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)
William Fay was a short story writer for the Post in the mid-1900s. He specialized in stories about crime and the city, many of which he adapted for TV in the electronic era. His descriptions of seedy city life are detailed and the way he lays out tales of deception and violence make this serial story leave hints at what is to come. “I’ll Get Even” is a two-part story about a man who loses his wealth and the unlikely scenario that leads him back to the money.
Originally published on July 22, 1950
Danny Meade came back to New York after eight years’ absence and felt like Rip Van Winkle. La Guardia wasn’t mayor any more, the subway cost a dime instead of a nickel, and Danny was just a guy nobody knew.
Danny wondered if Caroline Shane remembered him, Caroline who was now the star of David Bowen’s new play. Danny had been the backer of Caroline’s first play in 1942 — the one that never got beyond a tryout in Philadelphia, when Danny lost all his money.
That was because, back in 1942, Danny had a hole in his head. Anyone fool enough to trust Allie Fargis had to have a hole in his head. To get the money to back the play, Danny had sold his bowling-alley club to Fargis, and Fargis had paid him $60,000 in cash — on Saturday afternoon. After the deal was done and witnessed, Danny was left with all that money on his hands, and no safe place to put it — except, of course, in Allie’s hospitable safe. Danny left the money in the safe. And on Tuesday the safe was empty. It was crude but effective: Danny couldn’t prove he’d ever left the money with Fargis.
The Army took Danny then, and he turned his back on Broadway for eight years. Now he was back. He automatically went to the bowling alley. It was nearly empty. No one noticed Danny — using his old key — enter Allie Fargis’ office.
It felt good to sit behind the luxurious desk. Suddenly the door opened and Allie came in with his hands full of money. He dropped it in shock when he saw Danny. It was a fantastic opportunity. Danny slugged Allie, counted out $60,000, wrapped the cash in a newspaper and walked out.
Now he was hot. Allie would send his muscle men after him. Danny first thought of getting out of New York as quickly as possible. But he was tired of being a rabbit. He put the money in a locker at the Pennsylvania Station, then took a cab. “Judson Theater,” he told the driver.
Caroline Shane was the star of the play at the Judson.
He sat in the darkness, in the eighth row, just off center, and he let his back and shoulders come to welcome rest against the soft plush of the seat. The curtain rose. The set was charming if not elaborate: the living room of a suburban house, with wide doors opening on a garden only suggested, and with high-wattage sunshine flooding into the room. A young woman made her entrance from the garden, and knowing members of the audience acknowledged her entrance with brief, discreet applause, seeking to commend and still not disturb the business onstage.
“Hello, darling,” Danny whispered the words. The make-believe reached out to him, not mocking him, really, but saying to him calmly enough, “Danny, you aimed too high.” Because if this was the Caroline Shane he’d known, it was also a lady whom time and talent and the love of David Bowen had fashioned to a womanly loveliness in excess of all he remembered or could possibly merit now. He didn’t belong in this league, he told himself, and he had no right to try to join it again. But when the show was over, he made no attempt to leave the neighborhood. He was in a kind of trance, punch-drunk with old affections stronger than himself. He remained in the shadows of an alley, waiting, and around midnight he saw her leaving the theater with David — the two walking together — and he followed, for the moment asking no more than to be near.
They walked across town, east of Sixth, to a restaurant — quiet, fairly fancy and expensive. Looking in from the street, like a kid at jellied apples, he could see them seated in a booth, a waiter taking their order. Shamelessly, but beyond their range of vision, he entered, himself, and was able to find a booth separated from theirs by a latticed partition. Through the tight latticework he could see only the glow of the lamp on their table, and once, he believed, when Caroline moved, the glint of her hair. He could hear them talking of random things — unimportant things, perhaps, to anyone but him.
“I should be home helping pop soak his feet, the poor lamb. His corns are hurting again, but you couldn’t get pop off the job without bombing the bus terminal… These tickets, David? Oh, these are sweepstakes tickets he bought me.”
He could hear the scratch of a match and see its gleam as David held it to a cigarette. Cheap compensations were here for the gathering: the smoke of the cigarette, for instance, rising above the booth for him to see.
The waiter came around to him. “A glass of beer,” he said softly — very softly. “Nothing to eat, no, thank you; just the beer.”
And Caroline’s voice again, “… How’s the new project, David?”
“It’s got lumps like pancake batter all through the first two acts,” said David.
“I don’t believe you, but you look tired. Possibly that’s the —”
“Nice an’ cozy, ain’t it?” another voice said. Sugarboy Spartano had managed to slide into the booth beside him, and in an easy, almost comradely way was reclaiming Allie Fargis’ automatic from Danny’s jacket pocket.
Danny offered no resistance. Another man sat opposite — a shorter, square built man.
Danny considered them without marked interest. “Quiet,” he whispered, because Caroline was talking again. He repeated the emphatic whisper, “Quiet, please,” to the square built one and they looked at him as though he were crazy, and in the situation, as it was, they were not very wrong.
“The dough, Mac,” Sugarboy said softly. “The yardage. The long green. Get it up.”
Danny placed a restraining hand on Sugarboy’s powerful wrist.
Caroline’s voice came to them, “Perhaps if you tacked the whole thing together first, so you could look at it more objectively, David. Let the first draft be as lumpy as —”
“Two more beers,” Sugarboy told the waiter.
“We’re wastin’ time,” the other man said.
Sugarboy shook his head. “The guy’s broad-crazy; a lot of ’em go this way.”
The waiter returned with the two beers, and Sugarboy and his companion drained the glasses swiftly. Sugarboy pressed the automatic rather affectionately in Danny’s ribs. “This is for dessert,” he said. “We go now.”
There was no peaceful alternative. They rose. The squat man led him firmly, if not too obviously, toward the door. Only at the door itself, with the two men close upon him, did Danny for some reason turn and look at the other row of booths, and then find Caroline’s soft, level glance locked suddenly with his own. A fractional moment, but there it was, her mouth falling open, words forming at her lips, but not forthcoming, and her face gone pale as the tablecloth, and then he was gone, though he would never, never forget it.
“So blow a hole in me,” Danny said.
“We want the dough.”
“You want it. I’ve got it. So what?”
He sounded a little bigger and tougher than he felt. They stood on Sixth Avenue, in the half-lighted entrance of a locked liquor store. He had the fair compensation of knowing that with people still on the streets, this was not the time or the place for a heedless use of firearms, and he had the key to Penn Station Locker No. D-324 somewhat uncomfortably in his shoe.
They frisked him with passing thoroughness. Sugarboy looked at his driver’s license and the car registration. “Daniel E. Meade, t’ree twenty-six Pearson Avenue. You been holin’ out in Ohio, huh?” Sugarboy then examined the ticket from the parking lot near New York’s 23rd Street, the time punched on the ticket. He gave this to the shorter man, whose name was, incredibly, Hubert.
“The jerk could of blown like a blue bird,” Hubert said, “with sixty grand. Instead he has to hang around to see his valentine.”
Hubert hit him then, brutally in the stomach, to intimidate him. Danny sucked breath against the pain and kneed the short man in the groin in swift reprisal, and then a cop came by, and they were quiet there, all three, with Hubert wearing the sickest smile you ever saw. And Danny could easily have called to the cop, but he did not. He was gagged and almost hypnotically lured by the gathering, growing pride of self that told him, however irrationally, that he could deal with these bums himself. As a kid growing up on the streets of New York he’d never acquired the habit of yelling “Cop!” Nor was he without considering that a day spent in jail or in a D.A.’s office would outlast the brief lease he held on Locker No. D-324.
Hubert watched him, the pain written clearly on Hubert’s face. “You don’t want cops, either, do you, mister?” But Hubert, for the moment, didn’t attempt to hit him again. “I’m gonna fix your trolley but good,” said Hubert, as though to regain self-stature. “I’m gonna crawl on my belly to Allie. I’m gonna say, ‘Allie, Allie, save that love-sick slob for me!”
“Tell me more, please.”
Contempt was the only luxury that Danny could afford. They walked along Sixth Avenue.
“The dough,” said Sugarboy. “Where is it?”
“In the five-and-dime window,” Danny said.
“He’s smart,” Hubert said. “He studied up on books how he could become the smartest corpse in the whole morgue. Well, you can’t get out of town, you hear? You’ve got till twelve o’clock tomorrow to get the dough. Meantime you don’t eat or sleep. Where you go, we go.”
“Like Baby and Bogie,” Sugarboy said. “Like love and kisses. Everybody all together, Hubert means.”
Danny stopped in the middle of the street. He had an idea Broadway would be safer than Sixth Avenue at this hour. More populated, anyhow. “Suppose we go talk with Allie, boys? Maybe Allie and I can come to some agreement about the money.”
“You kiddin’? Him do business with a punk like you?”
But they walked west to Broadway, anyhow, then south from 54th along the big street, quiet now but for the newsboys and the taxicabs. At 48th they turned again and approached the bowling club. Danny went willingly enough. Sugarboy Spartano opened the door and Hubert went in with Danny. Sugarboy, proud of a mission well done, then took Danny’s other arm.
“Who is givin’ away the bride?” said Hubert. “I’ll toss ya.”
Then Danny moved, as had been his intention, with sudden violence. The back-thrust of his body drew him free from their custody, and then the forward pressure of his strong arms pitched the two men down the stairs, their bodies tumbling, falling, crashing.
Danny ran with a purpose, and with a destination in mind. And when Hubert and Sugarboy, limping and hauling themselves, attained the street, there was no sign of him. Minutes later a huge storage-bound bus left the coast-to-coast bus depot, but that meant nothing in particular to them.
The bus pulled into a storage lot west of Tenth Avenue where others of the fleet stood, big as houses, in the dark. A man with a flashlight guided the big job in, his light a little foolish in the great glare of the headlights. The driver worked the bus into its designated place, then snapped off the lights. He got out, joining the other man, and Danny stayed where he was.
He slept a little on the wide rear seat, pulling his jacket more closely about himself, for it was chill in the April morning. Mostly he did not sleep, but lay there in the quiet, thinking, and hugging to himself as he had not in years the warm compensation of undiluted self-respect.
Three things he knew. He would not run away. He’d run the last time, but then because he couldn’t face the people he had failed so miserably, and because the Army was beckoning anyhow. The job in Ohio, and the one before that in Nevada, had been joyless. He believed he would rather be dead than back in the desert — and the desert, to him, was any place, anywhere more than fifty miles from New York. The other things he knew were that, win, lose or draw in his own affair with Allie Fargis, he’d allow himself the earned award of seeing Caroline — this, plus a knowledge of where his money would go, should Allie or Mlie’s assistants of a sudden dispatch him toward his heavenly reward. And if he couldn’t lose his money, he could lose no more than his skin. He slipped out of the bus when hands on the dashboard said it was six o’clock.
At Penn Station the locker opened with one easy twitch of the key. The money lay, newspaper-wrapped, exactly as he had tossed it in there, like twenty cents’ worth of bananas. He put the entire sum in a brown paper bag he had salvaged from a refuse can at the station’s upper level. He took it with him to a cavernous room marked GENTLEMEN, where he was able to rent for sixty cents a dressing room with shower. He borrowed a razor and a daub of brushless shave cream from an attendant. He gave the attendant two dollars and the suit he had slept in, with instructions to have the suit sponged and pressed. When he emerged at 8:30 he looked quite pretty and the station swarmed with commuters. He didn’t linger. By grace of the New York subway system he had breakfast in Brooklyn and lunch in the borough of Queens. He came back to Manhattan when he was ready.
“Stop here,” he told the driver of the cab.
It was not quite eight P. M. He was not impressed with the prudence or brightness of what he planned to do, but whatever happened, he’d consider it worth the cost. He stood in front of the bus depot.
“Hello, pop,” Danny said.
Patrick Shane turned slowly around. “The Lord have mercy on us,” Patrick Shane said softly. “It’s the bridegroom.”
“Just about eight years too late,” Danny said. “Look, pop; don’t ask me a lot of questions, please. Not now. Do what I ask you?”
“What’s this you’re handin’ me?”
“From the looks of it, pop, it’s a brown paper bag. I want you to put it away, in your office, maybe, or someplace safe, but strictly under lock and key. And listen to me… No; don’t argue. Listen. Thank you. Now, if you don’t hear from me by tomorrow, pop, whatever you find in this bag is a present for Caroline. Tell her it’s mine and that it was always mine. From me to her. With love, say, pop. Especially with love.”
Then he was gone.
Two minutes after eight. Forty-fifth Street now, and Broadway. This much he was entitled to, he tried to persuade himself. One look at her, anyhow. One look up close. Nothing silly, understand, or saccharine sweet, or bubbling over at the emotions. Just one little visit with Caroline before telling Allie and his muscular friends where all of them could go.
He knew there’d be someone hovering close to the stage door of the Judson. That was foregone, simple as daylight, and it happened to be Hubert. He came up behind him and stepped on his heels. “I’ll be a few minutes, Hubert; don’t go away.” He opened a door marked PRIVATE. No ADMITTANCE. He went inside, and the doorman wasn’t there. He bluffed his way past other people to the designated door.
He knocked gently, then heard her voice: “David? One second, please.” Then, after a moment, “Come in.”
He walked in slowly, closing the door behind him. He saw her face through a kind of mist. “It ain’t Hamlet, lady,” Danny said. “It ain’t even Milton Berle.”
But it didn’t seem as though she could speak. She walked toward him with small, deliberate steps, her eyes too full of her feelings, reaching with one hand, as though to touch him.
“Danny.” That was all at first. “Last night I was sure,” she said then. “Last night I was positive I’d seen you — that it had to be you. But then I told David it must have been an illusion or wishfulness, and we blamed it on my tiredness or — well, something like that, Danny.”
And she kept looking at him, withdrawing the hand that had almost touched him. She stood uncertain of herself, as though she were going to cry, her mouth trembling just a little bit, her white teeth clamping her lip. She wore a modest, simple dressing gown. Her hair was tumbled long and he could see the soft inviting lines of her throat, count the measured breaths she took.
“Where, Danny? Where have you been? And why so long?”
No act at all, and she frightened him. Just the look of her told him he shouldn’t have come here. Certainly not with Allie’s ax still hanging over his head. Her reaction to seeing him told him more than he had come prepared to learn — that only a decent and restraining pride was keeping her out of his arms. And she was too smart not to know that he must know this too.
“Yes, Danny; I guess I’m shameless.”
He held her then, close to him, his hands in the soft folds of her hair, and he floated with the myriad things he felt and could not understand or express or toss away.
“Look, Caroline, look.”
But she couldn’t look, and he couldn’t, either. He could only stay close to her this way and speak to her, telling her enough, but not too much. Telling her of old shame and the convenience of the Army as a hole to fall into all those years ago, and of Nevada and Ohio after that, and all the dead time since he’d seen her last. But not about Hubert, waiting outside. Not about Allie or Sugarboy or the money in the old brown paper bag.
“I know I shouldn’t have come here now, and I probably knew it before I came. I tell the biggest, most convincing lies to myself; the way, I suppose, a lot of people do, but that doesn’t make it right. I thought possibly you and David would be getting married, you see? Because — well, because you’re out of my class. You’re better people than I am, Caroline.”
“Are we, Danny? You’re sure? So very sure?” Now she looked at him. Now she watched him. “I was never engaged to David, Danny. I never accepted a ring from him. I never accepted a ring from anyone but a boy in Philadelphia. Like I said, I’m shameless and, Danny, I still have the ring.”
He didn’t say anything much. The door opened and a maid came in. The clock on her dressing table said 8:25 — fifteen minutes to curtain time. Caroline stood apart from him and not too daintily blew her nose. Her eyes were red.
“Excuse me if I behaved like an ass,” she said. “We’re not a family that breaks down lightly or often, Danny, so there must have been a reason. You’ll be back?”
“I think I’ll be back,” he said. “I think I’ll be back or else you’ll read about it in the papers.”
Outside the theater, Hubert fell in stride with him. Theater traffic filled the street. They walked together, wordless, with Danny taking one look at the tight-lipped, bunchy-muscled fool that walked beside him. How tough do they get? How tough can they get? While they walked he looked at his own square hands. He’d been able to use them all his life and might be able to use them again.
Allie Fargis opened the office door himself. “Welcome home,” he said, but it was not a jovial statement. Another man sat there, and Danny remembered him from an afternoon eight years before — Allie’s lawyer. Delaney, his name was. He sat tapping one foot, his hands folded neatly in his lap. Allie Fargis closed the door. Sugarboy Spartano and Hubert, like drilled apes, stood one at each side of the door.
“The money?” said Allie.
“I ate it,” Danny said.
Hubert’s hands opened and clenched at Danny’s remark. Sugarboy, towering with his own bulk, merely looked blank, the smoke of his cigarette trailing slowly past the dumb expression on his face. They were caricatures more than they were men. Stock types, Danny thought, but blubberheads, and a respectable director would fire them from a stage for overplaying their parts. Then Danny’s glance went back to Allie Fargis and to Delaney, the lawyer, his polished shoe still tapping the carpet, waiting. Two kinds of crooks, like two sides of a coin — the smart crooks and the meatballs, with the brains, of course, controlling the muscle.
“Why don’t you turn the dogs loose, Allie?”
“I don’t want your smart remarks. I want sixty thousand dollars.”
“How badly do you want it, Allie? Not badly enough for a murder here, do you? Nothing vulgar or violent with Mr. Delaney present. It could be embarrassing for him and bad for your business. Too many difficult situations and the crook could get disbarred. Right, Hubert? Sugarboy?”
They only glared at him and looked to Allie, for there are hierarchies in all affairs, political or criminal, he was beginning to understand. The meatballs serve, but they don’t intrude. They work in the alleys, but rarely in the parlors.
“Hubert, for instance,” Danny said. “I wonder now why I’ve been afraid of people like Hubert. After all, I threw him down the stairs last night, and I could probably do it again. Couldn’t I, Hubert?”
His voice had been rising and rising, and the sound of it, and the need to do something, made a kind of heady wine, so that suddenly he grasped Hubert by the shirt and defiantly slapped his face. Hubert’s hand reached back to a rear pocket and Danny punched him in the mouth. Hubert fell, and in falling reached again for the gun in his pocket. Allie Fargis leaped from his chair and took the gun from Hubert’s hand.
“He wouldn’t have used it, anyhow,” Danny said. “Not here.” He looked at Delaney, who had paled, and at Sugarboy, who, without command, had done exactly nothing.
“You know something, Allie?” Danny said. He spoke on a note of triumphant discovery. “I’m the only tough guy in the room.” He pressed a thumb against his own chest. “Me!” He sat down facing them all.
Delaney said to Allie Fargis, “You’re doin’ fine, aren’t you?”
Fargis licked dry lips. He tried again. “Look, mister,” he said to Danny, “you’re alive for one reason. I don’t want your hide. I couldn’t sell it for a dime. I want the money. I need the money. I have to —”
Allie stopped. He’d talked too much. The sweat was on his head like dew on a melon. He looked again to Delaney, but Delaney only shrugged.
Delaney said calmly enough, “Call Sam. Tell him you need more time.”
“I don’t have to call him,” Allie said. He looked at the clock on his desk. “Sam’ll be here any minute.”
“This thing’s improving all the time,” Danny said. Who’s Sam?”
“Sam, if you’ve got to know,” said Allie, “only happens to be the party whose money you’ve got. It wasn’t mine. It was his. Think that over. Chew it a while. Put it on the record player so you can learn it real good. Sam … is … Sam Friede!”
“So I’m dead and buried?”
“Without that money, you fool, you’re the deadest duck in New York.”
Danny sought to look unimpressed. “I should jump through a window?”
“You’ll jump through more’n a window, you fresh punk!” Allie was screaming now, naked without the cloak of poise he always wore. “You’ll jump! I’ll jump! The whole damned town’ll jump! You hear me!”
And he wasn’t fooling, Danny could tell. Delaney said, “Easy; take it easy.” Delaney was tapping that foot again. Delaney was seeking to think calmly, as one who can afford to think calmly, as though his own neck would not be in the noose of Sam Friede’s disapproval.
When the door was opened, you could see that Sam Friede was a man built in proportion to his reputation. He was Gargantuan, with a cherubic face just a bit too wise. He looked like a blown-up angel who had swapped his halo for a bag of gold. Danny had never seen him before, but had many times heard of him: Sam Friede, the alleged lord of more rackets than a dollar has nickels or dimes. Sugarboy Spartano, after opening the door, had leaped out of the way, like a sore-covered beggar from the petal-strewn path of a king.
And now Danny had the feeling that he couldn’t win. It was like a hurdle race where they kept increasing the height of obstacles to be cleared until you finally fell on your nose. There was no sign of pity, fear or compromise in Sam Friede’s face. Just the small bright eyes in the swollen mass of his features, and the little ears clamped tightly against his head.
This enormous man looked carefully about — at Allie Fargis, at Delaney, at the abused and disarrayed spectacle of Hubert, then, most carefully, at Danny.
“You must have had the wrong boy on your carpet,” Sam Friede said finally to Allie. “You got that money?”
“Look, Sam,” Mile began. “It may take a little time. I told you about this lunatic, didn’t I?”
“You told me, Allie, but maybe you didn’t tell me enough.”
Sam Friede moved carefully around Danny, his small eyes appraising, yet revealing no clue to the final assessment. He resembled a reconnoitering tank. His massive hands, like baseball mitts, were playfully tapping his chest. You had a feeling this fabulous flesh could move with a speed not at first suspected, and that, if he chose, Sam Friede could break you like a dry stick. You stood there matching glances with this man, the while your hopes descended.
“Well?” Danny said.
The puffed face was inscrutable, but Danny thought he saw a glint appear in Sam Friede’s eyes. He didn’t know for sure. He merely stood his ground, ready to fold his fists and throw them if he had to. But Sam Friede merely shrugged. He sat down, choosing a straight-backed chair, so that his flesh, unimpeded, could overflow the sides of the chair. He looked once again at Hubert, then back to Allie.
“Let’s get this straight, you brain bomb,” Sam Friede said. “This boy took the money from you? A fresh nobody, a punk; he came in here, slapped you silly, then took it away? Now tell me more.”
Allie looked helpless. “Well, the guy … he won’t get it up!”
This did not impress Sam Friede. He regarded Allie with obvious contempt.
“You mean that this is no Boy Scout, as you thought? This is a grown man?”
“He’s crazy,” Allie said. “Like I was trying to tell you, Sam.”
“Well, please don’t bother telling me, because I’m going to tell you something. Whether this kid gets up the dough or not,” Sam Friede said, “isn’t my responsibility. He doesn’t owe me anything. You do.”
“But, Sam, look at it this way: I had the money in my hands. I was here last night — a little earlier than now, it was. And then, like I explained.”
“Shut up!” Sam Friede said.
That was really all he had to say, and Danny could understand the nature of their relationship. The big fish eats the middle-sized fish, and the middle-sized fish eats the sardines. It all seemed very clear to him now, except that Sugarboy Spartano, standing there, looked like the biggest sardine Danny had ever seen.
Sam Friede then voiced what seemed a simple and practical idea, “If you can’t handle this kid, Allie — you or the slobs that work for you — why don’t you sell him back the bowling alleys you beat him out of in the first place?”
Allie’s mouth fell open, and Danny was not, himself, quite sure that he had heard Sam Friede correctly.
“I talk very plain English,” Sam said, “like I went to a college maybe but not for too long. You been blabbin’ around town for years about how you stuck a dumb kid for that dough, an’ there’s not much of that kind of talk that don’t come back to me. You got great charm an’ a loose trap, Allie, an’ I kind of like this kid.”
“But, listen, Sam. Be reasonable.”
“You listen, you chickenhearted chump. Every time this kid bumps into you he belts your brains out, don’t he? Why, you can’t even pertect yourself.” Then Sam Friede turned to Danny. “For sixty thousand bucks, kid, I give you my personal guarantee you can buy this place as nice an’ legal as a box o’ chocolate candy. We got a lawyer here, already. He’s a crook, like you know, but it won’t show on the bill o’ sale.” Sam Friede seemed to find it highly amusing. He had the bold expansiveness of one who is bound to get paid one way or the other. “You can get a notary from the cigar store on the corner for half a buck, kid I’ll pay the half a buck — an’ we can all get on with our business. How about it?”
Danny sat there, gaping at the grinning ogre before him, realizing that the big man wasn’t fooling. The happiness rose and almost choked him.
“You can get the dough, can’t you?” Sam Friede said.
Danny said, “Gimme the phone book.” He picked it off Allie’s desk. He dialed the number swiftly. “Hello? … Hello? I’d like to speak with Mr. Patrick Shane.”
Then he sat back, looking with weird delight at Allie and Hubert and Sugarboy.
“Lo, pop?… No, pop; this is not Pretty Boy Floyd. It’s me; a friend of your daughter’s… Now, look…”
A few minutes later, Patrick Shane, flanked by two witnesses from the bus depot, and carrying in his hands with loving care an old brown paper bag, was a beautiful sight to see. The notary public came from the cigar store on the corner, and Sam Friede magnanimously shot the works; he gave the man a dollar.
“You know, I like you, kid,” Sam said to Danny. “Just like I said before. You an’ I could do business together. It would be a pleasure all around. You got nerve. You got class.”
“That’s right, Sam,” Danny said, “and I’ve got a wonderful chance of staying out of jail the way I am.”
“I don’t getcha, kid.”
Danny looked at the big man so there would be no misunderstanding. He pointed to the door leading into the “supply” room.
“First thing tomorrow,” he said pleasantly, “the crap game, or whatever they’ve got in there, goes out with the empty bottles. Do I make that clear? Otherwise, Sam, you’re a charming fellow, too, and you’re invited to dance with Allie at the wedding.”
It was later. It was midnight. And all about him the Broadway lights blazed in a manner not permitted in the wartime year of his departure. The lights that spelled the names of chewing gums and coffee brands and cigarettes and motorcars seemed all to be spelling out for Danny, “Welcome Home!”
“All right,” he said, “I’m a sentimental jerk,” because his eyes were misty with the scene.
But the pressure of the girl’s hand on his own hand told him that she didn’t mind too much. She walked with one arm linked in his — hatless, as on the night he had seen her for the first time, long ago.
“Sentiment’s a nice thing, Danny. Sometimes it sticks like a marshmallow sundae, but it’s hard to do without.”
An April moon hung like a jack-o’-lantern over the town. Caroline’s hand turned slowly on top of his and the solitaire blinked like a headlight.
“Of course, we may have to hock it someday,” Danny said.
“So maybe we will,” she said, and they went on together. “So maybe we will … and who cares?”
Featured image: Illustration by Geoffrey Biggs