead on the floor, a smile that was almost a sneer on his handsome English face!
The horror of it is strong with me now as I sit in the silent morning in this room of mine which is so like the one in which the captain died. He had been stabbed just over the heart, and my first thought was of that odd Indian knife which I had seen lying on his study table. I turned quickly to seek it, but it was gone. And as I looked at the table it came to me that here in this dusty room there must be finger prints — many finger prints.
The room was quite in order, despite those sounds of struggle. One or two odd matters met my eye. On the table stood a box from a florist in Bond Street. The lid had been removed and I saw that the box contained a number of white asters. Beside the box lay a scarfpin — an emerald scarab. And not far from the captain’s body lay what is known — owing to the German city where it is made — as a Homburg hat.
I recalled that it is most important at such times that nothing be disturbed, and I turned to old Walters. His face was like this paper on which I write; his knees trembled beneath him.
“Walters,” said I, “we must leave things just as they are until the police arrive. Come with me while I notify Scotland Yard.”
“Very good, sir,” said Walters.
We went down then to the telephone in the lower hall, and I called up the Yard. I was told that an inspector would come at once and I went back to my room to wait for him.
You can well imagine the feelings that were mine as I waited. Before this mystery should be solved, I foresaw that I might be involved to a degree that was unpleasant if not dangerous. Walters would remember that I first came here as one acquainted with the captain. He had noted, I felt sure, the lack of intimacy between the captain and myself, once the former arrived from India. He would no doubt testify that I had been most anxious to obtain lodgings in the same house with Fraser-Freer. Then there was the matter of my letter from Archie. I must keep that secret, I felt sure. Lastly, there was not a living soul to back me up in my story of the quarrel that preceded the captain’s death, of the man who escaped by way of the garden.
Alas, thought I, even the most stupid policeman cannot fail to look upon me with the eye of suspicion!
In about twenty minutes three men arrived from Scotland Yard. By that time I had worked myself up into a state of absurd nervousness. I heard Walters let them in; heard them climb the stairs and walk about in the room overhead. In a short time Walters knocked at my door and told me that Chief Inspector Bray desired to speak to me. As I preceded the servant up the stairs I felt toward him as an accused murderer must feel toward the witness who has it in his power to swear his life away.
He was a big, active man — Bray; blond as are so many Englishmen. His every move bespoke efficiency. Trying to act as unconcerned as an innocent man should — but failing miserably, I fear — I related to him my story of the voices, the struggle, and the heavy man who had got by me in the hall and later climbed our gate. He listened without comment. At the end he said:
“You were acquainted with the captain?
“Slightly,” I told him. Archie’s letter kept popping into my mind, frightening me. “I had just met him — that is all; through a friend of his — Archibald Enwright was the name.”
“Is Enwright in London to vouch for you?”
“I’m afraid not. I last heard of him in Interlaken.”
“Yes? How did you happen to take rooms in this house?’
“The first time I called to see the captain he had not yet arrived from India. I was looking for lodgings and I took a great fancy to the garden here.”
It sounded silly, put like that. I was not surprised that the inspector eyed me with scorn. But I rather wished he hadn’t.
Bray began to walk about the room, ignoring me.
White asters; scarab pin; Homburg hat,” he detailed, pausing before the table where those strange exhibits lay.
A constable came forward, carrying newspapers in his hand.
“What is it?” Bray asked.
“The Daily Mail, sir,” said the constable. “ The issues of July twenty-seventh, twenty-eighth, twenty-ninth and thirtieth.”
Bray took the papers in his hand, glanced at them and tossed them contemptuously into a wastebasket. He turned to Walters.
“Have you notified the captain’s family?” he asked.
“Sorry, Walters; “but I was so taken aback! Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I’ll go at once — “
“No,” replied Bray sharply. “Never mind. I’ll attend to it
There was a knock at the door. Bray called “Come!” and a slender boy, frail but with a military bearing, entered.
“Hello, Walters!” he said, smiling. “What’s up? I — ”
He stopped suddenly as his eyes fell upon the divan where Fraser-Freer lay. In an instant he was at the dead man’s side.
“Stephen!” he cried in anguish.
“Who are you?” demanded the inspector — rather rudely, I thought.
“It’s the captain’s brother, sir,” put in Walters. “Lieutenant Norman Fraser Freer, of the Royal Fusiliers.”
There a silence.
“A great calamity, sir — ” began Walters to the boy.
I have rarely seen anyone so overcome as young Fraser-Freer. Watching him, it seemed to me that the affection existing between him and the man on the divan must have been a beautiful thing. He turned away from his brother at last, and Walters sought to give him some idea of what happened.
“You will pardon me, gentlemen,” said the lieutenant. “ This has been a terrible shock! I didn’t dream, of course — I just dropped in for a word with — with him. And now — ”
We said nothing. We let him apologize, as Englishman must, for his public display of emotion.
“I’m sorry,” Bray remarked in a moment, his eyes still shifting about the room — “especially as England may soon have great need of men like the captain. Now gentlemen, I want to say this: I am the Chief of the Special Branch at the Yard. This is no ordinary murder. For reasons I cannot disclose — and, I may add, for the best interests of the empire — news of the captain’s tragic death must be kept for the present out of the newspapers. I mean, of course, the manner of his going. A mere death notice, you understand — the inference being that it was a natural taking off.”
“I understand,” said the lieutenant, as one who knows more than he tells.
“Thank you,” said Bray. “I will leave you to attend to that matter, so far as your family is concerned. You will also take charge of the body. As for the rest of you I forbid you to mention this matter outside.”
And now Bray stood looking, with a puzzled air, at me.
“You are an American?” he said, and I judged he did not care for Americans.
“I am,” I told him.
“Know anyone at your consulate?” he demanded.
Thank heaven, I did! There is an undersecretary there named Watson — I went to college with him. I mentioned him to Bray.
“Very good,” said the inspector. “You are free to go. But you must understand that you are an important witness in this case, and if you attempt to leave London you will be locked up.”
So I came back to my rooms, horribly entangled in a mystery that is little to my liking. I have been sitting here in my study for some time, going over it again and again. There have been many footsteps on the stairs, many voices in the hall.
Waiting here for the dawn, I have come to be very sorry for the cold, handsome captain. After all, he was a man; his very tread on the floor above, which I shall never hear again, told me that.
What does it all mean? Who was the man in the hall, the man who had argued so loudly, who had struck so surely with that queer Indian knife? Where is the knife now?
And, above all, what do the white asters signify? And the scarab scarfpin? And that absurd Homburg hat?
Lady of the Carlton, you wanted mystery. When I wrote that first letter to you, little did I dream that I should soon have it to give you in overwhelming measure.
And — believe me when I say it — through all this your face has been constantly before me — your face as I saw it that bright morning in the hotel breakfast room. You have forgiven me, I know, for the manner in which I addressed you. I had seen your eyes and the temptation was great — very great.
It is dawn in the garden now and London is beginning to stir. So this time it is — good morning, my lady.
THE STRAWBERRY MAN.
It is hardly necessary to imply that this letter came as something of a shock to the young woman who received it. For the rest of that day the many sights of London held little interest for her — so little, indeed, that her perspiring father began to see visions of his beloved Texas; and once hopefully suggested an early return home. The coolness with which this idea was received plainly showed him that he was on the wrong track; so he sighed and sought solace at the bar.
That night the two from Texas attended His Majesty’s Theater, where Bernard Shaw’s latest play was being performed; and the witty Irishman would have been annoyed to see the scant attention one lovely young American in the audience gave his lines. The American in question retired at midnight, with eager thoughts turned toward the morning.
And she was not disappointed. When her maid, a stolid Englishwoman, appeared at her bedside early Saturday she carried a letter, which she handed over, with the turned-up nose of one who aids but does not approve. Quickly the girl tore it open.
Dear Texas Lady: I am writing this late in the afternoon. The sun is casting long black shadows on the garden lawn, and the whole world is so bright and matter-of-fact I have to argue with myself to be convinced that the events of that tragic night through which I passed really happened.
The newspapers this morning helped to make it all seem a dream; not a line — not a word, that I can find. When I think of America, and how by this time the reporters would be swarming through our house if this thing had happened over there, I am the more astonished. But then, I know these English papers. The great Joe Chamberlain died the other night at ten, and it was noon the next day when the first paper to carry the story appeared — screaming loudly that it had scored a beat. It had. Other lands, other methods.
It was probably not difficult for Bray to keep journalists such as these in the dark. So their great ungainly sheets come out in total ignorance of a remarkable story in Adelphi Terrace. Famished for real news, they begin to hint at a huge war cloud on the horizon. Because tottering Austria has declared war on tiny Serbia, because the Kaiser is to-day hurrying, with his best dramatic effect, home to Berlin, they see all Europe shortly bathed in blood. A nightmare born of torrid days and tossing nights!
But it is of the affair in Adelphi Terrace that you no doubt want to hear. One sequel of the tragedy, which adds immeasurably to the mystery of it all, has occurred, and I alone am responsible for its discovery. But to go back:
I returned from mailing your letter at dawn this morning, very tired from the tension of the night. I went to bed, but could not sleep. More and more it was preying on my mind that I was in a most unhappy position. I had not liked the looks cast at me by Inspector Bray, or his voice when he asked me how I came to live in this house. I told myself I should not be safe until the real murderer of the poor captain was found; and so I began to puzzle over the few clues in the case — especially over the asters, the scarab pin and the Homburg hat.
It was then I remembered the four copies of the Daily Mail that Bray had so casually thrown into the wastebasket as of no interest. I had glanced over his shoulder as he examined these papers, and had seen that each of them was folded so that our favorite department — the Agony Column — was uppermost. It happened that I had in my desk copies of the Mail for the past week. You will understand why.
I rose, found those papers, and began to read. It was then that I made the astounding discovery to which I have alluded.
For a time after making it I was dumb with amazement, so that no course of action came readily to mind. In the end I decided that the thing for me to do was to wait for Bray’s return in the morning and then point out to him the error he had made in ignoring the Mail.
Bray came in about eight o’clock and a few minutes later I heard another man ascend the stairs. I was shaving at the time, but I quickly completed the operation and, slipping on a bathrobe, hurried up to the captain’s rooms. The younger brother had seen to the removal of the unfortunate man’s body in the night, and, aside from Bray and the stranger who had arrived almost simultaneously with him, there was no one but a sleepy-eyed constable there.
Bray’s greeting w a s decidedly grouchy. The stranger, however — a tall, bronzed man — made himself known to me in the most cordial manner. He told me he was Colonel Hughes, a close friend of the dead man; and that, unutterably shocked and grieved, he had come to inquire whether there was anything he might do.
“Inspector,” said I, “last night in this room you held in your hand four copies of the Daily Mail. You tossed them into that basket as of no account. May I suggest that you rescue those copies, as I have a rather startling matter to make clear to you?” Too grand an official to stoop to a wastebasket, he nodded to the constable. The latter brought the papers; and, selecting one from the lot, I spread it out on the table. “The issue of July twenty-seventh,” I said.
I pointed to an item halfway down the column of Personal Notices. You yourself, my lady, may read it there if you happen to have saved the copy. It ran as follows:
“RANGOON: The asters are in full bloom in the garden at Canterbury. They are very beautiful — especially the white ones.”
Bray grunted, and opened his little eyes. I took up the issue of the following day — the twenty-eighth:
“RANGOON: We have been forced to sell father’s stickpin — the emerald scarab he brought home from Cairo.”
I had Bray’s interest now. He leaned heavily toward me, puffing. Greatly excited, I held before his eyes the issue of the twenty-ninth:
“RANGOON: Homburg hat gone forever — caught by a breeze — into the river.”
“And finally,” said I to the inspector, “the last message of all, in the issue of the thirtieth of July — on sale in the streets some twelve hours before Fraser-Freer was murdered. See!”
“RANGOON: To-night at ten. Regent Street. — Y.O.G.”
Bray was silent.
“I take it you are aware, inspector,” I said, “that for the past two years Captain Fraser-Freer was stationed at Rangoon.”
Still he said nothing; just looked at me with those foxy little eyes that I was coming to detest. At last he spoke sharply:
“Just how,” he demanded, “did you happen to discover those messages? You were not in this room last night after I left?” He turned angrily to the constable.” I gave orders — ”
“No,” I put in; “I was not in this room. I happened to have on file in my rooms copies of the Mail, and by the merest chance — ”
I saw that I had blundered. Undoubtedly my discovery of those messages was too pat. Once again suspicion looked my way.
“Thank you very much,” said Bray. “I’ll keep this in mind.”
“Have you communicated with my friend at the consulate?” I asked.
“Yes. That’s all. Good morning.”
So I went.
I had been back in my room some twenty minutes when there came a knock on the door, and Colonel Hughes entered. He was a genial man, in the early forties I should say, tanned by some sun not English, and gray at the temples.
“My dear sir,” he said without preamble, “ this is a most appalling business!” “ Decidedly,” I answered. “ Will you sit down?”
“Thank you.” He sat and gazed frankly into my eyes. “Policemen,” he added meaningly, “are a most suspicious tribe — often without reason. I am sorry you happen to be involved in this affair, for I may say that I fancy you to be exactly what you seem. May I add that, if you should ever need a friend, I am at your service?”
I was touched; I thanked him as best I could. His tone was so sympathetic and kindly, and,’ above all, so sincere, that before I realized it I was telling him the whole story — of Archie and his letter; of my falling in love with a garden; of the startling discovery that the captain bad never heard of his cousin; and of my subsequent unpleasant position. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.
“I suppose,” he said, “that no man ever carries an unsealed letter of introduction without opening it to read just what praises have been lavished upon him. It is human nature — I have done it often. May I make so bold as to inquire
“Yes,” said I. “It was unsealed and I did read it. Considering its purpose, it struck me as rather long. There were many warm words for me — words beyond all reason in view of my brief acquaintance with Enwright. I also recall that he mentioned how long he had been in Interlaken, and that he said he expected to reach London about the first of August.”
“The first of August,” repeated the colonel. “That is to-morrow. Now — if you’ll be so kind — just what happened last night?”
Again I ran over the events of that tragic evening — the quarrel; the heavy figure in the hall; the escape by way of the seldom used gate.
“My boy,” said Colonel Hughes as he rose to go, “the threads of this tragedy stretch far — some of them to India; some to a country I will not name. I may say frankly that I have other and greater interest in the matter than that of the captain’s friend. For the present that is in strict confidence between us; the police are well-meaning, but they sometimes blunder. Did I understand you to say that you have copies of the Mail containing those odd messages?”
“Right here in my desk,” said I. I got them for him.
“I think I shall take them — if I may,” he said. “You will, of course, not mention this little visit of mine. We shall meet again. Good morning.”
And he went away, carrying those papers with their strange signals to Rangoon.
Somehow I feel wonderfully cheered by his call. For the first time since seven last evening I begin to breathe freely again.
And so, lady who likes mystery, the matter stands on the afternoon of the last day of July, nineteen hundred and fourteen.
I shall mail you this letter to-night. It is my third to you, and it carries with it three times the dreams that went with the first; for they are dreams that live not only at night, when the moon is on the courtyard, but also in the bright light of day.
Yes — I am remarkably cheered. I realize that I have not eaten at all — save a cup of coffee from the trembling hand of Walters — since last night, at Simpson’s. I am going now to dine. I shall begin with grapefruit. I realize that I am suddenly very fond of grapefruit.
How bromidic to note it — we have many tastes in common!
TO BE CONTINUED
Illustrations by Will Grefé / SEPS
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For decades, the Post was considered the pinnacle of the magazine-fiction market. Authors knew if their story or serialized novel appeared in the magazine, they’d reached the big point in their career.
The Post had introduced G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown to America, as well as Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot. And in 1937, the Post brought millions of readers Perry Mason in Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Lame Canary.
Mason wasn’t a complete unknown. He’d first appeared in The Case of the Velvet Claws with the words, “Perry Mason sat at the big desk. There was about him the attitude of one who is waiting. His face in repose was the like the face of a chess player who is studying the board. That face seldom changed expression. Only the eyes changed expression.”
The Mason of this early work showed the pulp-fiction roots of his author, Erle Stanley Gardner. He has none of the smoothly polished manner of his TV persona. The character is a little rough around the edges, but so is the writing. At this point in his career — 1933 — Gardner was a long way from becoming the country’s most popular mystery narrator.
But the story has many redeeming qualities, particularly Mason’s ability to see motive behind lies, which enabled Gardner to sell his next Mason novel: The Case of the Sulky Girl.
By his tenth Perry Mason novel, Gardner’s work met with the approval from the Post’s fiction editors. And so The Case of the Lame Canary was serialized across eight issues beginning May 29, 1937.
Mason returned in 1942 in The Case of the Careless Kitten, which ran in the Post May 23̶July 11, 1952, a mystery that featured, according to one critic, “a well constructed mystery plot with an ingenious solution.”
The Post can’t take credit for establishing Gardner’s reputation, but we did help get Perry Mason ready for television. According to one source, Gardner dropped some of Mason’s pulp-fiction characteristics for the Post readership. He also added more love interest and made Mason less willing to bend the law to help clients.
Gardner’s Mason novels appeared frequently through the 1950s and early 1960s. Overall, the Post serialized 16 of his cases.
Perry Mason in the Post
Saturday Evening Post members can read these and other stories from our complete archives. Subscribe today.
- The Case of the Lame Canary
- May 29, Jun 5, Jun 12, Jun 19, Jun 26, Jul 3, Jul 10, Jul 17 1937
- The Case of the Careless Kitten
- May 23, May 30, Jun 6, Jun 13, Jun 20, Jun 27, Jul 4, Jul 11 1942; The Mystery Deepens.
- The Case of the Fugitive Nurse
- Sep 19, Sep 26, Oct 3, Oct 10, Oct 17, Oct 24, Oct 31, Nov 7 1953
- The Case of the Restless Redhead
- Sep 11, Sep 18, Sep 25, Oct 2, Oct 9, Oct 16, Oct 23, Oct 30 1954
- The Case of the Sun Bather’s Diary
- Mar 12, Mar 19, Mar 26, Apr 2, Apr 9, Apr 16, Apr 23 1955
- The Case of the Missing Poison
- Dec 10, Dec 17, Dec 24, Dec 31 1955, Jan 7, Jan 14, Jan 21, Jan 28 1956
- The Case of the Lucky Loser
- Sep 1, Sep 8, Sep 15, Sep 22, Sep 29, Oct 6, Oct 13, Oct 20 1956
- The Case of the Dead Man’s Daughter
- Aug 10, Aug 17, Aug 24, Aug 31, Sep 7, Sep 14, Sep 21, Sep 28 1957
- The Case of the Footloose Doll
- Feb 1, Feb 8, Feb 15, Feb 22, Mar 1, Mar 8, Mar 15, Mar 22 1958
- The Case of the Greedy Grandpa
- Oct 25, Nov 1, Nov 8, Nov 15, Nov 22, Nov 29, Dec 6, Dec 13 1958
- The Case of the Mythical Monkeys
- May 2, May 9, May 16, May 23, May 30, Jun 6, Jun 13, Jun 20 1959
- The Case of the Waylaid Wolf
- Sep 5, Sep 12, Sep 19, Sep 26, Oct 3, Oct 10, Oct 17, Oct 24 1959
- The Case of the Duplicate Daughter
- Jun 4, Jun 11, Jun 18, Jun 25, Jul 2, Jul 9, Jul 16, Jul 23 1960
- The Case of the Spurious Spinster
- Jan 28, Feb 18, Feb 25, Mar 11, 1961
- The Case of the Bigamous Spouse
- Jul 15, Jul 22, Jul 29, Aug 5, Aug 12, Aug 19, Aug 26 1961
- The Case of the Mischievous Doll
- Dec 8 1962
Just as Gardner reshaped Perry Mason for the Post readership, the Post re-imaged Mason to reflect his more familiar incarnation: TV’s Raymond Burr. The Post’s story illustrations show a strong TV influence.
- July 15, 1961, page 17
- June 4, 1960 page 23
- Sep 12, 1959 page 34
- Sep 26, 1959 page 36
- Oct 25, 1958 page 27
Perry Mason was far from Gardner’s only character. He wrote stories with a number of protagonists. One the less famous is Peter Quint, who stars in three stories about a salesman who is fast witted and imaginative (though he’s no Alexander Botts). All three Quint stories appeared in the Post.
Peter Quint in the Post
- “The Last Bell on the Street”
- May 3 1941
- “That’s a Woman for You”
- May 31 1941
- “The Big Squeeze”
- Nov 15 1941
Gardner also offered the view from the prosecution table with a character named Doug Selby. He’s a District Attorney elected on a reform platform. He solves mysteries in a rural California county while fighting political corruption. His nemesis is a ruthless, crooked defense attorney. Two Selby stories ran in the Post.
Doug Selby in the Post
- “The D.A. Breaks a Seal”
- Dec 1, Dec 8, Dec 15, Dec 22, Dec 29 1945, Jan 5, Jan 12 1946
- “The D.A. Takes a Chance”
- Jul 31, Aug 7, Aug 14, Aug 21, Aug 28, Sep 4, Sep 11, Sep 18 1948
Featured image: Illustration by James R. Bingham for “The Case of the Greedy Grandpa” by Earle Stanley Gardner, from the October 25, 1958, issue of the Post (© SEPS).
William Fay was a short story writer for the Post in the mid-1900s. His hard-boiled detective stories echo the fashionable trends of noir storytelling. In “The Thieves of Christmas Eve,” detective Wilbur Gilhouly is down on his luck and about to be demoted if he can’t crack a case before Santa is due.
Published on December 24, 1949
Wilbur Gilhouly, the detective, stood on Thirty-ninth Street, in Manhattan, pondering a problem of justice. He, for one, did not believe that a bookmaker known as Willy Kleebs had dropped a fellow man into the incinerator of the Hotel Marshall Arms. No matter what the lieutenant said, it just didn’t sound like Willy, and it was certainly not in the Christmas spirit.
The wind blew futilely against the stanch facade of Detective Gilhouly on this afternoon of December twenty-fourth. Were he not preoccupied with duty and the plight of Willy Kleebs, he would have listened to the tinkling of the bells — church bells, Salvation Army bells, and possibly, if the lieutenant’s uncharitable remarks of an hour before were true, the bells in his own head. Lieutenant Decker had a sharp and frequently unsheathed disposition that was a heavy cross to bear.
A uniformed cop named McEvoy came along. “You don’t look happy, Wilbur,” McEvoy said.
“If I been wearing a strained look, Charlie, it’s because I been thinking. An’ because I promised my missus I would do my Christmas shoppin’ early.”
Officer McEvoy swung his arms rather briskly to keep warm. “Ain’t it true,” he asked, “that Willy give that tax agent a tough time of it last week?”
“Why, yes … in a way,” said Wilbur.
Willy Kleebs, as a matter of record, had heaved Tax Agent Albert Haskins from the revolving door of the Hotel Marshall Arms, where both of them lived, to the curb of Thirty-ninth Street, in his own exuberant way. Likely enough, Tax Agent Haskins had been trying to shake him down, and Willy Kleebs, who ran his horse book with a mystic honesty exceeded only by St. Peter at the Gate, did not shake easily. But murder? No! Wilbur shook his head.
McEvoy said, “There isn’t a case against him?”
“I didn’t say that, Charlie.”
Because there was a case. There seemed no doubt Tax Agent Albert Haskins had been missing from his office and the Marshall Arms for several days, and just as little doubt that he had left a note for his wife, alleging that he had been threatened by Willy Kleebs, and directing that should evil things befall him, she should mention this to the police.
“And how about them bloodstains, Wilbur?”
“Listen,” Wilbur said, “a healthy man can put a bloodstain on half the furniture and rugs of the Marshall Arms. All he’s got to do is stick himself in the arm. Of course, I’m not sayin’ that’s all there is to it, Charlie … not after this morning.”
“That’s when they found the bridgework?”
“This morning, Charlie. At eleven-oh-five.”
“In the incinerator?”
“Hell, no; they haven’t even got the grates cool for the lab men yet. Haskins’ upper plate was found by the assistant superintendent three days ago on the basement floor … right near the manhole cover of the incinerator. But it’s only when he reads in the papers all this stuff about Haskins bein’ threatened by Willy and the fact that the guy is missing, that suddenly he wonders about them teeth and walks over to the station house this Aye Em.”
“The teeth belonged to Haskins?”
“Identified by his dentist, yes, with charts to prove it. An’ there’s blood on the incinerator cover — half washed away, careless like, so that some of it shows up under the glass. Same type as in the apartment, an’ there’s stains in the freight elevator too. It’s the self-service-push-a-button type, you know, and the lieutenant, with his big brain well, naturally, he’s got Willy takin’ the corpse down in the middle of the night — that wouldn’t be too hard — an’ dumpin’ it through the manhole cover. The upper plate? That’s one of them little ironies that murderers have to put up with, the lieutenant says. Mr. Haskins’ upper plate, accordin’ to him, just dropped out unnoticed while Willy was luggin’ the body.”
“Well,” said Officer McEvoy, “I got to shove off, Wilbur. Merry Christmas, if I don’t see ya.”
Wilbur cased the crowd for larceny and lighter mischief with that celebrated eye and memory for faces that had once caused police reporters to refer to him as “Elephant” Gilhouly. Plain-Clothes Man Kaplan, his driver, drove up in the squad car. He was young, unburdened by responsibility, and in possession of a brooch for his girlfriend. It was a lovely item, worth a month’s pay anyhow, and Wilbur reflected, without bitterness, that in his own position, as the loving husband of one and the doting father of four, he had to face the fiscal realities. He had eighty-seven dollars and forty-three cents, and a stern note from a finance company whose kind facilities it had never been his intention to abuse.
“I think maybe I’ll step over to Jablonski’s for a minute,” Wilbur said. “Don’t take any wooden lieutenants; we got one already.”
At Jablonski’s Junior Joyland, Wilbur, on tiptoe, caught the attention of Mr. Jablonski. Mr. Jablonski, who gave a substantial discount to cops and firemen, said, “I got it,” and passed to Wilbur, over people’s heads, $28.74 worth of railroad, in a box — $28.74, that is, with the discount. “What it cost me,” said Mr. Jablonski.
The trains were for little Wilbur, nine. He bought a doll’s house then for his daughter Mavis, a puppet show for Agnes-Mae, and a construction set for Edwin. And then, because — well, because love still beat more strongly in his breast than prudence, he went to a division of Jablonski’s Junior Joyland known as Mommy’s Mart, and made a twenty-two-dollar down payment on a portable, kitchen-size washing machine for Myrtle, his wife, and the one true love of his life. He would call back for the washing machine, he explained to Mr. Jablonski; the other packages he’d take.
“This is a general clearance or you would not of got such bargains,” said Mr. Jablonski. “We will be open till midnight. Come in again; tell your friends.”
Wilbur, with his packages chin-high, moved bravely toward the sidewalk. Jablonski’s, he noted, though a humble establishment, was graced by a better upholstered and more firmly bearded St. Nicholas than most. Wilbur found this somehow reassuring, though his vision was limited. He walked into a mailbox and his packages tumbled. He bent to retrieve them. He heard a mirthless and familiar voice.
“Santa’s li’l’ helper?” someone said.
Well, that was Lieutenant Decker for you. Always the sarcasm, be it Christmas or doomsday.
“What’s your explanation, Gilhouly?”
Wilbur tried to smile. He indicated the packages. “I’m just mindin’ these things for some friends, lieutenant.”
“Well, my kids,” Wilbur said, then met the other’s cold gaze more steadily. “My kids are my friends,” he said with pride. The truth, after all, was a matter precious to Wilbur.
“You’re a wise guy, Gilhouly?”
“No, sir.” He placed his packages in the squad car.
“Well, Gilhouly,” Lieutenant Decker said. “against my better judgment they set bail for Willy Kleebs. You an’ that judge down at Special Sessions should have your skulls scraped.”
“You an’ Kleebs was always pretty chummy, Gilhouly. How well did you know him?”
“I’ve known him both in line of duty,” said Wilbur truthfully, “and after hours. I locked him up four times for makin’ book, and he is Agnes-Mae’s godfather. Look, lieutenant, have you checked the guy’s wife?”
“I personally put through the check on the widow, Gilhouly. A fine-type woman. Unimpeachable. A Vassar girl. We had a nice talk about some cultural matters … Take that silly grin off your puss!”
“Here are your orders, then. Kleebs right now is next door in the Marshall Arms Barbershop for a several-times-over. I want you to watch every place he goes, with regular reports to me. You an’ Kaplan, don’t let him out of your sight! That clear, Gilhouly?”
The lieutenant strode indignantly away. Wilbur and Kaplan moved over to the barbershop window. Willy Kleebs appeared to be taking the full six-dollar treatment in the No. 1 chair. He waved gaily to Wilbur and Kaplan.
“He never dropped nobody into no oven,” Wilbur said.
“Howja do at Jablonski’s, Wilbur?” Kaplan asked. “Any good?”
“Take a look for yourself. There’s nothin’ like havin’ a family, my boy. Take a look in the back of the car.”
In the No. 1 chair, Willy Kleebs wore a look of deep content. Good old Willy, always smiling — good times, bad times, always the same old Willy. Kaplan called to Wilbur from the curb.
“You put them in the back of the car? What car?”
“Right there. In the back.” He walked over to the car, looked in. The back of the car was empty.
“They ain’t here,” Plain-Clothes Man Kaplan said.
Wilbur smiled weakly. It was a joke. I’m laughing, Wilbur thought. But the brutal truth prevailed.
“Gone,” said Kaplan. “Like I toldja.”
“Eighty-one dollars,” Wilbur said. His senses reeled. Jablonski’s Santa Claus kept ringing his bell and chewing his gum. Wilbur, a tall man, turned dismayed eyes on the multitude. He saw no one sprinting through traffic with a doll’s house and assorted lumps of joy. He wanted to cry. This was Gilhouly, the good provider, with six dollars and some cents remaining, and a week late with the finance company. This was Gilhouly, the —
“Wil-bur-r-r!” Kaplan called from the plate-glass window of the barbershop. Wilbur walked over. “Look,” said Kaplan.
The No. 1 barber chair was empty. Willy Kleebs was gone.
It was not easy in the station house to stand before your fellow officers while Lieutenant Decker peeled your dignity away — artfully and easily, like the skin of a scalded peach.
“I always knew you were a whale of a fellow, Gilhouly,” the lieutenant said. “I could tell it by the blubber in your head.”
Less loyal comrades snickered; others looked away. The lieutenant was in the process of enjoying himself.
“I would say, Gilhouly, that it’s gonna be strictly brass buttons an’ blue coat from here in. Staten Island, maybe, or the Bronx frontier, where we can push you inta Yonkers.”
Wilbur dropped his eyes. You took it, that was all. He could remember the last time he’d been threatened with a return to uniform. His wife had stemmed her tears. “Wilbur,” she had said with priceless loyalty, “you look beautiful in blue.”
Early-winter’s darkness was over the town as Wilbur left the station house with Kaplan. Lights were everywhere, though it was only five o’clock. They came to where the squad car still stood parked before Jablonski’s.
Wilbur was watching Jablonski’s Santa Claus, whose face he had not had a chance to view at leisure until now. He stepped closer, examining minutely, and with small attempt at politeness, Santa’s rosy cheeks. Into operation came the old Gilhouly intuition. Wilbur moved and Santa jumped. Wilbur caught old Santa by the beard.
“Legomme!” Santa shouted.
But Wilbur clung tenaciously. He pulled the beard the length of the elastic, then let it snap.
Old Santa howled. “Legomme! Cudditout!”
It was not really Santa. It was a man named Mutuel Minskoff, who worked for Willy Kleebs. “What I thought,” said Wilbur.
Mutuel Minskoff was a bookmaker’s runner, which is no kind of Santa Claus at all, but one who takes bets on horses. Wilbur shook Jablonski’s Santa Claus.
“Where’s Willy Kleebs?” he demanded. “Where’s them packages you stole out of the car?”
“Honest, Wilbur — honesta me mother’s grave, I don’t know what you’re sayin’!”
Wilbur, with Kaplan’s assistance, pushed Mutuel Minskoff into the car. Wilbur stretched the beard’s elastic its full, intimidating length. “You gonna tell me?”
“We have little or nothing to say to one another,” Mutuel said with dignity, “except that I don’t like your attitude.”
Wilbur let the beard snap. He was not a man disposed toward cruel means of persuasion, but he was nonetheless determined.
“Let’s get it straight, Minskoff,” Wilbur said. “A fifty-dollar-per-diem wise guy like yourself don’t become a ten-dollar St. Nicholas because he likes to get stuck in chimneys. Well, do you?”
“This is our slack season, Wilbur.”
“Never mind that. Where is Willy Kleebs?”
“He went to visit his ninety-three-year-old mother in the Bronx.”
“Where’bouts in the Bronx?”
“That’s one of those things Willy has always kept to himself,” said Mutuel Minskoff, “an’ the little old lady don’t know he’s in trouble with the cops, you understand? In fact, she thinks that Willy’s in the feed-an’-grain trade.”
“You’re lyin’, Minskoff,” Wilbur said, but he did not really believe the man was lying. It sounded like Willy, all right. He restrained Plain-Clothes Man Kaplan from snapping the beard again. “I’m asking you, Mutuel, Number One — who stole my packages? I am asking you, Number Two — why you been standing all day in front of Jablonski’s making like an elk driver?”
“As for the packages, Wilbur, believe me, I dunno. As for Point Number Two, I’ve been watchin’ for Tax Agent Haskins. Willy didn’t kill ’im. I been waitin’ here for Haskins because we know he’s got to come back.”
“Come back for what?”
“Haskins made one mistake, Wilbur. Just like he dropped his upper plate next to the incinerator on purpose, he also drops somethin’ else in Willy’s suite, but not on purpose.”
“What did he drop?”
“He dropped his safe-deposit-box keys, Wilbur. A whole ring o’ them, he dropped. You get it? Haskins is a crook. An’ where does a crook with a big wad o’ dough an’ a small pay check hide this embarrassin’ disparity of means? In safe-deposit boxes, don’t he? In eight different banks, under eight different names.”
“You know this? You’re not lyin’ to me, Minskoff?”
“Here,” said Mutuel Minskoff, “are the keys. Understand, they’ve just got numbers on them an’ we don’t know what banks, an’ we don’t know what names this guy is usin’. All we know is he has got to get them keys.”
“Why didn’t Willy come to the police with these?”
“Willy sees that with Decker on the case, an’ blabbin’ like he does, there might be talk in the papers the cops have got a certain set of keys, an’ this Haskins will just take off like a bluebird. Willy would like to catch Haskins himself. Willy is an honest man what pays his taxes, but this guy not only tries to shake ‘im down, he owes ’im maybe twenty grand on horse bets.”
“Tell more, Mutuel. Tell all.”
“Well, Wilbur, we figured that Haskins, the crook, wanted to lam for liberty before the tax department caught on to the size of his personal assets. So what’s a better way to get off with a bundle o’ dough an’ not be tailed than to have yourself declared murdered? That’s why he sets up this frame about Willy, an’ why your friend, the lieutenant, begins to drool about maybe he can have Willy measured for that warm chair up in Ossining. You get it?”
“It happens also to have been my personal theory,” said Wilbur modestly. “Except, of course, I never knew about the keys. You better hand ’em over to me like a good boy, Mutuel. Thass right. Now get back on the job; keep ringin’ that bell … And, Kaplan,” he said, “you keep an eye on Santa.”
This was Gilhouly, the hound of justice, on the scent. The Hotel Marshall Arms, set in the shopping district of New York, was vast, commercial, and of wholesome reputation. In the plaza, as he entered, Wilbur rejoiced at the Christmas tree that rose gigantically for several floors — its glowing lights bespeaking warmth and good cheer in a cold and unbelieving world. Willy Kleebs’ suite, where Wilbur thought a little look around might help, was on the seventh floor.
“Where’s the cop they had watchin’ this suite?” he asked the bellhop who let him in by means of a key.
“The lieutenant said there was no pernt to it,” the bellhop reported. “The lieutenant sent ’im after bundle snatchers.” The bellhop, with a taste for police procedure, hovered.
“Blow,” said Wilbur. “Get lost, sonny.”
Wilbur closed the door behind him and was immediately aware of another’s presence. A woman wearing an apron and a somewhat guilty look was dusting, or at least appeared to be dusting, in the sitting room. “This place is under surveillance,” Wilbur said. “Who are you?”
“Why, Mr. Kleebs always lets me have a key to do the cleaning,” the lady said. Her apron was ruffled and unspotted. She had a way of placing hands on hips that bespoke some gayer setting and invoked old memories of action that had nothing to do with dustpans. She looked more like a cupcake to Wilbur than she looked like somebody’s mother rubbing honest knuckles raw. “If you’ll excuse me — ”
“One minute,” Wilbur said. The files of his memory were opening. “Hold on, lady.” He could smell clams, somehow. Why clams? Coney Island? No, it wasn’t Coney Island. Brighton Beach? Not Brighton either. Then it snapped. It came to him. “Hello, Kitty,” Wilbur said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Gypsy Kitty Klein, from Rockaway Park. Used to tell fortunes for a thief named Hennessey. Must be fifteen years since I locked ’im up. You lookin’ for something, Kitty?”
“Officer,” said Gypsy Kitty, “you are playing the wrong trombone. Now, if you don’t mind — ”
“Lookin’ for some safe-deposit-box keys, Kitty?” Wilbur was swinging in the dark, but batting rather well. The proper button had been pressed. “You couldn’t by any chance be Mrs. Albert Haskins, could you? The Vassar girl? The little widow who had the nice cultural chat with the lieutenant?”
“As a matter of fact, I was really only — ”
“Don’t apologize, an’ don’t get excited, Kitty, because — well, about those keys; Homicide ain’t even heard o’ them. Me, Gilhouly; I got the keys, an — ”
“Don’t move, Gilhouly! Stay where you are!” The voice was authoritative. Wilbur did not move. Albert Haskins, with a .38 revolver, spoke distinctly, even minus his upper plate. Wilbur did not move, because his own gun lay deep in the cold-weather bunting he had neglected to unbutton. “Hands higher, Gilhouly … Frisk him, Katherine,” said Haskins to the cupcake.
Mrs. Haskins unbuttoned Wilbur’s winter ulster and rapidly divested him of firearms. She went through his jacket and its inner pockets, searching for the safe-deposit keys, without first having cased the crumpled overcoat that lay on the floor.
“Take off your jacket,” Haskins ordered. “Now your shirt.” Haskins waved his revolver convincingly. “Your pants, Gilhouly!” he commanded.
Wilbur, standing in his underwear, said, “This has gone far enough!” He said this just as Mrs. Haskins, retrieving his coat from the floor, shook it lightly once or twice and heard the jingle of keys. This was defeat, abject and full.
“Look out in the hall,” Haskins said to his synthetic widow. Gypsy Kitty gaped out, then motioned all was clear. Albert Haskins put the cool hard metal of his .38 against the warm hard head of Detective Gilhouly and escorted him uncompromisingly along the empty corridor, while Mrs. Haskins flipped a key in the lock of a door marked PORTER. Wilbur, about to spring into desperate action, went quietly to slumberland as something crashed against his head.
I am dead, thought Wilbur; dead in the chill grave. He heard somebody groaning next to him. I am here, he corrected himself, in the porter’s room, and in my underwear, but I am not alone. He rose unsteadily and stood in heavy darkness that was not illumined by the flashes that kept going off in his skull. He found a switch and snapped it on. At his feet lay Mutuel Minskoff in his Santa Claus suit, beard and all. Wilbur tried the door, but it would not yield. He looked about for some suitable means to persuade it. He looked, as well, at Santa.
In the street, by now, Plain-Clothes Man Kaplan was confused. Bitterly he reflected you could trust nobody — not even Santa Claus or your esteemed good friend, Gilhouly. That Minskoff, in particular, had shattered solemn trust, the dog, but here Plain-Clothes Man Kaplan paused. It seemed to him that he saw Minskoff now race wildly through the plaza of the Hotel Marshall Arms, arms waving, shouting.
“The hell ya do!” Plain-Clothes Man Kaplan said. He interfered with Santa’s headlong haste. He teed off with his strong right arm and pulled off Old Santa’s beard. Old Santa tripped and looked up from the pavement, short of cheer.
“That’s a nice thing to do,” said Wilbur Gilhouly. “A nice way, Kaplan, I must say, to implement the law.”
The lieutenant postulated. He asked, of all who were there to listen, the one seemingly relevant question: “How crazy can you get?” And, Wilbur, beardless, but in his red-and-ermine suit, seemed a fairly apt reply.
“Albert Haskins is alive,” Wilbur repeated. He had stated this without compromise at least one hundred times. “I seen him. He hit me in back of the head. He locked me in a room. Him an’ his wife. She used to be known as Gypsy Kitty Kl — ”
“My dear Gilhouly,” the lieutenant interrupted, “did you see all these interesting things before or after you got slugged in the head? Did Kaplan see Haskins? … Did you, Kaplan?”
“No, sir,” Kaplan was obliged to say, but he was sorry for Wilbur. “All I seen was this Mutuel Minskoff.”
“And where is Minskoff?”
“Like I said before,” said Wilbur, “he was with me in the porter’s room. I had no clothes on and — All right laugh; laugh, all of you! So I had no clothes on, an’ I had to get out of there. I don’t know what happened to Mutuel after that. I took his suit an’ I — ”
“Gilhouly!” the lieutenant said with sudden fierceness. “How much in cash did Minskoff and Willy Kleebs pay you to concoct this story?”
Wilbur leaped to his feet in anger. His doubled fists and squared jaw made Lieutenant Decker blanch. Inspector Gerhardt, until now quietly sitting by, at this point intervened.
“That will be enough for now, lieutenant,” the inspector said. “I happen to know Gilhouly’s record.” A kindly man, he walked over and examined the back of Wilbur’s head. “A severe blow of this kind can induce all kinds of impressions in a man’s mind,” the inspector said. “Don’t try to think now, Gilhouly. After all, we just now combed the hotel with a flock of cops. We’ve got men in the lobby and at the rear and side exits. The trouble is, Gilhouly, that your story’s not standing up. There’s no sign of Haskins, if he’s alive, and there is no sign of Minskoff. There is nothing in our available files — well, tonight, at least — to support what you say about Mrs. Haskins’ past record. Are you suffering from any personal troubles, Gilhouly?”
“No, sir.” He glanced at the clock. He shrugged. He smiled resignedly. “Three hours to Christmas, an’ I’m supposed to be home by now … You mind if I phone my wife?” he asked. “It’s only a nickel call.
“ … Merry Christmas, darling!” Myrtle said. “Whatever’s been keeping you? … You’re what, dear?”
“All loused up,” said Wilbur. “I thought I oughta tell you I am strictly a crushed cornucopia, baby … Somebody swiped the packages … You what? You ain’t sore? … An’ I can’t get away just now; it seems — ”
“I will be right down,” Mrs. Gilhouly said. “I will be right down in a half hour, Wilbur, to meet you. Don’t you worry … The children? Well, your sister Marge is here.”
Wilbur and Kaplan sat alone in the room. Time passed. There would be further questioning, the inspector had said, when he was able to piece all the claims and counterclaims together, but there did not seem much sense in keeping eight men at the Marshall Arms much longer in pursuit of the unestablished ashes or person of Albert Haskins. Not tonight, of all nights. There was, to be sure, an emergency call from the Hotel Marshall Arms, but it did not concern the detective bureau. The lights of the giant Christmas tree had been shorted; there had been sparks. There was always the hazard of fire.
Wilbur walked to the window and looked up at the star. “Kappy,” he said, “do you believe in miracles?”
“Yes,” said Kaplan; “from now on, anyhow. Turn around, Wilbur. Turn around slowly.”
Wilbur turned. He saw. framed in the wide door of the room, Tax Agent Albert Haskins. Mr. Haskins was in the safekeeping of the emergency squad. Inspector Gerhardt stood with them.
“This,” said the inspector, “is what shorted the circuit on the Christmas tree. It seems he jumped into it from a third-floor window when all those cops were arriving to check on Wilbur’s story. His idea was to cover himself with decorations, then climb down later, I guess, but it got cold up there and he must have been stamping his feet. Anyhow, he blew the lights and put a nice shock into himself. It wasn’t till the lights came on again that the boys could see him hangin’ there like a peppermint stick. We thought maybe you would like to drop him in the lieutenant’s stocking, Gilhouly.”
Wilbur approached Tax Agent Haskins without malice. He touched the lump behind his ear, and then touched Mr. Haskins, to be sure that he was real. He wasn’t even mad at the lieutenant.
“As for small details,” the inspector said a little later, “we can attend to them in due time. We’re picking up Mrs. Haskins and a porter who was in cahoots with them. You were right, Gilhouly, from the beginning, but the way I figure it, tonight a family man’s got things to do.”
It was a clear night. It was cold and framed in beauty. There were lights in the sky and in the Marshall Arms Hotel and in Jablonski’s Junior Joyland. Mr. Jablonski himself stood on the curb with Willy Kleebs.
“Merry Christmas,” said Willy, “to you and yours, Wilbur, from me an’ my ol’ lady … Good evenin’, Mrs. Gilhouly.
Out of the shadows now, wearing a borrowed overcoat above a porter’s uniform that fitted him like a green banana; Mutuel Minskoff emerged.
“I never deserted ya, Wilbur,” Mutuel said. “Willy came back and I told him you were in trouble, an’ when we got here, there’s this Haskins, like a two-legged mistletoe, hangin’ from the tree. We forgot to kiss ’im.”
“Excuse me,” said Mr. Jablonski, “but if you will kindly look in the car, Mr. Gilhouly. A doll’s house, a puppet show, a construction set and electric trains yet. And on the side of the car, Mrs. Gilhouly, tied like a moose, a washing machine … except it is the full-size model, not the portable, mind you.”
Wilbur stammered. Wilbur tried to protest. “Look, boys, it’s sweet, but I can’t be bribed. You must understand it.”
“At Jablonski’s Joyland,” said Mr. Jablonski, “it’s a general clearance, and besides, I just got paid by a certain party. And what is more, Gilhouly, the inspector knows about it. He says you should kindly shaddup your face while Kaplan drives you home.”
The bells in the church were tolling as Kaplan started the car. They tolled the rich, good message of two thousand years, and Wilbur’s heart was full. Mrs. Gilhouly, a bit snug in the front seat with Plain-Clothes Man Kaplan and her husband, reached for Wilbur’s hand. “I wonder where,” she said, “at this hour, dear, we could find you another beard.”
Featured image: Illustration by Paul Nonnast (©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 January 1, 1937
Selby awakened to find sun streaming into his room. He looked at the chair propped against the knob of the door and laughed outright at his fears of the night before.
A cold shower made him feel much better. He shaved, breakfasted at a restaurant, and was at the camera store by the time it opened. It was with a feeling of relief that he saw the clerk produce a roll of films from a drawer and slip them into an envelope.
“There was also a camera,” Selby said.
“We have it here,” the clerk nodded, and handed over the camera with its leather case.
Selby pocketed the camera. “I wonder,” he asked, “if there’s some place where I could look at these films?”
“Certainly,” the clerk said, and switched on a light back of a ground glass. Selby spread out the roll.
“Only fifteen of the negatives were exposed,” the clerk said.
Selby nodded, and stared in puzzled bewilderment at the negatives. Without exception, they were pictures of street scenes, and, as Selby studied them, he realized that the street scenes had all been taken in Madison City.
So this, then, was merely another blank wall!
“Would you wish a magnifying glass?” the clerk asked. He handed Selby a powerful magnifier on a stand which fitted over the strip of film.
Selby bent to the films and slid them through the magnifier one at a time. He recognized familiar street scenes.
Suddenly he paused to stare at the end picture on the roll. “Look here,” he said to the clerk, “was this the first picture?”
The clerk looked at it and nodded.
“And it was impossible for these others to have been exposed before this picture was taken?”
The picture showed a street scene, showed streetcar tracks, the Madison Hotel; showed, moreover, an ornamental lamppost in position at the corner.
That lamppost was being erected when Selby had gone to the hotel to inspect the body of the dead minister!
In other words, every picture in that camera had been taken long after the owner of the camera had died!
The clerk, seeing the expression on his face, said, “Was there something?”
Selby shook his head, slowly rolled up the films and put them in the metal container the clerk handed him.
“Rather nice exposures,” the clerk said. “Perfectly timed.”
Selby nodded, and sought the street.
Once more, what apparently had been a simple case had taken a baffling turn, and he was faced with a complete impossibility, dressed, however, in the garb of such everyday plausibility that it seemed as though his own senses must be at fault.
Having returned to Madison City, Selby left his car in the garage to be serviced and walked up to the courthouse. On the way he had an opportunity to realize how fickle is public opinion.
While Madison City had been divided into two hostile camps over the election of district attorney and sheriff, Selby had commanded the respect of his enemies as well as the admiration and loyal support of his friends. Now he found himself in an entirely different status.
The Blade had put out an extra. Selby had stopped at a newsstand near the city limits to pick one up. It had been worse than he had anticipated.
The photograph was damning. There was the table arranged for a tete-a-tete. The actress was slumped forward in an attitude of dejection. Selby’s outstretched arm seemed on the point of encircling her shoulders in a caressing gesture.
Worse than all, he had been made to appear ludicrous. When the photographer had called his name and he had looked up to experience the blinding glare of the flashlight, he had been both startled and surprised.
Photographs of human beings under the stress of motion almost invariably show strained, distorted expressions which appear as a gross caricature of the individual. The face of a runner breasting the tape in a hundred-yard dash, the face of a man behind the steering wheel of an automobile, making a frenzied attempt to avoid a collision, both show features which are recognizable, yet which are so twisted and distorted as to appear ludicrous.
Selby’s face in the photograph showed surprise, consternation and dismay.
The garage attendant, usually so genial, so proud of having supported Selby in the election, was very much engrossed in inspecting a cut in an automobile tire. Men who ordinarily would have insisted upon Selby stopping to chat for a moment, or who would have made some comment on the recent election, hurried by with scant nods, each engrossed with some suddenly urgent business which prevented him from being seen talking to the district attorney.
Selby, his jaw set grimly, strode down the flagged corridor of the big courthouse, pushed open the door of his offices and nodded to Amorette Standish.
“Sheriff Brandon called,” she told him, “and wanted me to be sure to tell you, as soon as you came in, that Mr. Cushing had hurriedly left town on business.”
Selby frowned, said, “Thanks,” and opened the door to his private office.
Sylvia Martin was seated in his swivel chair, her feet up on his desk, her skirts showing a generous expanse of very shapely calf.
At the sound of the opening door, she jerked her feet down and jumped from the chair with guilty consternation on her features.
“How did you get in here?” Selby asked, and his mood was sufficiently savage so that his voice lashed out at her bitterly.
She laughed, and said, “I sneaked in. I wanted to be the first to see you.”
“Wanted to say, ‘I told you so,’ I suppose?” he asked.
Her eyes showed her hurt. “Doug!” she said simply.
“Well, go ahead,” he told her, “get it over with. Go on, tell me I let myself get bamboozled by an actress. Tell me you warned me, but I wouldn’t listen. Tell me … ”
She came toward him, placed the tips of soft fingers against his lips. “Doug,” she said, “please!”
He saw then that her eyes were filling with tears.
“Don’t be silly,” she said, “and — and don’t doubt me.”
“I’m sorry, Sylvia,” he said. “I guess I’ve got my fighting clothes on and I’m just looking around for heads to crack.”
The dejection faded from her face. Her eyes brightened, smiled through the tears.
“Oh, swell!” she said.
“Meaning?” he asked.
“Meaning,” she said, “that that was just what I was hoping you’d do. That’s the only way to take it. Take it right on the chin and take it fighting.”
“At that,” he said, “I was an awful sap.”
“No, you weren’t,” she protested.
“Well,” he told her, “I’m in a mess now anyway.”
She nodded and said, “Let’s not kid ourselves. You’re in an awful mess, Doug. The Blade is clamoring for your recall, claiming that you’re absolutely incompetent to solve even an ordinary mystery.”
“Ordinary mystery!” he exclaimed. “This is the damnedest nightmare I ever heard of. Everything you touch flies up and hits you in the face. Even the most simple things have a way of turning themselves wrong side out to become something entirely different.”
“Nevertheless,” she told him, looking at her watch, “you have until four-fifteen to solve it.”
“Four-fifteen!” he echoed. “Why the ‘four-fifteen’?”
“Because that’s the deadline of our extra.”
“You’re putting out an extra?”
“Yes,” she said. “Want to see the headlines? I got the boss to set them up and I pulled a proof.” She opened her purse, pulled out a strip of newspaper flimsy, and stretched it across the desk. In huge black letters appeared the headline, “SELBY SOLVES MURDER.”
“What’s the idea?” he asked.
“The idea is,” she told him, “that if The Blade comes out with its regular issue tonight, following up the extra this morning, you’ll be finished. Public sentiment has swung definitely against you, Doug. If you once let it crystallize, it’s going to be almost impossible to change it. But we’ll have an extra on the street which will just about coincide with the evening edition of The Blade. The Blade will be damning you up one side and down the other. We’ll have the real solution of the murder printed. It’ll give the whole city a great laugh.”
“I’ll say it would. It would give me a great laugh.”
“Because,” he told her, “it’s absolutely impossible to solve it. Cushing is mixed up in it, and Cushing’s skipped out. The actress is mixed up in it, heaven knows how deeply, and she won’t talk. She’ll avoid service of a subpoena. Probably she’s taking a plane right now, flying to some seaport where she can take a trip for her health.
“Charles Brower probably knows something about her, but Sam Roper’s had him released on habeas corpus. We didn’t have enough to put a charge against him. He merely claimed the five thousand dollars belonged to him. For all we know, it does. In trying to secure possession of it, he may have been seeking to secure possession of his own property. He merely refuses to state where the money came from or how it happened to be in the possession of the dead man. He claims it’s a business matter which doesn’t concern us. That’s no crime. And as long as Sam Roper is his lawyer, he won’t talk. Eventually, we’ll get the low-down on him, but it’ll take lots of time. Even then, it’ll be guesswork. What we need is proof.
“If I try to link Shirley Arden with that murder, either directly or indirectly, I’ll be fighting the interests of some of the biggest bankers and financiers in the country. I’ll be bucking politicians who have not only a state but a national influence. And I’ll be advertising myself as a sucker. The thing’s got to be fought out by a slow, dogged, persistent campaign.”
She was standing close to him. Suddenly she reached up and shook him.
“Oh, you make me so darned mad!” she exclaimed.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“Looking at it that way,” she told him, “by the time you’ve worked out a solution of the mystery no one will care anything about it. You probably won’t be in office. They’re going to start circulating a recall petition against you tomorrow morning. Everyone in the city feels you either sold out or were made a fool of. The minute you let it be known you’re trying to locate Shirley Arden, after having had that little dinner scene with her last night, and particularly when it becomes known that you can’t find her, you’re finished. It doesn’t make any difference how many murder mysteries you solve.
“And don’t ever underestimate this Carl Bittner. He’s clever. He’s a newspaper man who knows all of the angles. He knows how to use propaganda and sway public sentiment. While you’re patiently solving this mystery step by step, Bittner will take some shortcut and you’ll read the solution spread all over the front page of The Blade.”
“All right,” Selby said, grinning, “you win. We solve the murder by four-thirty.”
“Four-fifteen,” she said. “In fact, the solution has to be a little earlier, so I can get the highlights of the story telephoned over to the office.”
“When do we start?” he asked her, grinning.
“We start now.”
“All right,” he said, “here’s something for you to consider: Here’s the camera which the dead man had in his possession. For some reason or other, that camera seems to have a very peculiar significance. Someone tried to steal it from me in Hollywood last night.”
“Because of the films which were in the camera?” she asked, her eyes showing her excitement.
“I wouldn’t say so,” he said. “The films in the camera show a very fine assortment of street scenes. In fact, they show the main streets of Madison City.”
“But there may be something on them. There may be something significant we could catch, something which will show the purpose he had in coming here.”
“There is,” he told her grimly; “there’s something very significant on them.”
“What is it?”
“The new ornamental street-lighting pole at the corner in front of the Madison Hotel. That pole was being put up Tuesday morning when I drove down to the hotel after the body had been discovered. In other words, the pictures in that camera were taken anywhere from hours to days after the man was killed.”
“But how could that have happened?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“The camera was in the suitcase when you went to the hotel?”
“Then the films must have been substituted.”
“What happened to the camera?”
“The coroner took it and kept it in his safe.”
“But someone might have substituted films.”
He laughed and told her, “That’s pretty much of a job. It would take some time. You see, these films aren’t the ordinary type of roll films. They’re not backed with black paper and … ”
He broke off suddenly, to stare moodily at her and said, “So that’s it.”
“What?” she asked.
“Rogue being poisoned.”
“What about him?”
“That’s the coroner’s dog, a big police dog who watches the place. Someone poisoned him. The poison was cunningly concealed and placed in half a dozen different places.”
“Oh, yes, I remember. I didn’t know his name was Rogue.”
“That was yesterday. Shortly after we came back from Riverbend.”
“And the poisoning was successful?”
“I don’t know whether the dog died or not, but he had to be removed to the veterinary hospital.”
“Then that was done so someone could substitute the films.”
Selby said, “If that’s true, it was fast work, because I picked up the camera right afterwards.”
“But the coroner was very much attached to his dog, wasn’t he?”
“And he was down at the veterinary’s, trying to see whether the treatment would be successful?”
“Then that’s it,” she explained. “The films must have been substituted while he was down there. You can fix that time within very narrow limits. It probably won’t be over half an hour all together.”
Selby nodded and said, “That’s a thought. How does the sheriff stand on this thing?”
“You mean about the piece in The Blade?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Of course, he has his own political future to think of.”
“I’m just wondering.” Selby said. “No, I’m not either. The mere fact that I think I’m wondering shows how warped my mental perspective is. Rex Brandon isn’t the type who would throw me over. He’ll stick.”
As though he had taken his cue from the words, Sheriff Brandon opened the door of Selby’s private office and said, “Hello, folks, I’m walking in unannounced.”
His big black sombrero was tipped back on his head. A homemade cigarette dangled from a corner of his mouth. His face showed the lines of character emphasized as he twisted his mouth in a one-sided grin.
“Well, old son,” he said, “it looks as though we’ve put our foot in it, doesn’t it?”
Selby said, “Where do you get that ‘we’ stuff? I’m the one that’s in bad. You’re sitting pretty. Go ahead and watch your own political fences, Rex; don’t get tied up with me. I’m a political leper.”
The sheriff’s face showed genuine surprise.
“I never expected to hear you talk that way,” he said.
“Turning against a partner.”
“You mean I’m turning against you,” Selby demanded incredulously, “because I won’t let you share in my disgrace?”
“Well, I wouldn’t exactly put it that way,” the sheriff said, “but we’re in this thing together and, somehow, it don’t look right for you to … well, to figure there’s any question about where I stand.”
Sylvia Martin took down the telephone and said, “Get me the city editor of The Clarion … Hello, this is Sylvia; change that headline to read ‘SELBY AND BRANDON SOLVE MURDER.’ … Yes, I’m on the inside of the story now. It’s all ready to break. They’ve got the real murderer all tied up. They’re just perfecting their case now before they strike. The arrest will be about three-thirty or four o’clock this afternoon. We’ve got an exclusive on it. I’ll have the story all ready so I can telephone it in … No, I’m not going to give you the story now … No, it isn’t all bluff … Yes, I know I’m staking my job on it … All right; goodbye.” She slammed the receiver back into place.
Selby looked at her moodily and said, “So your job hangs on it too, does it?”
“Sure,” she said cheerfully.
Selby pulled the films from his pocket.
“Well, Sheriff,” he said, “here’s about all I’ve done. I’ve got a beautiful assortment of photographs of the main streets of Madison City.”
“Those were the films that were in the camera?”
“Yes. And those films were taken long after the man was dead.”
“It’s a fact.”
“We were discussing,” Sylvia said, “how the films could have been switched in the camera. We’ve about decided that when the coroner’s dog was poisoned, it was because someone wanted to switch films.”
“What time was the dog poisoned?” Brandon asked.
“Well,” Selby said, “we can soon find out about that.”
He reached for the telephone, but it was ringing before his fingers touched it.
He picked up the receiver, said, “Hello,” and heard Shirley Arden’s penitent voice.
“Douglas Sel — ” she asked; “I mean, Mr. Selby?”
“Yes,” he said, stiffening.
“I’m over at the hotel,” she told him. “Strictly incognito. The same room 515.”
“What kind of a run-around is this?” he demanded. “You certainly gave me enough of a double-cross last night. If you want to know the details, you can pick up a copy of The Blade.”
“Yes,” she said contritely, “I’ve already seen it. Please come over.”
“All right,” Selby said grimly, “I’m coming. And I’m not going to be played for a sucker this time either.”
He slammed up the telephone.
Sylvia Martin was looking at him with wide, apprehensive eyes.
“Shirley Arden?” she asked.
“You’re going, Doug?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t trust her. She’s clever. She’s an actress. She’s got glamour, and I’m afraid she’s going to hypnotize you.”
“She’s not going to hypnotize me this time,” Selby promised.
“Oh, please, Doug. You stay away. Have Sheriff Brandon serve a subpoena on her to appear before the grand jury. It’s your one chance to show that you weren’t bribed. This may be a trap, and, even if it isn’t, suppose Bittner finds out about her being there and about you going over? Can’t you see what we’re fighting for? We’re working against time and it means so much — so much to all of us.”
He shook his head doggedly and said, “I promised I was going, I’m going to go. I owe that much to my self-respect. She called me in confidence, and I’ll see what she has to say before I betray that confidence.”
Selby started for the door. He looked back, to see Sylvia Martin’s pleading eyes, then he closed the door.
Doug Selby knocked at the door of 515; then, without waiting for an answer, pushed the door open.
Shirley Arden was coming toward him. She was alone in the room.
He closed the door behind him, stood staring at her.
She came close to him, put her hands on his shoulders. Eyes which had thrilled millions of picture fans stared into his with compelling power.
“Am I forgiven?” she asked.
“That depends,” he told her.
“Depends on what?”
“Depends on what you say and how you say it.”
“What do you want me to say?” she asked … “Oh, please, please! I don’t blame you for being angry with me, but, after all, it was such a shock, and Ben’s explanation sounded so logical.”
“That I’d done it as a publicity stunt?”
“Yes. And to drag me into it. He insisted that you were back of the leak to the newspapers. He warned me you’d string me along, but that you’d try to drag me into it so you could get the big news syndicates interested, focus a lot of publicity on yourself, and capitalize on it politically.”
“Yes,” he said bitingly, “you can see how much I’ve capitalized on it. Trying to play square with you is going to make me the laughingstock of the whole county.”
She nodded and said contritely, “I realized that when I heard about The Blade. I came here because I couldn’t go back on you. You’d been square and big and fine and genuine.”
“I presume,” he said, “Ben Trask sent you here and rehearsed you in what you were to say.”
“Ben Trask thinks I’m on an airplane headed for Mexico City to recuperate.”
“Trask was up here the day of the murder?” he asked.
“And the day before?”
Again she nodded.
“Do you suppose his interest in keeping things under cover is selfish?”
She shook her head.
“What’s your hold on George Cushing?” he asked.
She said simply, “He’s my father.”
Selby’s face showed his surprise. “Your what?” he asked.
“My father. He kicked me out to shift for myself when I was eleven. After I made fame and riches, he hunted me out.”
“And how about this preacher?” he asked.
She motioned him to a chair.
“I’m going to tell you the truth,” she I said. “I don’t care what happens. I don’t care what my father or Ben Trask think.”
“Go on,” he told her.
“No one knows very much about my past,” she said. “The fan magazines carry a synthetic story every once in a while about my having been raised in a convent, which is a lie. I was raised in the gutter.”
He stared at her in steady, watchful scrutiny.
“When I was seventeen,” she said, “I was sentenced to a reform school as an incorrigible. If I’d gone to the reform school, I’d have been incorrigible. But there was one man who had faith in me, one man who saw the reason for my waywardness.”
“You mean Larrabie?” Selby asked.
“Yes. He was a minister who was taking a great interest in human-welfare work. He interceded with the judge and managed to get me paroled for a year. He made me realize I should have some ambition, that I should try to do something for myself. At the time, I thought a lot of what he said was just the old hooey, but I was impressed enough by him and cared enough for him so I tried to make good. Four years later I was an extra in Hollywood. Those four years had been four years of fight. I’d never have stuck it out, if it hadn’t been for his letters; for his steady, persistent faith; for the genuine, wholehearted goodness of the man.”
“Go on,” he told her.
“You know what happened after that. I played extra parts for a year. Then I had a minor speaking part. A director thought I showed promise and saw that I had a lead in a picture.”
“Last week Larrabie telephoned me,” she said. “He said he had to see me right away, that he couldn’t come to Hollywood because of a matter which demanded his attention here. He told me he needed five thousand dollars — in fact, he told me that over the telephone.
“I went to the bank and drew out five thousand dollars in five one-thousand dollar bills. I came up here. He had a scenario he wanted to sell. It was entitled Lest Ye Be Judged. You know how hopeless it was. I explained to him that I didn’t have anything to do with the purchase of pictures. It was, of course, founded on my life story.”
“Then he told me what he wanted with the five thousand dollars. A very close friend of his, a man by the name of Brower, was in a financial jam. Larrabie had promised to get him the money. He’d been working for months on that scenario. He thought it was a masterpiece. He felt that with me to give it a good word he could easily sell it for five thousand dollars. I told him to forget the scenario and gave him the five thousand dollars. I told him to consider it as a loan.”
“Did he tell you why he was registered here under the name of Brower?”
“He said he was working on some business deal and the man for whom he was working told him the thing must be kept undercover. He said he’d written the man from Riverbend, and the man had telephoned him; told him that it would be dangerous to come here and register under his right name; that the thing to do was to come here without anyone knowing he was here and register under a fictitious name.”
“Did he tell you any more about that?” Selby asked.
“He said the man asked him if he’d told anyone about having written. Larrabie said he hadn’t. Then the man said that was fine and to come here without letting a soul know — not even his wife. Poor Larrabie thought it would be less wicked to register under the name of someone else than it would to use a purely fictitious name. So he took Brower’s identity — borrowed his driving license and wallet. Brower was hiding. He’d cashed five thousand dollars in trust funds. He’d been robbed in Reno, then he’d gone on to Riverbend to ask Larrabie for help. Brower was waiting in Los Angeles to hear if Mr. Larrabie had sold the scenario for enough to make up the five thousand dollars.”
“Larrabie said he’d written a letter to the man he was to meet here?”
“He didn’t tell you who the man was?”
“Didn’t give you any idea?”
“Look here,” Selby told her, “every time I’ve talked with you, you’ve purported to tell me the truth. Every time it’s turned out to be something less than or radically different from the truth.”
She nodded mutely.
“What assurance have I that you’re telling me the truth this time?”
She came toward him.
“Can’t you see?” she said. “Can’t you see why I’m doing this? It’s because you’ve been so splendid. So absolutely genuine. Because you’ve made me respect you. I’m doing this — for you.”
Selby stared at her thoughtfully.
“Will you stay here,” he asked, “until I tell you you can go?”
“Yes, I’ll do anything you say — anything!”
“Who knows you’re here?”
“I don’t know. He’s undercover. He’s afraid the whole thing is going to come out.”
“Why should he be so afraid?”
She faced his eyes unflinchingly and said, “If my real identity is ever known, my picture career would be ruined.”
“Was it that bad?” he asked.
She said, “It was plenty bad. Very few people would understand. Looking back on it, I can’t understand myself. Larrabie always claimed it was because I had too much natural energy to ever knuckle down to routine.”
“You staked Cushing to the money to buy this hotel?” Selby asked.
“Yes. And I keep this room. It’s mine. It’s never rented. I come and go as I want. I use it for a hide-out when I want to rest.”
“Did Larrabie know that — about your room here?”
“No. No one except my father and Ben Trask knew of this room.”
“Then why did Larrabie meet you here?”
“He talked with me over the telephone and said he was coming here on business. I told him I’d meet him here. He thought I was just coming up to see him.”
“And his business here didn’t have anything to do with you?”
“Nor with your father?”
“Did Larrabie know your father?”
“No. He’d never seen dad — except that he may have met him as the owner of the hotel.”
“But he must have known generally of your father?”
“Yes. He knew about dad years ago — things that weren’t very nice.”
“What’s been Cushing’s past?” Selby asked.
She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Pretty bad. I presume there was a lot to be said on his side, but it’s one of those things people wouldn’t understand. But, after all, he’s my father, and he’s going straight now. Can’t you see what a spot I was in? I had to lie, had to do everything I could to throw you off the track. And now I’m sorry. I tried my best to give you a hint about the real identity of the body when I said that he was a ‘Larry’ somebody from a town that had the name ‘River’ in it. I figured you’d look through the map, find out the number of California towns that had ‘River’ in their names, and telephone in to see if a pastor was missing.”
“Yes,” he said slowly, “I could have done that, probably would have, if I hadn’t had another clue develop.”
He started pacing the floor. She watched him with anxious eyes.
“You understand?” she asked.
“I couldn’t have done any differently. You do see it from my standpoint, don’t you?”
“Yes, I see it from your standpoint.”
“‘But, you’re acting — so sort of — Tell me! This isn’t going to prevent us from being friends, is it? I admire and respect you. It’s meant a lot to me, just having met you. You’re sincere and genuine. There’s no pose about you, no false front. I don’t usually offer my friendship this way … I need friends like you. Do you understand? “
Selby stared steadily at her.
“Over there,” he said, waving his arm in the general direction of the courthouse, “there’s a girl waiting. She’s had faith in me and what I stand for. She’s staked her job on my ability to solve this mystery by four o’clock this afternoon, simply because she’s a wholehearted, loyal friend. She hasn’t any money, smart clothes, influential friends or fine houses.
“I don’t know whether I can tell you this so you’ll understand it, but I’ll try. If I give you my friendship, I’ll be running back and forth to Hollywood. I’ll gradually see the limitations of my friends here, limitations which aren’t deficiencies of character, but of environment. I’ll get so I unconsciously turn up my nose when I ride in rattling, dust-covered, cheap automobiles. I’ll adopt a patronizing attitude toward the things of this county and assume an urban sophistication.
“You asked me to understand why you lied to me. I do understand. From your viewpoint there was nothing else you could have done. Damn it, I can almost see your viewpoint clearly enough so it seems the logical thing for you to have done.
“To hell with it. Your life lies in the glitter and the glamour. Mine lies with the four-square friendships I’ve made in a community where everyone knows everyone else so intimately there’s no chance for a four-flusher to get by.”
He strode toward the door.
“Where are you going?” she asked, panic in her eyes.
“To solve that murder,” he said, “and to keep faith with a girl who would no more lie to me than she’d cut off her right hand.”
She stood staring at him, too proud to plead, too hurt to keep the tears from her eyes.
He stepped into the hallway, slowly closed the door behind him.
Selby pushed his way through the door of his private office to encounter the disapproving eyes of Sylvia Martin.
“Well?” she asked.
“She told me the truth, Sylvia,” he said, “the whole truth.”
“Again?” she inquired sarcastically.
He didn’t answer her directly, but said, “Sylvia, I want you to check my conclusions. I’m going to go over this thing with you step by step. First, I’m going to tell you what Shirley Arden told me. I’m going to ask you, of course, to regard it as a sacred confidence.”
He began at the beginning and told her everything the actress had told him. When he had finished she said slowly, “Then, if that story is true, Brower had no reason to murder Larrabie.”
“And Brower’s silence is because he’s trying to protect himself. If he ever admitted that he’d been robbed, lots of people would figure he’d simply squandered the money.”
Selby said, “Not only that, but Brower had assumed the responsibility of putting those funds into the form of cash. He was trying to outguess some claimant who didn’t have a leg to stand on, but who wanted to tie up the money, hoping he’d get some sort of a settlement. Brower would probably have killed himself rather than gone back and reported the loss of the money.
“The really significant thing about the whole business is that, despite the importance of getting that five thousand dollars, Larrabie wouldn’t leave Madison City. Now, then, Larrabie had written some man with whom he was to do business here. That man telephoned him, asked him particularly if anyone knew of the letter, and then asked Larrabie to come here and register under an assumed name, using the utmost secrecy.”
“Well?” she asked.
“The man who got the letter wasn’t the man to whom it was written,” Selby said.
“What are you talking about, Doug? You can’t know that.”
“So far,” he told her, “I am just indulging in theories. Now let’s start checking up on facts.”
She glanced at her wrist watch and said ironically, “Yes, my editor always likes facts. Particularly when the paper is going to accuse someone of murder.”
“The first thing to do,” Selby said, “is to study those photographs again.”
“To find out just when they were taken. Take a magnifying glass, Sylvia, and study every detail. See if you can find some time clue. While you’re doing that I’ll be doing some other stuff.”
He picked up the telephone and said, “Get me Sheriff Brandon.” A moment later he said, “Rex, I’ve got a lot of news and a lot of theory. The news isn’t worth a damn unless the theory checks with the facts, so I want to find out the facts.
“I’m going to give you the manufacturer’s number on that miniature camera. I want you to find out what dealer had such a camera in stock. Trace it through the wholesaler and retailer, get a description of the purchaser.”
He read off the numbers on the lens and body of the camera, and then said, “Just as soon as you get that information, let me know. But get it and get it at once, at all cost … And here’s something else Rex. Try to bring out any latent fingerprints on the space bar of that portable typewriter. Do it as soon as possible.”
“Okay,” the sheriff said.
Selby hung up the telephone and called the coroner.
“Harry,” he said, when he had the coroner on the line, “I want to know something about Larrabie’s suitcase.”
“All right, what about it?”
“You took it into your custody?”
“Kept it in your office?”
“Yes, in the back room.”
“And Rogue, your police dog, was always on the premises?”
“When was the dog poisoned?”
“Why, yesterday morning — you were there.”
“No, no; I mean when did you first find out he’d been poisoned?”
“It was sometime around twelve o’clock. I’d been out, and when I came back the dog seemed sick. He wagged his tail to show he was glad to see me, and then dropped down on the floor.”
“And where was the dog when you came back?”
“In my office; but there’s a narrow door leading to the backyard, so he could get out, if he’d wanted to.”
“But he was where he could guard the office?”
“Sure. No one could possibly have entered that office. Rogue would have torn them to pieces.”
“Thanks,” Selby said, “I just wanted to make certain. I think the poisoning of the dog is particularly important.”
“So do I,” Perkins said. “If I can find out who did it, you’ll have another homicide case on your hands.”
Selby hung up the telephone, to hear Sylvia exclaim eagerly, “Doug, these pictures were taken Wednesday noon.”
“How do you know?” he asked, his voice showing his excitement.
You can analyze the shadows, for the time of day. They show the picture was taken right around noon. Now the Rotary Club meets at the Madison Hotel every Wednesday. When it meets, there isn’t enough room for the members to park their cars on the main street and in the parking lot next to the hotel, so they spread down the side street and take every available parking space. At other times during the day it is very seldom the parking spaces on the side street are filled up.
“Now notice this picture. It shows the main street. Now here’s the next one; that’s looking down the side street. You see, there isn’t a single vacant parking space on the whole street. I’ll bet anything you want, these pictures were taken Wednesday noon, while the Club was having its meeting.”
Selby said slowly, “That’s darned good reasoning, Sylvia. I think I’ll have to put you on my staff.”
“You sure will,” she told him, “if we don’t have some facts for my city editor pretty quick. I can stall him just about so long, and then I’ll be finished. At that time I’ll be completely out of a job.”
“Well,” he told her, “you can’t get on up here, because I’ll be out of a job too.”
He picked up the camera, studied it carefully and put it back in its worn leather case.
“Why is the camera so important?” Sylvia asked. “And how could those pictures have been taken so long after Larabie’s death?”
“That,” he told her, “is the thing on which any real solution of this case must turn. It’s a fact which doesn’t coincide with any of the other facts, but really furnishes the key to the whole business, if it’s interpreted correctly.”
He picked up the telephone, called Doctor Perry, and when he had him on the phone, said, “Doctor, this is Doug Selby, the district attorney. For reasons which I won’t try to explain over the telephone, the poisoning of Perkins’ dog becomes a clue of greatest importance. How’s the dog coming along?”
“I’m going to pull him through,” Doctor Perry said. “I worked with him most of the night.”
“Can you tell me anything about the poison that was used?”
“I think,” Doctor Perry said, “that the poison was compounded by an expert. In other words, the man who did it was either a doctor or a chemist, a druggist or someone who knew a great deal about drugs, and probably something about animals.”
“I wonder if you can take time to run up to the office for a few minutes?” Selby asked. “I want to get some definite and detailed information. I’m expecting to bring this case to a head within the next couple of hours.”
“You mean you’re going to find out who put the poison there?”
“I think I’m going to go farther than that,” Selby told him, “and find out who murdered Larrabie. But keep that under your hat. I’m telling you because I want you to realize how important your cooperation may be.”
“I’m dropping everything and coming right up,” Perry promised.
“Thanks,” Selby told him.
He hung up the telephone, returned to a study of the strip of negatives; then he rang up the manager of the telephone company and said, “I’m particularly interested in tracing a call which was sent from Madison City sometime within the last week or ten days to William Larrabie at Riverbend, California. I wish you’d look back through your records and see what you can find out about that call, and let me know.”
Receiving a promise of assistance, Selby dropped the receiver back into place and then started pacing the floor, talking in the mechanical monotone of one who is thinking out loud. “A hotel,” he said, “is a peculiar place. It furnishes a temporary home for hundreds of people.
“Here in this hotel, on the night of the murder, we had a minister of the Gospel in one room, a young couple who saw fit to register under assumed names in an adjoining room. And, somewhere in the background, was another minister who was in a serious financial predicament. He had to have money and have it at once. It was an amount which was far beyond what he could hope to obtain by any legitimate means. And in that hotel we had a room kept by a prominent motion-picture actress. The hotel was operated by her father. No one knew of the relationship. No one knew of certain chapters in the life of this actress.”
“We happen to know these things about these few people. There were others about whom we don’t know, but who must have had their own family skeletons, their own fears and hopes. They were all sleeping under the one roof.”
“Brower wasn’t there,” she pointed out.
Selby smiled and said, “If you are going to be technical about it, there wasn’t any reason why Brower couldn’t have registered in the hotel in Los Angeles, left Los Angeles, gone to the Madison Hotel and taken a room under another name.”
Her face showed excitement. “Did he, Doug?” she said. “Did he? Oh, Doug, if we could only get something like that.”
He smiled and said, “Not yet, Sylvia, I’m simply mentioning possibilities.”
“But why point them out in just that way?”
“Because,” he said, “I want you to understand one fundamental thought, because it is of particular importance in the solution of this case.”
“What is it?” she asked. “I don’t see what you are getting at.”
“What I’m trying to establish is that people are, after all, very much alike. They have the same problems, the same complexities of life. Therefore, when we find what these problems and complexities are in the case of some of the people who were in the hotel, we shouldn’t make the mistake of considering that those problems must be interrelated merely because the people were temporarily thrown together in a physical environment.”
There was something ominous in her voice as she said, “Doug, are you starting out to prove that no matter what this actress did, she couldn’t have been … ”
Amorette Standish opened the door and said, “Doctor Perry’s here, all out of breath. Says he broke every speed record in town.”
“Show him in,” Selby said.
The door opened and Doctor Perry bustled into the room. He had quite evidently been hurrying, and was breathing through his mouth.
“Sit down there,” Selby told him, “and get your breath. I didn’t mean for you to run yourself to death getting here, and you’ll need some breath to answer questions … By the way, Amorette, I want to give you some instructions. And, Sylvia, you can help me, if you’ll step this way for a moment. You’ll pardon us for a minute, Doctor?”
“I’ll say!” Doctor Perry panted. “I could use a breathing spell very nicely.”
Selby stepped into the outer room, drew Amorette and Sylvia close to him.
“Now, listen,” he said; “a call may come in about that camera. I’m anxious to find out … ”
“Yes,” Amorette interrupted, “Sheriff Brandon telephoned. He said not to disturb you, but to tell you he’d talked with Mrs. Larrabie. She told him the minister got the camera through a retailer who sent to a dealer in Sacramento for it. The sheriff has a call in for the retailer in Riverbend. And he’s already talked with the wholesaler in Sacramento. They’re looking for the number and are going to call back. The sheriff said both calls would come to this office.”
“All right,” Selby said. “If the call comes in while I’m talking with Doctor Perry and you get the numbers, just come to the door and beckon to me. And, Sylvia, I think you’d better be where you can listen in on that telephone call, and be absolutely certain that the numbers are correct.”
“But, when you already have the camera,” Sylvia said, “why be so worried about the numbers?” …
Selby stepped back into the private office, closed the door and said, “Doctor, you know something of the facts about Larrabie’s death.”
“I’ve read the papers. What about it?”
“It’s my theory,” Selby said, “that the man who arranged things so Larrabie took that dose of poison was a man who must have known something of medicine, and who must not only have access to morphia but knew how to put it in a five-grain tablet.”
Doctor Perry nodded.
“Now, then, you say that the one who poisoned this dog showed a considerable knowledge of medicine. I want to know just what you mean by that?”
“I mean,” Doctor Perry said, “that as nearly as I can find out, the poisoned meat contained not one active ingredient, but two. Moreover, the poisoning had been very skillfully compounded and had been placed in food combinations which would be particularly attractive to a dog.”
“Now in order to plant that poison on the inside of the room, the poisoner must have had access to that room. Isn’t that right?”
Doctor Perry’s forehead twisted into a perplexed frown. “Why, of course,” he said, “that goes without saying.”
“Therefore the dog wouldn’t have been poisoned merely so the poisoner could have had a few minutes in that room.”
“Why?” Doctor Perry asked.
“Because he already must have had access to the room when he planted the poison.”
“That’s right … But wait a minute. How could he have planted the poison with the dog there?”
Selby said, “That’s exactly the point. You see, Doctor, we have more definite clues to work on when it comes to trapping the poisoner of the dog than we do in trapping the murderer of William Larrabie. Therefore, I want to be reasonably certain that one and the same man was guilty of both the dog poisoning and the murder. Then I want to concentrate on getting that dog poisoner.”
“I see what you’re getting at,” Doctor Perry said slowly, “and I think I can assure you, Mr. Selby, both the dog poisoning and Larrabie’s death had this much in common — they were the work of some man who knew something of drugs, who had an opportunity to compound a five-grain tablet containing a lethal dose of morphia, or who had access to such a tablet. Also, the man knew something about dogs.”
Selby stared steadily at Doctor Perry. “Is there,” he asked, “any chance that Harry Perkins might have poisoned his own dog?”
Doctor Perry’s face showed startled surprise. Then he said swiftly, “Why, Mr. Perkins was all worked up about it. He was going to kill the man who did it.”
“Nevertheless,” Selby said, “he might have poisoned the dog and then rushed him to you in order to counteract the effects of the poison.”
“But why would he have done that?”
“Because he would want to make it look like an outside job. Mind you, Doctor, I’m not accusing Perkins; I’m simply asking you a question.”
Doctor Perry said, “You mean that unless the dog had been absent from the premises — which he wasn’t — the person who dropped that poison inside of the room must have been someone the dog knew. A stranger might have tossed it over the fence, but a stranger couldn’t have planted it in that room.”
“That,” Selby told him, “is right. Now then, Perkins, I believe, is a registered pharmacist.”
“I believe he is, yes.”
“Isn’t it rather unusual that Perkins would have detected the symptoms of poisoning and brought the dog to you as soon as he did?”
“Well,” Doctor Perry said slowly, “it depends, of course; some people know their dogs so well they can tell the minute anything goes wrong. Still … ” He let his voice trail away into thoughtful silence.
At that moment Amorette Standish knocked on the door, opened it and beckoned to Selby.
“Excuse me for a moment,” Selby said. “Although, on second thought, Doctor, I guess that’s everything I wanted to get from you. I’d like very much to have you make some investigation along the theory I’ve outlined and see if you can find out anything.”
Doctor Perry clamped on his hat, strode purposefully toward the door.
“You can count on me,” he said, “and also on my absolute discretion. I’ll be at the coroner’s for a few minutes, if you want to reach me. I have some questions to ask him.”
“Thanks, Doctor,” Selby said.
When Doctor Perry had left the office, the district attorney turned to Amorette Standish. “We’ve got the numbers,” she said in a low voice.
The door of the other office opened as Sylvia Martin came from the extension line. She nodded and said, “I have them here. The sale was made to Mr. Larrabie shortly before Christmas of last year.”
“Well, let’s check the numbers,” Selby said.
He led the way to the private office, took the camera from the case, read out the numbers. Both girls nodded their heads. “That’s right,” they said.
At that moment the door of the outer office opened and Sheriff Brandon entered the room.
“Find any fingerprints on the space bar of the typewriter?” Selby asked.
“Yes, there are a couple of good ones we can use.”
“Were they those of the dead man?”
“By the way,” Selby said, “what number did I give you on that camera?”
The sheriff pulled a notebook from his pocket, read forth a string of figures.
Sylvia Martin exclaimed, “Why, those aren’t the figures that we have, and … Why, they aren’t the figures that are on the camera!”
Doug Selby grinned. “Rex,” he said, “while I’m outlining a damn good story to Sylvia, would you mind sprinting down the courthouse steps? You’ll find Doctor Perry just getting into his automobile. Arrest him for the murder of William Larrabie.”
Sylvia Martin stared at Selby with wide-open eyes. “You aren’t bluffing, Doug?”
“No,” he told her.
“Then give it to me,” she said, looking at her wrist watch, “and hit the high spots. I’ve got to get this story licked into shape. Give me the barest outline.”
“Let’s go back to what we know,” he told her. “We know that Larrabie had business here. It was business other than raising the five thousand dollars.”
“How do we know that?”
“Because he didn’t leave here after he got the five thousand dollars.”
“We know that he wrote someone here in Madison City, that this someone telephoned him and made arrangements for him to come to Madison City with the utmost secrecy. That was the person with whom Larrabie was doing business, and it’s reasonable to suppose that business was connected in some way with the Perry Estate, because Larrabie’s briefcase contained documents relating to two independent pieces of business: the Perry Estate and the scenario.
“Remember, I warned you that all people had problems; that we mustn’t make the mistake of feeling that all of these problems must be related merely because the people happened to be under the same hotel roof. As a matter of fact, the five thousand dollars, Brower’s troubles over losing the money, and Shirley Arden’s relationship with Larrabie, all were entirely independent of the business which actually brought Larrabie here.”
“Getting the five thousand was important, but there was something else which was unfinished and which had to do with someone here in Madison City.
“Now the man to whom Larrabie wrote his letter and with whom he had his business must have been someone Larrabie was aiding. He’d hardly have followed instructions from someone hostile to him.”
“Go on,” she said.
“There is a remarkable coincidence which has escaped everyone’s attention,” he said, “and probably furnishes the key to the entire situation, and that is that the initials of both claimants to the money in the Perry Estate are the same. Therefore, if Larrabie had written a letter addressed simply to ‘H.F. Perry’ at Madison City, that letter might have been delivered either to Herbert F. Perry or to Dr. H. Franklin Perry. And if the letter contained evidence relating to the marriage of the two decedents, and had fallen into the possession of Doctor Perry, naturally Doctor Perry would have realized his only hope to beat Herbert Perry’s claim was to suppress this evidence. Now in the newspaper clippings in Larrabie’s briefcase, the claimant to the estate was described simply as ‘H.F. Perry.’
“Of course, I can’t prove right now that Doctor Perry telephoned Larrabie, found out that Larrabie hadn’t let anyone know of the particular thing that he knew, therefore instructed Larrabie to come here and register under an assumed name; but I can surmise that.
“I can’t prove Doctor Perry was closeted in conference with Larrabie; that he managed to give Larrabie a lethal dose of morphine either in a drink or in some article of food, or perhaps persuaded him to have a tablet as a cure for a headache, claiming it was merely aspirin; but I can surmise that.”
“But you can’t convict him on surmises,” Sylvia pointed out.
He grinned at her and said, “I can further surmise that there’s one possibility in the Perry case the lawyers overlooked. While it’s a matter of law that marriage has to be solemnized with certain formalities, it is also the law that where two people appear before a regularly ordained minister of the Gospel, state they have been living together, and ask to be married, the minister has authority under those circumstances to make a note of such marriage on the church records in order to make the marriage legal.
“If that happened, it would explain everything in the case. And if Larrabie was a good photographer, which he was, he would have been very apt to have photographed that portion of the church records before leaving Riverbend. And if Doctor Perry had killed him and then started thinking things over and read in the newspapers about the camera having been found in Larrabie’s suitcase, he would have been certain to appreciate his danger if those films were developed.”
“So Doctor Perry decided he had to get possession of that camera. He had only one way of getting access to the place where Perkins kept the camera, and that was to poison the dog, because he knew Perkins would bring the dog to him for treatment; that then he would have a chance to go back to look the place over for poison. But he also knew he wouldn’t have time to take the films from Larrabie’s camera; but, if he played things right, he could switch cameras. So he purchased an identical camera. He needed some exposed films in the camera, because he’d learned that some of the films in Larrabie’s camera had been exposed.
“So he poisoned the dog and then, under the guise of looking for poison, returned to Perkins’ place. Unfortunately for him, Perkins had called me and I was, therefore, present. But, offsetting that bit of particular bad fortune, he had the good fortune to find the camera where he could make a quick substitution. In order to do this, he needed to divert our attention. And he did this very successfully by dropping additional poison along the wall on the far side of the room. While we were all looking for poison, Perry had a chance to switch cameras. He thought then that he was in the clear, until he realized that I was going to check the numbers on the camera. Then he realized he needed to make a second switch. So I played into his hand by giving him a chance to come to my office and, when he had arrived, leaving him alone with the substituted camera. So far I can’t prove anything. But, knowing the guilty person, I can start tracing telephone calls, looking up the church records at Riverbend for a record of that marriage. I can absolutely prove the substitution of those cameras, and I think the sheriff will find the camera we want in his possession.
“If we can reconstruct what must have happened, Perry lured Larrabie into a trap, ensured keeping the facts exclusively within Larrabie’s knowledge by impressing upon him the necessity for secrecy. He had an evening, conference in Larrabie’s room, gave the trusting minister a dose of morphia, probably claiming it was an aspirin. Then he continued to chat with his victim until the poison took effect. When Larrabie became unconscious, Perry undressed him and put him to bed, then left the box of sedatives where it would be discovered, and, when he was quite sure the man was dead, proceeded to write that letter and leave it in the typewriter.
“Perry was an old hand at traveling. When he undressed the minister, he automatically and unconsciously hung up the trousers by inserting the cuffs in the top drawer of the dresser. That showed that Larrabie hadn’t undressed himself.
“Perry had previously opened the door of room 319 with a passkey, and he had only to barricade the door of 321, unbolt the connecting door to 319, bolt it on the inside and leave through 319, locking the door behind him. If I hadn’t happened to notice the bolt wasn’t in position on the minister’s side of the door, the assumption would have been that no one could possibly have left the room. And that letter pointed to a natural death so cunningly that in the ordinary course of things the clues would have been pretty cold before an investigation was started.
“Perry overlooked just one thing, which was that when Larrabie registered under an assumed name, he hadn’t taken a fictitious name.
“If the name had been purely fictitious, we’d have tried to notify a Mrs. Charles Brower at Millbank, Nevada, of her husband’s death. Finding there was no such person, we’d have been baffled when it came to an identification of the corpse, but could have been expected to take the view death had been induced by an overdose of sleeping medicine.”
She studied him thoughtfully for a moment and said, “If that’s right, you’ve done a perfectly swell piece of detective work. If it isn’t right, we’re both … ”
The door opened and Sheriff Brandon pushed Doctor Perry into the room.
“Get the camera?” Selby asked.
“Take his fingerprints,” Selby said, “and check them with the fingerprints on the space bar of that typewriter.”
Madison City was shaken to its foundations as two newspapers made simultaneous appearance on the street. The Blade demanded the immediate recall of the district attorney upon the ground that he had been influenced by the moneyed interests of Hollywood, that his head had been turned by the wiles of a clever actress, and that he had proved himself utterly unfit to discharge even the routine duties of his office.
The Clarion, in an “extra” which had evidently been held in readiness to hit the streets at the same time as The Blade, carried great screaming headlines:
SELBY AND BRANDON SOLVE MURDER MYSTERY!
The newspaper carried complete details, even to a verbatim copy of the marriage record of the Riverbend Methodist Church, as the contents of that record had been transmitted over long-distance telephone at the request of the sheriff’s office. It contained an interview with the fingerprint expert of the sheriff’s office, stating there could be no doubt as to the identity of Doctor Perry’s fingerprints, which appeared on the space bar of the typewriter. And it contained a boxed-in paragraph giving a last-minute flash announcing that Doctor Perry had confessed.
Sylvia Martin sat in the district attorney’s office, reading the newspaper.
“A darned good story, Mr. District Attorney,” she said, “even if we did write it.”
“We had to save our jobs,” he said.
“Say, Doug, know something?”
“One of the big Los Angeles papers rang me up and offered me a swell job. Gee, Doug, the city editor was where he could hear my end of the conversation. Gosh, but he was worried!”
“Did you accept, Sylvia?”
“No,” she said, “I told them I liked the local environment … How about your Hollywood contacts, Doug? Going to play around with the movie crowd?”
“No,” he told her, “I did the same thing you did.”
“Told them I liked the local environment.”
She gave a quick intake of breath.
“Did — did you mean what I meant?”
“The question,” he told her, “is, did you mean what I meant?”
Illustrations by Dudley Gloyne Summers (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 December 1, 1936
The shabby little man, registered as The Reverend Charles Brower, died in Room 321 of the Madison Hotel, murdered by a deadly sleeping tablet. District Attorney Douglas Selby of Madison City, elected on a reform ticket, must find the guilty person, for he knew that the Blade, newspaper of the ousted gang, awaited the chance for a vicious attack.
But Mrs. Brower, come from Nevada to the California town near Hollywood, declared the slain man was not her husband. Yet the few effects in Room 321 were all identified with Brower, all save an expensive camera, a movie scenario, newspaper clippings of the screen favorite, Shirley Arden, and more clippings relating to litigation over the local Perry estate.
Working desperately, Selby learned that Shirley Arden had been a guest of the Madison Hotel the night of the murder, that a man had called upon her, and that a perfumed envelope containing five $1,000 bills had been left in the hotel safe in Brower’s name.
The Blade screamed for action on the case. Selby questioned Shirley Arden, discovered that her distinctive perfume did not tally with that of the envelope, and that she could not remember clearly the name of the man who had called for her aid in selling his scenario. She convinced Selby of her innocence; she even won his reluctant admiration and his promise of protection against the harm that connection with a murder case would do her career.
Then the first break. Spectacles found in Room 321 belonged to a Reverend Larrabie of Riverbend, upstate California town. It was the name Shirley Arden had been trying to recall! Selby and his staunch ally, Sylvia Martin, girl reporter on the friendly Clarion, hastened to Riverbend to return with Mrs. Larrabie. The slain man was her husband, but his murderer was yet to be found.
Then Brower appeared at the hotel to demand the $5,000 envelope, but refused to talk when taken into custody. Next Selby discovered that young Herbert Perry, one of the Perry estate litigants, had knocked on the door of the minister’s room the night of the murder. And then, to Selby’s dismay, Sylvia Martin pointed out that Shirley Arden had suddenly changed the brand of perfume she used — and the change coincided with the time of the minister’s death.
Events during the next few minutes moved in a swift, kaleidoscopic fashion.
Frank Gordon entered the office very much excited. There had been a shooting scrape down on Washington Avenue. A divorced husband had vowed no one else should have his wife and had sought to make good his boast with five shots from a six-shooter, saving the sixth for himself. Four of the shots had gone wild. The woman had been wounded with the fifth. The man’s nerve had failed when it came to using the sixth. He’d turned to run and had been picked up by one of the officers.
Held in jail, he was filled with lachrymose repentance and was in the proper mood to make a complete confession. Later on he probably would repudiate the confession, claim the police had beaten him in order to obtain it, that he had shot in self-defense and was insane anyway. Therefore, the police were anxious to have the district attorney present to see that a confession was taken down properly.
“You’ll have to go, Gordon,” Selby said. “This will be a good chance for you to break in. Remember not to make him any promises. Don’t even go so far as to tell him it would be better for him to tell the truth. Take a shorthand reporter with you and take down everything that’s said; ask the man if he wants a lawyer.”
“Should I do that?”
“Sure. He won’t want a lawyer — not now, when he wants to confess. Later on he’ll want a lawyer, or perhaps some lawyer will want him in order to get the advertising. How bad is the woman wounded?”
“Not bad; a shot through the shoulder. It missed the lung, I understand.”
“If it isn’t fatal he’ll plead guilty,” Selby said. “If it kills her, he’ll fight to beat the noose. Get him tied up while he’s in the mood.”
Gordon went out, and Sylvia smiled across at Selby.
“If cases would only come singly,” she said, “but they don’t.”
“No,” he told her, “they don’t, and this Larrabie case is a humdinger.”
The telephone rang.
“That,” Selby said, squaring his jaw, “will be Ben Trask.”
But it wasn’t Ben Trask; it was Harry Perkins, the coroner, and for once his slow, drawling speech was keyed up to an almost hysterical pitch.
“I want you to come down here right away, Selby,” he said, “there’s hell to pay.”
Selby stiffened in his chair.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. “A murder?”
“Murder nothing. It’s ten times worse than a murder,” he said, “it’s a dirty damn dog poisoner.”
For the moment Selby couldn’t believe his ears.
“Come on down to earth,” he said, “and tell me the facts.”
“My police dog, Rogue,” the coroner said; “somebody got him, with poison. He’s at the vet’s now. Doc’s working on him. It’ll be touch and go, with one chance in ten for the dog.”
He broke off with something which sounded very much as though he had choked back a sob.
“Any clues?” Selby asked.
“I don’t know. I haven’t had time to look. I just found him and rushed him down to the veterinary’s. I’m down at Doctor Perry’s hospital now.”
“I’ll come down and see what can be done,” Selby said.
He hung up the telephone and turned to Sylvia Martin.
“That,” he said, “shows how callous we get about things which don’t concern us, and how worked up we get when things get close to home. That’s Harry Perkins, the coroner. He’s been out on murder cases, suicides, automobile accidents and all forms of violent death. He’s picked up people in all stages of dilapidation, and to him it’s been just one more corpse. Tears, entreaties and hysterics mean nothing to him. He’s grown accustomed to them. But somebody poisoned his dog, and damned if he isn’t crying.”
“And you’re going down to see about a poisoned dog?” Sylvia Martin asked.
“Good Lord, why?”
“In the first place, he feels so cut up about it and, in a way, he’s one of the official family. In the second place, he’s down at Doctor Perry’s Dog and Cat Hospital — you know, Dr. H. Franklin Perry, the brother who stands to inherit the money in the Perry Estate if young Herbert Perry loses out.”
“Well?” she asked.
“I’ve never talked with Doctor Perry,” Selby said. “The sheriff’s office found he didn’t know anything about the man who was killed, and let it go at that, but somehow I want to take a look at him.”
“Anything except a hunch?” she asked.
“It isn’t even that,” he said; “but if that morphine was deliberately mixed in with the sleeping tablets, it must have been done by someone who had access to morphine, and who could have fixed up a tablet. Doctor Perry runs a veterinary hospital and … ”
“Forget it,” she told him. “That whole thing was a plant, along with the letter. Larrabie never took that sleeping medicine. Not voluntarily, anyway. His wife said he never had any trouble sleeping. Don’t you remember?”
Selby nodded moodily.
“Moreover,” she pointed out, “when it comes to suspicions, you can find lots of people to suspect.”
“Meaning?” he asked.
“Meaning,” she said, “that I’ve never been satisfied with this man Cushing’s explanations.
“In the first place, the way he shields Shirley Arden means that in some way she’s more than just a transient customer who occasionally comes up from Los Angeles. In the second place, he didn’t disclose anything about that five thousand dollars in the safe until pretty late. In the third place, he was so blamed anxious to have it appear the death was accidental.
“Now, whoever wrote that letter and addressed the envelope was someone who didn’t know the man’s real identity. The only thing he knew was what he’d picked up from the hotel register.”
“Therefore, the murderer must have been someone who had access to the information on the hotel register. And, aside from what he could learn from that register, he didn’t know a thing about the man he killed. Therefore, he acted on the assumption that his victim was Charles Brower.
“He wanted to make the murder appear like suicide, so he wrote that letter and left it in the typewriter. If the man had really been Charles Brower, nothing would ever have been thought of it. The post-mortem wouldn’t have been continued to the extent of testing the vital organs for morphine. And, even if they had found some morphine, they’d have blamed it on the sleep medicine.
“Now, the person who would have been most apt to be misled by the registration would have been the manager of the hotel.”
“But what possible motive could Cushing have had for committing the murder?”
“You can’t tell until you find out what the bond is between Cushing and Shirley Arden. I can’t puzzle it all out, I’m just giving you a thought.”
His eyes were moody as he said slowly, “That’s the worst of messing around with one of these simple-appearing murder cases. If someone sneaked into the room and stabbed him, or had shot him, or something like that, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but … Oh, hang it, this case had to come along right at the start of my term of office.”
“Another thing,” she said, “to remember is that the person who wrote the letter, and probably the person who committed the murder, got in there from 319. Now, there wasn’t anyone registered in 319. That means the person must have had a passkey.”
“I’ve thought of all that,” Selby said. “The murderer could hardly have come in through the transom, couldn’t have come in through the door of 321, and he couldn’t have come in through the door of 323 — that is, what I really mean is, he couldn’t have gone out that way. He could have gotten in the room by a dozen different methods. He could have been hiding in the room, he could have walked in through the door of 321, he could have gone in through 323. After all, you know, we don’t know that the door wasn’t barricaded after the man had died. From what Herbert Perry says, someone must have been in the room some two or three hours after death took place.
“But when that man went out he had only one way to go, and that was through the door of 319. If he’d gone out through 323, he couldn’t have bolted the door from the inside. If he’d gone out through the door of 321, he couldn’t have barricaded the door with a chair. There was no chance he could have gone out through the window. Therefore, 319 represents the only way he could have gone out.”
“And he couldn’t have gone out that way,” she said, “unless he’d known the room was vacant, and had a passkey, and had previously left the communicating door unlocked.”
“That’s probably right.”
“Well,” she said, “it’s up to you, but personally I’d be inclined to look for an inside job around the hotel somewhere, and I think Cushing is tied up too deeply with this motion-picture actress to be above suspicion. It’s a cinch she was the one who furnished the five thousand dollars.”
“You might,” Selby told her, “do a little work along that line, Sylvia. I wouldn’t want to get hard-boiled with Cushing unless I had something to work on, because, after all, we haven’t the faintest semblance of a motive. We … ”
“How about robbery?”
“No, I’ve considered that. If it had been robbery, it would have been an easy matter for Cushing to have taken the envelope with the five thousand dollars out of the safe and substituted another one. He could have made a passable forgery of the signature. Since it wasn’t Brower’s signature in any event, there wouldn’t have been much opportunity to detect the forgery.”
She started for the door, turned to grin at him and said, “On my way. I’ll let you know if anything turns up.”
“The devil of it is,” he told her, “this isn’t like one of those detective stories, which you can solve by merely pointing the finger of suspicion at the guilty person. This is a real life, flesh-and-blood murder case, where we’ve got to produce actual evidence which can stand up in a court of justice. I’ve got to find that murderer and then prove he’s guilty beyond all reasonable doubt.”
“And if you don’t do it?” she asked.
“Wait until you see The Blade tonight,” he said gloomily. “I have an idea Sam Roper is going to make a statement.”
She laughed and said, “Afraid you can’t take it, Doug?”
“No,” he told her. “That’s not what’s worrying me. I know damn well I can take it. What’s worrying me is whether I can dish it out.”
She grinned, said “Go to it, big boy,” and closed the door behind her as she left his private office.
Ten seconds later the telephone rang.
To Selby’s surprise, it was Shirley Arden, herself, at the other end of the wire.
“I think,” he told her, “there are some things we need to have cleared up.”
She hesitated a moment, then said, “I’d be only too glad to talk with you. It’s going to be very difficult for me to come up to Madison City, and you know the position I’m in after the nasty insinuations the newspapers have made. If I showed up there now, they’d have me virtually accused of murder. Couldn’t you come down here?”
“You know where my house is in Beverly Hills?”
“Yes,” he told her, his voice still savagely official. “I once went on a rubberneck tour. Had an old-maid aunt out from the East. She wanted to see where all of the stars lived. Yours is the place that sits up on a hill, with the fountain in the front yard and the stone lions in front of the porch, isn’t it?”
“That’s the one. Could you be there tonight at eight?”
“We can have a quiet little dinner — just we two. Don’t say anything about it. In other words, don’t let anyone know you’re coming to see me.”
“Do you know what I want to see you about?” he asked.
“Haven’t the least idea,” she told him cheerfully, “but I’ll be glad to see you under more favorable circumstances than the last visit.”
“The circumstances,” he announced, “won’t be more favorable.”
Her laugh was a throaty ripple as she said, “My, you’re so grim you frighten me. Tonight, then, at eight. Good-by.” She put the receiver on the hook.
Selby grabbed for his hat and started for Doctor Perry’s Dog and Cat Hospital.
Doctor Perry looked up as Selby came in. He was in his fifties, a man whose manner radiated quiet determination. A police dog was held in a canvas sling in a long bathtub. His head had drooped forward. His tongue lolled from his mouth. His eyes were dazed.
Doctor Perry’s sleeves were rolled up, his smock was stained and splashed. In his right hand he held a long, flexible rubber tube connected with a glass tank. He slightly compressed the end of the tube and washed out the sides of the bathtub.
“That’s all that can be done,” he said. “I’ve got him thoroughly cleaned out and given him a heart stimulant. Now we’ll just have to keep him quiet and see what happens.”
He lifted the big dog as tenderly as though it had been a child, carried it to a warm, dry kennel on which a thick paper mattress had been spread.
Harry Perkins blew his nose explosively. “Think he’ll live?” he asked.
“I can tell you more in a couple of hours. He had an awful shock. You should have got him here sooner.”
“I got him here just as quickly as I could. Do you know what kind of poison it was?”
“No, it was plenty powerful, whatever it was. It doesn’t act like anything I’ve encountered before.”
“This is the district attorney,” Perkins said.
Doctor Perry nodded to Selby and said, “Glad to meet you.”
Perkins said, “Doug, I don’t care how much it costs, I want this thing run to the ground. I want to find the man who poisoned that dog. Rogue has the nicest disposition of any dog in the world. He’s friendly with everyone. Of course, he’s a good watchdog. That’s to be expected. If anyone tries to get in my place and touch anything, Rogue would tear him to pieces. He’s particularly friendly to children. There isn’t a kid in the block but what knows him and loves him.”
The veterinarian fitted the hose over one of the faucets in the bathtub, cleaned out the bathtub, washed off his hands and arms, took off the stained smock and said, “Well, let’s go out to your place and take a look around. I want to see whether it’s general poison which has been put around through the vicinity, or something which was tossed into your yard where your dog would get it.”
“But why should anyone toss anything in to Rogue in particular?”
The veterinarian shrugged his shoulders. “Primarily because he’s a big dog,” he said. “That means when he scratches up lawns, he digs deep into the grass. It’s not often people deliberately poison any particular dog unless he’s a big dog, or unless it’s a little dog who’s vicious. Small, friendly dogs are mostly poisoned from a general campaign. Big dogs are almost always the ones who get singled out for special attention.”
“Why do people poison dogs?” Selby asked.
“For the same reason some people rob and murder,” the veterinarian said. “People in the aggregate are all right, but there’s a big minority that have no regard for the rights of others.”
“To think of a man deliberately throwing a dog poisoned food,” Perkins declared, “makes my blood boil. I’d shoot a man who’d do it.”
“Well, let’s take a run over to your place and look around,” Doctor Perry suggested. “You say the dog hasn’t been out of the yard? We may find some of the poison left there and learn something from it.” “How about Rogue? Can we do him any good staying here?”
“Not a bit. To tell you the truth, Harry, I think he’ll pull through. I’m not making any promises, but I hope he’s over the worst of it. What he needs now is rest. My assistant will keep him under close observation. Have you got your car here?”
“Good. We’ll drive over with you.”
The three of them drove to the place where Perkins had his undertaking establishment, with living quarters over the mortuary. In back of the place was a fenced yard which led to an alley. There was a gate in the alley.
“The dog stayed in here?” Doctor Perry asked.
“Yes. He’s always in the building or here in the yard.”
Doctor Perry walked around the back yard, looking particularly along the line of the fence. Suddenly he stooped and picked up something which appeared to be a ball of earth. He broke it open and disclosed the red of raw meat.
“There you are,” he said; “another little deadly pellet. That’s been mixed by a skillful dog poisoner. He put the poison in raw hamburger, then he rolled the hamburger in the earth so it would be almost impossible to see. A dog’s nose would detect the raw meat through the coating of earth, but your eye would be fooled by the earth which had been placed around it. Let’s look around and see if we can find some more.”
A survey of the yard disclosed two more of the little rolls of poisoned meat.
“Notice the way these were placed along the sides of the fence,” Selby said to the coroner. “They weren’t just tossed over the fence, but were deliberately placed there. That means that someone must have walked through the gate and into the back yard.”
“By George, that’s so!” Perkins exclaimed.
“That’s undoubtedly true,” Doctor Perry agreed. “Now, then, if the dog were here in the yard, why didn’t he bark? Moreover, why didn’t the poisoner stand in the alley and just toss the rolls of meat in to the dog?”
Perkins turned to the district attorney and asked, “What can you do to a dog poisoner, Selby?”
“Not a great deal,” Selby admitted. “It’s hard to convict them, if they stand trial. And when they are convicted a judge usually gives them probation.”
“To my mind,” Perry said, “they should be hung. It’s a worse crime than murder.”
“That’s exactly the way I feel about it,” Perkins agreed emphatically.
They walked back through the yard into the back room of the mortuary.
“We’d better take a look around here, too,” Perry suggested. “This commences to look like an inside job to me. It looks as though someone you’d been talking to had casually strolled around here and planted this stuff. Can you remember having had anyone roaming around the place, Harry? It must have been someone who planted the poison right while you were talking with him.”
“Why, yes,” Perkins said, “there were several people in here. I had a coroner’s jury sitting on the inquest on the man who was murdered in the hotel.”
He turned to Selby and said, “That was yesterday, while you were gone. They returned a verdict of murder by person or persons unknown. I presume you knew that.”
“I gathered they would,” Selby remarked. “It seems the only possible verdict which could have been returned.”
He turned to Perry and said, “I’m wondering if you knew the dead man, Doctor.”
“No, I’d never seen him in my life — not that I know of.”
Selby took a photograph from his inside coat pocket, showed it to Doctor Perry.
“I wish you’d take a good look at that,” he said, “and see if it looks at all familiar.”
Doctor Perry studied it from several angles and slowly shook his head. “No,” he said. “The sheriff asked me about him, and showed me the same picture. I told the sheriff I’d never seen him, but now, looking at this photograph, I somehow get the impression I’ve seen him somewhere. You know, the face has a vaguely familiar look. Perhaps it’s just a type. I can’t place him, but there’s something about him that reminds me of someone.”
Selby was excited. “I wish you’d think carefully,” he said. “You know the man had some clippings in his briefcase about the litigation you’re interested in.”
“Yes, the sheriff told me that he did,” Perry said, “but lots of people are interested in that case. I’ve had lots of letters about it. You see, quite a few people got interlocutory decrees and then went into another state to get married. They’re worried about where they’d stand on inheritances and such. That’s probably why this man was interested … But he reminds me of someone; perhaps it’s a family resemblance. Let me see what clippings he cut out, and I may be able to tell you more about him. I must have had a hundred letters from people who sent clippings and asked for details.”
“Ever answer the letters?” Selby asked.
“No. I didn’t have time. It keeps me busy running my own business. Paying off the mortgage on this new hospital keeps my nose to the grindstone. I wish that lawsuit would get finished; but my lawyer says it’s about over now. I couldn’t pay him a regular fee, so he took it on a contingency. He’ll make almost as much out of it as I will.”
“Hope he does,” the coroner said. “He owes me a nice little sum on a note that’s overdue.”
The coroner took out the briefcase, suitcase and portable typewriter. “By the way,” he asked, “is it all right to deliver these to the widow? She was in to get them a while ago.”
“I think so,” Selby said, “but you’d better ask the sheriff and get his okay.”
“I did that already. He says it’s okay by him, if it is by you.”
“Go ahead and give them to her then. But be sure the inventory checks.”
The coroner opened the suitcase, also the briefcase.
“Well,” Selby said, “I’m going to be getting on back to the office. Perhaps Doctor Perry can tell us something after his examination of those poisoned scraps.”
“Wait a minute,” the veterinarian said, laying down the newspaper clippings the coroner had handed him. “What’s that over there in the corner?”
Perkins stared, then said, “Good Lord, it’s another one of the same things.”
They walked over and picked it up. Perry examined it, then dropped it into his pocket.
“That settles it,” he announced. “It was aimed directly at your dog and it’s an inside job, someone who’s been in here today. Can you remember who was in here?”
“The last man in here today,” Perkins said, “was George Cushing, manager of the Madison Hotel. It’s a cinch he wouldn’t have done anything like that.”
“No,” Selby said, “we’d hardly put Cushing in the category of a dog poisoner.”
“Who else?” the veterinarian asked.
“Mrs. Larrabie was in here, the dead man’s widow. She looked over the things in the suitcase and in the briefcase. And Fred Latteur, your lawyer. He came in to tell me he’d pay off my note when he had your case settled. He wouldn’t have any reason to poison the dog.”
“Let’s take a look around and see if we can find some more,” Doctor Perry said. “Each one of us take a room. Make a thorough search.”
They looked through the rooms and Selby found another of the peculiarly distinctive bits of poisoned meat.
“Anyone else been in here today?” Selby demanded. “Think carefully, Perkins. It’s important. There’s more to this than appears on the surface.”
“No … Wait a minute, Mrs. Brower was in. She’s on the warpath,” the coroner said. “She thought I had five thousand dollars that had been taken from the hotel. She insists that it’s her husband’s money.”
“Did she say where he got it?”
“She said Larrabie had Brower’s wallet, and that the five thousand-dollar bills had been in Brower’s wallet. Therefore, Brower was entitled to them.”
“What did she want you to do?”
“She wanted me to give her the money. When I told her I didn’t have it, she wanted to take a look at the wallet. She said she could tell whether it was her husband’s.”
“Did you show it to her?”
“The sheriff has it. I sent her up to the sheriff’s office.”
Selby said abruptly, “You can give the rest of the stuff back to Mrs. Larrabie, Harry. I’m going to take that camera. Tell her she can have the Camera in a day or two, but I want to see if there are any exposed films in it. They might furnish a clue. I’ve been too busy to give them any thought, but they may be important.”
“A darned good idea,” the coroner said. “That chap came down here from the northern part of the state. He probably took photographs en route. Those camera fiends are just the kind to put their friends on the front steps of the capitol building at Sacramento and take a bunch of snapshots. You may find something there that’ll be worthwhile.”
Selby nodded and pocketed the camera.
“You let me know about that dog,” Perkins said anxiously to the veterinarian. Then he turned to Selby: “I want something done about this poisoning. At least drag these people who’ve been in here for questioning. And I’d start with Mrs. Brower. She looks mean to me.”
“I’ll give you a ring in an hour or two,” Selby promised. “I’m pretty busy on that murder case, but I have a hunch this poisoning business may be connected somehow with that case. I’ll do everything I can.”
“It’s commencing to look,” Doctor Perry said, “as though this wasn’t any casual poisoning, but something that had been carefully planned to get Rogue out of the way. I’d guard this place day and night for a while, if I were you, Perkins.”
Selby said, “Good idea,” and left Perkins and the veterinarian talking as he started for his office.
Selby felt absurdly conspicuous as he parked his car in front of the actress’ residence. There was something about the quiet luxury of the place which made the stone Peiping lions on either side of the porch stairway seem as forbidding as vicious watchdogs.
Selby climbed the stairs. The vine-covered porch gave a hint of cool privacy for the hot days of summer.
A military-appearing butler, with broad, straight shoulders, thin waist and narrow hips, opened the door almost as soon as Selby’s finger touched the bell button. Looking past him to the ornate magnificence of the reception hallway and the living room which opened beyond, Selby felt once more that touch of awkward embarrassment, a vague feeling of being out of place.
That feeling was dissipated by the sight of Shirley Arden. She was wearing a cocktail gown, and he noticed with satisfaction that, while there was a touch of formality in her attire, it was only the semi-formality with which one would receive an intimate friend. When she came toward him she neither presumed too much on their previous acquaintance, nor was she distant. She gave him her hand and said, “So glad you could come, Mr. Selby. We’d probably have felt a little more businesslike if we’d dined in one of the cafes; but under the circumstances, it wouldn’t do for us to be seen together.
“The spaciousness of all of this is more or less a setting. I have to do quite a bit of entertaining, you know. Just the two of us will rattle around in here like two dry peas in a paper bag, so I’ve told Jarvis to set a table in the den.”
She slipped her arm through his and said, “Come on and look around. I’m really proud of this architecture.”
She showed him through the house, switching lights on as she walked. Selby had a confused, blurred recollection of spacious rooms, of a patio with a fountain, a private swimming pool with lights embedded in the bottom of the tank so that a tinted glow suffused the water, basement sport rooms with pool, billiard and ping pong tables, a cocktail room with a built-in bar, mirrors and oil paintings which were a burlesque on the barroom paintings of the nineties.
They finished their tour in a comfortable little book-lined den, with huge French doors opening out to a corner of a patio on one side, the other three sides lined with bookcases, the books leather-backed, deluxe editions.
Shirley Arden motioned him to a seat, flung herself into one of the chairs, and raised her feet to an ottoman with a carelessly intimate display of legs.
She stretched out her arms and said wearily, “Lord, but it was a trying day at the studio. How’s the district-attorney business going?”
“Not so good,” he told her, his voice uncompromisingly determined.
The butler brought them cocktails and a tray of appetizers, which he set on the coffee table between them. As they clicked the rims of their glasses, Selby noticed the butler placing the huge silver cocktail shaker, beaded with frosty moisture, upon the table.
“I don’t go in for much of this, you know. And, after all, this visit is official,” Selby said.
“Neither do I,” she told him, laughing, “but don’t get frightened at the size of the container. That’s just Hollywood hospitality. Don’t drink any more than you want. There’s an inner container in that cocktail shaker, so the drink will keep cold as ice without being diluted by melting ice. You can have just as much or as little as you want.
“You know, we who are actively working in pictures don’t dare to do much drinking. It’s the people who are slipping on the downward path toward oblivion who hit it heavy. And there are always a lot of hangers-on who can punish the liquor. Try some of those anchovy tarts with the cream cheese around them. It sounds like an awful combination, but I can assure you they’re really fine. Jarvis invented them, and there are a dozen hostesses in town who would scratch my eyes out to get the recipe for that cream cheese sauce.”
Selby began to feel more at home. The cocktail warmed him, and there was a delightful informality about Shirley Arden which made the spacious luxury of the house seem something which was reserved for mere formal occasions, while the warm intimacy of this little den gave the impression of having been created entirely for Selby’s visit. He found it impossible to believe her capable of deceit.
She put down her empty cocktail glass, smiled, and said unexpectedly, with the swift directness of a meteor shooting across a night sky, “So you wanted to see me about the perfume?”
“How did you know?” he asked.
“I knew perfume entered into the case somewhere,” she said, “because of the very apparent interest you took in the perfume I used.
“As a matter of fact, I changed my perfume either one or two days before, I’ve forgotten which, on the advice of an astrologer. You don’t believe in astrology, do you?”
He didn’t answer her question directly, but asked, “Why did you change your perfume? “
“Because I was informed that the stars threatened disaster, if I didn’t … Oh, I know it sounds so absolutely weird and uncanny when one says it that way, but there are lots of things which seem perfectly logical in the privacy of your own mind which look like the devil when you bring them out into public conversation. Don’t you think so?”
“Go on,” he told her. “I’m listening.”
She laughed and flexed her muscles as some cat might twist and stretch in warm sunlight; not the stretch of weariness, but that sinuous, twisting stretch of excess animal vitality seeking outlet through muscular activity.
“Do you know,” she said, “we are hopelessly ignorant about the most simple things of life. Take scent, for instance. A flower gives forth a scent. A man gives forth a scent. Every living thing has some odor associated with it. I can walk down this path” — and she made a sweeping, graceful gesture toward the patio beyond the French windows — “with my feet incased in leather. Each foot rests on the ground for only a fifth of a second, if I’m walking rapidly. Yet my life force throws off vibrations. The very ground I have walked on starts vibrating in harmony with the rhythm of my own vibrations. We can prove that by having a bloodhound start on my trail. His nose is attuned to the vibrations which we call odor, or scent. He can detect unerringly every place where I have put my foot.
“Women use scent to enhance their charm. It emphasizes, in some way, the vibration they are casting forth, vibrations which are emanating all the time. One scent will go fine with one personality, yet clash with another. Do you see what I mean?”
“I’m still listening,” Selby told her. “And the anchovy tarts are delicious.”
She laughed, glanced swiftly at him. There was almost a trace of fear in her eyes and more than a trace of nervousness in her laugh.
“There’s something about you,” she said, “which frightens me. You’re so … persistently direct.”
“Rude?” he asked.
“No,” she said, “it’s not rudeness. It’s a positive, vital something. You’re boring directly toward some definite objective in everything you do.”
“We were talking,” he told her, “about the reason you changed your perfume.”
“For some time,” she said, “I’ve known that I was — well, let us say, out of step with myself. Things haven’t been going just right. There were numerous little irritations which ordinarily I’d have paid no attention to. But recently they began to pile up. I began to lose that inner harmony, that sense of being in tune with the rhythm of existence — if you know what I mean?”
“I think I understand, yes.”
“I went to an astrologer. She told me that my personality was undergoing a change, and I can realize she’s correct. Now that I look back on it, I think every successful picture actress goes through at least two distinct phases of development. Very few of us are born to the purple. We’re usually recruited from all walks of life — stenographers, waitresses, artists’ models. We’re a peculiar lot. We nearly always have a wild streak, which makes us break loose into an unconventional form of life. I don’t mean immorality. I mean lacy of conventional routine.
“Then we get a tryout. We’re given minor parts. We are given a major part. If it’s a poor story with poor direction and poor support, that’s all there is to it. But occasionally it’s a good story with good direction, something outstanding. A new personality is flashed on the screen to the eyes of theatergoers, and the effect is instantaneous. Millions of people all over the world suddenly shower approval upon that new star.
“On the legitimate stage, if an actress is a success, she receives a thunder of applause from the five hundred to fifteen hundred people who compose an audience. The next night she may not be doing so well. The audience may not be quite so responsive. If she does achieve success, it will be through constant repetition before numerous audiences. But, in the picture business, one picture is made, the moods of an actress are captured, imprisoned in a permanent record. That record is flashed simultaneously before hundreds of thousands of audiences, comprising millions of people. That’s why acclaim is so rapid.”
“Let me fill up your cocktail glass.”
“No,” he told her, “one’s plenty.”
“Oh, come on,” she coaxed, “have half a one. I want one more and I don’t want to feel conspicuous.”
“Just half a one, then,” he said.
She didn’t try to take advantage of his acquiescence, but was scrupulously careful to pause when his glass was half full. She filled her own, raised it to her lips and sipped it appreciatively.
“I’m trying to tell you this in detail,” I she said, “because I’m so darned anxious to have you understand me, and to understand my problems.”
“And the reason for changing the perfume,” he reminded her.
“Don’t worry,” she remarked; “I won’t try to dodge the question — not with such a persistent cross-examiner.
“Well, anyway, an actress finds herself catapulted into fame, almost overnight. The public takes a terrific interest in her. If she goes out to a restaurant, she’s pointed out and stared at. On the street, people driving automobiles suddenly recognize her and crane their necks in complete disregard of traffic. The fan magazines have published article after article about the other stars. Now they’re crazy to satisfy reader demand for a new star. They have perfectly fresh material to work with. They want to know every little intimate detail about the past.
“Of course, lots of it’s hooey. Lots of it isn’t. People are interested. I’m not conceited enough to think they’re interested entirely in the star. They’re interested in the spectacle of some fellow mortal being shot up into wealth, fame and success.
“Every girl working as a stenographer, every saleslady standing with aching feet and smiling at cranky customers, every waitress listening to the fresh cracks of the wise-guys in some little jerkwater, greasy-spoon eating joint, realizes that only a few months ago this star who is now the toast of the world was one of them. It’s a story of success which they might duplicate. It’s Cinderella come true.
“No wonder a star’s personality changes. She emerges from complete obscurity, drab background and usually a very meager idea of the formalities, into the white light of publicity. Visiting notables want to lunch with her; money pours in on her; there’s pomp, glitter, the necessity of a complete readjustment. An actress either breaks under that, or she achieves poise. When she achieves poise, she’s become a different personality, in a way.”
“And why did you change your perfume?”
“Because I’ve passed through that stage and didn’t realize it. I’d been using the same perfume for months. And during those months I’ve been undergoing a transition of personality.”
She pressed an electric button. Almost instantly the butler appeared with a steaming tureen of soup.
“Let’s eat,” she said, smiling. “We’re having just a little informal dinner. No elaborate banquet.” He seated her at the table. The butler served the soup. When he had retired, she smiled across at Selby and said, “Now that that’s explained, what else do we talk about?”
Selby said slowly: “We talk about the brand of perfume you used before you made the change, and whether you were still using this same brand of perfume on last Monday, when you stayed at the Madison Hotel. And we once more talk about why you made the change.”
She slowly lowered her spoon to her plate. The elation had vanished from her manner.
“Go ahead and eat,” she said wearily; “we’ll talk it over after dinner — if we must.”
“You should have known,” he told her, “that we must.”
She sighed, picked up her spoon, tried to eat the soup, but her appetite had vanished. She was conscious of her obligations as hostess, but when the butler removed her soup dish it was more than two-thirds filled.
A salad, steak, vegetables and dessert were perfectly cooked and served. Selby was hungry, and ate. Shirley Arden was like some woman about to be led to the executioner and enduring the irony of that barbaric custom which decrees that one about to die shall be given an elaborate repast.
She tried to keep up conversation, but there was no spontaneity to her words.
At length, when the dessert had been finished and the butler served a liqueur, she raised her eyes to Selby and said with lips which seemed to be on the verge of trembling, “Go ahead.”
“What perfume did you use on Monday, the old or the new?”
“The old,” she said.
“Precisely what,” he asked her, shooting one question at her when she expected another, “is your hold on George Cushing?”
She remained smiling, but her nostrils slightly dilated. She was breathing heavily. “I didn’t know that I had any hold on him,” she said.
“Yes, you did,” Selby told her. “You have a hold on him and you use it. You go to Madison City and he protects your incognito.”
“Wouldn’t any wise hotel manager do that same thing?”
“I know Cushing,” Selby said. “I know there’s some reason for what he does.”
“All right,” she said wearily, “I have a hold on him. And the perfume which you smelled on the five thousand dollars was the perfume which I used. And Cushing telephoned to me in Los Angeles to warn me that you were suspicious; that you’d found out I’d been at the hotel; that you thought the five thousand-dollar bills had been given to Larrabie by me. So what?”
For a moment Selby thought she was going to faint. She swayed in her chair. Her head drooped forward.
“Shirley!” he exclaimed, unconscious that he was using her first name.
His hand had just touched her shoulder, when a pane of glass in the French window shattered. A voice called, “Selby! Look here!”
He looked up to see a vague, shadowy figure standing outside the door. He caught a glimpse of something which glittered, and then a blinding flash dazzled his eyes. Involuntarily he blinked and, when he opened his eyes, it seemed that the illumination in the room was merely a half darkness.
He closed his eyes, rubbed them. Gradually the details of the room swam back into his field of vision. He saw Shirley Arden, her arms on the table, her head drooped forward on her arm. He saw the shattered glass of the windowpane, the dark outline of the French doors.
Selby ran to the French door, jerked it open. His eyes, rapidly regaining their ability to see, strained themselves into the half-darkness.
He saw the outlines of the huge house, stretching in the form of an open U around the patio, the swimming pool with its colored lights, the fountain which splashed water down into a basin filled with water lilies, porch swings, tables shaded by umbrellas, reclining chairs — but he saw no sign of motion.
From the street, Selby heard the quick rasp of a starting motor, the roar of an automobile engine, and then the snarling sound of tires as the car shot away into the night.
Selby turned back toward the room. Shirley Arden was as he had left her. He went toward her, placed a hand on her shoulder. Her flesh quivered beneath his hand.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “it’s just one of those things. But you’ll have to go through with it now.”
He heard the pound of heavy, masculine steps, heard the excited voice of the butler, then the door of the den burst open and Ben Trask, his face twisting with emotion, stood glaring on the threshold.
“You cheap shyster!” he said. “You damned publicity-courting, doublecrossing … ”
Selby straightened, came toward him. “Who the devil are you talking to?” he asked.
Shirley Arden was on her feet with a quick, panther-like motion. She dashed between the two men, pushed against Trask’s chest with her hands. “No, no, Ben!” she exclaimed. “Stop it! You don’t understand. Can’t you see … ”
“The devil I don’t understand,” he said. “I understand everything.”
“I told him,” she said. “I had to tell him.”
‘Told him what?”
“Told him about Cushing, about . . .”
“Shut up, you little fool.”
Selby, stepping ominously forward, said, “Just a minute, Trask. While you may not realize it, this visit is in my official capacity and … ”
“You and your official capacity both be damned!” Trask told him. “You deliberately engineered a cheap publicity stunt. You wanted to drag Shirley Arden into that hick-town murder inquiry of yours so you’d get plenty of publicity. You deliberately imposed on her to set the stage, and then you arrange to have one of your local newshounds come on down to take a flashlight. “Can’t you see it, Shirley?” Trask pleaded. “He’s double-crossed you. He’s … ”
Selby heard his voice saying with a cold fury, “You, Trask, are a damned liar.”
Trask pushed Shirley Arden away from him with no more effort than if she had been some gossamer figure without weight or substance.
He was a big, powerful man, yet he moved with the swiftness of a heavyweight pugilist and, despite his rage, his advance was technically correct — left foot forward, right foot behind, fists doubled, right arm across his stomach, left elbow close to the body.
Something in the very nature of the man’s posture warned Selby of that which he might expect. He was dealing with a trained fighter.
Trask’s fist lashed out in a swift, piston-like blow for Selby’s jaw.
Selby remembered the days when he had won the conference boxing championship for his college. Automatically his rage chilled until it became a cold, deadly, driving purpose. He moved with swift, machinelike efficiency, pivoting his body away from the blow, and, at the same time, pushing out with his left hand just enough to catch Trask’s arm, throw Trask off balance and send the fist sliding over his shoulder.
Trask’s face twisted with surprise. He swung his right up in a vicious uppercut, but Selby, with the added advantage of being perfectly balanced, his weight shifted so that his powerful body muscles could be brought into play, smashed over a terrific right.
His primitive instincts were to slam his fist for Trask’s face, just as a person yielding to a blind rage wants to throw caution to the winds, neglect to guard, concentrate only on battering the face of his opponent. But Selby’s boxing training was controlling his mind. His right shot out straight for Trask’s solar plexus.
He felt his fist strike the soft, yielding torso, saw Trask bend forward and groan.
From the corner of his eye, Selby was conscious of Shirley Arden, her rigid forefinger pressed Against the electric push button which would summon the butler.
Trask staggered to one side, lashed out with a right which grazed the point of Selby’s jaw, throwing him momentarily off balance.
He heard Shirley Arden’s voice screaming, “Stop it, stop it! Both of you! Stop it! Do you hear?”
Selby sidestepped another blow, saw that Trask’s face was gray with pain, saw a rush of motion as the broad-shouldered butler came running into the room, saw Shirley Arden’s outstretched forefinger pointing at Trask. “Take him, Jarvis,” she said.
The big butler hardly changed his stride. He went forward into a football tackle.
Trask, swinging a terrific left, was caught around the waist and went down like a tenpin. A chair crashed into splintered kindling beneath the impact of the two men.
Selby was conscious of Shirley Arden’s blazing eyes.
“Go!” she commanded.
The butler scrambled to his feet. Trask dropped to the floor, his hands pressed against his stomach, his face utterly void of color.
“Just a minute,” Selby said to the actress, conscious that he was breathing heavily. “You have some questions to answer.”
“Never!” she blazed.
Trask’s voice, sounding flat and toneless, said, “Don’t be a damned fool, Shirley. He’s framed it all. Can’t you see?”
The butler turned hopefully toward Selby.
“Don’t try it, my man,” Selby said.
It was Shirley Arden who pushed Jarvis back.
“No,” she said, “there’s no necessity for any more violence. Mr. Selby is going to leave.”
She came toward him, stared up at him.
“To think,” she said scornfully, “that you’d resort to a trick like this. Ben warned me not to trust you. He said you’d deliberately planned to let the news leak out to the papers; that you were trying to put pressure on me until I’d break. I wouldn’t believe him. And now — this — this despicable trick.
“I respected you. Yes, if you want to know it, I admired you. Admired you so much I couldn’t be normal when I was with you. Ben told me I was losing my head like a little schoolgirl.
“You were so poised, so certain of yourself, so absolutely straightforward and wholeheartedly sincere that you seemed like pure gold against the fourteen-carat brass I’d been associating with in Hollywood. And now you turn out to be just as rotten and just as lousy as the rest of them. Get out!”
“Now, listen,” Selby said; “I’m … ”
The butler stepped forward. “You heard what she told you,” he said ominously. “Get out!”
Shirley Arden turned on her heel.
“He’ll get out, Jarvis,” she said wearily. “You won’t have to put him out — but see that he leaves.”
“Miss Arden, please,” Selby said, stepping forward, “you can’t … ”
The big butler tensed his muscles. “Going someplace,” he said ominously, “besides out?”
Shirley Arden, without once looking back over her shoulder, left the room. Ben Trask scrambled to his feet.
“Watch him, Jarvis,” Trask warned; “he’s dynamite. What the hell did you tackle me for?”
“She said to,” the butler remarked coolly, never taking his eyes off Selby.
“She’s gone nuts over him,” Trask said.
“Get out,” the butler remarked to Selby.
Selby knew when he was faced with hopeless odds.
“Miss Arden,” he said, “is going to be questioned. If she gives me an audience now, that questioning will take place here. If she doesn’t, it will take place before the grand jury in Madison City. You gentlemen pay your money and take your choice.”
“It’s already paid,” the butler said.
Selby started toward the front of the house. Trask came limping behind him.
“Don’t think you’re so much,” Trask said sneeringly. “You may be a big toad in a small puddle, but you’ve got a fight on your hands now. You’ll get no more cooperation out of us. And remember another thing: There’s a hell of a lot of money invested in Shirley Arden. That money buys advertising in the big metropolitan newspapers. They’re going to print our side of this thing, not yours.”
The butler said evenly, “Shut up, Trask; you’re making a damned fool of yourself.”
He handed Selby his hat and gloves; his manner became haughtily deferential as he said, “Shall I help you on with your coat, sir?”
“Yes,” Selby told him.
Selby permitted the man to adjust the coat about his neck. He leisurely drew on his gloves, and said, “The door, Jarvis.”
“Oh, certainly,” the butler remarked sarcastically, holding open the door, bowing slightly from the waist.
Selby marched across the spacious porch, down the front steps which led to the sloping walk.
Selby found that he couldn’t get the developed negatives from the miniature camera until the next morning at nine o’clock. He went to a hotel, telephoned Rex Brandon and said, “I’ve uncovered a lead down here, Rex, which puts an entirely new angle on the case. George Cushing is mixed in it some way, I don’t know just how much.
“Cushing knew that the five thousand dollars came from Shirley Arden. He’s the one who warned her to change her perfume after he knew I was going to try and identify the bills from the scent which was on them.”
“You mean the money actually did come from the actress?” Rex Brandon asked.
“Yes,” Selby said wearily.
“I thought you were certain it didn’t.”
“Well, it did.”
“You mean she lied to you?”
“That’s what it amounts to.”
“You aren’t going to take that sitting down, are you?”
“I am not.”
“What else did she say?”
“Well, make her say something.”
“Unfortunately,” Selby said, “that’s something which is easier said than done. As was pointed out to me in a conversation a short time ago, we’re fighting some very powerful interests.
“In the first place, Shirley Arden’s name means a lot to the motion-picture industry, and the motion-picture industry is financed by banks controlled by men who have a lot of political influence.
“I’m absolutely without authority down here. The only way we can get Shirley Arden where she has to answer questions is to have her subpoenaed before the grand jury.”
“You’re going to do that?”
“Yes. Get a subpoena issued and get it served.”
“Will she try to avoid service?”
“Sure. Moreover, they’ll throw every legal obstacle in our way that they can. Get Bob Kentley, my deputy, to be sure that subpoena is legally airtight.”
“How about the publicity angle?”
“I’m afraid,” Selby said, “the publicity angle is something that’s entirely beyond our control. The fat’s in the fire now. The worst of it is they think that I was responsible for it. Miss Arden thinks I was trying to get some advertisement.”
“What do you mean?”
“Someone — I suppose it was Bittner — took a flashlight photograph of me dining tete-a-tete with Shirley Arden in her home.”
“That sort of puts you on a spot,” the sheriff sympathized.
“Are you telling me?” Selby asked. “Anyway, it’s absolutely ruined any possibility of cooperation at this end.”
“How about Cushing? What’ll we do with him?”
“Put the screws down on him.”
“He’s been one of our staunchest supporters.”
“I don’t give a damn what he’s been. Get hold of him and give him the works. I’m going to get those pictures in the camera developed, and then I’ll be up in the morning. In the meantime I’m going out to a show and forget that murder case.”
“Better try a burlesque, son,” the sheriff advised. “You sound sort of disillusioned. You weren’t falling for that actress, were you?”
“Go to the devil,” Selby said. “ … Say, Rex!”
“Give Sylvia Martin the breaks on that Cushing end of the story. She’s the one who originally smelled a rat there.”
“What do you mean?”
“Talk with her. Get her ideas. They may not be so bad. I thought they were haywire when she first spilled them. Now I think she’s on the right track.”
Selby hung up the phone, took a hot bath, changed his clothes and felt better. He took in a comedy, but failed to respond to the humor of situations which sent the audience into paroxysms of mirth. There was a chilled, numb feeling in the back of his mind, the feeling of one who has had ideals shattered, who has lost confidence in a friend. Moreover, there was hanging over him that vague feeling which comes to one who wakes on a bright sunny morning, only to realize that the day holds some inevitable impending disaster.
After the show he aimlessly tramped the streets for more than an hour. Then he returned to his room.
As he opened the door and was groping for the light switch, he was filled with a vague sense of uneasiness. For a moment he couldn’t determine the source of that feeling of danger. Then he realized that the odor of cigar smoke was clinging to the room.
Selby didn’t smoke cigars. Someone who did smoke cigars was either in the room or had been in it.
Selby found the light switch, pressed it and braced himself against an attack.
There was no one in the room.
Selby entered the room, kicked the door shut behind him and made certain that it was bolted. He was on the point of barricading it with a chair, when he thought of the similar circumstances under which William Larrabie had met his death.
Feeling absurdly self-conscious, the district attorney got to his knees and peered under the bed. He saw nothing. He tried the doors to the connecting rooms and made certain they were both bolted on the inside. He opened the window and looked out. The fire escape was not near enough to furnish a means of ingress.
His baggage consisted of a single light handbag. It was on the floor where he had left it, but Selby noticed on the bedspread an oblong imprint with the dots of four round depressions in the corners.
He picked up his handbag, looked at the bottom. There were round brass studs in each corner. Carefully he fitted the bag to the impression on the bedspread. Beyond any doubt someone had placed the bag on the bed. Selby had not done so.
He opened the bag. It had been searched hurriedly. Apparently the contents had been dumped onto the bed, then thrown back helter-skelter.
Selby stood staring at it in puzzled scrutiny. Why should anyone have searched his handbag?
What object of value did he have? The search had been hasty and hurried, showing that the man who made it had been fighting against time, apparently afraid that Selby would return to the room in time to catch the caller at his task. But, not having found what he looked for, the man had overcome his fear of detection sufficiently to remain and make a thorough search of the room. That much was evident by the reek of cigar smoke.
The prowler had probably lit a cigar to steady his nerves. Then he had evidently made a thorough search, apparently looking for some object which had been concealed. Selby pulled back the bedspread.
The pillows had lost that appearance of starched symmetry which is the result of a chambermaid’s deft touch. Evidently they had been moved and replaced.
Suddenly the thought of the camera crashed home to Selby’s consciousness.
He had left the camera at the camera store, where the man had promised, in view of Selby’s explanation of his position and the possible significance of the films, to have the negatives ready by morning. Evidently that camera was, then, of far greater importance than he had originally assumed.
Selby opened the windows and transom in order to air out the cigar smoke. He undressed, got into bed and was unable to sleep. Finally, notwithstanding the fact that he felt utterly ludicrous in doing so, he arose, walked in bare feet across the carpet, picked up a straight-backed chair, dragged it to the door, and tilted it in such a way that the back was caught under the doorknob.
It was exactly similar to the manner in which the dead minister had barricaded his room on the night of the murder.
TO BE CONTINUED (READ CONCLUSION)
Featured image: Selby looked up to see a vague, shadowy figure standing outside the door. (Illustrated by Dudley Gloyne Summers; SEPS)
As a writing team, Edwin Balmer and William MacHarg collaborated on several detective stories in the early century, notably The Indian Drum and The Achievements of Luther Trant. In the years between the keystone mystery fiction of Poe and Christie, Balmer and MacHarg’s works filled the genre’s gap with clever and thrilling tales tinged with science and romance.
Published on June 26, 1926
An incident, trivial in itself but not at all trivial in its possible consequences, occurred at the Montview Hotel, Denver, during the first week of July. It so aroused the curiosity of Goebel, the resident manager, that he referred it to Steve Faraday, owner of the Montview and half a dozen other Faraday hotels, when Steve made his regular visit a few days later on his midsummer swing of inspection.
“Our register for March 15th, three years ago, has suddenly become mighty important to somebody,” Goebel reported.
“How important?” asked Steve.
“This is all I know now: Last week — Monday, it was — a good-looking, very attractive young fellow — English-looking and speaking like an Englishman — came in when I happened to be in the front office. He asked for our register for March, three years back; said he was an attorney for a party in a lawsuit and wanted to prove by our records that a Franklin Smith was in New York, and not in Denver, on March 13th. I sent to the file room and let him look at the register.”
“All right,” said Steve attentively.
“He appeared all right,” Goebel continued. “So I did not watch him. He looked over the book for a few minutes and turned it back to me, thanking me very politely. I remember I asked him, ‘Was your man here?’
“‘He wasn’t. That’s what I wanted to show,’ he said. Then he went out; and no one here saw him again; but on Wednesday night the book was taken.”
“It was stolen from the file room. The clerk in charge reported to me a volume missing. It was that book for March, three years back.”
“You had returned it to the file room?”
“Nobody on the staff had taken it out again?” asked Steve. The loss of a register, three years old, would not have impressed him as important except for Goebel’s evident interest. Steve considered, however, that Goebel, though an excellent manager, was likely to exaggerate small incidents.
“No; nobody of the staff had it out,” replied Goebel positively. “The file-room clerk is sure it was taken outside the house. Naturally, I thought of the Englishman who’d asked for it Monday. It looked to me that, being interested in a lawsuit, he’d wanted some record destroyed. But the next night the book was back.”
“Who returned it?”
“We don’t know. There it was in its place again.”
“With all its pages?”
“Yes; nothing torn out.”
“What was done to it then?”
“I looked first on the pages for March thirteenth. My idea was that he’d taken it to change some entry about his Franklin Smith. There was no Smith on the pages for the thirteenth; but on the fifteenth was this”:
Goebel opened the big book, bulky in its permanent binding, and Steve ran his eye down the list of names in the different individual hands of the guests of three years and four months ago:
A.G. Sprague and wife … Pueblo.
H.E. Henty … St. Louis, Mo.
Arlo Kane, Mrs. Kane and maid … N.Y. City.
L.B. Hougham-Stearns and son and manservant … London.
“Fourth line,” Goebel directed, and he held for Steve a magnifying glass. “Now look at it.”
“Name looks all right.”
“But after it ‘and son and manservant.’ Isn’t the ‘and son’ crowded and the ink in those two words newer?”
“You mean you think this has been changed since the original entry, which was ‘L.B. Hougham-Stearns and’ — ”
“ — ‘and manservant,’“ said Goebel. “But originally I think there was a little blank space left between the name and ‘and manservant’; and somebody recently wrote in ‘and son.’ I’ve looked through the rest of the book since I saw that. There are other crowded entries and several erasures; they plainly were made in the regular course of business; but this one, I’m sure, is fresh.”
“What do you make of it?” asked Steve, still doubtful whether the entry had been changed.
“I make it mighty important for somebody to want to be able to prove that the son of L. B. Hougham-Stearns, of London, was here with him three years ago last March as well as the manservant. So he, or someone else for him, came in and had a look at the entry, saw how it might be changed, got the book, made the change and returned it to our possession so that he can prove by it, later, whatever it’s important to him to prove.”
“H’m — who’s L.B. Hougham-Stearns, of London?”
“I don’t remember him at all; but you can see from the register he had our best suite; and day before yesterday this was in a newspaper.” Goebel handed Steve a clipping from a Los Angeles newspaper and Steve read:
“Sussex House in Southern California, the home of L.B. Hougham-Stearns, who came to California from London about three years ago, is reported to be for sale. Mr. Hougham-Stearns came to California because of conditions of health and was so improved that he decided to settle and he made immense land purchases. Recently, his health has again failed; and though he finds California most delightful, sentimental ties recall him to England.”
“H’m!” said Steve, considering. If the entry in the register really had been changed, the appearance of such an item at this time suggested a design of importance. On the other hand, Steve wondered whether Goebel had been so certain that there had been a change in the entry after Hougham-Stearns’ name before he had discovered the newspaper item.
“What’d we better do?” asked Goebel.
“Nothing,” said Steve, “except keep this to ourselves. If this entry has been changed and the book is wanted, we’ll hear from it. By the way, did you by any chance take any action which would have informed the thief — I mean the borrower of the book — that you missed it?”
“That’s good,” said Steve. “Then whatever’s coming — if anything does come — is sure to come to us.”
Steve Faraday, who was twenty-six, had, you see, inherited his hotels. They had come to him from his father as going concerns, financially successful and with a perfected organization; so upon Steve had devolved their development along their newest and, to him, most interesting phase — the ministering to the tastes, individual needs and even fancies of his guests.
Sooner or later, Steve knew, nearly everybody in the civilized world stops at a hotel, and often at the most critical period of their lives. Steve found the strange, unexpected and unpredictable events constantly occurring among the ten thousand persons who nightly sought the shelter of his roofs the most fascinating feature of his business; and to the precepts left by his father to the organization, and repeated and quoted, he had added another of his own invention which he thought particularly applicable to such cases: “Service which exceeds the guest’s expectation is the most efficient, although silent, advertising.”
At his hotel in St. Louis, where he had been four days before his arrival in Denver, for instance, a guest — a woman — had attempted suicide. Revived and restored to herself in the hotel hospital, she had refused to give any reason for her act or any particulars about herself. The incident made a five-line paragraph in the newspapers. It had not become known outside the hotel that the initials on her hand baggage corresponded, not with the name she had signed upon the register, but with those of one of the characters in a famous divorce case.
On leaving Denver, Steve went to Chicago, where, at his house, the Tonty, the problem of procedure momentarily concerning the management was the question whether a huge black-bearded man who had registered as D. Cozene, of Belgrade, and who spoke no English, had liberty of movement or was in fact practically imprisoned in his room by the intimidation of his two attendants. This doubt Cozene himself cleared up, the day after Steve’s arrival, by going out alone. And leaving for Cleveland on the second evening later, Steve’s thoughts turned to his Cleveland house, the Commodore Perry, and to the counterfeit money which had caused its management so much annoyance.
Bills of twenty-dollar denomination, so excellently made as to make detection difficult, had appeared in circulation in the hotel just previous to Steve’s stopping there on his way west some two weeks previous. Numbers of them had appeared in the receipts of the various cashiers; some had been refused in the hotel’s deposit at the bank; and, what was more serious, many of them had found their way from the cashiers into the possession of guests. The money loss to the hotel had been only a few hundred dollars; the annoyance to his guests Steve could not regard so philosophically. Not less than a dozen letters had been received from departed guests, inclosing one or more of the bills which they had received in change at the hotel. Steve readily could put himself in the place of one who, leaving the hotel with perhaps eighty dollars in his pocket, found half of it bad. Then the bills had stopped.
Steve had left it to Claflin, his manager at the Commodore Perry, to determine their source and whether a guest or a member of the staff had put them in circulation; now he remembered that he had heard nothing from Claflin in regard to it.
Arriving at the Commodore Perry in the morning, Steve greeted his manager in the front office.
“Send Ebor a dollar,” Steve directed one of the clerks on duty. Ebor was the taxi starter. “He paid for my cab.”
Claflin drew him aside quietly. “Have you a big bill on you?” he asked in a low tone. “Fifty or a hundred? Change it yourself then at the front cashier’s window.”
Steve looked at him quickly. “You mean it has begun again?”
“The same bills as before?”
“And you suspect one of the staff?”
“It looks like it.”
Steve moved to the front cashier’s window with curiosity as to whom he would find on duty.
“Why, Mr. Faraday!” a girl’s pleasant voice greeted him from behind the grating; and Steve faced, to his surprise, not a stranger, as he expected, but a girl well and most favorably known to him.
“How do you do, Clara?” he asked, reaching under the grating to shake hands with her. His feeling chiefly was irritation at Claflin, who, if he suspected this girl, must have made a mistake. She was a very good-looking girl, with large brown eyes, brown hair and a pretty skin; intelligent and with a nice manner. She was Steve’s own age and he had known her since she was sixteen, when she was a check girl in Chicago. Since then she had worked up to her present position as front office cashier.
Instinctively Steve recoiled from the test of her; but he went through with it, and after a few words he handed in a hundred-dollar bill.
“I need a dollar, please,” he said. He noticed, as she counted out the money, a small diamond on her left hand; then she returned him four twenties, a ten, a five and five ones.
Claflin led him thereupon into the private office, where two strangers — a shrewd-looking man of twenty-four and a portly gray-hair — were sitting. The young man arose, but the older one sat estimating Steve with his even gray eyes.
Steve had not yet put away his money. “You just got that at the front cashier’s window?” the gray-hair asked, after the door was closed.
“Keep it separate.”
“Mr. Faraday, this is Captain Norton, of the United States Secret Service,” Claflin somewhat nervously introduced the gray-hair. “Mr. Ashlander is on this case with him. They both know who you are.”
Steve pocketed his money. “I’ve heard of you often, of course,” he said to Norton. His irritation against Claflin was increasing, as his mind went back for the moment to the brown eyes and pleasant appearance of the girl in the cashier’s cage. “You asked the Government in on this matter then, Claflin?”
“No.” Claflin was a wiry, uneasy, spectacled man of forty. “No,” he repeated; “they came here of themselves this morning.”
“The cashier of the Guardian Trust, your bank, reported to us a number of counterfeits in your deposits of last night, which the bank refused,” Ashlander explained easily. “The same thing, according to him, occurred in larger number between two and three weeks ago.”
“Yes,” Steve admitted. He was not actually resenting the appearance of the government men in the case; his hotels, to be sure, usually handled their problems for themselves and called for outside help only after they knew what action would be necessary. It was their mistake regarding the front office cashier that he resented.
“Captain Norton and I came over this morning and did a little work,” Ashlander continued; and Claflin drew open a drawer of his desk and extracted a little packet of new bank notes which he spread out on the table before Norton and Ashlander.
“Twenty-dollar Federal Reserve notes on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; check letter A, plate number 121; Carter Glass, Secretary of the Treasury; John Burke, Treasurer of the United States; portrait of Cleveland,” Ashlander announced quietly.
“Counterfeits?” asked Steve, fingering one.
“Very good ones; excellent; unusually deceptive, and they all came out of your front office cashier’s cage this morning.”
“They’re the same, are they, as those you took up before?” Steve asked of Claflin; but it was Ashlander who answered him.
“Off the same plate, Mr. Faraday. We’ve examined the other ones. They’re from an engraved steel plate made by an expert, with very minor errors. The faults in the portrait of Cleveland are a slight narrowing of the chin and in the line of the temples. Compared with a government note of that series, you can scarcely see the difference; it’s almost microscopic.
“The seal and numbering also are very good; and the bills have been numbered serially. The paper is not quite so good. It is too stiff and brittle and the silk fiber is bunched more than in government paper. But it’s an extraordinarily good counterfeit. Only an expert could detect it.”
Steve glanced at Claflin; he drew from his pocket the crisp bank notes handed him a few minutes before by the brown-eyed girl at the cashier’s window of the front office. He sorted out the four twenties and compared them; then shook his head.
“What are mine?” He referred to Ashlander and laid the bills before him.
Ashlander bent and examined them carefully. “She gave the boss a fifty-fifty break, Mr. Claflin,” he reported to the manager. “These two are government engravings; these two are off that plate.” He gestured to the row of counterfeits.
“I know that girl.” Steve impulsively rallied to his cashier’s defense. “I’ve known her since I was in school. You’re accusing her of what, exactly?” he demanded of Ashlander, who glanced at Norton.
“We have traced, definitely, I should say,” observed the captain dryly, “this bad money to her hands. We are not saying that she is the source of supply of it; but she certainly seems in touch with it.”
“What does she say about it?”
“Say?” repeated Ashlander, smiling. “We haven’t put it to her personally yet. She’d be a cool one to shove you two queer notes out of four if she knew we were watching her.”
“She knows it was suspected before,” said Steve.
“But she was not suspected then, Mr. Faraday,” rejoined Norton. “We’re not accusing her yet. This case has certain extraordinary points of its own. Tell me what you know of the girl.”
“Where’s her card?” Steve asked Claflin.
“Of course I’ve seen her employment record,” said Norton, and referred to his notebook, reading: “‘First employed as coat-room girl in Hotel Tonty, Chicago, 1916; transferred to rear office; typist; assistant accountant. Sent to Denver, Montview, August, 1922; assistant cashier; May, 1923, transferred to Commodore Perry, Cleveland; cashier.’”
“Her record has been good; in fact excellent. Her family consists of her mother, whom she supports.” He closed his little book. “What can you add to that?”
“You must be able to read between the lines of her card,” Steve replied warmly. “From the time she was sixteen she’s supported herself and her mother. She went to night school. She’s kept herself bright, cheerful and attractive. She’s just the kind of girl we like to have. She makes it a pleasure to deal with her, and Claflin may have told you that we’ve been grooming her for even a better position, in the chief accountant’s office, where she would handle all the money that comes into this hotel. That’s what we think of her.”
“You know, I suppose,” asked Norton calmly, “that she’s got engaged recently?”
“No,” said Steve, but remembered the small diamond he had seen on her finger. “What’s that got to do with it?”
“Anyone who deals with women learns that a woman of herself and a woman in love may be two entirely different individuals. A girl, especially of a fond and affectionate nature, will do for a man she loves what she never would dream of doing for herself. We’re ready to talk to your girl.”
“Bring her in here,” Steve said to Claflin.
“Have her bring her bank with her,” warned Norton. “Don’t turn it over to her relief.”
“She wouldn’t do that in any case,” said Steve. “Each of our cashiers has a separate cash box, with a bank sufficient to handle the business of the watch. On going off duty the girl puts all vouchers, checks, receipts and money in an envelope which she turns over to the accounting department. When she goes on watch she has her own bank again.”
“Better send for her relief,” suggested Norton. “She’s not likely to go on watch again this morning.”
Steve waited with a warmth of confidence in his cashier which increased as she appeared with Claflin, the large brown envelope of her bank under her arm.
She was of good height and slender, with a straight frank bearing and a pleasant friendly manner of meeting one with her lovely soft eyes. As Claflin made the introductions she repeated Norton’s and Ashlander’s names, puzzled a little, but not obviously frightened. She glanced questioningly at Steve, who tried to smile reassuringly. She laid the large envelope of her bank upon the table.
“We’re of the Federal Secret Service,” Norton told her, “here on the business of counterfeit twenty-dollar bank notes which have been circulated in this hotel.”
“Yes?” she said, still unfrightened.
“We’ve been watching your window this morning.”
“Mine?” she repeated, and looked at Steve.
“What do you know about it, Clara?” he asked her.
“I mean, have you been aware that you were passing counterfeit money?”
“Was I doing that?” she asked, so unafraid and frankly that Steve clung to his confidence in her, though he said, “You gave two to me in my change.”
“You did not know it?” Norton challenged her direct.
She flushed, but met his eyes. “Of course I did not know it. Why — why — ” She stopped.
“You’d better open her bank,” said Norton to Steve, who handed her the envelope.
“You open it, Clara,” he said.
She took up her envelope in her slender pretty hands, which quivered slightly as she broke the seal and spread the money, checks and vouchers upon the table. Ashlander sorted over the bank notes, taking out the twenties.
“She’s passed on all the bad ones,” he reported to Norton; and opening the drawer of the desk he took out the two bills which, half an hour earlier, she had given in change to Steve.
“You recognize these, Miss Ingram?” he asked her.
“You handed them to Mr. Faraday. They’re counterfeits.”
“I did not know it.”
“They could not have been in your bank, Clara,” said Steve, “when you got it from the accountant’s office this morning. They’ve come in since. You’d been warned against bills of this denomination and issue. Do you remember from whom you got them?”
“No,” she said; but now her frankness was gone. She seemed to catch herself together. She raised her eyes and threw back her head with a gesture, not of fearlessness but of defiance, which struck from Steve his confidence.
“We’d better go on with this,” observed Norton watchfully, “after we’ve searched her room. You will go with us and accede to a search?” he asked her. “Or shall we make the formal preliminaries?”
“I’ll go with you,” she said.
“I’ll go along,” Steve offered, trying to recover his confidence in her.
“Do,” urged Norton. “Take her with you. I’d prefer to have you go out with her as though on some ordinary errand. We’ll meet you at her rooms.”
“Get your hat, Clara,” said Steve. “Mr. Claflin will turn in your bank.”
During the minute he waited for her Steve hoped that upon her reappearance his faith in her would increase; the contrary occurred. She was very trim and neat-looking in her small hat, but more nervous than before and bearing herself more definitely with defiance. Steve, without speaking, accompanied her to the curb.
“Yes, cab,” he said to Ebor.
“It’s only a few blocks; I nearly always walk.”
“We’ll ride,” said Steve, and put her into the cab ahead of him.
She sat uneasily beside him, glancing out her window.
“You’ve become engaged recently, I hear,” he said, after he had asked and received from her the street number and had passed it to the driver. She was so intent at her window that he repeated his comment with something of a challenge before she replied, “Yes, I’m engaged.”
“To one of our people?” questioned Steve.
“To one of our people?”
“No, he’s not on the staff.”
“Who is he?” Steve persisted.
“I met him when he was staying at the Commodore Perry,” the girl replied, half turning to Steve and, it seemed to him, softening somewhat from her defiance. “He is Mr. Howard Jentnor.”
“I don’t know him,” said Steve.
“He is a very nice man.”
“What line is he in?”
“No special company,” she replied more stiffly. “He’s a broker.”
“He’s at our house now?”
“No, he moved about a week ago, after we became engaged. We want to save money now, you see,” she said, and seemed to realize how this increased the suspicion against her. “What are they looking for in my rooms?”
“I don’t know.” And talk between them lapsed.
He helped her out before an old but well-maintained building of large apartments, originally, which now were cut into little ones of one or two rooms apiece. Clara Ingram opened the entrance door with a key, and when she came upon Captain Norton and Ashlander in the entry she started, but said only, “I hope mother’s out.”
“No one is in your apartment,” Ashlander assured her, and with her latchkey she opened the inner door.
“We are going to be thorough,” Norton warned her, “so if you are hiding anything you had better give it to us at once.”
“I could give you nothing but my clothing and mother’s, and a few old keepsakes and letters,” she replied, so honestly that Steve was stirred again to believe in her; but Ashlander opened her dresser drawers, lifting and shaking out filmy folds of silky things. He examined a handkerchief box and undid a package of gloves. Nothing extraordinary rewarded him.
Norton attacked the closet wherein dresses and skirts were hung, and hats and boxes stood on an upper shelf. He brought down the boxes, searching them without objection and without result until he opened a pasteboard carton packed to the top with bundles of letters, tied with faded ribbons or neatly knotted string. For the first time Clara Ingram protested.
“Those are just family letters — my father’s letters to mother and hers to him before they were married.”
“Yes,” said Norton, but lifted out the top packets and continued imperturbably to empty the box. He came to the bottom and still was not satisfied. With the blade of his pocket knife he lifted a closely fitted square of pasteboard which lay as a false bottom and called his assistant from the search of the second room: “Here’s something, Ashlander.”
Steve stepped forward quickly to look.
The something consisted of a pair of identical parallelograms in white tissue paper lying flat on the true bottom of the box, and Steve saw they were exactly of the dimensions of a bank note. Norton picked up one, ripped off the white tissue and exposed a copper plate displaying in reverse “Federal Reserve Bank of New York” — twenty dollars.
“Check letter A, plate number 121; Carter Glass, Secretary of the Treasury,” Ashlander announced triumphantly. “John Burke, Treasurer of the United States; the portrait is of Cleveland.”
Steve straightened with a sickening stop of his heart and faced the girl for whom, an hour before, he so confidently had vouched. No longer was she defiant; she was trembling, white as death. The two secret service men never glanced up from the plates. Each had one in his hand which he examined with swift but close inspection. They looked at each other, exchanged plates and suddenly Norton laughed aloud.
Steve started forward with hot resentment. “That’s a great way to feel about it!” he rebuked Norton. “You’ve got the goods on her, but — don’t laugh!”
Norton turned to him and sobered. “Excuse me,” he begged. “I wasn’t laughing at her — at you, Miss Ingram. Sit down, young lady,” he invited her kindly. “Sit down and tell us what you really know about this. Of course we know now that you had nothing to do with these plates here. They were planted on you. Bring her that chair, Ashlander. That’s right; sit down. You didn’t know you were taking in and passing out counterfeits either; but you do know from whom you got the last two, at least. Ashlander, get her a glass of water.”
“I’ll get it,” offered Steve impulsively. However, he let Ashlander bring it, while he himself remained beside Clara, who had sunk upon the chair and with wide eyes was staring at Norton, at himself and at Norton again.
“These plates were planted on her, you said,” Steve reminded Norton, with a flush of faith in the girl again. Not complete faith. Something was very wrong, and her own prostration confessed it. But the thing that was wrong with her was not that which had been first suspected.
Norton nodded, with more regard to the girl than to Steve, and he waited until he was sure that she had collected herself sufficiently to attend him.
“Somebody has taken considerable time and more than the usual amount of trouble to plant counterfeit money so that it would pass through your hands, Miss Ingram,” he repeated to her quietly. “He has taken more trouble to be sure that it would be traced back to you — and no further than you. Then he took the extra trouble to plant these plates here. What made me laugh a minute ago was that after taking all that trouble he made one little slip which showed us at once that the whole affair was a plant, and was planned not for the purpose of passing counterfeits but for discrediting you for some more important purpose. Do you hear me?”
“Yes,” said the girl, staring.
“What was that slip?” Steve asked, helping her.
Norton picked up one of the plates. “A very simple and natural one to a man who was not, himself, an expert counterfeiter, but a very conclusive one. It’s this — the plates, planted here, never did and never could have printed the money which this girl has been passing.”
“How do you know that?” asked Steve.
“The bad money which has been passing through her hands was all in twenty-dollar denomination of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.”
“But so are the plates.”
“The notes are excellent counterfeits, defying all but an expert; they were made from plates almost as good as the government plates — from engravings upon steel. It takes a good engraver weeks or months to make the plates that engrave money that good. These plates are not the originals; these are photo-engravings of money of the same denomination and issue which were made or could have been made in a few hours.
“We came to the hotel not only because of the report of the counterfeits, made by the Guardian Trust, but because we had received this tip anonymously early this morning.”
Norton took from his pocket and spread before Clara Ingram and Steve a slip of plain white paper on which was written with typewriter:
“If you want to find the plates which printed the counterfeit twenties passing in this city, look carefully in the rooms of Clara Ingram, who works at the Commodore Perry Hotel.”
“So we came here,” continued Norton, “expecting to hit on something peculiar and out of the ordinary line, because we already had the plates from which this very good bad money was printed. We seized them in Toledo two days ago. We knew then they couldn’t be here. What was here then? Some experimental plates engraved by the same gang or what? Nothing like that; but a plant — a plain plant on this girl. Someone wanted very much to frame her for some reason. She being a cashier, it evidently occurred to him to frame her by planting on her some of the counterfeit money which has been in circulation. To clinch the case against her, he decided to plant also the plates on her. But he didn’t have the plates. We had them, but he didn’t know it. He didn’t even know what sort of plates printed the money. He cannot be a counterfeiter himself. He did know that photo-engraving plates could easily be made, and supposed they would satisfy us. So he had these plates made, smeared them with green ink to make them look as if they’d been used, planted them here and typed us his little letter.”
Steve asked it, for Clara Ingram yet could not speak. As the captain’s account more and more exonerated her, only the more was she overcome.
“The reason for framing this girl, we don’t know,” Norton replied. “But she must — ask her.”
“I don’t know!” Clara cried.
“I am very sure you do know,” Norton charged her quietly.
“I don’t know!”
“I am sure you know, at least,” insisted Norton, “who gave you those two bad twenties before we came to the hotel this morning.”
“I don’t know!” cried Clara desperately. “I don’t know! I don’t! I didn’t know they were bad, I tell you! I didn’t know they were bad!”
“We can wait awhile,” said Norton considerately.
“I am quite sure I know who gave them to her,” Steve volunteered. “I am quite sure she is telling the truth when she says she didn’t know they were bad; but she does know who gave them to her. It was Jentnor.”
“There,” said Steve, touching her shoulder, “you’ve told us it was. I knew it anyway, Clara. After you had been warned, like the other cashiers, against notes of this denomination and issue, you would have accepted them without examination only from someone you trusted entirely; and there is no one you would have lied for, I think, but Jentnor. Jentnor is the man,” said Steve to Norton, “to whom she is engaged.”
“He’s not!” cried Clara.
“You’re not engaged to him?”
“He’s not the man who gave me those twenties.”
“Who did then?”
“Someone leaving the hotel; I don’t know who. I’ve forgotten. I’m always taking in money and paying it out. I forgot about the twenties for a few minutes. That’s all; that’s all, I tell you!”
“Did you receive any money or make change or otherwise handle money for Mr. Jentnor this morning?”
“No! No! I didn’t see him at all!”
“When did you last see him?”
“Yesterday — the day before yesterday.”
“Where is he now?”
“In his office, I suppose.”
“I don’t know.”
Steve referred again to Norton, who quietly was watching her.
“Let us leave Mr. Jentnor out,” he said kindly to her. “Try not to think of him. Try to think of a reason why anyone — anyone in all the world — would want to discredit or disgrace you.”
She turned on Norton a face drawn with fright but honest again. “I can’t!”
“Calm yourself and try to think. Remember, no one now is accusing you — or Mr. Jentnor. Whom do you know, or with whom have you come in contact, who might have a motive for injuring you?”
“Why, no one!” she cried honestly. “I can’t think of a soul in the world.”
“You don’t,” suggested Norton slowly, “threaten anyone?”
“Threaten anyone? I?”
“I mean, you have not, either by accident or otherwise, recently come into possession of knowledge to someone’s detriment or which might be used to someone’s injury?”
“Take a few minutes and try to think, Miss Ingram.”
“It’s no use trying. There’s never been anything like that.”
“You must realize that there might be such a thing,” said Norton patiently, “and you not be aware of it. This affair is surely a serious one, Miss Ingram. The time and trouble expended show that it is extremely important to someone to disgrace and injure you. Such pains are taken, usually, only by a person who is in the power — or who feels himself in the power — of another by reason of information to his discredit. You might possess such information without being aware of it, or without being aware of its power over another person. It is of such information, which may be in your possession, that I want you to think.”
“Why, I’ve never had any power over anyone!”
Norton nodded to Ashlander, who arose and went out, beckoning Steve to the door.
“We had better leave her with the captain,” Ashlander whispered. “She is very excited. Of course she is protecting someone; but for her own sake we must go ahead at once. He’ll handle her better alone.”
“All right,” acceded Steve, and went out.
On the street, where the Commodore Perry loomed in front of him, he thought of the girl’s employment in the big hotel and the bearing upon her, therein employed, of Norton’s words. Constantly, by reason of her employment, she was in contact with other employees and with guests who numbered, in total, thousands and tens of thousands; constantly, as a matter of mere routine to her — taking in money, paying it out, cashing credits and checks — she performed more or less intimate services for many people, and sometimes special services, of a particularly intimate and personal character, which from their mere frequency and repetition also passed into casual routine, making upon her memory no lasting mark. A thousand such transactions could be completed without extraordinary consequence; the thousand and first, though differing outwardly not at all from the others, might touch vitally the private concern of a guest sheltered in the hotel at a crisis of his life. Had the sequel of some such service, rendered by Clara Ingram as an employee of Stephen Faraday, precipitated upon her these events?
He hastened his steps to his hotel, his mind now on Jentnor and the girl who so defiantly and loyally had lied for him. Jentnor, Steve realized, must be a different type of individual from the man ordinarily met by a front office cashier. An attractive girl, constantly cast by her employment into contact with men away from home and traveling by themselves, learns quickly to adopt a defensive attitude of indifference; and experience often fixes this attitude within her. Steve had thought of Clara Ingram as having become indifferent to men; it was one of the reasons that he had slated her for promotion in the organization. In spite of her unusual attractiveness, Steve had thought of her as unlikely to leave the organization because of marriage. Jentnor, to have won her so completely, must be distinct from the ordinary men who lingered after paying their accounts in the hope of picking up acquaintance with the cashier.
Steve sought Claflin at once. “Do you remember this Jentnor who stayed here and got himself engaged to Clara Ingram?” Steve asked.
“Very well. I know nothing about him, but he is very likable and good-looking. English sort of chap.”
“What?” said Steve.
“Englishman in this country a few years; everybody liked him.”
Where, Steve tried to recollect, had he heard almost exactly that description of a man about whom he had inquired? Oh, it had been in Denver, at the Montview, when Goebel mentioned the English-looking, likable young man who had asked to see the register for March, three years ago. For what reason? In order to steal the book, so Goebel had thought, to alter an entry after an Englishman’s name and add “and son” between the Englishman’s name and the addition “and manservant.” Steve could not recall the name except that it was hyphenated and not at all like Jentnor. Besides, what connection could the change in the Montview’s register, of three years ago, have with this attempt to frame a front office cashier in Cleveland today?
Yet another coincidence besides this similarity of the general description of the two men came into Steve’s mind. “Let’s see her card again,” he said to Claflin, and there was the record of her employment at the Montview in Denver. In March, three years ago, at the time when the rich Englishman and manservant — accompanied, possibly, by his son and also possibly not — had stopped at the Montview, Clara Ingram had been employed there.
In little less than an hour Norton returned to the hotel, bringing her with him. The girl was pale and very nervous; she stared at Steve, but scarcely spoke in reply to his words to her in Claflin’s office.
Norton nodded Steve aside. “Call your house nurse and have her keep this girl quiet. Keep her in a room here; I’ll see that her mother is sent here when she comes back to the flat.”
“What’s she told you?” asked Steve.
“Nothing. She stuck it out that Jentnor never gave her any money and couldn’t possibly be mixed up in the plant put on her. But what smashed her up is that she knows he is mixed in it — but she’ll die before she admits it.”
“Got any better line on the reason for it?”
Norton shook his head. “We haven’t a line that leads anywhere, and I think she tells the truth when she says she doesn’t know any reason. I’ve gone over her record week by week, asking her where she was and what she was doing recently, and I can’t dig a thing out of her which would explain why anybody would want to get her.”
“I’d like to ask her one question.”
“Go ahead. The best thing you can do for her is to clear this up quick as you can.”
“Clara,” said Steve, “can you remember doing anything special for an Englishman who was stopping at the Montview, in Denver, three years ago last March?”
“An Englishman?” repeated Clara, staring.
“An Englishman — middle-aged or more,” Steve ventured, “and with a manservant.”
The girl shook her head. “No, I can’t remember anything about an Englishman then.”
“Are you trying to?”
“Certainly, Mr. Faraday, I’m trying to.”
“I know you are, Clara,” said Steve, “and you know we’re trying to help you. Have you a picture of Mr. Jentnor?”
“He never gave me one, Mr. Faraday.”
“I asked her that,” said Norton. “He wasn’t handing out his photos.”
The nurse appeared and took Clara away.
“What was your idea about your Englishman in Denver, three years ago?” Norton then asked Steve.
“Nothing but a sort of hunch.”
“The nurse, or some attendant, must stay with that girl and she must be kept here,” Norton advised. “You understand that Jentnor and some others, probably, are trying to get her. They may try by rougher means; they’ve a reason that’s big to them. And she’s still sticking to Jentnor; she might even go to him if he sent for her. You’ll have to stop that.”
“If Jentnor sends for her,” Steve assured Norton, as he started away, “you’ll know it.”
Norton returned in the evening. “How’s your girl?” he asked Steve.
“She’s here, and being kept quiet.”
“You haven’t heard from Jentnor?”
“You won’t. Mr. Jentnor has got out, and so cleanly that he’s left — except on the soul of that girl — hardly a trace. We’ve had a busy afternoon; but Mr. Jentnor’s performance is now pretty plain, if the reasons behind his moves are not.
“He came here a month ago from nowhere. New York is after his name on your register; but that means nothing; and there is no Howard Jentnor in New York. He is completely untraceable before he took a room at this hotel. He told her, and also other people, that he was an insurance broker; but no insurance company knows him or has had in the last month any business whatever with Howard Jentnor. He had no office here. His business seems to have been making himself agreeable to your girl. He certainly succeeded at that. All the testimony is that he was an extremely charming gentleman, of fine bearing and excellent manners — not at all the type to pick a working girl to wear his engagement ring.
“The bottom of the trouble with her is that she knows he wasn’t the sort to want to marry her. He was, to her, the fine gentleman with his English-gentleman manners and good looks. He completely sold her; but she knew, in the back of her head, that there was something the matter with this wonderful romance. It was too good to be true. But she went into it; she was crazy about him.
“Then this struck, and she knows he handed it to her. She doesn’t know why — I believe that — but she knows that he made her love him, not loving her, but as some part of this plant of his to get her. And it’s knocked her out; but her pride, and the heart of her, won’t let her turn on him — yet.”
“No trace at all where he went?” asked Steve.
“He took rooms outside a couple of weeks ago, after he became engaged to your girl; he cleared this morning, not leaving a collar button behind him.”
“Was he in Cleveland all this last month?” asked Steve.
“No; last week he was away for five days.”
Later in the evening, with the Cleveland investigation of the affair thus at a standstill, Steve phoned Goebel in Denver.
“By the way,” he mentioned, after speaking of routine matters, “has anything new turned up on that alteration in the register you showed me?”
“Not a thing.”
“What was the name, Goebel?”
“Hougham-Stearns — L.B. Hougham-Stearns and son and manservant, London. We think the ‘and son’ was written in later.”
“I remember that,” said Steve. “What was the name of his place in Southern California? You had it in a clipping.”
“Sussex House. Why, have you got something on it?”
“No; just thinking it over,” Steve replied, and he thought over it several times that night.
In the morning Norton reported the rounding up of more members of the counterfeiting gang; he had developed no connection of the gang with Clara Ingram, beyond the fact that Jentnor had used some of the money made by the gang in the plant upon her.
Clara Ingram had no more to say; she still refused to accuse Jentnor; she could not supply any reason why he or anyone else would injure her.
Steve visited her again late in the morning. Her mother was with her and she had been crying.
“You know, Clara,” said Steve, “that whether Jentnor had anything to do with this trouble of yours or not, there must be something very wrong back of it. You want to clear that up, don’t you?”
“Yes, Mr. Faraday.”
“Try to think. Three years ago last March — it was the first March you were at the Montview, Clara — did you do anything special for an Englishman named Hougham-Stearns who was at the hotel?”
“No, Mr. Faraday.”
“He was rather an old man and sick,” continued Steve. “He had the suite on the fifth floor at the southeast corner. Were you ever called into that suite to do something special for an oldish Englishman who was sick?”
Clara’s eyes dulled with speculation; but finally she replied, “No, I don’t remember.”
“I remember something our first March in Denver, Clara,” put in her mother. “You brought home ten dollars for it. You told me about it; it was something you did for a man who was casting off his son.”
Clara’s eyes dulled and brightened. “I remember going to that room for an old man who was sick,” she said slowly to Steve. “I went there with Mr. Clover, the night clerk.”
“Why did you go there, Clara?”
“He wanted Mr. Clover and me to witness a paper for him.”
“What sort of a paper was it?”
“It was a will.”
Ten minutes later Steve phoned Norton: “I think we’ve got something now.” And when Norton came over, Steve told him what.
Two days later Steve received from Norton in New York a nine-word telegram:
“Can you come on here and bring Clara Ingram?”
Norton was awaiting them in the Grand Central Station when they arrived the following morning. He looked keenly at the pale and troubled girl, then drew Steve aside out of earshot.
“What have you?” Steve inquired.
“Not Jentnor yet,” Norton replied. “Since he passed counterfeits, among his other activities, the department wants him; that’s my excuse for staying in the case. Otherwise this case has become considerably more than a Federal matter. It’s going to be a bit hard on your girl.”
“I think she’s prepared,” said Steve.
“A woman’s never prepared for a thing like this,” returned Norton, and led them to a cab.
Twenty minutes later it stopped before a narrow-fronted house which, in spite of the incursion of business buildings in the neighboring block, still held a suggestion of the grandeur which once was the boast of lower Fifth Avenue.
Steve led Clara Ingram up the steps and Norton rang the bell. “Mr. Faraday and Miss Ingram,” he announced to the liveried servant, who admitted them and led the way up a handsome stair to the floor above, where a second servant showed them into a large room presided over by a huge old man with snow-white hair and mustache. He sat, as if on a dais, in a great chair among cushions. Steve would have recognized, if Norton had not told him, that Hougham-Stearns’ position in this household was that of a guest; he was one who, traveling, stopped more often in the homes of friends than in hotels.
“Mr. Faraday,” the Englishman greeted him, as one to whom the name meant nothing.
“And Miss Ingram,” Steve supplied, but could not see that Hougham-Stearns recollected either the girl or her name.
She in turn stared at him as at a stranger; she was shaking, Steve saw, and very white. He stood close to her.
The servant, who noiselessly had reclosed the door, came with soundless steps to stand behind his master’s chair. He also was quite plainly an Englishman, but dark-haired and with sallow skin. Norton had not entered the room.
“I agreed to see you,” said Hougham-Stearns to Steve, “on rather indefinite but authoritative information that you had something to communicate which is of great importance to myself. Recently I have received no one at all, in order to conserve my strength for my voyage home. I must ask you to be as brief as you can.”
“It concerns,” said Steve, “your son.”
“Nothing of any possible sort which concerns Ralph can be of the slightest interest to me.”
“This is a matter which you cannot very well put aside. Miss Ingram innocently has been in serious difficulties with the Federal authorities because of counterfeit money which, in our belief, your son put in her hands.”
Clara Ingram started. Steve grasped her arm, steadying her.
“I do not doubt it,” said Hougham-Stearns. “I mean I don’t doubt he did it.”
“He first became engaged to marry her.”
“I do not doubt it.”
“Apparently with no other purpose than to gain her confidence with the object of discrediting her.”
“I say, I do not doubt it. You are not the first, Miss Ingram, whom my son has involved in trouble and grief. You can accept his father’s word that, with women and men, he has been through his life a thoroughgoing rascal who has kept faith with no one. But anything he has done to you is less than he has done, more times than one, to me.”
“Miss Ingram has known him by the name of Jentnor,” said Steve. “She is not yet convinced that he has deceived her. May I ask if you have a picture of your son?”
Hougham-Stearns held his head stiffly. “I have always kept the one which his mother carried with her.” He nodded to his servant, who went out and returned with a picture in a little round jeweled frame. Hougham-Stearns ordered it given to Steve.
“Is that Jentnor?” Steve inquired of Clara, and he felt her shaking as she gazed at it.
“No,” she denied. “No; no, it isn’t.” Then her defense broke; suddenly she was so weak that Steve caught her in his arms and half carried her to a chair. “Oh, it is! It is!”
“Miss Ingram,” said Steve quietly to Hougham-Stearns, after the girl was calmer, “was one of the witnesses to your will.”
“I do not follow you.”
“You were in Denver at the Montview Hotel,” Steve continued, “with your son, and the will which Miss Ingram witnessed with George Clover, another employee of the hotel, if she remembers rightly, disinherited him.”
“That is correct,” said Hougham Stearns, “except that my son was not with me. I was there alone except for Charles.” Charles was the servant. “I had seen Ralph in New York and the latest disgraceful chapter of his doings decided me utterly to cut him off. In Denver, suddenly taken very ill, I made a will leaving my property to charities.”
“No doubt you sent the will to London, to your solicitors?”
“No. I wrote them that I had made a new will whose nature they would learn when I returned. I never returned. I still have it by me.”
“Would you mind showing it to me?” Steve inquired.
Hougham-Stearns, now intently interested, looked for his man, but the servant had left the room. He touched a bell beside him, waited, then touched it again. As the man did not appear Steve himself offered to get what was wanted; but Hougham-Stearns merely rang once more.
Clara Ingram was sitting up, wide-eyed and intent again.
“Someone is coming now,” said Steve, and opened the door, admitting Norton, who bore a light steel box, locked.
“Your man is below in the hands of two of the New York police,” Norton said to Hougham-Stearns. “However, they did not prevent his answer to your bell. They took him as he was leaving the house. Here is your box. I have also the key, taken from your servant. Shall I open it?”
Norton did so, and placed the open box beside the Englishman, who immediately abstracted a folded document and a moment later another which was outwardly a duplicate of it.
“What’s this? What’s this?”
“You will find one, I imagine,” said Steve, “to be your will as drawn that night in Denver and witnessed by George Clover and Clara Ingram, disinheriting your son. The other, I believe, you will find somewhat different.”
“It is another will, signed with my name but not by me, which leaves my estate to my son.”
“H’m,” said Steve. “How is it witnessed?”
“One signature is the same as in the other — George Clover. The other name is Ida Delff.”
Steve turned to Clara. “Do you know Ida Delff?”
“She was a floor housekeeper at the Montview.”
Hougham-Stearns sank back upon his pillows. “My son has done this!”
“Unquestionably,” said Steve.
“I did not suppose I had left him power to deal me another blow.”
“You cut him off from millions,” Steve reminded him. “Undoubtedly you told him. He was not one to be passive. May I see those documents?”
Hougham-Stearns nodded and Steve examined them.
“It is quite clear now, Clara,” said Steve, putting them in her hands. He looked to Hougham-Stearns. “These must represent a very pretty bargain between your son and your manservant. About a month ago, to judge from your son’s movements, they prepared this forgery; and your son went to look up the witnesses of the original will to see if they could be bought. Evidently Clover was bought — if this signature is his. Your son went to Cleveland to investigate Clara Ingram and plainly gave up the idea of buying her. So he did not put her name on the forgery; he put the name of another employee of the Montview, who evidently was bought and would swear in court that she witnessed your will.
“Everything was then arranged for the substitution of the forgery for your original will in the event of your end, except the evidence of this girl here who had witnessed the original. Your son personally took care of her. He made love to her to get her confidence; for he schemed to put her out of the way for a time in a Federal prison and so discredit her that her testimony, if offered against the forged will, would be considered untrustworthy.”
“By counterfeit money, you say?” Hougham-Stearns gazed at Steve with gaunt eyes.
“He seems to have obtained some counterfeit money which was circulating in Cleveland and planted it upon the girl; he also manufactured other evidence,” Steve said. “A bit of poetic justice, of the sort which Captain Norton tells me is common in such cases, is that this was unnecessary. Miss Ingram had quite forgotten the incident; and if she had been reminded of it by reading that he had inherited your property, she would probably have thought merely that you had made another will.”
“But how,” asked Hougham-Stearns, “since you did not know his name, did you trace him to me?”
“He had manufactured still another bit of evidence to support his case. Knowing that he had been on bad terms with you, he wanted it to appear that, at the time of making your will, you were together; so he altered the register in Denver to insert ‘and son’ after your name. It was this which first called attention to him and brought you into the case.”
“That is exactly like Ralph,” Hougham-Stearns said, asking no more. “Especially his ingratiating himself, for ulterior purposes, with this young lady. I would like to do something for her. I would like to compensate — ”
Clara Ingram, with eyes filled with tears, shook her head.
“Yes; I will insist on something. To you, Mr. Faraday, I am grateful. You have gone to considerable expense and great personal inconvenience to do me a service.”
“Service?” Steve picked up the word. “You were a guest at the Montview three years ago, and the Faraday management aims to offer every possible service to its guests.”