Book: Sand on the Gumshoe: a century of Australian crime writing
Sand on the Gumshoe: a century of Australian crime writing
Apart from Arthur Upfield, Carter Brown and Peter Corris most Australians would be struggling to name many other home-grown writers of crime and detective fiction. Yet there is in fact a long Australian tradition of crime writing. The new crop of Australian crime writers are just returning the genre to the popularity it enjoyed for a century from the 1860s.
Maybe our convict origins have something to do with it, maybe it’s just human nature to be entertained by stories of violence and greed and the darkness of the human soul. Whatever the case, from the nineteenth century on, dozens of Australian authors have ventured into the genre to satisfy a hungry local market.
Australia has a surprisingly rich and varied tradition of crime writing embracing with varied degrees of success such branches of the idiom as detective stories, thrillers, mysteries, police procedurals and even gothic adventures. For much of our history, we have followed the traditions of British crime fiction. In recent years, however, the hard-edged commentary of the United States has become dominant.
This progression is best reflected in the work of Upfield, Brown and Corris, authors who have achieved both critical and commercial success around the world and somehow avoided the obscurity that has befallen their counterparts. The work of the trio can indeed be viewed as a microcosm of the development of Australian crime literature. Upfield’s approach grew out of the English police procedural, reflecting Australia ’s long tradition as a British cultural colony. Brown in comparison was a rude shock. His work was brashly modern, harshly violent and thoroughly Americanised. By the time Corris began to write in the early 1980s the formula had mellowed but the United States remained the dominant influence. The development of Australian crime fiction has thus mirrored the country’s agonised struggle to forge a new cultural identity, no matter how derivative.
Arthur Upfield created a wholly unique Australian detective. Born of an Aboriginal mother and a white father, Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, better known as Bony, featured in 29 of the author’s 33 novels. From the first, The Barrakee Mystery (London, Hutchinson, 1929; as The Lure of the Bush, New York, Doubleday, 1965) to the last, The Lake Frome Monster (London, Heinemann, 1965), completed after Upfield’s death, Bony has endured.
British-born Upfield came to Australia in 1911 and worked for many years in the outback. He was among other occupations, a station hand, a boundary rider and a prospector, who distilled his love of the far country into his novels. Upfield’s keen eye for detail and his ability to generate an Australian atmosphere kept fans around the world satisfied long after Bony captured his last villain.
To contemporary readers, Upfield’s treatment of his Aboriginal characters smacks of racism, but his writing was, of course, a product of his time. Thus in The Lake Frome Monster he describes a half caste as having not enough of the white race in him to produce staple honesty and too much of the black race to permit freedom from aboriginal superstition. Yet Upfield delighted in extolling the individual superiority of Bony above all races. It is Bony who is assigned the toughest cases. He plays the part of labourer, itinerant worker, even swagman, to crack a case and, in a telling allusion to his ambiguous position in Australian society, prefers to work anonymously and alone.
Patience, as Bony cheerfully admits, is his greatest asset. He can solve a case in two weeks or it can take two years. He never fails and his exceptional talents reinforce his enormous self regard. As he comments in Wind of Evil (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1937; London, John Hamilton, 1939; New York, Doubleday, 1944), ‘I admire murderers immensely – almost as much as I admire myself.’
Bony first appeared during the so-called ‘golden age’ of crime writing, the period between the two world wars which produced authors such as John Dickson Carr, R. Austin Freeman, S.S. Van Dine, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers, a time when the manufacture of mystery relied far more on the inherent puzzle than considerations of character and plot. This was the era of genteel murders in locked rooms where detectives and their suspects were all bound by the conventions of rigid social codes.
Upfield’s locales were a little light on drawing rooms and evinced a shocking paucity of butlers. Yet his approach had much in common with the conventions of the ‘golden age’ practitioners. Bony’s cases occurred in small, rural communities, just the type of closed universe that the locked room mystery depended upon. There were a finite number of suspects and the guilty party (or parties) was always among them. Most importantly, while Upfield disguised some of the more vital clues from the reader, he invariably adhered to the conventions and played fair.
Upfield’s novels sold well in both Great Britain and Australia but his lasting success was not established until 1943 when his novels began to be released in the United States. Beginning with Death of a Swagman (New York, Doubleday, 1945; London, Francis Aldor, 1946; Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1947) the majority of the Bony books were first published in the United States. Anthony Boucher, in The New York Times Review of Books, described Bony as the most original fictional detective of the last 20 years’ and Upfield became the first Australian to be admitted to the Mystery Writers’ Guild of America. Upfield’s novels were translated into German, Italian, Dutch, Spanish and Japanese and still support a thriving international fan club of the Bony faithful.
If Upfield was prolific then Carter Brown (the pseudonym of Alan Geoffrey Yates) was positively fecund. The extent of his output remains open but bibliographical sources suggest a minimum of 190 and a maximum of 325 novels. Beyond dispute is Carter Brown’s position as a dinky-di literary phenomenon. Yates, for all his energy, worked in that corner of the genre that even now receives little serious attention in literary circles. Apart from a passing cultish curiosity in the early 1980s when Yates’ autobiography was published and a musical made from his novel, The Stripper (Sydney, Horwitz, and New York, New American Library, 1961; London, New English Library, 1962) he has never achieved the recognition that the quality of his writing and its sheer volume deserved.
Yates fed the market for pulp fiction with a startling energy. The numerous Carter Brown detectives occupied mythologised American settings, despite the fact that Yates had little practical knowledge of the United States until quite late in his career. Thus, one Carter detective, Al Wheeler, worked in a fictional Californian city near Los Angeles, and another, Randy Roberts, came from San Francisco. Yates’ characters inhabited the same bleak, violent landscape that Hollywood had been manufacturing under the label of film noir for decades. Yates’ writing was like the romantic, dream landscapes fashioned by the early Black Mask-style writers, a style which continued into the post 1945 period. This style had much in common with the Westerns and the cowboy epics of popular literature in that it enhanced the traditional struggle between good and evil. The heroes of such stories were fine men (and occasionally women) hardened but not seduced by the evil they faced. They reacted to violence in order to save the society they were sworn to protect.
Brown’s heroes were as violent as his villains. His women, with the exception of the sole central female character, Mavis Seidlitz, were either dumb, well-endowed secretaries or dumb, well-endowed victims. His corrupt cities were similar to those of Micky Spillane or James Hadley Chase, but Brown’s saving grace was an undercurrent of humour that occasionally verged on satire.
Yates knew his market well and was careful to deliver exactly what was demanded. As society changed so, to some limited extent, did Carter Brown’s universe. From the late 1960s the plots became crazier reflecting Yates’ perception of the new social mores and he began to avoid the old-fashioned themes of fevered vengeance which characterised the later works of both Spillane and Chase. The sultry, lurid book covers remained, as did his faithful audience, although towards the end of Yates’ career his readership was eroded by the large number of television series that had seized upon his genre.
Sales remained the true measure of Yates success. At his death in 1985 press estimates put his sales at over 55 million copies. His novels sold in more than 20 countries and 14 languages. Whilst Yates’ work may be obscure (the Australian publisher of Carter Brown mysteries, Horwitz, have no titles in print) it must be the very type of financial obscurity that many authors crave.
Unlike Yates, Peter Corris enjoys both critical and commercial adoration. Since the publication of his first crime novel, The Dying Trade (Sydney, McGraw Hill, 1980), his transplantation of the Californian private eye tradition to Australia has earned him a major reputation. Corris’ hero, Cliff Hardy, has appeared in eight novels and three collections of short stories, including the latest, Man in the Shadows (Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1988) and a film version of one of his novels, The Empty Beach (Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1983).
Cliff Hardy is a notable creation. In common with such classic Californian counterparts as Phillip Marlowe, Sam Spade and Lew Archer, he is a loner with a knight errant mentality who solves his cases more through force of personality than any deductive genius. Corris’ regard for writers such as Raymond Chandler is evident. Even if the first Hardy novel was a little too close to the style of Ross MacDonald for critical comfort, Corris has firmly established his hero’s individual character in its successors.
Hardy is heir to the myth of the digger and all the values that tradition evokes. He lives in a run-down terrace in inner Sydney Glebe, drinks flagon wine and drives an ageing Falcon to an equally run-down office in Kings Cross. He has an utterly endearing disrespect for authority and gets beaten up with comforting regularity. A strong feature of the Corris creation is the merging of character and place. Corris has created a cityscape for Hardy which is constantly recognisable. Cliff Hardy, in many ways, is Sydney. The city is an element in the Hardy stories as forceful as that of Robert B. Parker’s Boston or John D. MacDonald’s Florida.
Whilst Upfield, Yates and Corris are the jewels in the axe handle of Australian crime fiction, they are far from isolated examples of our long fascination with crime and its retelling. Just as Britain has celebrated its highway-men and the United States gangsters and outlaws so Australia has demonstrated a limitless fascination with criminals and victims as diverse as Ned Kelly, Squizzy Taylor and the Chamberlains.
There has always been and probably always will be a large and receptive audience for crime writing. Just why people delight in reading of murder most foul can never be satisfactorily explained. Over the years all manner of people, from psychologists to the crime writers themselves, have attempted this puzzle. Their widely differing conclusions have only succeeded in further confusing the discussion. Perhaps John Creasy (author of the Gideon series) glimpsed a measure of the truth when he opined, ‘The crime story is almost the only novel worth reading today because it deals with the fundamental conflict of mankind; the conflict of good and bad. At its best it is the morality play of our age.’
Yet there are issues inherent in the vast popularity of crime writing that make such a statement a touch too simplistic. For many years crime writing was dismissed as fodder for the mass market, mindless relaxation for the poorly educated, and it is only in relatively recent times that such works have been seriously examined by the literary and academic fraternities. Such revision has come about not from the continuing popularity of the genre but by the range of people it attracts. Joseph Stalin enjoyed the detective tales of Edgar Allen Poe, Freud likewise with Dorothy Sayer; John F. Kennedy with Ian Fleming and Einstein with Erle Stanley Gardner.
Creasy went some way to explaining the modus operandi of the genre as a whole; there is something extremely comforting in a literature that sets out to create order from chaos. G.K. Chesterton, himself a proponent of crime writing, travelled this path with his 1901 essay ‘A Defense of Detective Stories’. He presented the genre as expressing some sense of the poetry of modern life and; ‘By dealing with the unsleeping sentinels who guard the outposts of society, it tends to remind us that we live in an armed camp, making war with a chaotic world, and that the criminals, the children of chaos, are nothing but traitors within our gates.’
Such arguments may well be dismissed as apologetics. Other commentators have painted crime writing as a harmless past-time. William Huntington Wright, who as S.S. Van Dine was one of the most popular authors of crime’s supposed ‘golden age’, followed this line of thought in an introduction to a 1927 anthology. The detective novel, he claimed: ‘… does not fall under the head of fiction in the ordinary sense, but belongs rather in the category of riddles; it is, in fact, a complicated and extended puzzle cast in fictional form.’ This may well have been a viable argument when applied to Wright and his best known creation, the omniscient Philo Vance. But Wright does not allow for the psychological complexity of the audience for crime fiction and could never have anticipated the proliferation of the genre as it exists today.
So are puzzle-mystery fans simply indulging in crosswords-with-curare? Is the reader of hard-boiled detective stories wallowing in mere macho wish-fulfillment? The debate rages on but the popularity of the genre is beyond dispute. And it is a popularity that has always attracted Australian authors. Certainly Upfield, Corris and Yates are the best known practitioners of crime fiction but they are not unique and are in fact the heirs to a long Australian tradition.
In the late 1860s a Melbourne woman, Mrs Mary Fortune, was churning out detective stories for a weekly magazine, The Australian Journal. Mrs Fortune’s series, many of which featured a Melbourne police detective called Mark Sinclair, continued well into the 1880s. She wrote under the pseudonyms ‘W.W.’ or ‘Waif Wander’ and whilst very little can be discovered about her, what is fascinating is that she wrote in the mode of what was to become the classic police procedural and predates virtually all those women writers who are considered to have been present at the genre’s birth.
Whilst Mrs Fortune’s midwifery is not widely known, Fergus Hume’s definitely is. Hume was an Englishman who came to Australia with the unlikely goal of establishing a literary career and proceeded to do just that. His first book, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (Melbourne, Kemp & Boyce, 1886; London, The Hansom Cab Publishing Company, 1887; New York, Munro, 1988) sold millions of copies around the world. Its significance, however, derives as much from its commercial success as its timing. Whatever its merits, Hume wrote one of the first detective stories to garner mass popular appeal.
Hume never bothered to disguise the curious start to his writing. Before launching himself as a popular novelist he sought the advice of a Melbourne bookseller who advised him that novels featuring detectives, particularly the work of French author Emile Gaboriau, were widely popular. It was in these new detective stories that Hume accordingly immersed himself.
With detectives as their central characters both Hume and Fortune were at the cutting edge of the nascent mystery genre. Certainly Gaboriau, detailing the adventures of Lecoq of the Sûreté, along with Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe in the 1860s had only recently established the tradition of police detective fiction. This is hardly surprising given the relative novelty of the modern detective. Whilst the Metropolitan Police Act, creating a police force for London, was adopted in 1829, a formal detective department, replacing the Bow Street Runners, was not established until 1842.
The development of the police detective proceeded at a quicker pace in Australia. Sydney had its own ‘George Street Runner’ in Israel Chapman, a convict who came to Australia after a short career as a highwayman. He eventually became a constable and displayed considerable talent in capturing bushrangers. This led to his appointment in the mid-1820s as a police runner or detective. The nickname came from his being based at the George Street police station.
In Melbourne, a formal detective division was established by William Sugden, appointed Chief Constable of the City Police in 1844. It continued when the force was reorganised into the Victorian Police in 1853. By the 1860s there were some 40 detectives operating throughout the colony. In addition, a number of private agents were in business. Among the best known was Melbourne ’s Mercantile Agency and Private Inquiry Office, opened in 1866 by Otto Berliner.
Berliner had joined the New South Wales police in 1855 and moved to Melbourne four years later. Although he had little more than a decade of professional experience, Berliner became a renowned figure. In his public and private capacities, he tracked down numerous murderers, solved Victoria ’s first case of gold coin forgery and investigated the claim of a Wagga Wagga butcher, one Arthur Orton, to be the long lost heir to the Tichbourne baronetcy in England.
Detectives, both public and private, were thus a fact, albeit a relatively recent one, of Australian life when both Mrs Fortune and Hume began to write. Their characters, Fortune’s Mark Sinclair and Hume’s Messrs Gorby and Kilsip, resemble the genuine article and all moved in what must have appeared a faithful recreation of the criminal undercurrents of Melbourne.
The writings of both Fortune and Hume captured the popular imagination to an extent which was as yet largely unrivalled by better known authors in the northern hemisphere. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, for example, appeared in 1886, a year before an English doctor by the name of Arthur Conan Doyle saw his first crime story, A Study in Scarlet, published. Doyle’s writing did not enjoy any immediate popularity. Indeed it was not until 1891, when the continuing adventures of the master detective began to appear in The Strand Magazine that the Holmesian juggernaut gained momentum. By that year Hume’s novels had sold hundreds of thousands of copies throughout the world and had tapped into the vast potential demand for crime fiction.
Hundreds of authors, including a fair number in Australia, were present at the creation of modern crime fiction. Some were very good. Most weren’t.
A rare example of the critically satisfying Australian work is Francis William Lauderdale Adam’s Madeline Brown’s Murder (Melbourne, Kemp & Boyce, 1887). Published a year after Hume’s debut, the story has a chilling prologue detailing the killing of the mysterious Madeline Brown and goes on to recount how David Stuart, a journalist with The Age, Melbourne, and an admirer of Brown, tracks down the murderer. Adams, a poet of some note, produced an effective mystery that avoided much of the melodrama of the typical Victorian novel and which certainly reads much better one hundred years on than most of its competitors.
Adam’s novel is only one example of the considerable body of local mysteries and thrillers published throughout the late nineteenth century. At the forefront were a number of newspapers and magazines which serialised not only hackneyed English romances and the inevitable local magpies but skillful crime stories and original stylish fiction.
Some authors such as Rolf Boldrewood in Robbery Under Arms and Marcus Clarke in For the Term of His Natural Life chose not to Dickenise Melbourne, drawing their inspiration from convicts and bushrangers. The former was serialised in the Sydney Mail in 1882, six years before it was published in book form. Clarke’s story was also serialised in The Australian Journal from March 1870, appearing in a severely abridged book form four years later. Whilst the Boldrewood and Clarke classics do not strictly belong in the crime genre they certainly utilised many of its themes and pointed the way towards the development of the popular mystery.
As does some of the writing of Ernest Favenc. Born in England in 1845 Favenc was in Australia by 1864. A young man with a sense of adventure he easily learnt the bushcraft required to survive in the outback. In the following years he worked in northern Queensland and opened up vast tracts of land in the Gulf Country and Western Australia for settlement. In 1877 he led an expedition funded by a Queensland newspaper intended to preclude the establishment of a railway from Darwin to Queensland.
Favenc’s novels include The Secret of the Australian Desert (London, Blackie & Company, 1895) and The Moccasins of Silence (Sydney, George Robertson, 1896). He also published a number of short-story collections such as The Last of Six: Tales of the Austral Tropics (Sydney, Bulletin Newspaper Company, 1893) and My Only Murder and other Stories (Melbourne, George Robertson, 1899).
Transplanting the traditions of the Victorian novel to colonial Australia also gave rise to some interesting exercises. Sydney-born Patrick Quinn produced a typical piece of period nonsense in the closing years of the nineteenth century. His novel, The Jewelled Belt (Melbourne, George Robertson, 1896) concerns the struggle of an Englishman, Dick Chester, to discover the identity of a man found murdered on the banks of Melbourne ’s Yarra River. In keeping with the dictates of convention there is a love interest (the victim’s inevitably lovely daughter) and a gimmick (a belt holding precious stones that the victim wore around his waist).
The Jewelled Belt shared certain key characteristics with The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Both Hume’s Mr Gorby and Quinn’s Dick Chester uncover the identity of the respective murder victims through the public notice columns of the Melbourne newspapers and both (Hume with much greater success than Quinn) attempt to imbue the city with a sinister atmosphere.
Another author providing local colour was John David Hennessey, a Methodist minister who came to Australia from England. He gave up the church for journalism and, eventually, for life as a novelist. Most of his works were the fairly standard romantic adventures of the period although his The Outlaw (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1911) was a popular bushranging novel that won second prize in a competition organised by British publisher Hodder and Stoughton and sold six printings in three years. A later thriller, The Caves of Shend (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1915) began with a subterranean vault under a ruined mansion in the south-eastern suburbs of Sydney containing two chained skeletons and a fortune in gold coins. Despite this promising beginning, the novel degenerates into just another romantic adventure.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, advances in the technology of book production began to make it possible for crime writers to reach new audiences. Until the 1890s hardcover novels were expensive items, far beyond the means of the average working person but with rising literacy an increasing proportion of the population were reading. The answer to expensive but popular novels were subscription or circulating libraries where, for an annual fee plus about 2d per day per book, readers could obtain the latest novels by their favourite authors.
Such libraries were the mainstay of the major publishers; only the wealthiest individuals could afford the high cost of hardcover novels. Some publishers, however, realised that if retail prices could be reduced, people would happily buy books instead of just borrowing them. The result was the ‘yellowback’, poorly manufactured novels with cardboard covers which barely held together their contents. Cheap in price as well as production standards, the resulting boom in sales proved these visionaries correct. The yellowbacks competed with the various magazines for the favour of readers and enjoyed one major advantage, where magazines such as The Australian Journal could only publish novels in serialised form, the cheap paperbacks could be consumed in one sitting, a bonus for many readers.
The yellowbacks preceded the pulps which, in turn, developed into paperbacks. In terms of yellowback fiction, one notable local precursor to Alan Geoffrey Yates was Nat Gould, a nineteenth century Dick Francis. Born in Manchester, England, Gould came to Australia as a journalist in 1884 and stayed for some 11 years. This was ample time to immerse himself in the local racing scene and to begin a literary gallop that eventually totalled more than 130 novels. His output was so prolific that upon his death in 1919 there remained 22 titles yet to reach the presses. Dozens of his books had Australian settings, although Gould made no special effort to define the nature of the Australian landscape, character or indeed social order. All his racing adventures were in the yellowback category which, being inexpensive and readily available, ensured the widest possible audience. By the 1950s The Bulletin estimated that Gould’s sales were in excess of 30 million copies.
Arthur Wright covered the same territory and market but whilst Gould trawled widely for his locations, the Bathurst-born Wright stuck mostly to Sydney. Wright had a particular affection for Randwick and Rosehill racecourses which featured in many of his works, including his debut Keane of Kargoorlie (Sydney, Sunday Times Company, 1897), first serialised in a Sydney sports newspaper and A Rogue’s Luck (Sydney, New South Wales Bookstall Company, 1922). Wright’s melodramas, often mixing romance and adventure in equal parts, did not possess the same breathless treatment of horseracing that Gould so effortlessly displayed, but his plots swung along and provided some interesting descriptions of the country.
The Australian reader of crime fiction was to be better served by Randolph Bedford. Bedford was a journalist who went on to become a member of the Queensland parliament and like Arthur Upfield years later, had a great love of the Australian bush. From his youth Bedford tramped the outback and wrote about his experiences to great effect in such magazines as The Bulletin. In Billy Pagan, Mining Engineer (Sydney, New South Wales Bookstall Company, 1911) he presented a series of short stories set in the bush that had much in common with Sherlock Holmes.
The narrator of Billy Pagan is Henry Fleet, a Watson-like character who acts as devil’s advocate for the reader. Fleet becomes a companion to a drifter scraping a living from prospecting, one Billy Pagan: ‘… a young man, dressed like any score of other men – in a shirt of many pockets and open at the breast; dust-marked tweed trousers, tucked into old wrinkled, travel-worn, brown leather leggings, fastened with leather loops and only one buckle; boots heavy to the sole and light as the upper – so serving to show the extraordinary delicacy of the man’s feet; a soiled Terai hat very wide in the brim; the trousers supported by a leather belt that held watch, compass and aneroid pouches, and knife and pipe sheaths.’
Like a swaggie’s vision of Holmes, Pagan has an almost supernatural ability to detect wrongdoing. In one story Pagan makes a cursory examination of a deserted mine site and concludes that it was worked by two men, one of them being a sailor from a cold climate who has murdered his companion to keep secret their discovery of a gold reef. Pagan and Fleet track the murderer, a Dutch seaman, to the Western Australian mining town of Coolgardie where he is brought to justice.
The stories contained within Billy Pagan, Mining Engineer, are set in mining districts of Western Australian, Tasmania and northern Queensland, and each is filled with writing richly evocative of location and atmosphere. The relationship between Pagan and Fleet has much to compare with Holmes and Watson, and it is regrettable that Bedford did not come to realise the worth of continuing the Pagan adventures.
There seems no logical reason why authors such as Gould, Wright and Bedford became the pulp staples of the railway new-stands, while pedestrian talents such as Hennessey found favour with the more established publishers. One possible explanation is that Hennessey and others like him consciously exploited the form of melodramatic Victorian-inspired adventures which left little room for the development of Australian characters or locations except as exotic backdrops.
Whatever the reason a number of Australian authors began to give British publishers what they wanted. Over the years authors like Arthur Gask, Pat Flower, Margot Neville and Sidney Courtier filled the circulating libraries of Britain and Australia with their books.
Like American western writer Zane Grey, South Australian-born Arthur Gask, spent the early years of the twentieth century as a dentist. In between impacted molars, Gask nutted out a thriller which he eventually titled The Secret of the Sandhills (Adelaide, Rigby, 1921; London, Herbert Jenkins, 1930), subtitled A Mystery of Henley Beach to identify its Adelaine locale. The novel did not readily find an Australian publisher but when it finally appeared sold a thousand copies in a matter of weeks. British publisher Herbert Jenkins picked up Gask’s second novel, Cloud, the Smiter (London, 1926), to begin an association that lasted for more than 30 novels, ending with Crime Upon Crime (London, 1952) published the year after Gask’s death. Many of Gask’s stories feature South Australia although those starring his series character, Detective Gilbert Larose, remained firmly set in England.
Pat Flower came to Australia in 1928 as a teenager. The wife of artist Cedric, she turned to writing in the 1950s with the first of her long stream of novels, Wax Flowers for Gloria (Sydney, Ure Smith, and London, Angus & Robertson, 1958). Flower’s earlier works do not anticipate the quality of her later writing. Her considerable literary talent was initially overwhelmed by a jokesy approach particularly in the half dozen or so early books that feature her sole series character, Inspector Swinton. The good Inspector was a policeman given to meat pies and suburban domesticity and was little different from the majority of English flavoured police heroes common in Australian crime fiction through much of this century.
Possibly Flower was lampooning this derivative fashion although any evidence of such intent is buried deep. Certainly her sense of humour verged on the heavy handed. Consider, for example, the device occasioned by her married name in the titles. Not only is there Wax Flowers for Gloria but Goodbye Sweet William (Sydney, Ure Smith, and London, Angus & Robertson, 1960), One Rose Less (Sydney, Ure Smith, and London, Angus & Robertson, 1961) and Hell for Heather (London, Hale, 1962). If this isn’t sufficient, Inspector Swinton is assisted by a young colleague, Detective-Sergeant Primrose.
Flower sketched the idle moneyed. Further reinforcing the English tradition, many of her plots unfold in country houses or fashionable city apartments. Whilst her characters, certainly those of Swinton and Primrose, are nothing new, Flower did introduce some remarkably ingenious, though hardly credible, plot devices. In Goodbye Sweet William, for example, the final twist has the guests at a house party apparently murdering their host whilst the victim in fact dies of entirely natural causes.
Flower did, however, tire of such facetiousness and early in her career abandoned Inspector Swinton in favour of psychological mysteries. Her new maturity was realised in such novels as Cobweb (London, Collins, 1972; New York, Stein & Day, 1978) and Odd Job (London, Collins, 1974; New York, Stein & Day, 1978). Crisscross (London, Collins, 1976; New York, Stein & Day, 1977) is a particularly masterful tale of madness, written from the perspective of a badgered husband. Her last novel, Shadow Show (London, Collins, 1976; New York, Stein & Day, 1978) was released just two years short of her death.
Margot Neville was the pen name of two sisters, Margot Goyder and Anne Neville Goyder Joske who collaborated on a string of thrillers beginning with Lena Hates Men (New York, Arcadia House, 1943; as Murder in Rockwater, London, Geoffrey Bles, 1944) and finishing with Head on a Sill (London, Geoffrey Bles, 1966). The Neville heroes, Detective-Inspector Grogan and Detective-Sergeant Manning, who appeared in all but two of the novels, followed the same well travelled path as Flower, although as a general rule, Neville is far ahead.
Murder and Gardenias (London, Geoffrey Bles, 1946) was one of the early mysteries that established the Neville reputation. The story opens with an examination of the residents of a fashionable Sydney apartment building. A body of a young man, stuffed into a chest, is discovered in one of the apartments. The residents and their relationships display varying degrees of complexity and it is up to Grogan and Manning to fathom the tangled relations and unmask the killer.
Murder and Gardenias displays Neville’s eloquence and ability to balance a large number of characters. A later Neville, Drop Dead (London, Geoffrey Bles, 1962) uses much the same setting. Claude Nevinson, a successful and philandering restaurateur, falls to his death from the balcony of his mistress’ apartment which is in the same building as those of Nevinson and his wife and the wife’s lover.
Whilst certainly superior to those of Pat Flower, the Margot Neville novels were startlingly similar in approach. The writers managed to take the traditions of the English police mystery and transplant them into an Australian setting. They succeeded only because the structure of the English mystery was maintained; there was certainly no attempt made to generate a genuine feel for the surroundings. When the Flower and Neville characters look out over Sydney Harbour, they could easily be viewing the Thames. And the sombrely attired wallopers from the Sydney C.I.B. could pass for representatives of Scotland Yard. Flower and Neville paid homage to a peculiar British form which had no room for bush pubs or Aborigines. Yet given their immense commercial success it is not surprising that they saw little need to introduce much local colour.
Sidney Courtier was more than willing to use recognisably Australian settings and characters. Although a teacher by occupation, Courtier could well have devoted his entire career to writing. Beginning in the late 1930s, he survived in the netherworld known only to the freelancer until the publication of his first novel, The Glass Spear (Sydney, Invincible Press and New York, Wyn, 1950; London, Dakers, 1952). It introduced the first of Courtier’s two series characters – Ambrose Mahon, a superintendent with the Sydney C.I.B. The Glass Spear is an excellent introduction to this consistently entertaining writer. Set on an isolated outback station just after World War II, the country locale was a device that Courtier was to continually utilise in later novels.
Mahon is never directly assigned to the cases he eventually solves. He just happens to be in the right place at the right time. In The Glass Spear he is holidaying with friends. In Come Back to Murder (London, Hammond, Hammond & Company, 1956) he revisits a country town where he was once stationed as a sergeant, whilst in A Shroud for Unlac (London, Hammond, Hammond and Company, 1958) he is attending a woolshow. In Mimic a Murderer (London, Hammond, Hammond and Company, 1964) Mahon is fortuitously at the scene for no better reason than to accelerate the development of the plot.
Courtier’s work is amongst the most interesting of all Australian writers in that he concerned himself with recognisable and unique, if occasionally bizarre, Australian locales. Death in Dream Time (London, Hammond, Hammond and Company, 1959), for example, featuring Detective Inspector C.J. ‘Digger’ Haig of the Brisbane C.I.B., is set in an Aboriginal theme park in far north Queensland. ‘Alchera, the Dream Time Land ’, has been established by the eccentric Austin Flax in a rainforest jungle. Hordes of tourists assemble daily to tour the nine life-like dioramas explaining the beliefs of the Arunda Aborigines. Haig is on the scene to investigate a traffic accident that turns out to be a murder and draws his suspects from a group of the park’s creditors.
Had Australian crime writing developed any apparent local flavour through these decades? Did it say anything about our nation or our collective identity? To both questions – the answer is probably not. With the exception of Arthur Upheld and Sidney Courtier, there was little difference between English and Australian crime writing. It was as if the majority of local novelists had decided that the best way to assure lasting fame, and sales, was to parrot their British and, to a much lesser extent, American counterparts.
It could also have been the result of conservative publishers mindful of the enormous market for English country house mysteries, particularly after World War II, and determined to foster authors to meet the demand. But while this area of crime writing was popular, it did not necessarily follow that such tradition could easily be transferred to Australia. To be fair, it could be argued that crime fiction has generally veered toward entertainment rather than social comment. The formulas are fairly well drawn in each of the sub-genres, whether it be Gothic, detective or police procedural, and readers rail at any interruption to the action.
Whatever the reason, a large number of Australian authors were producing English-flavoured mysteries with little or no relation to our society. The Active police detectives called to investigate genteel crimes were invariably similar, as if each author used identical style sheets. The Sydney C.I.B. was overrun with make-believe detectives and the trend continued into the 1970s with the work of Charles Whitman. In such works as Doctor-Death (London, Cassell & Company, 1969), Death Out of Focus (London, Cassell & Company, 1970) and Death Suspended (London, Cassell & Company, 1971) Whitman worked his series characters, Detective-Sergeant Douglas Gray and Detective-Inspector Bob Lindon of (you guessed it) the Sydney C.I.B. through the same tired routines that had hardly changed in decades.
An exception to the tired police formula was Elizabeth Salter who wrote some intelligent puzzle-mysteries concerning Detective-Inspector Mike Hornsley. Salter was a major literary talent, a biographer of some note (including studies of Daisy Bates and Robert Helpmann) and, obviously, a fan of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham. From 1957 until 1964, she lived in London, where she was private secretary to Dame Edith Sitwell (writing The Last Years of a Rebel: A Memoir of Edith Sitwell (London, Houghton Mifflin, 1967) and Edith Sitwell (London, Oresko Books, 1979). Most of her series of detective novels were written during this time.
Salter’s character, Hornsley, is a Sydney C.I.B. detective although he wandered far in the course of his investigations. In Once Upon a Tombstone (London, Hutchinson, 1965), the majority of the action takes place in Austria whilst in Death in a Mist (London, Geoffrey Bles, 1957) he unravels a murder in New Zealand. For the most part, however, the scenery she described with a loving attention to detail was that of Sydney. Other Salter mysteries, including There was a Witness (London, Geoffrey Bles, 1960), feature Hornsley and he emerges as one of the finest policemen to grace Australian crime fiction. Long overdue recent reprints of her books will only confirm this opinion. Once Upon a Tombstone and Death in a Mist were re-released by Angus & Robertson in the late 1970s and again in 1988.
The work of Gask, Flower, Neville and a dozen less enduring authors were prime examples of the cultural cringe. The works of Upfield, Courtier and Salter are thus all the more satisfying because they dared to write books with a unique indigenous character set in Australia for Australians.
Another of these marvellous mavericks was A.E. (Archibald Edward) Martin. A journalist who worked with C.J. Dennis on the satirical magazine, The Gadfly, Martin won The Australian Women’s Weekly 1942 novel contest with Common People (Sydney, Consolidated Press, 1944). Martin turned to mysteries in 1944 with Sinners Never Die (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1944; Sydney, New South Wales Bookstall Company, 1945). The central character, Henry Xavier Ford, is an old man in a nursing home for whom a mystery of 50 years past gradually unfolds in a series of flashbacks.
Martin’s quirky characters make him one of the best of the more recent new neglected writers. Another excellent Martin novel, The Chinese Bed Mystery (London, Max Reinhardt, 1955), is set in a circus. His other books include Death in the Limelight (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1946) and The Curious Crime (New York, Doubleday, 1952; London, Muller, 1953). Martin is one of the few Australians to be published in The Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (another was Arthur Upfield, who produced his only Bony short story especially for it) winning praise for his stories ‘The Flying Corpse’ and ‘The Power of the Leaf.’ The latter is a worthy example of Martin’s unusual talents, dealing with the efforts of Ooloo, an Aborigine of the Narranyeri tribe, to solve the strange death of a young man.
For every delight there are, of course, dozens of authors who aspired to brilliance but never quite made it. This is not to slight their efforts, but their writing, often prolific, disappeared from view and never surfaced to face any contemporary critical assessment.
One author to suffer such a fate was Eric North, an imitator of the American hard-boiled style and the pseudonym of journalist Bernard Cronin. His Chip on my Shoulder (London, Dennis Dobson, 1956), features a reporter with the Melbourne Dispatch called Merton Ryde. While investigating the death of a close friend Ryde uncovers a drug ring. The novel is packed with Cadillacs, night club chanteuses and similar trans-Pacific touches that must have appeared terribly sophisticated in the 1950s but are now merely uninspiringly derivative. Ryde comes up against two Melbourne detectives known as the Homicide Twins. ‘They were the murder boys of the C.I.B. They lived on raw meat.’ – Leo Darbin was ‘200 pounds of abattoir left-overs’ and his partner, Jim Poddy was ‘as good looking as a wart touched with sulphuric acid’. The attempt to emulate a Black Mask style did not succeed in that novel or the next, Nobody Stops Me (London, Dennis Dobson, 1960) where the hero, Saxon Brent, is as much a caricature in the Australian landscape as Merton Ryde.
Nor were these North’s worst efforts. Consider as an example his earlier Who Killed Marie Westhaven? (Sydney, Midget Masterpiece Publishing Company, 1940) a collection of six very short stories featuring a Chinese criminologist, Dr Lao Sars. Set in Sydney, Sars is a detective savant assisted by Sergeant Smythe of the Metropolitan Police and Brian Tembolt, a reporter with The Evening Comet. The collection, with a cheeky opening notation that the stories were edited by Bernard Cronin, pits Sars against seemingly impossible crimes. With a measure of fantastic scientific skill, Sars always manages to bring the perpetrator to justice to the amazed delight of Smythe and Tembolt.
Just as another Australian author, J.M. Walsh, was fashioned by over-eager publishers into a local version of Edgar Wallace, several years later another local author was being hailed as a major new talent. Charles Shaw joined the staff of The Bulletin in 1939, writing under a variety of pen-names including ‘Old-timer’, ‘Ben Cubbin’ and ‘Cowpuncher’. Another of Shaw’s Bulletin pseudonyms, ‘B.S.’, came from the initials of his much-loved 1936 Bantam Singer car. In the early 1950s he again used his car for inspiration for the name Bant Singer as author of a number of adventures featuring an opportunist called Delaney.
The first, You’re Wrong, Delaney (London, Collins, 1953) concerns Delaney, a war veteran, who works for a sly grog racketeer at the opening of the book. When his boss is murdered, Delaney, considering himself to be the number one suspect, quickly leaves the scene. He is arrested in the small country town of Black Springs where he remains, the local police conveniently not returning him to Sydney. With limited resources, Delaney uses his talent as a pool shark to earn some money only to find himself suspected of another murder.
Shaw’s style had an attractive urgency that was blatently American. Delaney himself is sketched as a man, who while not quite a criminal, fashions a living on the very edge of the law. You’re Wrong, Delaney was very well received in Britain and it wasn’t long before Shaw was being groomed as a successor to Peter Cheyney who had died in 1951. Cheyney, the British sex-and-violence precursor to James Hadley Chase (another Briton) and Mickey Spillane, was a popular and prolific novelist and creator of the Lemmy Caution character. Shaw’s only real similarity to the sordid trinity of Cheyney, Chase and Spillane was his ability to produce effective American-flavoured thrillers; luckily he ignored his publisher’s entreaties to spice up the Delaney stories.
You’re Wrong, Delaney was reviewed by ‘N.K.’ in The Bulletin who qualified his praise for the book by commenting, ‘It is an excellent thing that Australian fiction-writers should sell their work on world markets, but it seems unfortunate if, as in this book, they must lose their own Australian speech in order to do it. One would like to see this author turn out thrillers of equal excellence as regards plot and action, but where Australian characters speak in their own manner. After all, our criminal slang is said to be as rich as any in the world: why deprive the rest of the world of its nuances?’
Shaw wrote a number of novels using the same character, principally Don’t Slip, Delaney (London, Collins, 1954) and Have Patience, Delaney (London, Collins, 1954), but the fevered production and the implied strain of satisfying Cheney’s market took its toll. After Your Move, Delaney (London, Collins, 1958), no further adventures appeared. A shame, considering the originality of the character and the easy style which made his novel Heavens Knows, Mr Allison (London, Frederic Muller, 1952; New York, Crown Publishers, 1952), filmed by John Huston in 1957 with Robert Mitchum in the lead role, a best-seller in Britain, Australia and the United States.
Shaw’s success rivalled that of Max Murray, an extremely popular novelist of the 1940s and 1950s. Murray ’s wife, Maysie, wrote a string of popular romances under the pen-names Maysie Greig and Jennifer Ames, and the two toured the world in search of exotic locations for their works. Max Murray published 12 mysteries in a ten year period from 1947. Each had the word corpse in their titles and were set throughout the world. The first in the series, The Voice of the Corpse (New York, Farrer Straus, 1947; London, Michael Joseph, 1948) was set in a small English village, the type of location favoured by Agatha Christie. The Sunshine Corpse (London, Michael Joseph, 1954) was set in Florida, The Doctor and the Corpse (New York, Farrer Straus, 1952; London, Michael Joseph, 1953) in Singapore, and The King and the Corpse (New York, Farrer Straus, 1948; London, Michael Joseph, 1949) on the French Riviera. One, The Right Honourable Corpse (New York, Farrer Straus, 1951; London, Michael Joseph, 1952) had an Australian background. It concerned the murder of Rupert Flower, politician and Minister for Internal Resources, during a reception held in his Canberra home. Conventional detectives do not figure largely in Murray ’s stories and in The Right Honourable Corpse the central figure is Martin Gilbert, an Australian spy who masquerades as a pianist.
A fair number of women were plying their trade in the postwar period and a few established major reputations. One in particular was Melbourne-born June Wright. During World War II she worked in the Postmaster General’s department and utilised this setting to marvellous effect in her first crime novel, Murder in the Telephone Exchange (London, Hutchinson, 1948). So Bad a Death (Sydney, Hutchinson, 1949) followed and she continued to publish for the next 20 years, including such books as Faculty of Murder (London, John Long, 1961) and Make-Up for Murder (London, John Long, 1966).
What makes Wright particularly interesting is that her leading characters were invariably women. Maggie Matheson in So Bad a Death, for example, is the wife of a Melbourne policeman. In Faculty of Murder, set at Melbourne University, a young student, Judith Mornane, hunts her sister’s murderer. Wright exhibited a tendency to cram her stories full of needless detail and together with a leaning towards the Gothic, there is the feeling that she never achieved her full potential.
Wright obtained considerable publicity early in her career although most of this centred around her dual role of housewife and novelist. To popular magazines like The Bulletin during the 1950s, it came as some surprise to find a woman could raise four children and still find the time to write.
Not all of Australia ’s crime writing was focused on Sydney and Melbourne.
Estelle Thompson used a southern Queensland rural setting to great effect in several novels. One of the best is A Twig is Bent (London, Abelard-Schuman, 1961) in which a young girl of 12 and her five-year-old brother witness a murder committed by the children’s uncle. The story builds quite a fine level of suspense and the inevitable police presence remains on the perimeter of the story until the end.
The Lawyer and the Carpenter (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1963) and Find a Crooked Sixpence (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1970) are also set in southern Queensland and Thompson is at her best when she is narrating the story from a woman’s point of view, as she does in the latter. Thompson’s strength lay in her ability to maintain the tension in situations that could, in the hands of a less adept story-teller, become hackneyed.
Other writers looked to the west coast for inspiration. Elizabeth Backhouse wrote six mysteries, most of which featured Western Australian police detectives, Detective-Inspector Prentis and Detective Sergeant Landles. Death of a Clown (London, Robert Hale, 1962) is set in a circus troupe visiting Carnarvon while Death Climbs a Hill (London, Robert Hale, 1963) occurs in the Western Australian bush. The Mists Came Down (London, Robert Hale, 1959) takes place on Rottnest Island, off the coast of Perth.
This is the one notable Backhouse novel which does not involve Inspector Prentis. The hero, Steve Gillman, is an American private eye who, together with a very stylised portrait of a misty island retreat, creates an interesting mix of old and new world approaches. There is nothing hard-boiled about The Mist Came Down, and neither is Gillman a sap-wielding Sam Spade. Rather, he is a thoughtful, intelligent hero in the English tradition, who solves a murder in a closed community with a measured calm that came to typify later Backhouse efforts.
Nancy Graham used much the same approach as Backhouse, although her style was much closer to the Gothic leanings of June Wright. The Purple Jacaranda (London, Cassell & Company, 1958) is a credibility-stretching tale of a young woman who travels from Sydney at the insistence of a mysterious policeman to investigate her best friend’s husband. Graham’s penchant for the Gothic was such that she was inclined to have newly discovered love-interests ready to save her heroines at the last possible moment. She was also partial to cliff-hanger endings and ‘surprise’ twists that are obvious to any adept reader by the middle of the story. Thus in The Purple Jacaranda, the heroine’s best friend turns out to be the head of a spy-ring threatening national security. The denouement is no more fantastic than Graham’s writing. The Black Swan (London, Cassell & Company, 1958) is also set in Western Australia with a similar heroine and a Gothic-like plot line that comes close to setting the crime genre back 50 years.
Another mystery with Gothic overtones is Helen Maces’ House of Hate (London, Hammond, Hammond & Company, 1958). Noel Gray, a doctor’s wife in rural Tasmania, befriends Felicity Howard, a lovely young girl who in the true Gothic traditions has ‘spun gold hair, the flawless complexion, the blue eyes so dark that in the night they looked almost black, and vivid red lips parting to show the gleam of pearls’. Felicity’s husband, Miles, is the master of Staines, one of the oldest mansions in the district, and, once again true to the Gothic conventions, is a nutter.
Mace is a cut above Graham as a story-teller and the menace of psychological torment that pervades House of Hate makes it quite a thrilling read. In this case, the Gothic makes a convincing appearance on Australian soil.
Given the popularity of crime novels among Australian readers in the 1950s and 1960s, the contemporary local success of authors such as these women is not surprising. Given the overall quality of their work, the fact that they are almost unknown today is equally unsurprising.
One author whose popularity overseas overshadowed them was Adelaide-born Geraldine Halls who wrote as Charlotte Jay, G.M. Jay and Geraldine Jay (her maiden name). Halls travelled extensively from the 1940s until her return to Adelaide in 1971 and many of her novels benefit from an intimate knowledge of exotic surroundings. Arms for Adonis (London, Collins, 1960; New York, Harper & Row, 1961) is a thriller set in Beirut, while Beat Not the Bones (London, Collins, 1952; New York, Harper & Row, 1953) and The Voice of the Crab (London, Constable, and New York, Harper & Row, 1974) feature New Guinea. Her works do not fall comfortably into the crime genre, crossing more often into mystery-suspense, but her well drawn characters have an unmistakable real-life feel. She won The Mystery Writers of America’s coveted Edgar Allen Poe Award for Beat Not the Bones.
Whether this surprisingly large crop of crime novelists of the 1950s and 60s deserve to be obscure as they are today is debatable. One author who very certainly does is Dezil Batchelor, a sporting commentator of the 1930s who tried his hand at writing thrillers. His The Test Match Murder (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1936) is an unintentionally hilarious slice of homegrown gimmickry. John Franklyn, captain of the English Test team, falls dead whilst approaching the crease at the Sydney Cricket Ground. A pin smeared with poison and planted in a batting glove is the murder weapon. Owen Brownlow, a radio sports commentator, witnesses the scene and calls on the assistance of his brother Latimer, a brilliant amateur detective. Latimer confounds the slow-witted police with his forensic genius and solves the crime.
Batchelor had read a little too much Bulldog Drummond and Sexton Blake between overs. He breathlessly established Latimer’s credentials as the man who ‘solved the hideous enigma of the headless ballet dancer which had baffled the united forces of the Paris Sûreté’. As if this wasn’t enough, the last time Latimer ‘had dragged him into criminal investigation, Owen had reached the penultimate chapter of the story facing the hatchet man of a Chinese tong with a time machine tethered to his left ankle’.
As a crime writer, Batchelor was a first rate cricket commentator and the most pleasant feature of The Test Match Murder is its cricketing atmosphere. After this gem he kept to sport for quite a few years and it wasn’t until the late 1950s that he returned to novels. A few, like Everything Happens to Hector (London, Heinemann, 1958) and The Man Who Loved Chocolates (London, Heinemann, 1961) were mysteries, although others, including For What We Are About To Receive (London, Herbert Jenkins, 1964) and The Delicate Flower (London, Herbert Jenkins, 1965), were mannered comedies in the English tradition. Thankfully his later crime stories are now so rare as to be virtually unknown.
Despite Batchelor’s very British evocation of the gentleman amateur and Wright’s lady sleuths, the fascination with the conventionally employed police detective, which characterised Australian authors from Mrs Fortune in the 1860s onwards, continued dominant.
Paul McGuire, foreign correspondent, diplomat and Australia ’s first ambassador to Italy, neatly packaged a career as a crime novelist into the decades from 1931. His 16 novels began with Murder in Borstal (London, Skeffington, 1931 as The Black Rose Murder, New York, Bretano 1932) and included the quite brilliant Burial Service (London, Heinemann 1938 as A Funeral in Eden, New York, Morrow, 1938) and The Spanish Steps (London, Heinemann 1940 as Enter Three Witches, New York, Morrow, 1940). McGuire’s series characters, Chief Inspector Cummings and Inspector Fillinger, were London detectives who never ventured closer to Australia than the English Channel.
In the development of Australian crime writing, it was not until quite late that thrillers became an established form. Paul Brickhill, famous for his classic books of World War II, The Dam Busters (London, Evans Brothers, 1951; New York, Ballantine 1965), The Great Escape (London, Faber & Faber, 1951) and Reach for the Sky (London, Collins, 1954), turned overseas for what was then a very contemporary plot. His entirely gripping thriller, The Deadline (Sydney and London, Collins, 1962; as War of Nerves, New York, Morrow, 1963), is set in Paris where an Australian tourist who has witnessed the murder of a French politician strives to avoid the attentions of an Algerian assassin.
Ian Hamilton also broke the traditional mould and reflected the changing shape of popular culture with a few mysteries starring Pete Heysen, a television journalist. Heysen’s first outing was The Persecutor (London, Constable, 1965) and The Man With The Brown Paper Face (London, Constable, and Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1967). Hamilton was clearly comfortable with the American ‘hip’ style and seemed more at ease with the then current spate of United States television adventures and caper movies than the time-worn conventions of police procedurals. There was a cop in Hamilton ’s novels, one Detective-Sergeant Brockhurst of the remarkably populous Sydney C.I.B., but his role was to act as an official foil for Heysen. At best the books are good fun although they have not weathered the years favourably. Re-reading Hamilton is like watching re-runs of television’s The Mod Squad, an exercise in nostalgia that doesn’t seem quite so satisfying the second time around.
Whilst the mainstream publishers kept to the traditional areas of the genre, the police dominance of Australian crime writing was largely broken by the pulp writers. ‘Yellowbacks’ and ‘pulps’, although derisive terms for the working class of publishing, were the heirs of the popular magazines of the nineteenth and early twentieth century and the source of a gradual revolution in Australian crime writing.
The immortal Nick Carter, for example, visited these shores in An Australian Klondike (New York, Street & Smith, 1896). This title was one of no less than 437 in the Carter series written by Frederick van Rensselaer Dey who was engaged in 1891 by Street & Smith to continue the character initiated by John Coryell. An Australian Klondike only used idealised outback settings, for Dey never allowed the trials of either travel or serious research to stand in the way of his feverish production of these dime novels. The fact that he produced all his Nick Carter adventures in just 21 years goes a great way toward explaining his haste.
The most interesting feature of An Australian Klondike is that it is set in the bush, an environment which many Australian writers eschewed. With the exception of Upfield, Courtier, Randolph Bedford, Nancy Graham, Helen Mace, Estelle Thompson and the all too brief career of A.E. Martin, very little crime literature had an exclusively rural setting. It seems the only crime many authors considered worth writing about occurred in the cities. The pulps continued this single minded approach, particularly during the 1950s, when they really started to steam.
Anybody who suggests that there was no production of pulp crime fiction in Australia should look no further than the mass of periodicals and paperback series such as Adam, Man, Cavalier, Male, Detective Fiction, Famous Detective Stories, Leisure Detective, Action Detective and the Shilling Thriller series which prospered in these years.
One of the best was the short-lived Detective Fiction. Published by Frank Johnson it began in 1949 and employed an army of writers producing some remarkably good stories. Frank Walford, crocodile hunter and journalist, had written a stream of popular novels from the 1930s before his work appeared regularly in Detective Fiction. In stories such as ‘The Flame Pearl’, ‘The Spare Parts’ and ‘The Polished Razor’ he featured a series character, Dr Frederick Norman. Other notable writers included the husband and wife team Richard and Alfreda Phillips (‘The Case of Mamie Parish’ and ‘The Case of the Life Sized Doll’) and Norman Way with stories such as ‘You Can’t Be Too Careful’ and ‘Framed’. In addition to Detective Fiction there were other magazines for which the pulp writers toiled furiously.
Of the mass of pulp writers Max Afford was unquestionably the best. In his time Afford was renowned as a famous radio script writer. One of his best known programmes, Danger Unlimited, chronicled the deductive exploits of Jeffrey Blackburn. A former professor of mathematics, Blackburn and his wife Elizabeth, exhibiting just the slightest hint of Nick and Nora Charles, also appeared in Afford’s print writing, notably in such light and enjoyable novels as Blood on His Hands (London, Long, 1936; Sydney, Frank Johnson, 1945,). Set during Melbourne ’s centennary celebrations, it involved the locked room murder of a prominent judge and featured a delightful secondary character in Bertha Fenton, a wisecracking journalist. Afford resurrected the Blackburns for Detective Fiction in ‘The Vanishing Trick’.
A giant among the writers was Bob Mackinnon who scripted the radio serial The Dark Stranger, featuring amateur sleuth Simon Drake. Mackinnon boasted that he churned out 1.5 million words a year in a mass of pulp titles including a series of racing thrillers. Authors such as Afford and Mackinnon certainly benefited from the exposure guaranteed by their successful careers in radio. Afford’s Blackburn character was well known on radio and certainly helped sell novels, reflecting the ease with which the author could utilise a character already well-known to audiences.
Much of Australia ’s crime writing was produced by authors who called the country a second home. Fergus Hume, Pat Flower and Arthur Upfield, for example, were from England and it would be remiss to ignore the contributions of other foreign writers.
In general there is little to distinguish the way in which Australia has been portrayed by visiting, resident or native crime authors. On the whole the genre is too strictly confined by stylistic conventions to successfully evoke a distinctive physical and psychological landscape of Australia. For writers whose primary concern was crime and retribution it didn’t really matter whether the body was discovered in a stately home, a suburban loungeroom or the back of Bourke as long as there was a murderer to be brought to book. Certainly Upfield mastered the setting of mysteries in the bush, although this was more due to his own interests, than in any conscious intention to break the conventions.
Whilst homogenous in description, Australia was the setting for crime stories by foreigners from the beginning of the genre. One of the earliest visitors was E.W. Hornung, who arrived from England in 1884. It was treatment for asthma rather than any sense of adventure that lured the young Ernest William to Australia, but in a mere two years he accumulated sufficient material to fuel many novels. Most were little more than derivative romantic adventures utilising bushranging and pastoral themes but Hornung’s famous gentleman thief and sometimes test cricketer, Raffles, is an enduring creation. All the more so because Raffles commenced his life of crime in the small Victorian town of Yea, recounted in the short story, ‘Le Premier Pas’, in the first Raffles collection, The Amateur Cracksman (London, Methuen and New York Scribner, 1899).
Hornung later created an Australian version of Raffles. In Stingaree (London, Chatto & Windus and New York, Scribner 1909) the character of the title was a gentleman bushranger who risked capture to further the career of a young and beautiful opera singer. Despite the novelty, the story was just another of Hornung’s romantic frivolities.
Some 50 years later an adept mystery, Murder in Melbourne (London, Arthur Barker, 1958), was written by Dulcie Gray. A British actress of some renown, Gray toured Australia in 1957 and used the Victorian capital as the setting for a puzzle mystery featuring Detective Inspector Welby of the Melbourne C.I.B. It was the second in a long line of such works although she never again mentioned Australia. She did, however, write a script of Murder in Melbourne in 1961 for British radio.
Of all overseas authors, the most prolific was Norman Lee. Another Briton, he wrote some 50 novels between 1945 and his death in 1962. His best known pseudonym (and in the manner of Nick Carter and Ellery Queen, series character as well) was Mark Corrigan. A private eye retained by U.S. Intelligence, Corrigan roamed the world with his beautiful assistant, Tucker MacLean. Lee spent some time in Australia from the middle 1950s and infused such Corrigan tales as The Big Squeeze (London, Angus & Robertson, 1955), Big Boys Don’t Cry (London, Angus & Robertson, 1956), Sydney For Sin (London, Angus & Robertson, 1956) and The Cruel Lady (London, Angus & Robertson, 1957) with a vivid local colour.
The Corrigan persona fitted Lee like a glove and he strove to identify the character as a flesh-and-blood person as evinced in the dedications of his novels. The Big Squeeze was dedicated to ‘Kay of Kia-Lama – In whose restful retreat overlooking Sydney Harbour I wrote the final chapters of this adventure in the winter of ‘54’’. In Sydney For Sin, the dedication reads ‘For C.D.J, of Blackman’s Bay – One of her names is Donjee (pronounced Don-Shay, from the Spanish) and she lives in a charming house at Blackman’s Bay, on the south coast of beautiful Tasmania. It was in her delightful abode that I wrote this adventure of skulduggery in Sydney and mayhem in Melbourne.’
Norman Lee’s visit to Australia proved a fruitful one. In addition to the Mark Corrigan adventures, Lee utilised Australian settings in works written under two other pseudonyms. As Raymond Armstrong, Lee wrote about the adventures of an arch villainess, the young and impossibly beautiful Laura Scudamore known as The Sinister Widow. Like the Corrigan books, the Sinister Widow series used exotic locations as a backdrop to the criminal pursuits of Scudamore and attempts by her nemesis, Chief Inspector Dick Mason of Scotland Yard, to bring her to justice. Also in common with Corrigan, Raymond Armstrong, a Fleet Street crime reporter, is the chief character as well as author. After exhausting the potential of such locations as London, Paris and Berlin, The Sinister Widow turned up in Australia in The Sinister Widow Down Under (London, John Long, 1958). Mason, of course, follows but the novel lapses into a Boys Own adventure with few saving graces.
A more satisfying Lee pseudonym was Robertson Hobart, whose local outings were Case of the Shaven Blonde (London, Robert Hale, 1959) and Dangerous Cargoes (London, Robert Hale, 1960), which featured another Lee series character by the name of Grant Vickary, and Blood on the Lake (London, Hale, 1961). The last title concerned J. Earle Dixon, an Adelaide insurance investigator, and his efforts to locate a missing geologist in the South Australian desert.
Norman Lee’s style never varied from the loosely constructed homage he paid to the American writers. While Lee was a lightweight novelist who now has little appeal, there was a crisp action and pace in his work that was refreshing for its time.
The best known of these transitory Australian writers is John Innes Mackintosh Stewart, otherwise celebrated by his pseudonym, Michael Innes. Born in Scotland, Innes spent ten years from 1935 as Professor of English at the University of Adelaide. His academic duties did not slow his production of mystery novels, including a number in his Inspector (later Sir John) Appleby series such as Appleby on Ararat (London, Gollancz, and New York, Dodd Mead, 1941) and Appleby’s End (London, Gollancz, and New York, Dodd Mead, 1945) as well as other novels such as Hamlet Revenge (London, Gollancz, 1937) and Lament For a Maker (London, Gollancz, and New York, Dodd Mead, 1938). Whilst some of these enjoyed an Australian setting or characters, the link was largely incidental.
John Creasey is probably the crime genre’s most prolific author. In a career spanning little more than 40 years, he produced about 560 books under his own name and a variety of pseudonyms. Apart from mysteries he also wrote westerns, war-time stories, juvenile fiction and non-fiction but his most enduring creations were policemen – Commander George Gideon of Scotland Yard (under the pseudonym of J.J. Marric), Inspector Roger West, also of Scotland Yard and a Simon Templar-like character, the Hon. Richard Rollison, who struck fear into the hearts of London’s criminal fraternity as The Toff.
The Toff visited Australia in The Toff Down Under (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1953, New York, Walker, 1969) and as Break the Toff (London, Lancer, 1970). Likewise did Inspector West in Murder, London-Australia (London, Hodder & Stoughton, and New York, Scribner, 1965). Of all Creasey’s creations, those of West and Gideon were the most satisfying. They kept to the strict formula of the British police procedural, mixing an almost documentary-like examination of police methods with a humanising view of their private lives. The books featuring West and Gideon were consistent with a long tradition, both past and future, that continues to the present day under the care of such authors as P.D. James.
In Murder, London-Australia, Scotland Yard investigates the murder of a young Australian girl, a recently arrived passenger aboard the S.S. Kookaburra. When another passenger dies mysteriously, West travels first to Hong Kong and then to Sydney in search of the murderer. Despite the occasional slip up (West boards the ‘Manley ferry’), the novel works well.
For many of these writers Australia was just another setting. A foreign, sometimes exotic, location but enough like home for the language not to be a problem. They may have come just for a holiday or, like Creasey, as part of a promotional tour and took the opportunity to soak up enough atmosphere to provide their characters some scenic relief.
Like Alan Yates, a number of other Australians have felt no compunction in setting their work overseas. Dale Collins, for example, found writing about Britain much easier than setting his work at home. A 25-year old journalist he accompanied an American millionaire on a sailing expedition and later detailed his adventures in The Sea Tracks of the Speejacks Around the World (London, Heinemann, 1923), a book that was an immediate success. Settling in England, Collins carried the nautical background into a number of novels.
Of his crime stories, the best known is The Fifth Victim (London, Harrap, 1930). Set in London, it concerns an Irish counterfeiter, Den O’Dare, who returns to a life of crime on the urging of his shrewish wife after his release from prison. The plot is hokey (O’Dare dies nobly of a cerebral haemorrhage following his arrest) but the staccato writing style echoes the hard-edged Black Mask material of the Americans.
It is interesting to contemplate what might have been if Collins had avoided commercial success and instead carved a living solely from the pulps. Whatever the result, it would surely have further isolated his work from the critical establishment as evidenced by the comment on Collins in H.M. Green’s History of Australian Literature as a talent ‘… soon wasted… in mere thrillerism.’
Other expatriate Australians who succeeded in British publishing were J.M. Walsh and Percival Rodda. Both settled in England during the 1920s and wrote numerous thrillers which rarely mentioned Australia. James Morgan Walsh, who won the unfortunate label of ‘ Australia ’s Edgar Wallace’, was one of those authors whose pens outstripped their publishers ability to cope. He wrote under a variety of pseudonyms including John Cerew, H. Haverstock Hill and George M. White and most of his books featured England, where he lived from the age of 32. Only a few, notably the crime stories The Man Behind the Curtain (Sydney, Cornstalk Publishing Company, 1927; London, Hamilton, 1931) and The League of Missing Men (Sydney Cornstalk Publishing Company, 1927; London, Hamilton, 1932), had Australian settings.
Rodda wrote as Gavin Holt and developed the character of the criminologist-sleuth Professor Bastion in works such as Six Minutes Past Twelve (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1928). He also combined with thriller master Eric Ambler under the pseudonym of Eliot Reed to write Skytip (New York, Doubleday, 1950; London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1951), Tender to Danger (New York, Doubleday, 1951; as Tender to Moonlight, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1952) and The Maras Affair (London, Collins and New York, Doubleday, 1952).
By the time Collins, Walsh and Rodda reached Britain, another Australian, Arthur J. Rees, was already well established. After working on both The Melbourne Herald and The New Zealand Herald in the early years of the century, he repaired to England. None of his books, wallowing in such titles as The Shrieking Pit (London, Lane, 1919), The Threshold of Fear (London, Hutchinson, and New York, Dodd, 1925) and The Corpse That Travelled (New York, Dodd, 1938), mentioned his homeland.
One Australian even made it into the now legendary American pulp market. D.L. Champion was born in Australia but educated in New York City. From the 1930s he wrote for Black Mask and Dime Detective, magazines that introduced such writers as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, Erle Stanley Gardner and John D. MacDonald to a crime-hungry world. Champion’s best known series character, Inspector Allhof, appeared in Dime Detective from 1940 until 1946. In 20 years of activity, it is estimated he wrote somewhere in the vicinity of 20 million words.
Another expatriate of note was John Evan Weston Davies, better known under his thriller pseudonym of Berkly Mather. Born in 1914 in Sydney, he attended the Kings School in Parramatta but in his teens moved to England, entering the British Army’s Royal School of Artillery.
For the next 30 years, Davies was a career soldier, retiring in 1960 with the rank of colonel. For some time before this, however, he had found time to write. His experience in India and the Far East as an army officer served him well and his debut spy thriller, The Achilles Affair (London, Collins, and New York, Scribner, 1959), was the first of many to utilise Indian and Chinese locations and situations.
While using such exotic settings, his leading characters were invariably British. Peter Feltham, the middle-aged English spy in The Achilles Affair, reappeared in With Extreme Prejudice (London, Collins, and New York, Scribner, 1976), while the hero of his second novel, The Pass Beyond Kashmir (London, Collins, and New York, Scribner, 1960), was the Welshman Idwal Rees who returned in The Terminators (London, Collins and New York, Scribner, 1971) and Snowline (London, Collins, and New York, Scribner, 1973).
A number of the Mather novels have been filmed, and he himself scripted The White Dacoit (London, Collins, 1974). Davies’ film work has received much critical attention and he is perhaps best known for his co-scripting credit on the first James Bond movie, Dr. No. He also wrote well over one hundred teleplays and a large number of radio plays.
The locals, the expatriates and the visitors all contributed to a seamless flow of crime writing. As their traditional audience grew old and died it was replaced by younger readers with the same taste and only slightly different perceptions. Crime was crime and a murder sketched by Waif Wander in the late 1860s thrilled its readers just as surely as the Nat Gould yellowbacks bought at grimy railway station bookstalls, or the Carter Browns racked in a surbuban newsagency. The character of society changed, but Australian crime fiction remained popular and seemed destined to never fade away. But that was very nearly what happened.
In the late 1960s Australian crime writing went into a decline. Reading pulps died out and was replaced by less demanding activities such as watching television, although this medium did keep crime to the forefront. The British kept the genre pure with such procedurals as Z Cars, while the Americans produced an almost endless stream of crime dramas like 77 Sunset Strip, Mannix and Perry Mason.
Australia also had its own cathode-tube wallopers. In the early years of Australian television from 1956 they sprang from successful radio shows. Consider Your Verdict, which ran on Australian television from 1961 until 1963, had its courtroom formula finely honed by radio. So did Homicide, known as D-24 on the wireless, a cops and robbers thunderer set in Melbourne. Homicide ran for an exhausting 13 years, from 1964 until 1977, and was produced by Hector Crawford who ensured crime remained a Victorian pursuit with a string of hit television shows including Division Four, Matlock Police and our very own spy series, Hunter.
It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that a crime series was set exclusively in Sydney – a private eye show called Ryan which featured Rod Mullinar screaming around the harbour foreshores in a Valiant Charger, assisted by a then little known blonde actress by the name of Pamela Stevenson. There was also a short lived (1972-73) series based on the Arthur Upfield mysteries, although a New Zealand actor, James Laurenson, was called in to play Bony in blackface. Bony, as the series was called, had the distinction of being the first Australian television show to win top ratings overseas – in Scotland, of all places.
In print, Carter Brown survived with a dwindling readership through the swinging ‘60s to the late 1970s. Arthur Upfield died in 1964 and the sisterly partnership that published under the pen name of Margot Neville was ended by death in 1966. Sidney Courtier passed away in 1975, as did Pat Flower in 1978. The only one of the veterans to continue into the 1980s was Jon Cleary with a rejuvenated Scobie Malone.
Cleary occupies a peripheral position in Australian crime writing. A successful novelist since the late 1940s, many of his suspense adventures encroach upon the crime genre. In terms of straight crime fiction, however, his greatest contribution lies in the creation of Scobie Malone. Malone is a career cop, but his character signals a change in the nature of Australian crime writing. Perhaps it is the fact that Malone is such a superior creation that makes him so radically different to his mass of fictional colleagues.
Malone first appeared in The High Commissioner (London, Collins and New York, Morrow, 1966) when as a C.I.B. detective he is sent to London to arrest Australia ’s senior diplomat for a murder committed some 20 years past. Cleary’s was a fresh approach. Malone is a convincing human being, far more substantial than the conventional mechanical catalyst of a cardboard plot line. Malone made a welcome return in Helga’s Web (London, Collins and New York, Morrow, 1973) but it was then a long time between cases. He didn’t reappear until Dragons at the Party (London, Collins, 1987), a remarkably fine book from one of the world’s great crime writers. The latest Malone novel is Now and Then, Amen (London, Collins, 1988).
It was not until the debut of Peter Corris with The Dying Trade in 1980, that the genre showed signs of a revival along with a new generation of writers.
In the nearly ten years since crime fiction has returned to favour in Australia it has assumed a strong local identity. It is no longer fashionable to produce wildly derivative English potboilers; instead Australian authors present a faithful re-creation of our society in all its colourful aspects. More often than not, some action occurs in the Outback and invariably touches on such topical concerns as Aboriginal relations and American defence installations. Politicians are generally presented as corrupt, reflecting an international tradition that is almost as old as crime fiction itself. The criminals can most often be found in the canyons of big business, straight from the pages of the daily papers. There seems little room for blue-collar crime.
This is not, however, a curiously Australian phenomenon. Australians are merely following the forms already dominant in the preference of book buyers. If there is any discernible trend, it seems that the majority of Australian crime writing in the 1980s follows the American fashion, especially with regard to Californian-flavoured private eyes and with thrillers.
While the market hasn’t entirely become crowded with Australian authors, there has certainly been a growing crop of indigenous crime fiction. As with the earlier years some of the work is great, most less so. An optimist would rejoice at the interest being shown by Australian publishers. A pessimist (or would it be a realist) would reply that no local publishing activity is preferable to dross.
Yet amongst the new generation there are some very good writers indeed. Peter Corris remains the foremost and undoubtedly the most prolific with eight novels and three short story collections in just eight years, and that’s just for Cliff Hardy. Corris has also produced a series of novels about an Australian spy, the first being Pokerface (Melbourne, Penguin, 1985), and a series of Flashman-like adventures of an Australian actor in the United States during the 1920s with Box Office Browning (Melbourne, Penguin, 1987) Beverley Hills Browning (Melbourne, Penguin, 1987).
Another fine local writer is Robert G. Barrett. In a string of short stories he has created one of the greatest ‘characters’ in modern Australian literature. Les Norton is a strapping young man – a big, red-haired ex-meat worker from Queensland – who comes to Sydney in the mid-1970s to work as a bouncer in an illegal casino. Barrett’s stories are enormously funny, chronicling the adventures of Norton as he lives on the edge of Sydney ’s criminal fraternity and constantly falls into trouble.
Collected into You Wouldn’t Be Dead for Quids (Sydney, Waratah Press, 1985 and Sydney, Pan Books, 1986), The Real Thing (Sydney, Pan Books, 1986) and The Boys From Binjiwunyawunya (Sydney, Pan Books, 1987), Barrett isn’t a crime writer in the accepted sense. It is more a case of Damon Runyon out of Henry Lawson but the characters are drawn from life. Norton’s boss is Price Galese, a thinly veiled reproduction of prominent Sydney racing and gambling identity Perce Galea. Galese’s best mate is Sir Jack Atkins, Premier of New South Wales, who bears a striking resemblance to Sir Robert Askin. Norton and the other inhabitants of the Kelly Club casino can be found within the pages of David Hickie’s The Prince and the Premier; they were the hard men of Sydney ’s underworld. Many died violently. One of their happier legacies has been to people Barrett’s stories with priceless colour.
Another success story is Melbourne author Arthur Mather. It is perhaps a mark of Australian insularity that one of our best selling thriller writers is unknown in his own country. Mather has been writing for some years, beginning with a science fiction effort, The Pawn (Melbourne. Wren, 1975). Soon afterwards he attracted a New York based agent (at one time he was represented by William Morris Agency) and cracked the U.S. market. Most of his subsequent thrillers were set in America, usually New York, and had science fiction backgrounds such as The Mind-Breaker (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1980) and The Duplicate (London, Sphere, 1985).
With Deep Gold (New York, Bantam, 1986) Mather produced one of the best known commercial thrillers written by an Australian. An old man is murdered in a New York hospital and the case is assigned to Ed Zarich, a tough homicide detective. From military records, he finds the victim was reported missing, presumed dead, during World War II and from there pieces together the mystery of an American PT boat that vanished in the Pacific and a cargo of stolen Japanese gold.
Mather’s novel sold extremely well in the United States but took two years to obtain a British and Australian release whilst his next book, The Raid (Sydney, Bantam, 1986), received only moderate attention in Australia. Despite the lack of home-town recognition, Mather has a steadily growing following overseas and appears certain of greater fame.
Another major talent is Perth-based William Warnock. Like Mather, Warnock formerly worked in the advertising industry before turning to literature. His Danziger’s Cut (London, MacDonald, 1986) is set in the California movie colony of Malibu. Danziger is a former policeman turned best-selling author. His creation, a two-fisted detective in the Spillane mould called McKnight, grows more potent with each adventure while Danziger himself becomes softer with success. When Danziger’s ex-girlfriend, an Australian actress, starts mixing with a bad crowd, he seeks revenge by turning himself into McKnight.
Mather and Warnock have found their niche, if not local celebrity, with thrillers. Less appealing has been the writing of Leon de Grand, a former mining tycoon who set out to emulate Robert Ludlum with three novels, The Von Kessel Dossier (Sydney, Fontana, 1985), The Two-Ten Conspiracy (Sydney, Fontana, 1986) and The Whittington Pact (Sydney, Collins, 1988) but proved that a well-tried formula doesn’t necessarily ensure a best-seller.
The fashionable technique of making fiction from actual characters and situations, widely known via Nicholas Meyer’s partnering of Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud in The Seven Per Cent Solution (New York, Dutton, 1974; London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1975), was used by media personality Derryn Hinch and author Nigel Krauth. Hinch’s Death in Newport (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1987) is a murder mystery set during the 1974 America’s Cup challenge while Krauth’s Matilda, My Darling (Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1983) won the Vogel Prize for his story of nineteenth century private detective Hammond Niall and the help he receives in solving a case from no less than Banjo Patterson.
Successful Australian crime writers exhibit markedly different styles, from the slick professionalism of Arthur Mather and the late 1980s re-emergence of Jon Cleary’s Scobie Malone thrillers to the stylistic integrity of Peter Corris. So plentiful has been the supply of material from new and established writers that they begin to assume the range and variety of a golden age.
Corris cornered the market on the private eye tradition early on, although today he is far from dominating it. Keith Dewhurst’s McSullivan’s Beach (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1985) is an amiable nod in this direction while Marele Day’s The Loves of Harry Lavender (Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1988) with a female gumshoe, the redoubtable Claudia Valentine, amply demonstrates just how entertaining gender-switching can be in good hands.
Hossana Brown similarly has a female investigator rejoicing in the unlikely name of Frank le Roux. She is an, ‘Investigator Extraordinary. Toast of the governments and big corporations over five continents’. I Spy You Die (London, Gollancz, 1984) is set in England whilst Death Upon A Spear (London, Gollancz, 1986) deals with the prickly subject of Aboriginal race relations. Le Roux, despite a jokesy nature, is a fine creation and traced with an element of absurdity that brings to mind Michael Moorcock’s character Jerry Cornelius.
Hosanna Brown is reputed to be the pseudonym of a Canberra academic. It is interesting to note the attraction the crime genre holds for scholars as both Peter Corris and Bob Brissenden work or have worked as academics.
Nor are the traditional forms completely abandoned. Tom Howard, the pseudonym of Sydney author John Howard Reid, masquerades as author, narrator and central character, a device beloved of such writers as Norman Lee and, perhaps best known, Ellery Queen, all self-published, which have an old-time American police procedural flavour. Howard is a loner hero whose motives and methods have been honed by the little-seen bureaucracy of a big-city police force. In such novels as The Health Farm Murders (Sydney, Rastar, 1985), The Beachfront Murders (Sydney, Rastar, 1985), All Possible Avenues (Sydney, Rastar, 1986) and Howard’s Price (Sydney, Rastar, 1985), Howard has touched on most of the available influences known to the crime writing genre. It is an interesting approach and short circuits the potential deadness of situation and character that could easily befall such a series.
William Leonard Marshall also writes police procedurals. Born in Sydney and educated at the Australian National University, Marshall travelled the world and eventually settled in Ireland. He returned to Australian in 1983. His Yellowthread Street series, set in Hong Kong, are similar to Ed McBain’s (the pseudonym of Evan Hunter) 87th Precinct novels and include Yellowthread Street (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1975), Gelignite (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1976; Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, 1977), Skulduggery (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1975) and Head First (London, Seeker & Warburg 1986).
Another resurgent trend is toward the cosy English-influenced clue puzzle mysteries used in Australia by the likes of the Nevilles and Pat Flower. Publishing identity (and award-winning childrens’ author under the pseudonym of Emily Rodda) Jennifer Rowe began a series highlighting the detecting genius of busy-body Verity ‘Birdie’ Birdwood with Grim Pickings (Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1987). This book is a gem; a tradition like the clue puzzles still have as much relevance in the 1980s as they did when Miss Marple first appeared.
However it is a form that requires considerable skill and talent. Joan Flanagan’s The Murder Game (Sydney, Hutchinson, 1988) ventures into the same territory, even going as far as adding some Gothic atmosphere for good measure, but the feeling remains that there are far too many potholes in this particular stretch of the road. Flanagan rides her plot a little too hard and has difficulty keeping track of the characters, but she displays an obvious talent and further novels should be well received.
Thrillers have returned to prominence in the 1980s. Morris West has produced some excellent examples, the best being Masterclass (London, Hutchinson, 1988). Yet many thrillers often begin with great ideas which fail in the execution. Colin Mason, formerly a Democrat senator for New South Wales and an author of some note, has produced a thriller, Copperhead Creek (Sydney, Sun Books, 1987). The plot mixes multi-national mining interests, the uranium debate and the kidnap of the Prime Minister’s daughter – potentially assured ingredients for a best-seller. Not so, it appears, for Copperhead Creek is a leaden weight of little interest. Although the political background is first-class, Mason has not exercised the wordcraft necessary to make the novel interesting.
A more practiced exercise came from Kit Denton, noted military historian and scholar of the Breaker Morant legend. Fiddler’s Bridge (Sydney, John Ferguson, 1986) concerns the ambitious robbery of an Australian Army payroll by a group of ex-service misfits. Laura Jarman, the daughter of a regular soldier, assembles a team of specialists, all with their own reasons for turning to crime, to carry out the raid in a small country town.
Denton reworks the caper novel for Fiddler’s Bridge. It is married only by his knee-jerk puritanism – after building considerable rapport with the characters, the reader is disappointed to have them nabbed by a police presence that appears virtually out of nowhere. Another author may well have allowed the team to get away with it; it would have been a preferable option.
Another staple component of the thriller is the conspiracy theory, a common device used by such giants of the form as Robert Ludlum, Frederic Forsyth and Jack Higgins. Leon Le Grand abused it but poet and academic Robert Brissenden, like Arthur Mather, has proved the form can be well exploited south of the equator. Brissenden’s Poor Boy (Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1987) tells the story of Tom Caxton, a foreign correspondent chasing the story of his career in South-East Asia. Caxton, like many heroes of the thriller genre, is an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances.
A similar exponent of the form is Philip Cornford. The central character in his The Outcast (London, Michael Joseph, 1988) is also a journalist. Paul Mackinnon is the sort of hard-edged character commonly found in the world of thrillers. Set onto a story suited to his talents and reputation, he soon finds himself out of his depth, the expendable tool of the Australian security forces and the KGB. Cornford’s attempt to colour Australia ’s strategic position, particularly the matter of American defence bases in the outback, with international intrigue does not hold the self-conscious hues of many less-talented writers. The Outcast is one of the better thrillers to come from an Australian pen.
Yet another sub-genre exploited in recent times is best illustrated by John Carroll’s Catspaw (Apollo Bay, Pascoe Publishing, 1988). A police informer set up by an unscrupulous cop, Don Bartholomew is above all a survivor. The prison scenes early in the novel are well drawn and set the scene for his anti-hero’s later employment as an enforcer for a Sydney drug-runner. By implication, life is safer inside a cell. Bartholomew remains a stoolie long enough to report on crooked cops and drug deals then engineers his own escape with a girl and suitcase full of cash.
In comparison, Ray Mooney’s A Green Light (Melbourne, Penguin, 1988) is far too realistic and raw a story to dwell satisfactorily within the conventions of crime fiction. Mooney began his writing career while serving time in prison. After several plays, his first novel is a chilling portrait of a sociopath whose addiction to violence is stronger than any drug. Johnny Morgan, the central character, is said to be based on a real-life Australian crime figure. At over 800 pages, it is an extremely long book and Mooney’s downfall as a novelist comes from his success as a playwright. The plot is carried along by enormous slabs of dialogue but it nonetheless stalls. The characters, particularly Morgan, are bleak and dangerous, like guard dogs long abandoned. While dialogue-laden prose can be well utilised (like the novels of American author George V. Higgins), A Green Light diminishes a worthy premise.
It is unfair to expect that all the recent Australian crime titles should be masterpieces. Maybe it is enough that they were published at all, that local publishers noticed the resurgence of the genre and took the chance. As the 1980s draw to a close, opportunities for new writers are booming as never before. Some publishers seem intent on establishing local crime imprints to supplement their overseas lists, while a growing number of American and British houses are taking well-gambled chances on Australian authors. There is one important reason for this renewed growth; there is a market for crime writing by and about Australia.
The sad fact is that for too long Australian crime writing languished in obscurity. Such talents as Waif Wander, Max Afford, Pat Flower, Margot Neville, Sidney Courtier, A.E. Martin and Bant Singer have been out of print for decades and it remains for Australian publishers to discover, as their British and American counterparts have long known, that a lucrative market exists for nostalgia re-releases.
This anthology is an attempt at evaluating Australia ’s past in crime writing and the final choice is as wide-ranging as it is eclectic. Fergus Hume, Arthur Upfield and Carter Brown are musts for such a collection. Each are important historical figures; Waif Wander is equally important although her contribution is only now being realised. Hornung, despite being an Englishman (like Hume) and only a brief visitor, gave the world a major series character and it was in rural Victoria that Raffles embarked on a life of genteel crime.
In selecting the remaining authors, the emphasis has been on talent and entertainment. Randolph Bedford, with his outback Sherlock Holmes, more than fits the bill. So too does A.E. Martin with a truly Australian nice twist. Vince Kelly spent most of his life writing about real crime cases and celebrating the triumphs of the police over the criminal mind. His little known fictional effort is a neat blend of the hard-boiled American school and the British police procedural, coloured by some concerned sociology. Max Afford shows the ability of fine series characters to transcend the seeming gulf between literature and radio – the most popular entertainment forms during the period he gained his most remarkable success.
One regret is that such other important players as Flower, Neville and Courtier, Geraldine Halls, Paul McGuire and Percival Rodda didn’t utilise the short story as a vehicle for their skills. As taking extracts from novels is not a good way to gauge an author’s talents it is not possible to include samples of their writing herein.
This anthology celebrates the pioneering spirit of our literary forebears. Peter Corris, Robert G. Barrett, Tom Howard, Jennifer Rowe and the many others who are now so familiar to modern readers are not the sudden result of some mysterious form of artistic spontaneous combustion. Rather they are a continuation of a grand tradition and to enjoy their works to the fullest it is necessary to glimpse that which has preceded them.
For many fans this will be a journey of discovery, a chance to meet and greet those figures that have for too long been relegated to the very edge of the genre’s crowded universe.
It is both encouraging and disheartening to find a talent such as Waif Wander. Encouraging because she is such a fascinating talent, disheartening because so little is known of her. The author of a large number of crime stories written in the latter half of the nineteenth century for the Australian Journal, Waif Wander (together with W.W., another of her pseudonyms) was in reality a Victorian woman by the name of Mary Ellen Fortune. For her output alone, she should be at the forefront of Australian literary history. The quality of her writing also makes her work significant in the evolution of the genre.
The first full-length detective novel written by a woman was The Dead Letter: An American Romance (New York, Beadle & Co, 1867) by Seeley Regester published in 1867. This was the pen-name of Metta Victoria Victor, whose husband, Orville, is amongst the many credited with inventing, in 1867, the ‘dime’ novel or ‘yellowback’, which was the forerunner to the pulps. The next most important novel of its type was The Leavenworth Case: A Lawyer’s Story (New York, Putnam, 1878; London, Routledge, 1884) written by Anna Katherine Green, and published in 1878. Both Victor and Green were Americans.
Fortune was certainly present at the creation of crime fiction. On 2 September 1865, the inaugural issue of The Australian Journal appeared in Melbourne. Until March 1869 the magazine was a weekly at which time it changed to a monthly. The earliest issues featured such series as ‘Adventures of an Australian Mounted Trooper’ and it seems likely these were the work of Fortune although the first definite Waif Wander stories were not included until 1866. In these early years she started ‘The Detective’s Album’ as part of a prolific output which included poems and romantic fiction. ‘The Detectives’ Album’, in most cases featuring Melbourne police detective Mark Sinclair, was a regular and popular part of The Australian Journal well into the 1890s. A collected edition, under the title The Detective’s Album: Recollections of an Australian Police Officer, was published in 1871.
The public Waif Wander was well known to Australian readers. The private Mary Fortune was a mysterious figure who had to wait until the Bicentennial year, at least 70 years after her death, to gain recognition. Like much fiction, Fortune’s stories had their basis in fact. Lucy Sussex in her essay ‘Shrouded in Mystery’: Waif Wander (Mary Fortune)’ in Debra Adelaide’s collection A Bright and Fiery Troop (Melbourne, Penguin, 1988) has sifted life from fantasy to create her biography.
Fortune’s autobiographical musings, published in the Australian Journal and dotted through her long career, seem to indicate that she was born in Ireland in the early 1830s, grew up in Canada and emigrated to Victoria in time to witness the gold rush. She worked for the Australian Journal and a few small newspapers; that much is certain. The rest of her life is largely unknown.
A friendship with the wife of a Victorian composer resulted in the only extant letter written by Mrs Fortune (now in Melbourne ’s Latrobe Library). At the time of writing she was tired, ill and near penniless, living in humble surroundings in South Yarra, a fact borne out by the Victorian electoral rolls for 1908. By 1912 she had disappeared and it was with difficulty that John Finmount Moir, who attempted to follow a cold trail in the 1950s, reached an inevitable deadend. It has been said the Australian Journal provided financial assistance for Mrs Fortune in her declining years and also paid for her burial but the rest is a mystery.
Whatever the circumstances of Mrs Mary Fortune, her work remains and it is hoped that in the not too distant future she will assume her rightful prominence both within Australian literature and the international crime fiction genre.
The story which follows is an excellent Mark Sinclair story from Fortune’s early period. By this time Sinclair was fully established as a series character although he was considering, as he was to do for some time, resigning from the police department in order to go into private practice.
There wanted but a few days to Christmas, when one morning Archie Hopeton dashed into my office with an open letter in his hand. I say dashed, for scarcely any other word would effectually describe his abrupt and sudden entrance; and, as such a manner was rather unusual with him, I looked up at him in wondering inquiry.
‘I’ve got the invitation for you, Mark. Now, surely you won’t refuse to go with me. My aunt, Mrs Thorne, says she will be very much pleased to see you.’
‘I’m afraid you’ve been putting the screw on the old lady, Archie – threatening not to go yourself unless she invited me, or something of that sort?’
‘ ’Pon my honour, no. I simply said that I was trying hard to induce you to spend your holidays at Puntwater. You will go, won’t you, Mark, out of charity, if for no other reason?’
I looked up from my desk into the young fellow’s anxious and pleading face; it was the face of a fair, handsome youth of twenty-two or three, with a pair of fine, brown eyes lighting it up, and beautiful glossy, fair hair waving above it; but at the moment it looked really haggard and careworn.
‘I might as well go there as anywhere else, Archie,’ I returned, ‘that is to say if I get away at all. I’m so used to applying for leave, having it granted, and then cancelled again in consequence of a “very particular case,” that I quite expect to stop and work hard during holiday time.’
‘Why don’t you start at once? Your leave’s granted now. Will you come on Monday, Mark?’ he asked eagerly.
‘If I get through with this business today, I shall certainly take time by the forelock, and go on Monday, my son. But I can’t make out your great anxiety to have me go with you.’
‘That shows how little attention you’ve been paying to all my egotistical stories,’ he cried, ‘and indeed, Sinclair, it is as simple a piece of selfishness for me to wish you with me, I mean, as ever you accused me of; but I am positively afraid to go back to aunt’s, afraid is the word.’
‘Afraid of your aunt, or cousin? Which?’
‘Of both. Oh, I know I’m a soft fellow, Sinclair, but until you have seen them, and known them, you cannot understand. Aunt Thorne has set her very heart on us marrying, and now that I’ve chosen so differently, she will be wild.’
‘And the young lady? Your cousin Hester, what will she say, or do? Is she so infatuated with you that she will never forgive you? What a lady-killer you must be, young chap. It’s well to be you.’
‘For mercy sake don’t chaff, Mark. I can’t stand it. Wait till you see them, and you will understand better. I was brought up by Aunt Thorne, and until I went to college, I had no idea that they were so peculiar and different from other people. Well, Mark, you will come, eh?’
‘I suppose I must. I suppose, to prove the entire unselfishness of my friendship for a young scatterbrains, I must place myself as a sort of buffer between him and the ladies who are foolish enough to wish to wed him against his will. But I’ve got a new idea, Archie. I’ll pay my addresses to Miss Thorne myself and see if I can’t cut you out. You say she has money?’
‘Yes, her father settled a tidy little fortune on Hester, but God forbid that you should think of spending your life with such a girl.’
‘I wish she heard you – I think she would be disenchanted.’
Archie shook his head with a shadow on his usually bright face that nothing but my faithful promise for Monday served to lighten.
For a wonder nothing intervened, and on the appointed day I found myself and portmanteau in company with Archie Hopeton, being whirled along the line to Puntwater. The weather was delightful, and we had every prospect of splendid holidays for outdoor amusements.
But I was considerably more occupied by thinking curiously of Archie’s relatives than of the fishing and shooting he promised me, and it was no wonder I had known him ever since he had commenced his career as a student of medicine, and considering the difference of our years, we had got on very well together. His fresh ideas of life, and his merry, good-humored freedom of conversation suited me, although what he had taken a fancy to in the hard-worked, cynical Detective Sinclair had often puzzled me.
I suppose it was the professional element ingrained in me that had made me so curious respecting these female relatives he so often spoke about. People with ample means, yet who lived so retired a life as to be almost strangers to their nearest neigbours – must have something peculiar about them; but there were many other things that I had become acquainted with through Archie that seemed at once odd and unaccountable to me.
One of them was the fact that Mrs Thorne had so set her heart on her daughter’s marriage with Archie. It was rather an unusual thing for a mother of Mrs Thorne’s stamp to insist on her girl marrying a penniless young doctor, entirely depending on her own help as to his present expenditure, and on his profession for his future support, but there were still more peculiar circumstances in the affair. From what Archie had himself told me, I had little doubt that Mrs Thorne absolutely disliked her nephew. If he had simply neglected to fall in with her views by ignoring his cousin Hester’s charms and preference, it would have been bad enough, but the silly fellow had gone and fallen in love with some pretty child in the neighbourhood of his aunt’s place, and when she came to find it out there would be the – ahem – to pay.
‘I see you are getting quite nervous, Archie,’ I said bantering-ly, as the train neared Puntwater.
‘I am,’ he said ‘and you needn’t laugh about it. It’s all sure to be found out before we go back, for I can’t and won’t be appropriated any longer, now that I am really engaged to Bessie – poor little girl! If she only knew how wild aunt will be she would be terrified out of her life. You see, Mark, I’ve been accustomed to take things easy at home, and let them do with me as they liked, for peace sake, but now it must be different and there’s sure to be scenes.
‘What sort of man was your uncle? Do you remember him at all?’
‘A little – he was peculiar, too, but kind withall. It is nine or ten years since he died, I think.’
‘In this colony?’
‘Yes, and rather suddenly. I was at school, but although aunt never speaks of him, Hester has done so occasionally. He was ill, and aunt took him to town for medical advice – he died there, and she came back a widow.’
There was no one in the compartment with us, and we could speak freely.
‘See here, mate,’ I said. ‘I don’t quite understand my role in this affair; what is it that you expect me to do in it? Am I to try and frighten your good aunt out of her anxiety for your alliance by declaring you to be incorrigibly dissipated, or what?’
‘That game won’t do,’ he answered with a laugh that came from his teeth only. ‘I’ve tried it myself, and it didn’t effect any good purpose. I don’t know what you’re to do for me, Mark, but I’ve every confidence in you. You’re such a clever chap, you see, that you’ll corner them up somehow. At all events, I depend on you to back me if there’s a regular row about Bessie.’
‘And get kicked out? Well I suppose it wouldn’t much matter if I did. We’ll see, old boy – if I’m not grateful for the dose of flattery you’ve given me, I ought to be.’
It was yet early in the day when we reached Puntwater, and our first move was to refresh and brighten ourselves up at the hotel before presenting ourselves to Mrs and Miss Thorne. They expected us, though they were not aware of the day we should arrive, so no fear of their being waiting lunch or any other meal prevented us from resting before we set out for Riverdale. For that was the name bestowed by its godfathers and godmothers on Mrs Thorne’s property, and it was a pretty suitable one. It was about half a mile from the township, and situated so near the Loddon that the grounds sloped down to the river. The house itself was of brick and wood, and a prettily picturesque building, the old look of which was partly concealed by quantities of climbing plants and vines and a group of the original old monarchs of the bush in the shape of box and peppermint trees.
‘It’s the prettiest place I’ve seen for many a day,’ I observed, as Archie paused and turned toward the river. ‘You might do worse than please mamma, marry your cousin, and settle down to live a delightfully rural and domestic life.’
He did not answer, and seeing that he was intently gazing at a pretty little cottage that stood almost close to the Loddon on a lovely, sloping, green bank, I guessed at once.
‘Oh, I see! That’s the home of Bessie, the beloved, eh? And I suppose that is the sweet girl herself, sitting down there by the water, dressed in white?’
‘Where?’ he asked, eagerly.
‘Here, just below us, with her back against a tree, and her eyes, not on the book she holds in her lap, but on the river. But no, it can’t be; your fiancée is fair, and this girl is black as night. It must be Miss Thorne.’
‘It is,’ Archie answered shortly and turned to continue his way toward the cottage.
‘I say, Archie, I don’t think Miss Thorne has observed us. I have a fancy for making the acquaintance of that young lady in some unconventional manner. Just you go on and prepare aunt and get your blowing up, and I’ll join you after.’
All right – please yourself, only mind, I didn’t tell them you were a detective.’
‘Ashamed of the D’s acquaintance, eh? Well, perhaps it’s all the better. Ta-ta.’
We had moved on a few steps, and when we parted, there were some trees between me and the young lady by the river; but when I made a circuit of them, I saw she still sat like an image of stone in the same spot.
I may well say like an image, for I never did see anything like the apparent immobility of that girl. I had an opportunity of studying her face before she observed me and before the sound of my foot attracted her. It was as calm as the river at her feet, and far more expressionless.
And it was a remarkable face for all that – one that would hold your eye as would a statue with a story in every line; it was pale as the face of a living, healthy subject could possibly be, and its pallor was apparent all the more from the strong contrast of hair – as black as night – and strongly marked, straight, black brows above black-lashed, deeply-set eyes of the hue of coal.
She was small and slight of figure and prettily dressed in black silk, and she was about twenty-three or four. Her attire was rather odd in some way – I recognised that fact at once, but I suppose in consequence of my lamentable ignorance of drapery and fashions, I could not decide where, or in what the oddity began. Her glossy hair was drawn back smoothly from her face and worn in a large coil high on the back of her head, and with the exception of a massive brooch fastening her collar, she had not a single ornament about.
I stood for a moment and examined the small and delicate, yet sharp features, and saw that the white hands crossed idly on her lap were small and thin, and that the black dress fitted her perfect figure with a precision almost wonderful. There did not seem to be a crease or a wrinkle anywhere, even in the careless attitude she held, leaning against the trunk of the old tree.
Gazing at the river, I have said, and gazing as if she was thoughtless. I mean that her face was so expressionless as to make me wonder if it could be possible for any girl of her age to sit there without thinking of anything, no more than if she were really the image I have compared her to.
‘A strange girl this, and one worth studying; though she is not the sort one might get up a pleasant, silly flirtation with, and as for falling in love with her – phew?’
Something like that, I thought to myself as I advanced until she was attracted by the sound of my footstep. She lifted up the heavy eyelashes and turned upon me a pair of blazing, black eyes that almost electrified me as they met mine.
You see, I had been speculating so on the strange immobility of the still-looking face, that when the piercing orbs looked at me with that fiery intensity, the fact struck me as though a corpse had suddenly returned to life and turned a look full of terrible vitality on me, and I assure that I took no small credit to myself and my training for especial emergencies that I managed to retain my self-possession and not to expose my astonishment to the lady.
‘Pardon me, I hope I have not startled you. If I have the honour of addressing Miss Thorne, may I introduce myself as Mr Sinclair – Archie’s friend?’
I said this with the most agreeable grimace I could summon, and with uncovered head and a bow that would have been quite low enough for any queen; but she took as much notice of me as though I was a stick until I concluded, and then she simply repeated, coldly, ‘Archie’s friend,’ just with her lips, and not the move of another facial muscle; but all at once a faint flush rose to her pale cheeks, and she rose up suddenly.
‘Pray do not let me disturb you,’ I cried, ‘I shall go away at once rather than do so.’
‘You do not disturb me. Of course, if Archie – if Mr Hope ton has arrived, I must return. Mamma will require assistance – perhaps you will accompany me?’ she added, with a hesitation so evident that it was only too apparent how much rather she would have left me behind. But I have got past the age when we begin to consider our own convenience and pleasure in preference to the indulgence of an irritable vanity, so I bowed and marched on beside her.
I tried vainly to open a conversation as we went toward the house – my original remarks on the weather and the beauty of the view from Riverdale, and got a bow or a monosyllable for my pains. She looked to all appearance as cool as an iceberg, but that there was an internal excitement under the ice was quite visible to a keen observer. The flush deepened on her cheek as we neared the cottage, and I saw that the hand, drooped to her side as she walked, was clenched so tightly that the nails were buried in the palm.
At the door we were met by Archie in person; he had seen our approach, and glad of interruption to what had proved to be a disagreeable interview with his aunt, he hastened to get me into it with the usual selfishness of his sex.
He shook hands with his cousin, hurriedly, and I saw that in spite of the firm pressure of her lips against each other, they trembled spasmodically as he addressed a few commonplaces to the girl, and then he fussily led me into a parlour and as fussily introduced me to Mrs Thorne.
There was a strong resemblance between mother and daughter, although in the face or figure of the former there was an entire absence of the immobility distinguishing the younger woman. Mrs Thorne was small and thin, and had coal-black hair and eyes also, but her figure seemed never at rest; and her eyes darted about sharply as if continually watching and scanning every movement of those around her. She impressed me as being shrewish, in spite of the apparent kindness of her reception; and, after I had been in her company a short time, I had discovered, or fancied I discovered, that she was unchangeably under the influence of one predominate feeling, which was a dread of something in connection with her daughter. Even the distant prospect of a secret for me to ferret out was quite enough to interest me at once, and I set myself on the watch with intense gusto.
We had dinner, and immediately after Archie, who had been exhibiting signs of restlessness for the hour previous, excused himself for a couple of hours, having, as he declared, a particular matter to attend to at Puntwater for a friend. I saw the scowl that came into Mrs Thorne’s face as he left the room, and the quick, apprehensive look she darted towards her daughter.
Hester, however, took no notice of her and made no remark; but, when Archie had gone, she got up and walked through the open window to the garden. It was a lovely evening, and there was sufficient excuse in the beauty of the time and weather to make Mrs Thorne’s proposal of a walk an apparently sensible one.
‘It would be a shame to keep you indoors, Mr Sinclair,’ she said, moving towards the door. ‘And rather than do so, I will get some slight wrap and accompany you. We shall, in all probability, find my daughter among the flowers.’
But she was not among the flowers. When we got outside the shrubs near the cottage, we could see the slight, black-robed figure sitting in the identical spot, and in the identical attitude I had first seen her. I observed Mrs. Thorne’s face grow paler as she looked toward the river and saw the girl seated, steadily gazing at the water, with her hands in her lap and her back supported by the tree.
‘That seems to be a favourite spot of Miss Thorne’s,’ I observed, as the mother’s eyes fell upon her. ‘I met her there as I came.’
‘Yes, she is there a great deal, and I do all I can. She is not to be weaned from it. I should take it as a great favour, Mr Sinclair, if you could influence her not to sit so by the water.’
‘I cannot flatter myself that Miss Thorne is likely to be influenced by anything I might say, madam, but I can at least try. What is your objection, may I ask?’
‘I don’t think the air of the river is healthy for Hester – she is far from strong – and I am sure that the monotonous sound of the running water makes her morbidly sad.’
‘Perhaps it may be so. At all events it is very lonely for her. I suppose it will be different while Archie is here. Miss Thorne may perhaps allow her cousin to escort her about a little during his visit.’
At the name of her nephew, Mrs Thorne’s brows met in a deep black line over her nose, and her lips grew stern. She was looking at the gravel of the walk over which we were passing, but she lifted her sharp, black eyes just then, and bored a hole right through me, in a keen attempt to see what I was made of ere she said -
‘I want to speak to you about Archie, Mr Sinclair. Let us move toward the river – we can talk as we go.’
‘With pleasure,’ I returned, wondering all the time what kind of pumping I was going to get about Archie.
‘You are my nephew’s most intimate friend, Mr Sinclair?’
‘Well, I scarcely know, Mrs Thorne. We are very intimate certainly, but there is a considerable difference in our ages, and, as a necessary consequence, a great difference in our modes of living.’
‘I know – I know,’ she said impatiently. ‘I can understand all that – still you are friends?’
‘I hope and believe so, madam.’
‘And my nephew confides in you and tells you a good deal of his affairs, doubtless?’
‘Ye-es,’ I answered, with some hesitation, for, while I wanted to hear what she had to say, I was afraid of committing myself too far.
‘Can you tell me, without any breach of confidence, if Archie is entangled in any love affair in town? I have particular – most particular reasons for wishing to know.’
‘I can with certainty assure you that he has nothing of the kind on hand in town, Mrs Thorne,’ I assured her.
Her face brightened wonderfully, and something like a sigh of relief escaped between her thin, sharp lips.
‘I’m glad of that,’ she declared. ‘It is quite a relief to hear you say so. After all it is most unlikely that at his age he should be wound up in any engagement. He is only a boy.’
‘Oh, as to that, madam, boys even younger than Archie have managed to find their hearts and pledge them before now, and I could not undertake to say that he has not already done so. Indeed, I believe he has.’
‘Has what? Do you mean that my nephew is in love, or engaged, or some nonsense or other? I thought I understood you to assure me that he was quite free from any entanglement in town.’
‘So you did. I said that he had no engagement or love affair in town to my certain knowledge, but I could not make the same statement, truthfully, about the country.’
‘In the country? Where? Who? In the name of God tell me all about it?’
Wondering at the terrible fear in her tones, I turned slightly to look in her face. I think I have mentioned that Mrs Thorne was an older epitome of her daughter, small, slight, and pale in complexion, with eyes and hair like night. She wore a widow’s cap, too, the long, white bands of which streamed over the shoulders of her black dress down to the slender, prim waist with its neat belt. This cap was worn primly and suited the style of the woman’s features; but now, as I looked at her, the calm content of her face was gone and every feature was convulsed with a terrible fear.
‘Quick! If you don’t want to kill me, tell me with whom Archie Hopeton is in love.’
‘I am not sufficiently in his confidence to inform you precisely, Mrs Thorne, but I believe it is some young lady in this neighbourhood. What more likely than that his heart is in his cousin’s keeping?’
She looked at me sharply, as I insinuatingly completed my reply – perhaps she was shrewd enough to guess my insincerity. At all events she made no reply, and with a strong effort at controlling her feelings made some remark that shut off the subject.
By this time we had reached the river bank, where the gravelled walk turned at an acute angle and wound along by the water. As we turned that corner, I looked up the river toward the point where stood embowered in greenery, the pretty home of Bessie Elliot, the young girl I knew was my friend Archie’s beloved fiancée, and where I thought he most likely was at that instant. I saw nothing of him, however, and went on toward Miss Thorne, who still sat like an image, staring at the running water. The mother hastened her steps as she saw her, and in a few moments, we were standing beside her.
‘Hester, dear, don’t sit here so near the river,’ Mrs Thorne said pleadingly. ‘You know it cannot be good for you.’
‘Can you tell me anything that would be good for me?’ the girl asked sharply as she lifted her eyes to her mother’s face with such a fierce glare in them that she cowered under it. ‘You are always following me about bothering – I wish to goodness you’d let me alone.’
‘My dear, Mr Sinclair is here, hoping for a stroll with you,’ the woman said in a half terrified way that strangely puzzled me.
‘What do I care for Mr Sinclair?’ was the sharp retort, ‘and what does he care for me? Please go away, and leave me in peace!’
‘Are you not forgetting your cousin, Hester?’ Mrs Thorne said faintly. ‘He will be back soon and think it so strange to find you absent.’
Such a wild laugh darted from the girl’s lips that I absolutely started, and her mother turned a frightened look towards me.
‘No, I am not forgetting my cousin Archie, and he will not return as soon as you think. Are you going?’
The question was asked with a sudden lifting of her figure from its leaning position against the tree, and a clenching of the right hand that lay on her lap, and a fierce look from the black eyes that seemed to actually wither the miserable mother.
‘Yes, yes, dear, we’re going at once. How very fond of solitude my daughter is.’
I could not reply to this remarkable observation, for I was too completely astonished at the extraordinary conduct of Miss Thorne to make small talk for her mother. ‘That’s a pretty temper if you like!’ I thought to myself, ‘and how strange Archie never mentioned it to me. Why, her very mother is afraid of her life to cross the beauty.’
We returned toward the house, and at last Mrs Thorne broke the awkward silence.
‘I need not apologise for my poor girl’s strange manner, Mr Sinclair. Of course Archie has told you what a sufferer she was?’
‘No, he has not mentioned anything particular.’
‘No! Well, my poor child had a severe attack of nervous fever some years ago, and ever since she is liable to recurrences of nervousness which are absolutely painful. There are days when the sound of a voice is torture to her.’
‘And perhaps she finds the sound of the rippling water soothing, dear madam. If such is the case, pray, permit her to enjoy it in peace. I should be sorry if my visit should in any way interfere with Miss Thorne’s comfort, and Archie and I have formed any amount of plans about shooting and fishing while we are here.’
‘Thank you, Mr Sinclair, but I trust Hester may be quite recovered tomorrow.’
Some household affair called my hostess inside, and I was left to pace up and down one of the walks, smoking a cigar, while waiting for Archie. I had some curiosity to know when Miss Thorne would think proper to come up from the river, too, and kept a sharp look-out until the sun was down, and the full moon was rising. At last Archie put in an appearance when it was so dark that I could scarcely recognise him.
‘You’re a fine fellow!’ I cried, ‘to leave me here all alone in an enemy’s camp. And if you don’t get a good rowing from the ladies, you deserve one.’
‘I couldn’t help it,’ he said in a whisper. ‘I wrote to Bessie, telling her I would be at our old trysting place this evening, and I’ve been waiting for her ever since. Some visitors had detained her, and I had scarcely time to say half-a-dozen words to her.’
‘No, I suppose you were too busy kissing. Did you see your cousin down by the river?’
‘Hester? No, what would take me down there at this time of night?’
‘At all events she’s there. How was it you never told me what a delightful temper she had, my son?’
‘Who? Hester? I never saw anything remarkably bad about it. She used to be a bit sulky, that’s all.’
Then I related to him the episode of our interview, and he was full of astonishment. ‘I never heard of such an exhibition on my cousin’s part – surely she is greatly changed. I think I’ll go down and look for her to keep the peace. I hope to goodness she has heard nothing about Bessie. Does aunt guess, do you think, Sinclair?’
‘Not the facts, I think,’ and then I told him of the pumping I had undergone from the elder lady.
‘It’ll have to come out somehow, and, heaven knows, I’d rather face anything. Mark, you’ll promise to tell them for me when I can make up my mind, won’t you?’
‘You’re an arrant coward, Mr Archibald. Oh, yes, I’ll face the breach for you. It would be a sort of satisfaction to make that young lady a little return for her uncalled-for rudeness to Mr Sinclair. But you’d better go, if you want to make the peace for the present.’
He had scarcely gone when Mrs Thorne came out anxiously.
‘Are you alone, Mr Sinclair? I had hoped the young people were with you. Where is Archie, do you know?’
‘I think he is with Miss Thorne. Yes, there they are, coming up by the shrubbery,’ and Mrs Thorne, evidently relieved, begged me to go into the house.
The evening we spent in the little drawing-room at Riverdale was, to my mind, about the most wretchedly dull I ever passed. It was worse than dull, for it was full of restraint and discomfort. There was a piano in the room, and Mrs Thorne tried timidly to induce her daughter to sing and play for us. The reply she got was a look that silenced her and made the miserable woman’s hands tremble as though she had the ague.
Hester Thorne sat back from the lamp in the corner of a lounge, her hand on her lap, with the slender white fingers interlocked. She had chosen the seat that she might have Archie in full view as he sat in an arm-chair before her and her mother, and I saw that he knew he was watched and felt miserable under the glare of the fierce black eyes that shone in the dim corner like those of a cat.
I did my best, and so did Mrs Thorne, to try and get up a general conversation, but to no purpose. Even to direct appeals Hester would return a cold, curt monosyllable, and poor Archie was too decidedly uncomfortable to assist me in small talk. At last I took pity on him, and drew his attention to the hour with a remark that we must not keep the ladies up too late, and I saw how gladly Mrs Thorne had in a little supper and then escorted us to our several chamber doors.
When I had shut myself in, I went to the French window and opened it, for the room seemed hot and close, and feeling the inutility of attempting sleep at an hour so unusually early for me, I blew out my lamp and sat down by the open window to enjoy a cigar and a good think at one and the same time.
These new acquaintances of mine were puzzling me. As Hester Thorne sat there in the lounge during the evening and looked at Archie with that stony glare in her awful eyes, an idea that I had seen those eyes somewhere before haunted me; they seemed quite familiar to me. Indeed, the darkly-outlined face was altogether like the memory of a well-impressed dream on me, but in vain. I tried to recall the circumstances under which the impression had been made.
Finding that impossible, my mind reverted to the strange way of exhibiting her preference which I had an opportunity of witnessing since my arrival.
‘Archie, indeed, was quite correct in saying I had better wait to see the people before I recommended him to fall in with his aunt’s views,’ I thought to myself, ‘for if his cousin is not the most ill-tempered and worst-bred girl I ever met, I’m no judge. What a jolly row there will be when she finds out about Archie being over head and ears in love with Bessie Elliot! By-the-bye, I must get him to introduce me before I go. I should like to become acquainted with Archie’s idea of the beautiful.’ But little, indeed, I thought in what an awful way I should become acquainted with Bessie Elliot.
I had got to the end of my cigar and stood up to fling the butt out of the window. As I did so, I heard a rush of feminine garments and the sound of a hurried, but light, foot on the grass outside. It was, as I have before stated, nearly full moon, but a number of white, fleecy clouds were sailing in the lovely, pale sky, which at that moment had met and partially hid the lady moon so that the light under the trees at the side of the house was but indistinct. The idea that the movement I had heard was caused by some fresh freak of Hester Thorne struck me, and deeply curious, I stepped out and moved more into the shadow of the trees.
Standing there a moment I heard voices at some distance down toward the Loddon, and allowing my curiosity to overcome what small sense of decency I may have possessed, I ran down behind the fringe of shrubs that separated the gravel from the large centre grass plot. As I approached the speakers, I at once recognised the voices of mother and daughter. In a few seconds more there was between them and me only a thinly-leaved bush, and I could distinctly see the two forms – one a picture of almost demoniac anger, the other of an humble and pleading yet most terrified petitioner.
‘Do you hear? I will not be followed and haunted day and night. You are driving me mad! Don’t I tell you that it is only by the side of that water that I feel at rest, and yet you will try to keep me away from it! Go home, woman! If you are one of those who can sleep in bed when those they love are dead, go and sleep in yours. And yet you say you loved my father!’
The scorn of the latter words was unendurable, and the poor mother seemed barely able to gasp -
‘Oh, Hester!’ the angry girl mimicked. ‘Oh! Hester, why aren’t you a stone? Oh! Hester, what makes you feel? When you see the man you love, and who has loved you, drifting away from you for ever, why don’t you go to bed and sleep? Don’t deny it! He did love me! He has been mine only from boyhood. Hasn’t he lived with me under one roof, and sat with me in one school and one church, and prayed to God with me from one book, until the pretty face of a girl baby bewitched him?’ And with a dark face, eyes full of fire, and a gesture full of fury, she hurried riverward once more.
‘Oh! what am I to do?’ Mrs Thorne gasped, as she clasped her hands and wrung them despairingly; and then, as the form of her daughter was rapidly disappearing, she turned and went quickly back to the house.
On witnessing this bewildering scene I was puzzled. This was love with a vengeance. What a fortunate chap my friend, Archie, was to inspire the girls with so desperate a passion! But then, you know, we don’t respect girls that throw their hearts at fellows’ heads that way, and I am afraid that the sneer on my lips would not have gratified Miss Thorne if she could have seen me listening to her confession of love for a young man who cared less for her than he did for his cricket bat.
But when she turned to face her terrified mother with eyes that gleamed like a cat’s in the moonlight, and raised her right hand and her voice in furious exclamation, a memory of one other face shot into my mind and almost suspended my breath.
‘Good heavens!’ I thought to myself. ‘Can it be possible that that is the likeness I fancied I recognised? If it is I can quite understand that unfortunate woman’s terror, and her as unfortunate daughter’s violent temper. I must question Archie tomorrow.
In the meantime, however, it should not do to let that girl go away down to that river all alone. In her violent mood it would not be safe, and her mother was afraid to follow her – I could see that, so I hurried down by the side of the grounds, avoiding the moonlight as much as I could and seeking the shelter of the trees and shrubs.
It was by this time almost as bright as day, and when I reached the bank of the Loddon, lower down than the spot at which I had seen her in the afternoon, I paused and looked toward it. She was not seated by the tree, but she was standing by the river, her face gleaming white in the moonlight, and her gaze fixed apparently on some object up the stream.
All at once I remembered her words to her mother – words to which I had, at the time they were spoken, paid little heed. She had alluded to Archie being bewitched by a baby girl’s face. Was it possible that she had, in some cunning way, discovered the secret he had been so anxious to preserve and knew of his affection for Bessie Elliot? If that was the case, truly was ‘all the fat in the fire.’
And it seemed probable, as I watched her, dreading to tell you the truth, that she contemplated suicide. I noticed that Bessie’s home was visible from where she stood, its white wooden roof gleaming brightly just above the foliage at the bend of the stream higher up.
She stood there so immovably for some time that I got tired of watching her, and just as I was thinking of boldly walking down to her and pretending I had been tempted to a stroll by the beauty of the night, she lifted the hand that had been drooping by her side and took her watch from her side.
I saw it gleam in the brilliant beams of the moon and knew that she was consulting it to see the time, for she lifted her eyes from its face to look up at the moon, as if to see how high it was. Then she turned one more steady look up the river before she moved away and went quickly, as one with a purpose, up the gravel walk toward her home.
I felt relieved, and was about following her when I heard a rustle behind me, and looking in the direction of the noise, I saw Archie hurriedly coming toward the river. He was greatly surprised on meeting me and hastily asked what had brought me there.
‘I thought you in bed an hour ago,’ he said. ‘Have you seen anything of Hester? There’s the deuce to pay with the old lady and her it seems, and I’m in for it nicely.’
‘Make your mind easy about your cousin; she’s at home by this time,’ I returned. ‘But what is the what-do-you-call-’em to pay about?’
‘Aunt came to my room a few minutes ago like a woman half cranky with terror. She told me that Hester had gone down to the river in spite of her, and that Hester was in such a state of mind that she was afraid she’d make away with herself. Then she begged and prayed of me to get up and go after her, declaring that the girl’s very existence was in my hands.’
‘Hum!’ grunted I.
‘I tell you what it is, Mark. It is the deuce of a bore -’
‘Will you say what-do-you-call-it of a bore?’ I interrupted coolly.
‘Bosh! It is the deuce of a bore to have a girl threatening to drown herself or kill somebody if a fellow doesn’t make love to her.’
‘Oh! that’s it, is it?’
‘About it, I believe. Aunt almost told me plainly that Hester was breaking her heart at what she was pleased to call my desertion. Sinclair, you know more about women then I do. Is it customary for mothers to stand in bodily fear of their daughters and to be afraid to cross them in any way?’
‘Rather a difficult question, my boy, and one I should prefer not answering, but I may observe that, as a general thing, we could do in the world with a few more obedient and respectful daughters. But I want to ask you a question. Are you quite sure that your Uncle Thorne is dead?’
‘Am I sure? What a strange question! Of course I’m sure. What should aunt pretend he was dead for if he was not?’
‘Another puzzling question, but do you know anyone who saw him dead? Or who saw him even ill?’
‘No! Bah! Sinclair, what a fellow you are! You can’t help fancying a secret in the most natural event. What makes you suppose the possibility of Uncle Thorne’s being alive?’
‘Because I believe I saw him in Melbourne not a month ago!’
‘Gracious! But how could you know him?’
‘You have told me a dozen times of your cousin’s extraordinary likeness to her father, and when I saw her tonight under a strong excitement, her face brought before me another face – a man’s face – with the same terrible expression on the same mould of feature.’
The young chap saw, or imagined he saw in my face, or heard in the tones of my voice, a hint that there was something very serious connected with the man I alluded to. He looked at me anxiously for a moment, and then he asked -
‘Do you know of anything wrong, Mark?’
‘On honour – no, Archie.’
‘Was the man you think was my Uncle Thorne in gaol or a criminal of any sort?’
‘On honour – no again.’
‘Oh, then it’s all right – it’s all fancy on your part. Uncle must be dead, you know. But, for any sake, tell me what I’m to do about Hester? Can’t you give me advice of some kind?’
‘I can give you a great many kinds I don’t doubt. I can give you good, bad, and indifferent – welcome and unwelcome – possible and impossible – but first it will be necessary for you to tell me what strait you are in.’
‘You know well enough! Aunt says that Hester has believed that I loved her ever since we were at school together, and that her very life hung on me. She made me shake in my boots with the responsibility she heaped on my head, and I cried like a big baby when she got down on her knees to me and begged me to save Hester.’
‘And did you tell her about Bessie?’
‘No! I daren’t.’
‘You’re a coward as well as a big baby,’ I said, ‘and an ass to boot. Why couldn’t you tell the woman at once that you loved another and she was your promised wife? I’ve no patience with you; go home and go to bed!’
We were moving toward the house, and had almost reached it, when I spoke the words I have last written, and to which poor Archie made no reply for some minutes. At last he asked -
‘You do not think that I am in any honourable way bound to Hester, then?’
‘Certainly not, if you have told me the truth. You have never made love to her you tell me?’
‘Not unless you call acting like a brother to her is making love. I have escorted her to church, and concerts, and parties, and called her ‘cousin,’ and dear Hester, and so forth, but as to pretending to love her as I love dear Bessie, no!’
‘Go in to bed.’
‘Wait, Mark, what would I say or think if she did put herself in the river, or kill her mother, or do some other awful thing that Aunt fears?’
‘You would both say and think something – what-do-you-call-it? – silly I have no doubt, but I’ll tell you what I’d say and think. At all events, I’d think that if a girl fancies she can’t live without a man that doesn’t care one rap for her, she’d be a precious sight better out of the world than in it. Go to bed – I’ll talk to you tomorrow.’
‘And,’ thought I to myself, ‘I’ll talk to Mrs Thorne tomorrow – like a father.’
I had left my window open, of course, and just before I shut it I turned to have one more look at the river and the splendid moonlit heavens. The queen of night was so bright by that time that she cast but few shadows, save close under tree and shrub, and the Loddon glittered like silver. It must have been nearly midnight, and there was the silence of rest on every object in my view. Just as my hand was on the sash to shut it to, I saw a moving object on the gleaming river just under the garden, and I looked at it until I convinced myself that it was neither more or less than a boat. ‘They are fishing,’ thinks I, ‘and I wish I was with them,’ but as I so thought, the little boat disappeared in the shadow of the bend where stood the cottage of Bessie Elliot.
I went to bed and I slept. I was not in love with Bessie Elliot or with Hester Thorne, and was accustomed to making a proper use of my bed when I got a chance to get into it; so it was long after sunrise when I turned out, dressed myself, and opened my window to get into the precious morning air.
Mrs Thorne must have heard me, for as I emerged on the verandah, she came out of the front door and joined me. She looked careworn and haggard to a degree, and nay, she looked absolutely frightened, as I hoped that Miss Thorne was quite well – I suppose she dreaded my having found out about Hester’s wild disobedience the night before.
‘My daughter is not very well this morning, I am sorry to say. She spent a very restless night she tells me. Will you come to breakfast, Mr. Sinclair? I presume that Archie will join us before we have finished.’
‘Is he so lazy this morning, Mrs Thorne? We had all sorts of plans laid about a fishing excursion this morning.’
‘Oh, he has been out these two hours, the servant tells me,’ she answered as we sat down to table.
‘How strange that he did not call me!’ I said, but then I remembered Bessie, and that in all probability he had some appointment with her, so I went on with my breakfast without further remark on that subject.
We had scarcely been seated ten minutes, however, when Archie came in. I was sitting opposite the door and at the first look of his face I saw there was something wrong. He was white to the lips and his hand trembled like leaves. His first look was to me and he opened his mouth, but shut it without speaking when he turned to his aunt and met her look of terrified inquiry.
‘Will you come to the verandah with me Mark? I want you.’
‘Something is wrong,’ the mother cried, rising to her feet and gasping out the words tremulously. ‘And it is something about my child? What is it? Tell me! I command you to tell me, nephew Archie!’
‘Compose yourself, Aunt. I assure you that my business is not at all connected with my cousin. As far as I know she is all right – I have neither seen nor heard of her this morning.’
I followed him out wonderingly.
‘In the name of goodness what has gone wrong?’ I asked. ‘Something very serious I am afraid – what has happened?’
‘Oh! Sinclair, I want to tell you that you must come with me at once to Elliot’s, for it’s my firm belief that Bessie has been murdered!’
I confess to you that I paid very little attention to the boy’s information, for I saw what a state of agitation he was in. Thinks I to myself, ‘Thank goodness, I never knew what it was to be in love in this bread and butter fashion, if this is the fruits of it.’ But what I said was -
‘Will you tell me what has put such nonsense into your head this bright and pleasant summer morning, Archie Hopeton?’
‘I wish it was nonsense. For any sake don’t lose any time – get your hat and come with me at once. Bessie has disappeared and her mother is like a mad woman. Will you come at once?’
Certainly I would, but not the less I thought to myself as we hurried toward the path by the river, that girls had disappeared before now without being murdered. Still I knew quite well that deeds of blood had been done – who better? And I made what inquiries I could as we walked.
What I could gather from Archie’s despairing words was that Bessie and he had met on the previous night, not clandestinely, but with the mother’s knowledge and permission and that after they had strolled about the garden and grounds for an hour or so, they parted with a promise to see each other early in the morning. Bessie had bidden her mother the usual good night and retired to her own little room and had never been seen since.
‘When the servant and the mother were early astir this morning, they thought nothing of Bessie not being out of her room, supposing her with me; but when I, not meeting her by the river where I had promised to take her for a row in our boat, went up to the cottage and inquired for her, Mrs Elliot became quite alarmed and went to my poor darling’s room.’
‘She was not there – the bed was cold, the window open, and the room marked with blood in several places.’
‘And that is all?’
‘All! My God, isn’t it enough! My poor darling has been murdered and, perhaps, worse! Oh, I shall go mad, Mark Sinclair! I shall go mad!’
‘Well, I shouldn’t at all wonder,’ I replied drily. ‘A good many folks have a habit that way if there is anything to be done. Wouldn’t it, perhaps, be better to keep your senses about you until you see how you may help or serve the interests of the girl you think has been wronged?’
A groan was my poor Archie’s only reply, and as we just then reached the cottage, no more passed between us. The servant showed us into a pretty little parlour, where Mrs Elliot sat weeping bitterly, and such a picture of despairing grief that I began to think there must be something more suspicious and decided about the girl’s disappearance than Archie had informed me of.
When my young friend had introduced me to the poor woman, he discreetly withdrew and left me to enter upon the business professionally. One look discovered to me both the appearance and character of Bessie’s mother. She was a small, pretty, colourless, little body, with a round, innocent looking face and an appealing look in her faded blue eyes. She took possession, as it were, of me as soon as I entered the room, and hung upon me all the trouble, as she had, doubtless, been in the habit of hanging troubles all of her life, like a weak, pretty parasite, helpless without its life-sustaining tree. She seemed to think that because I was a police-officer, I could do the impossible in the way of discovery, and offered me ‘everything she owned in the world’ if I would only find her ‘poor Bessie’ for her.
‘Archie says she is murdered, but I won’t believe it!’ she sobbed. ‘Who could have the heart to murder my darling girl? The best and the sweetest girl, Mr. Sinclair, that ever gladdened a mother’s heart. For God’s sake, don’t look so awfully serious! Don’t think it possible that Archie is right unless you want to see me die here under your very eyes!’
Women (especially young ones) are very pretty and very useful things sometimes, but they are also occasionally very silly and try a practical man’s temper immensely.
‘You don’t think Bessie is killed? Surely you don’t think anyone – anyone could be so wicked as to do my darling wrong?’
‘My, dear madam, how can I possibly form any opinion on the subject without knowing anything of the facts? Will you first tell me what occurred last night and then let me see Miss Elliot’s room?’
In a rambling sort of way she then told me pretty nearly the same story I had heard from Archie, but she was so incoherent that I called in Archie, and resigned her to his care, begging of him to take her in charge and see that she didn’t bother me while I made an examination and questioned the servant.
Having secured time to see and think uninterruptedly, I found my way to the little kitchen at the back, where, in a bewildered sort of way, I found the only female servant looking from the door idly yet with something of a fearful anxiety in her eyes. She was not a very young woman – perhaps thirty, and she was neither well-favoured or pleasant-looking. As I passed through the back door of the house toward that of the detached kitchen she looked at me half-wonderingly and half-frightened, as I thought, and opened her eyes and pursed her lips as I addressed her.
‘I want you to lead me to Miss Elliot’s bedroom, please, and to tell me what you know of her disappearance.’
‘What should I know of her disappearance?’ she asked sharply, and as she spoke with an impudent intonation, it seemed to me that her face was in some way familiar to me.
‘And who may you be that wants to get to see her room?’
‘You couldn’t guess, I suppose, miss?’
Her face flushed just slightly as she met my steady eye. ‘Yes, I think I could guess what you are, a policeman, I daresay. The mistress is making such a tune and cry, as if a young lady (with a sneering emphasis on the term) never left her mother’s house without leave before.’
‘When you were a young lady they doubtless did and didn’t go empty-handed. How’s your mother, Ann Dempsey?’
An ashy shade covered up, or rather replaced, the flush on her face, and it was delightful to me to see the terror in her face.
‘You are mistaken, sir. That is not my name,’ she managed to stammer.
‘I am not in the habit of making mistakes, and I took quite an interest in your handsome countenance the last time I had the pleasure of looking at it.’
‘Where was that?’
‘In the corridor at the City Police Court.’
‘It’s a black lie! I never was there in my life!’
‘That’ll do, Miss Dempsey,’ I said with a raised, warning finger. ‘I have no wish to interfere with you at present, so you’d better be civil. When I really want you I shall know how to lay my hand on you. No more talk, but show me the young lady’s apartment.
She went sulkily into the cottage, and I followed her. There was a little room at the end of the front verandah with a door window opening to the garden, and another door communicating with the little central passage. This had been poor Bessie Elliot’s room. Telling the woman to remain in the apartment while I examined it – a thing she seemed to do very unwillingly, by the way, – I looked around me.
The room was just such a pretty little chamber as you might expect a pretty and lovable girl of the middle class, and especially a pretty girl in love, to occupy. It was small and plainly furnished with plenty of ornamental bits of muslin and lace and ribbon about it. There were mosquito curtains to the tent bedstead, tied up with blue ribbons, and matting on the floor, and a large mirror decorated with lace on the lace-robed toilet. Many articles of feminine apparel lay about, but not untidily, and to my astonishment, the bed had not been disturbed, nor were there any articles of attire lying round that seemed to have been moved on the previous night.
‘Miss Elliot has not been to bed at all, then? Is this room just as she left it?’
‘Yes, at least I know of no one’s disturbing it.’
‘Oh, of course not – you are not likely to know much. Do you by any chance know who the man was who was hanging about this house late last night?’
Now I didn’t at all know that there had been a man about, but I knew the woman, and thought the guess a very safe one. That it was so could easily be seen from her face under my steady eye. She turned, as the saying is, all colours, but denied all knowledge of that or anything else at first.
‘Look here, my dear creature, you’d better tell the truth to me at least – you will find it pay you best. If you’ve been up to any of your old little games among Mrs. Elliot’s rings or brooches I’m sure to hear of it in the long run, and if you know anything about this affair, it will be in your favour to spit it out.’
‘What affair? Do you mean if I know anything about Miss Elliot running away?’
‘Running away, eh? Have you any reason to know that she ran away, as you call it?’
‘I think you’d better ask Mr Archie Hopeton that question. It’s my opinion he knows all about Bessie, where she went – ay, and where she is.’
I confess to being confounded with surprise. A policeman sees many queer things, but I thought I could have pinned my faith on my friend Archie’s truth and honesty of purpose concerning Bessie Elliot.
‘Do you know who I am? I asked as calmly as I could.
‘No, and I don’t much care.’
‘Oh, yes you do. I am Detective Sinclair and you’ve heard of me. Now will you tell me who the man was that was hanging about this at a late hour last night?’
‘Who saw him?’ was the return question put very sullenly.
‘That’s none of your business. Who was it?’
‘Well, it was Jack Sprague, and I don’t know what it is to anyone if I have a young man I’m keeping company with.’
‘I won’t ask you if Mrs Elliot allows followers, for I don’t care. What I want to know is where Jack Sprague hangs out. I want to see him. I have some idea that he can give me some information about this case. Now for two plain questions. Where can I lay eyes on the young gentleman? And what did you mean by saying that Mr Hopeton knew all about Miss Elliot’s running away?’
She paused for a moment, in doubt as to her safest course, and then she brazened it out.
‘Jack Sprague is stopping in Puntwater at the Commercial. I don’t care who knows it, and he don’t either. He came down to see me, and he was waiting about last night to see me.’
‘One question answered, now for the other, Miss Dempsey. What makes you pretend to suspect Mr Hopeton?’
‘Pretend, indeed! I don’t pretend anything. Jack was waiting for me last night, and as there was company, I couldn’t get out. When I did see him, they had all gone to bed and it was very late.’
‘About what time?’
‘Eleven or thereabouts.’
‘Jack told me that, about an hour before, a woman in a boat had rowed up to the bank, and seeing him before he could get out of the way, had called him. She asked him if he would take a note from Mr Archie Hopeton to Miss Bessie, and she would give him half-a-crown. As he wanted to get an excuse to see me, he consented, and as it happened, Miss Bessie was standing at that door on the verandah when he came up to the house.’
‘He gave her the note?’
‘Yes, and it was from Mr Hopeton. You can put two and two together as well as J can, Mr Detective.’
‘I can, perhaps better. And now, oblige me by leaving,’ and I opened the door for her to pass out. She did so, giving me a look as she passed, black enough to poison me if looks could do it.
I had listened to the woman’s story, but without believing one particle of it, save that Jack Sprague had been there on the night before. I knew that man of aliases, and that a bigger rascal never went unhung, and although I never would have thought of murder in connection with him unless there was money to be made by it, I had no doubt but that Ann Dempsey and he were both at the bottom of Bessie Elliot’s disappearance. In the meantime, while thinking this, I was looking around the room to see if by any chance there might be any signs of that note Ann Dempsey was so positive about.
But I saw nothing of it, and left the room as wise as I had entered it, so far as traces of crime were concerned. After I had thoroughly satisfied myself I went out and locked the door behind me.
I managed to slip out without Mrs. Elliot observing me – for I did not want to be overwhelmed with the poor woman’s questions when I could give no satisfactory reply to them. Archie, however, saw or heard me and hurried out to join me.
‘Well?’ was his anxious question, and looking in the young fellow’s face, seeing its haggard anxiety and trembling lips, it was utterly impossible to suspect him of foul dealing – his grief and fear were too real. ‘Have you discovered anything?’
‘No, but I want to ask you a question. Did you send Bessie a note by anyone last night?’
‘A note! No, certainly not. What makes you ask such a question!’
‘Never mind just now. Answer me another. In what boat did you intend to take Miss Elliot for a row today?’
‘In our own, to be sure – that is, in aunt’s. Didn’t you observe it moored at the bottom of the garden?’
‘No. Did you bring it up this morning then?’
‘I did not. We did not intend to go until after breakfast. I only came to see what time she would be ready. In the name of mercy, Sinclair, tell me what you think of it – has anything serious happened to my darling?’
‘I don’t know what to think yet, Archie, and look here, if you want me to find out, don’t bother me. Just devote yourself to that poor mother, and believe me, I will do all I can; but don’t ask me anything about it until I have something to tell.’
He turned away with a grieved look, and after making some inquiries about the neighbourhood, I went away quickly, turning my face toward the township.
Archie’s explanation about the boat had given my ideas a strange and new turn. After all, I might have come to too hasty a conclusion in thinking that Jack Sprague and the woman, who was neither more nor less than his accomplice, had some knowledge of the girl’s abduction. The way I had to go was but short, yet it seemed interminable to me, so anxious was I to reach my object.
My first entry was to the telegraph office, by means of which I despatched a telegram to our department. As I came out I saw at the hotel side door, next to the office, a face and figure I knew, though the man was dressed in a rûle I had never before seen him acting – viz., that of a labouring man. I diverged from the footway and confronted him.
‘Do you know your old friends when you meet them, mate?’ I asked.
‘I know you, at all events,’ he answered with an independent air that was sufficient, or at least, almost sufficient in itself to assure me that he was not engaged in any unlawful ‘lay’ at the time. ‘As to friendship, the less said about that between you and me the better.’
‘I believe you are right so far,’ I returned dryly. ‘What may be your business at Puntwater?’
‘None of yours at any rate.’
‘It’s not the first time you’ve been mistaken, Mr Sprague, alias etc, etc., etc. I want some information about your movements about ten o’clock last night.’
‘You won’t get it, D Sinclair.’
‘Oh, yes, I will. I have seen Miss Dempsey at Mrs Elliot’s this morning, and she referred me to you and told me you were putting up at the Commercial.’
He looked at me dubiously.
‘What did she refer you to me for?’
‘For the information I want.’
‘What information do you want?’
‘About someone giving you something to deliver at Elliot’s last night.’
‘Oh, is that all! You’re quite welcome to that.’
‘Tell me all about it then.’
‘Well, there ain’t much to tell. I went hanging about under the trees at the bottom of Elliot’s garden on the river bank when a boat shot up, and before I could get out of the way someone called me.’
‘A man or a woman?’
‘What sort of woman and what sort of boat?’
‘A youngish woman, I should say, from her voice, but you know the time it was, and although it was moonlight it was very dim under the trees. As for the boat, it was a pretty light affair, and it was wonderful to see how well the woman managed the sculls.’
‘Well, go on.’
‘She called me and asked me if I would give Miss Bessie Elliot a note from Mr Archie Hopeton, with the offer of half-a-crown for the job, and I said yes; so she gave me the note and the money without leaving the boat. After telling me not to fail as it was urgent, she pulled down past the bend.
‘And you delivered it?’
‘I went up the garden boldly, as I had now some business to be on the premises, and just as I got near the house, Miss Elliot came out on the verandah and stood leaning over the rails looking up at the moon. I went up and handed her the note.’
‘Did she say anything?’
‘Only ‘thank you,’ and went inside, shutting the window after her, and I went round the back to pitch some gravel at the kitchen-window to get Ann out. Now, might a chap ask what all this is about?’ he added, seeing I was disposed to be silent.
‘Miss Elliot has disappeared from her home, and if it is true about that note being delivered to her, it was, in all probability, the cause of her leaving home. She must have left last night, as her bed was never disturbed.’
‘Wasn’t Mr Archie Hopeton her sweetheart?’
‘They were engaged.’
He laughed coarsely. ‘Then I think it is no mystery where she has gone.’
‘See here, Mr - a – Sprague. Mr Hopeton sent no communication to Miss Elliot last night, so there must be some deception. At first I thought you and Dempsey had something to do with it, but I don’t now. If you can throw any light on this, do it – it will be something in your favour. Would you know that woman in the boat again?’
‘I don’t think it – I never saw her face – but something has just come into my head. I didn’t leave Elliot’s garden until near twelve o’clock, and as I was getting through the hedge lower down the river I saw a boat again, passing up under the shadow of the trees. I was in a hurry to get away, thinking the hotel would be shut, but something struck me that the same woman was in the boat as it passed me, only I thought it must be nonsense at that hour of the night. The boat passed so close to the bushes, that the cloak, or whatever was round the person sculling, caught, so that it tore and left a piece stuck right under my nose as I stooped to crawl through, and I dragged it off and put it in my pocket, for I saw it was cloth that might do for a patch. Here it is.’
He handed me a piece of blue waterproof cloth about seven inches by four, and when I had examined it and put it in my pocket, I said ‘So long’ to my friend Sprague, and returned to get my telegraphic reply from town, which I knew would have reached the office by that time. It had, and its results you will read presently.
An hour after my short interview I was at Riverdale, awaiting in the parlour the arrival of Mrs Thorne, to whom I had sent a message by the servant. She came, shortly, looking, ah!, so white and frightened, and well I guess the awful cause.
‘You wished to see me, Mr Sinclair. I am sorry I had to keep you waiting, but my poor child is very ill this morning – indeed, I am very uneasy regarding her.’
‘I cannot wonder at that, dear madam,’ I returned very seriously.
‘What? I hardly understood you, sir,’ she stammered. ‘Why should you not wonder? Ah, perhaps you are aware of her imprudence in exposing herself to the night air last evening? My poor Hester is very headstrong.’
‘Mrs Thorne, my wish to see you concerned Miss Thorne. A terrible duty has fallen to my lot, but I am Archie’s friend, and if I am to befriend you for his sake, there must be neither concealment or deception between you and I.’
She stared at me with such dreadful, growing, and wild terror in her eyes, that I was nearly unmanned for the duty before me. At last she managed to articulate feebly and with trembling white lips -
‘What dreadful thing has happened? For mercy’s sake, tell me at once! It cannot be of her, she is safe at home! Oh, tell me!’
‘It is of Miss Thorne. Prepare yourself, dear Mrs Thorne, for sad tidings. If I tell you who and what I am, will it help you to understand? I am a member of the Melbourne Detective Police Force.’
‘And you know? You have found out?’ Oh, the horror, the despair, the fear pictured in that poor, pale face!
‘I know all. I know that you are not a widow, that Hester’s father is not dead – that he is mad. Not very long ago, duty called me into one of the violent cells at the Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum, and in one of his worst paroxysms I saw John Thorne, without once suspecting his relationship to my friend Archie. As soon, however, as I saw your daughter, I recognised the strong likeness and suspected.’
‘Suspected what?’ The wretched mother could hardly speak. I pitied her from my very heart, knowing what I did know.
‘My dear Mrs Thorne, I can say nothing to comfort you. I can only try to soften my bitter intelligence.’
‘Don’t soften it!’ she interrupted hurriedly. ‘If you don’t want to see me die here under your eyes, tell me at once! Quick!’
‘Knowing how your unhappy husband’s lunacy first evinced itself, I suspected as soon as I saw Miss Thorne’s stranged and determined gaze at the running water. I trembled for her even then.’
‘But now! Don’t wait! Tell me the worst. I have trembled for bitter years, and dared not cross her slightest humour, lest one of those fearful outbreaks should culminate in the worst. Tell me all! Tell me all!’
Wringing her hands and writhing as one in terrible bodily agony, she thus went on as I paused – wishing, hard as I was, that the task had not fallen to my lot.
‘You know how your poor husband’s madness culminated? I need not remind you of that?’
She gasped but could not speak.
‘He grew insanely jealous of you, his wife, and one night stole upon you in your sleep and tried to murder you. You remember all this?’
‘It is not – my God, it is not that!’ she cried, starting up and stretching her hands above her wildly. ‘If you hope for mercy, do not say it is that!’
‘I fear it is. Ah! dear madam, what can I say! Bessie Elliot is missing. Miss Thorne is known to have inveigled her from her home by a pretended note from Archie. What has become of that poor girl we must ask your unfortunate daughter.’
‘Are you alluding to me?’ asked a sharp voice at the open, long window, and as the mother’s shriek rang in my ears, I saw Hester Thorne standing on the verandah. To say it as gently as possible, there was something actually develish in the girl’s face as her fierce, black eyes blazed at me, and for a moment I was really and truly afraid; but remembering my strength, and my always ready handcuffs, I recovered my self-possession, and seeing that poor Mrs Thorne had mercifully fainted in her chair, I rose and went out the window, steadily meeting the maniac’s eyes as I did so.
‘I ask again if you were alluding to me? Am I the person you designated as your unfortunate daughter?’
‘You are,’ I replied, firmly.
‘And in doing so you are only exposing your own ignorance; but I have previously had occasion to remark the contemptible ignorance and folly of men – especially young men. So far from being unfortunate, I am one of the most fortunate girls in the whole world! Where is Archie?’
‘There,’ I said, pointing down towards the Loddon. ‘I see him coming along the bank. Shall we join him?’
‘Certainly. I should like to go and meet him, and I cannot very well go alone.’
‘Will you tell me why you consider yourself so fortunate?’ I asked as we walked down the garden path – she with her eyes fixed on the man she had loved to distraction, and a strange jubilant expression in her pale face.
‘If you found in your way an insuperable obstacle to your happiness, and if that obstacle were suddenly (ay, and effectually) should not you consider yourself fortunate and happy?’ she cried, turning her wild, gleaming eyes full upon me.
‘You are happy, then?’
‘Beyond all words! Harry, I want to meet Archie.’
We were now close on the river, and would have met my poor friend before, only that he had paused to look back at Bessie’s home, as it appeared to me, thinking, doubtless, of the lost girl he so dearly loved. As our footsteps sounded near him he turned round suddenly, and as he saw his cousin, so great a change came over him that I gazed at him in fear as well as wonder.
He advanced to Hester Thorne with a face as white as her own, and set teeth gleaming between pallid, dry lips. I saw he was suffering greatly, and wondered how far I could depend on his assistance in case of an outburst, which I dreaded.
‘Hester!’ he cried. ‘What have you done with my darling? You need not deny it I know it was you! Jealous of my love for my sweet, innocent Bessie, you have decoyed her from her home, and if evil has happened her, so help me heaven, but you shall suffer for it!’
‘Hush!’ I whispered, for I saw the awful change in the listening woman’s countenance – the flush that mounted, blood-red to her forehead – the fierce clutching of her long, thin fingers, and the quick gasps of the hot, hard breath between her white, clenched teeth.
‘I will not hush! Why should I? If I were to hold my tongue the stones would cry out! Hester Thorne, what have you done with my darling? Where is my Bessie – my own darling love – my life? For she is all that; give me my love, I say, or you shall suffer for it!’
The poor fellow seemed nearly mad himself, while she grew strangely and unaccountably calm with every added word of his violent accusation.
‘You love her very much, then?’ she asked, in a tone of ice.
‘More than my life – more than my soul. If anything should happen to my Bessie I should die! Do you hear? I should die!’
‘Yes – I hear. To listen to your ravings, a fool might fancy that love was the strongest passion of the human heart, but there’s a stronger.’
‘There is not! Nothing could be stronger than my love for Bessie!’
‘You are mistaken. My hate was stronger. Come, and I will prove it to you.’
Archie staggered back – an inkling of the fearful truth was beginning to creep dimly on him; there was something awful in the hard, cold gaze she now turned on him – a something indescribably suggestive of evil in the very tones so her voice.
‘Follow her!’ I whispered. ‘Humour her! Good heavens, Archie, don’t you see she is mad – quite mad, like her unfortunate father?’
He looked at me, and guessed it all! Like a blind man, he silently followed Hester Thorne, as she moved quietly, and with a firm step toward her favourite seat at the foot of the tree. She passed it and went toward the river bank where the sweeping branches dipped low in the water, and the ripples ran murmuring through green, glossy leaves. With one swift hand she drew back a heavy branch, and then stepping aside, turned her face toward us, with a bitter smile on the pale lips, as her outstretched right hand pointed toward the river at her feet.
Archie would have bounded forward, but almost by main force I held him back until I passed before him and looked first through the leaves down toward the sweet murmuring water. Never shall I forget the sight! Under the young branches which the young girl had drawn back lay the boat which I guessed at once was the one belonging to Riverview, and in the bottom of the boat lay a white form, stark dead. Ah! that was my introduction to hapless Bessie Elliot!
In spite of my exertions, Archie had managed to get a look at the pitiful object, and his shout of wild horror was a sound to be remembered. It was, however, outvoiced by the triumphant laughter of Hester Thorne.
‘Which is strongest – love or hate?’ she cried with a fierce laugh of derision.
‘Hate!’ he shouted. ‘I hate you more than I could ever love even my murdered darling! Murderess! Fiend! All evil in the shape of disgraced womanhood – are there words vile enough to couple with your name! But, thank God, you will, at least, share a cell with your mad father!’
‘Mad?’ she repeated in awful tones of horror. ‘What is he saying about being mad? My God, is it true? Am I mad?’ And as she screamed out the words she lifted her hands to her head and fell back on the grass in a strong fit.
Poor Bessie Elliot! Enticed to the boat by the madwoman’s forgery, declaring her lover seized with a sudden illness, she had been stabbed in the back by a sharp carving-knife that the lunatic had abstracted from her own home. Her pretty muslin dress was covered with gore, and her bright hair torn in handfuls from her head by the vindictive maniac. The scene, when Archie lifted the body from the boat, and wept and raved over the senseless remains, was dreadful; but he outlived it, and time has so softened the memory of his loss that he is now a prosperous and contented parent of a young family.
Hester Thorne is dead. She was one of the most violent patients ever incarcerated in the Yarra Bend Asylum for one terrible year, and then death released her. And, strange to say, Mrs Thorne was reconciled to life by the perfect restoration of her husband, whose disorder took an unexpected return to perfect sanity.
Mrs Elliot, as might be expected of so weak a character, raved like a lunatic at the first recognition of her sorrow and loss, but that she returned to resignation you may guess when I tell you that she is no longer Mrs Elliot, but rejoices in a newer and prettier name.
If you are at all interested in Mr Sprague and Miss Dempsey, I may mention that they are at the present moment both serving well-deserved sentences in the Melbourne Gaol, where I do hope they will yet vegetate for a considerable time.
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, the first of some 140 novels written by Fergus Hume, is also the only one he is remembered for. Hume was born in England in 1859 and travelled with his family to New Zealand where his father, Dr James Hume, assisted in the foundation of Ashburn Hall, Dunedin. He made a career in law, was admitted to the Bar in 1885 but soon after travelled to Melbourne.
It was literary, not legal, fame that Fergus Hume lusted after and in 1886 he privately published The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. The first print run, comprising 5,000 copies, sold quickly and another soon followed. Despite the success, Hume sold all rights for £50 and he did not share in the wealth that spilled from the novel both in Australia and overseas.
As business moves go, it wasn’t a particularly smart one. He published another novel, Professor Brankel’s Secret (Melbourne, W.M. Baird, 1886), then returned to Britain where his output exceeded the prolific. The rest of his novels were merely Victorian pot-boilers with hardly any mitigating interest. A few, including Madam Midas (London, Hansom Cab Publishing Company and New York, Munro, 1888) and Miss Mephistopheles (London, F.V. White, 1890; New York, Lovell, 1890), had Australian settings. Although ‘The Green-stone God and the Stock broker’ from The Dwarf’s Chamber (London, Ward Lock & Bowden 1896), is set firmly in England, it shows what Hume could do with the detective genre on a good day.
As a rule, the average detective gets twice the credit he deserves. I am not talking of the novelist’s miracle-monger, but of the flesh and blood reality who is liable to err, and who frequently proves such liability. You can take it as certain that a detective who sets down a clean run and no hitch as entirely due to his astucity, is young in years, and still younger in experience. Older men, who have been bamboozled a hundred times by the craft of criminality, recognize the influence of Chance to make or mar. There you have it! Nine times out of ten, Chance does more in clinching a case than all the dexterity and mother-wit of the man in charge. The exception must be engineered by an infallible apostle. Such a one is unknown to me – out of print.
This opinion, based rather on collective experience than on any one episode, can be substantiated by several incontrovertible facts. In this instance, one will suffice. Therefore, I take the Brixton case to illustrate Chance as a factor in human affairs. Had it not been for that Maori fetish – but such rather ends than begins the story. Therefore it were wise to dismiss it for the moment. Yet that piece of green-stone hanged – a person mentioned hereafter.
When Mr and Mrs Paul Vincent set up housekeeping at Ulster Lodge they were regarded as decided acquisitions to Brixton society. She, pretty and musical; he, smart in looks, moderately well off, and an excellent tennis-player. Their progenitors, his father and her mother (both since deceased), had lived a life of undoubted middle-class respectability. The halo thereof still environed their children, who were, in consequence of such inherited grace and their own individualisms, much sought after by genteel Brixtonians. Moreover, this popular couple were devoted to each other, and even after three years of marriage they posed still as lovers. This was as it should be, and by admiring friends and relations the Vincents were regarded as paragons of matrimonial perfection. Vincent was a stockbroker; therefore he passed most of his time in the City.
Judge, then, of the commotion, when pretty Mrs Vincent was discovered in the study, stabbed to the heart. So aimless a crime were scarce imaginable. She had many friends, no known enemies, yet she came to this tragic end. Closer examination revealed that the escritoire had been broken into, and Mr Vincent declared himself the poorer by two hundred pounds. Primarily, therefore, robbery was the sole object, but, by reason of Mrs Vincent’s interference, the thief had been converted into a murderer.
So excellently had the assassin chosen his time, that such choice argued a close acquaintance with the domestic economy of Ulster Lodge. The husband was detained in town till midnight; the servants (cook and housemaid), on leave to attend wedding festivities, were absent till eleven o’clock. Mrs Vincent, therefore, was absolutely alone in the house for six hours, during which period the crime had been committed. The servants discovered the body of their unfortunate mistress and raised the alarm at once. Later on Vincent arrived to find his wife dead, his house in possession of the police, and the two servants in hysterics. For that night nothing could be done, but at dawn a move was made towards elucidating the mystery. At this point I come into the story.
Instructed at nine o’clock to take charge of the case, by ten I was on the spot noting details and collecting evidence. Beyond removal of the body nothing had been disturbed, and the study was in precisely the same condition as when the crime was discovered. I examined carefully the apartment, and afterwards interrogated the cook, the housemaid, and, lastly, the master of the house. The result gave me slight hope of securing the assassin.
The room (a fair-sized one, looking out on to a lawn between house and road) was furnished in cheap bachelor fashion; an old-fashioned desk placed at right angles to the window, a round table reaching nigh the sill, two arm-chairs, three of the ordinary cane-seated kind, and on the mantelpiece an arrangement of pipes, pistols, boxing-gloves, and foils. One of these latter was missing.
A single glimpse showed how terrible a struggle had taken place before the murderer had overpowered his victim. The tablecloth lay disorderly on the floor, two of the lighter chairs were overturned, and the desk, with several drawers open, was hacked about considerably. No key was in the door-lock which faced the escritoire, and the window-snick was fastened securely.
Further search resulted in the following discoveries:
1. A hatchet used for chopping wood (found near the desk).
2. A foil with the button broken off (lying under the table).
3. A green-stone idol (edged under the fender).
The cook (defiantly courageous by reason of brandy) declared that she had left the house at four o’clock on the previous day and had returned close on eleven. The back door (to her surprise) was open. With the housemaid she went to inform her mistress of this fact, and found the body lying midway between door and fireplace. At once she called in the police. Her master and mistress were a most attached couple, and (so far as she knew) they had no enemies.
Similar evidence was obtained from the housemaid with the additional information that the hatchet belonged to the woodshed. The other rooms were undisturbed.
Poor young Vincent was so broken down by the tragedy that he could hardly answer my questions with calmness. Sympathizing with his natural grief, I interrogated him as delicately as was possible, and I am bound to admit that he replied with remarkable promptitude and clearness.
‘What do you know of this unhappy affair?’ I asked when we were alone in the drawingroom. He refused to stay in the study, as was surely natural under the circumstances.
‘Absolutely nothing,’ he replied. ‘I went to the City yesterday at ten in the morning, and, as I had business to do, I wired my wife I would not return till midnight. She was full of health and spirits when I last saw her, but now -’ Incapable of further speech he made a gesture of despair. Then, after a pause, he added, ‘Have you any theory on the subject?’
‘Judging from the wrecked condition of the desk I should say robbery -’
‘Robbery?’ he interrupted, changing color. ‘Yes, that was the motive. I had two hundred pounds locked up in the desk.’
‘In gold or notes?’
‘The latter. Four fifties. Bank of England.’
‘You are sure they are missing?’
‘Yes. The drawer in which they were placed is smashed to pieces.’
‘Did any one know you had placed two hundred pounds therein?’
‘No! Save my wife, and yet – ah!’ he said, breaking off abruptly, ‘that is impossible.’
‘What is impossible?’
‘I will tell you when I hear your theory.’
‘You got that notion out of novels of the shilling sort,’ I answered dryly. ‘Every detective doesn’t theorize on the instant. I haven’t any particular theory that I know of. Whosoever committed this crime must have known your wife was alone in the house and that there was two hundred pounds locked up in that desk. Did you mention these two facts to any one?’
Vincent pulled his moustache in some embarrassment. I guessed by the action that he had been indiscreet.
‘I don’t wish to get an innocent person into trouble,’ he said at length, ‘but I did mention it – to a man called Roy.’
‘For what reason?’
‘It is a bit of a story. I lost two hundred to a friend at cards and drew four fifties to pay him. He went out of town, so I locked up the money in my desk for safety. Last night Roy came to me at the club, much agitated, and asked me to loan him a hundred. Said it meant ruin else. I offered him a cheque, but he wanted cash. I then told him I had left two hundred at home, so at the moment, could not lay my hand on it. He asked if he could not go to Brixton for it, but I said the house was empty, and -’
‘But it wasn’t empty,’ I interrupted.
‘I believed it would be! I knew the servants were going to that wedding, and I thought my wife, instead of spending a lonely evening, would call on some friend.’
‘Well, and after you told Roy that the house was empty?’
‘He went away, looking awfully cut up, and swore he must have the money at any price. But it is quite impossible he could have anything to do with this.’
‘I don’t know. You told him where the money was and that the house was unprotected, as you thought. What was more probable than that he should have come down with the intention of stealing the money? If so, what follows? Entering by the back door, he takes the hatchet from the wood-shed to open the desk. Your wife, hearing a noise, discovers him in the study. In a state of frenzy, he snatches a foil from the mantelpiece and kills her, then decamps with the money. There is your theory, and a mighty bad one – for Roy.’
‘You don’t intend to arrest him?’ asked Vincent quickly.
‘Not on insufficient evidence! If he committed the crime and stole the money it is certain that, sooner or later, he will change the notes. Now, if I had the numbers -’
‘Here are the numbers,’ said Vincent, producing his pocket-book. ‘I always take the numbers of such large notes. But surely,’ he added as I copied them down – ‘surely you don’t think Roy guilty?’
‘I don’t know. I should like to know his movements on that night.’
‘I cannot tell you. He saw me at the Chestnut Club about seven o’clock and left immediately afterwards. I kept my business appointment, went to Alhambra, and then returned home.’
‘Give me Roy ’s address and describe his personal appearance.’
‘He is a medical student, and lodges at No. – Gower Street. Tall, fair-haired – a good-looking young fellow.’
‘And his dress last night?’
‘He wore evening dress concealed by a fawn-coloured overcoat.’
I duly noted these particulars, and I was about to take my leave, when I recollected the green-stone idol. It was so strange an object to find in prosaic Brixton that I could not help thinking it must have come there by accident.
‘By the way, Mr. Vincent,’ said I, producing the monstrosity, ‘is this green-stone god your property?’
‘I never saw it before,’ replied he, taking it in his hand. ‘Is it – ah!’ he added, dropping the idol, ‘there is blood on it!’
‘ ‘Tis the blood of your wife, sir! If it does not belong to you, it does to the murderer. From the position in which this was found I fancy it slipped out of his breast-pocket as he stood over his victim. As you see, it is stained with blood. He must have lost his presence of mind, else he would not have left behind so damning a piece of evidence. This idol, sir, will hang the assassin of Mrs Vincent!’
‘I hope so, but unless you are sure of Roy, do not mar his life by accusing him of this crime.’
‘I certainly should not arrest him without sufficient proof,’ I answered promptly, and so took my departure.
Vincent showed up very well in this preliminary conversation. Much as he desired to punish the criminal, yet he was unwilling to subject Roy to possibly unfounded suspicions. Had I not forced the club episode out of him I doubt whether he would have told it. As it was, the information gave me the necessary clue. Roy alone knew that the notes were in the escritoire, and imagined (owing to the mistake of Vincent) that the house was empty. Determined to have the money at any price (his own words), he intended but robbery, till the unexpected appearance of Mrs Vincent merged the lesser in the greater crime.
My first step was to advise the Bank that four fifty-pound notes, numbered so and so, were stolen, and that the thief or his deputy would probably change them within a reasonable period. I did not say a word about the crime, and kept all special details out of the newspapers; for as the murderer would probably read up the reports so as to shape his course by the action of the police, I judged it wiser that he should know as little as possible. Those minute press notices do more harm than good. They gratify the morbid appetite of the public, and put the criminal on his guard. Thereby the police work in the dark, but he – thanks to the posting up of special reporters – knows the doings of the law, and baffles it accordingly.
The green-stone idol worried me considerably. I wanted to know how it had got into the study of Ulster Lodge. When I knew that, I could nail my man. But there was considerable difficulty to overcome before such knowledge was available. Now a curiosity of this kind is not a common object in this country. A man who owns one must have come from New Zealand or have obtained it from a New Zealand friend. He could not have picked it up in London. If he did, he would not carry it constantly about with him. It was therefore my idea that the murderer had received the idol from a friend on the day of the crime. That friend, to possess such an idol, must have been in communication with New Zealand. The chain of thought is somewhat complicated, but it began with curiosity about the idol, and ended in my looking up the list of steamers going to the Antipodes. Then I carried out a little design which need not be mentioned at this moment. In due time it will fit in with the hanging of Mrs Vincent’s assassin. Meanwhile, I followed up the clue of the banknotes, and left the green-stone idol to evolve its own destiny. Thus I had two strings to my bow.
The crime was committed on the twentieth of June, and on the twenty-third two fifty-pound notes, with numbers corresponding to those stolen, were paid into the Bank of England. I was astonished at the little care exercised by the criminal in concealing his crime, but still more so when I learned that the money had been banked by a very respectable solicitor. Furnished with the address, I called on this gentleman. Mr Maudsley received me politely, and he had no hesitation in telling me how the notes had come into his possession. I did not state my primary reason for the inquiry.
‘I hope there is no trouble about these notes,’ said he when I explained my errand. ‘I have had sufficient already.’
‘Indeed, Mr Maudsley, and in what way?’
For answer he touched the bell, and when it was answered, ‘Ask Mr Ford to step this way,’ he said. Then turning to me, ‘I must reveal what I had hoped to keep secret, but I trust the revelation will remain with yourself.’
‘That is as I may decide after hearing it. I am a detective, Mr Maudsley, and you may be sure, I do not make these inquiries out of idle curiosity.’
Before he could reply, a slender, weak-looking young man, nervously excited, entered the room. This was Mr Ford, and he looked from me to Maudsley with some apprehension.
‘This gentleman,’ said his employer, not unkindly, ‘comes from Scotland Yard about the money you paid me two days ago.’
‘It is all right, I hope?’ stammered Ford, turning red and pale and red again.
‘Where did you get the money?’ I asked, parrying this question.
‘From my sister.’
I started when I heard this answer, and with good reason. My inquiries about Roy had revealed that he was in love with a hospital nurse whose name was Clara Ford. Without doubt she had obtained the notes from Roy after he had stolen them from Ulster Lodge. But why the necessity of the robbery?
‘Why did you get a hundred pounds from your sister?’ I asked Ford.
He did not answer, but looked appealingly at Maudsley. That gentleman interposed.
‘We must make a clean breast of it, Ford,’ he said with a sigh. ‘If you have committed a second crime to conceal the first, I cannot help you. This time matters are not at my discretion.’
‘I have committed no crime,’ said Ford desperately, turning to me. ‘Sir, I may as well admit that I embezzled one hundred pounds from Mr Maudsley to pay a gambling debt. He kindly and most generously consented to overlook the delinquency if I replaced the money. Not having it myself I asked my sister. She, a poor hospital nurse, had not the amount. Yet, as non-payment meant ruin to me, she asked a Mr Julian Roy to help her. He at once agreed to do so, and gave her two fifty-pound notes. She handed them to me, and I gave them to Mr Maudsley who paid them into the bank.’
This, then, was the reason of Roy ’s remark. He did not refer to his own ruin, but to that of Ford. To save this unhappy man, and for love of the sister, he had committed the crime. I did not need to see Clara Ford, but at once made up my mind to arrest Roy. The case was perfectly clear, and I was fully justified in taking this course. Meanwhile I made Maudsley and his clerk promise silence, as I did not wish Roy to be put on his guard by Miss Ford, through her brother.
‘Gentlemen,’ I said, after a few moments’ pause, ‘I cannot at present explain my reasons for asking these questions, as it would take too long and I have no time to lose. Keep silent about this interview till tomorrow, and by that time you shall know all.’
‘Has Ford got into fresh trouble?’ asked Maudsley anxiously.
‘No, but some one else has.’
‘My sister,’ began Ford faintly, when I interrupted him at once.
‘Your sister is all right, Mr Ford. Pray trust in my discretion. No harm shall come to her or to you, if I can help it – but, above all, be silent.’
This they readily promised, and I returned to Scotland Yard, quite satisfied that Roy would get no warning. The evidence was so clear that I could not doubt the guilt of Roy. Else how had he come in possession of the notes? Already there was sufficient proof to hang him, yet I hoped to clinch the certainty by proving his ownership of the green-stone idol. It did not belong to Vincent, or to his dead wife, yet some one must have brought it into the study. Why not Roy, who, to all appearances, had committed the crime, the more so as the image was splashed with the victim’s blood? There was no difficulty in obtaining a warrant, and with this I went off to Gower Street.
Roy loudly protested his innocence. He denied all knowledge of the crime and of the idol. I expected the denial, but I was astonished at the defence he put forth. It was very ingenious, but so manifestly absurd that it did not shake my belief in his guilt. I let him talk himself out – which perhaps was wrong – but he would not be silent, and then I took him off in a cab.
‘I swear I did not commit the crime,’ he said passionately. ‘No one was more astonished than I at the news of Mrs Vincent’s death.’
‘Yet you were at Ulster Lodge on the night in question?’
‘I admit it,’ he replied frankly. ‘Were I guilty I would not do so. But I was there at the request of Vincent.’
‘I must remind you that all you say now will be used in evidence against you.’
‘I don’t care! I must defend myself. I asked Vincent for a hundred pounds, and -’
‘Of course you did, to give to Miss Ford.’
‘How do you know that?’ he asked sharply.
‘From her brother, through Maudsley. He paid the notes supplied by you into the bank. If you wanted to conceal your crime you should not have been so reckless.
‘I have committed no crime,’ retorted Roy fiercely.
‘I obtained the money from Vincent, at the request of Miss Ford, to save her brother from being convicted for embezzlement.’
‘Vincent denies that he gave you the money!’
‘Then he lies. I asked him at the Chestnut Club for one hundred pounds. He had not that much on him, but said that two hundred were in his desk at home. As it was imperative that I should have the money on the night, I asked him to let me go down for it.’
‘And he refused!’
‘He did not. He consented, and gave me a note to Mrs Vincent, instructing her to hand me over a hundred pounds. I went to Brixton, got the money in two fifties, and gave them to Miss Ford. When I left Ulster Lodge, between eight and nine, Mrs Vincent was in perfect health, and quite happy.’
‘An ingenious defence,’ said I doubtfully, ‘but Vincent absolutely denies that he gave you the money.’
Roy stared hard at me to see if I were joking. Evidently the attitude of Vincent puzzled him greatly.
‘That is ridiculous,’ said he quietly. ‘He wrote a note to his wife instructing her to hand me the money.’
‘Where is that note?’
‘I gave it to Mrs Vincent.’
‘It cannot be found,’ I answered. ‘If such a note were in her possession it would now be in mine.’
‘Don’t you believe me?’
‘How can I against the evidence of those notes and the denial of Vincent?’
‘But he surely does not deny that he gave me the money?’
‘He must be mad,’ said Roy in dismay. ‘One of my best friends, and to tell so great a falsehood. Why, if -’
‘You had better be silent,’ I said, weary of this foolish talk. ‘If what you say is true, Vincent will exonerate you from complicity in the crime. If things occurred as you say, there is no sense in his denial.’
This latter remark was made to stop the torrent of his speech. It was not my business to listen to incriminating declarations, or to ingenious defences. All that sort of thing is for judge and jury; therefore I ended the conversation as above, and marched off my prisoner. Whether the birds of the air carry news I do not know, but they must have been busy on this occasion, for next morning every newspaper in London was congratulating me on my clever capture of the supposed murderer. Some detectives would have been gratified by this public laudation – I was not. Roy ’s passionate protestations of innocence made me feel uneasy, and I doubted whether, after all, I had the right man under lock and key. Yet the evidence was strong against him. He admitted having been with Mrs Vincent on the fatal night; he admitted possession of two fifty-pound notes. His only defence was the letter of the stockbroker, and this was missing – if, indeed, it had ever been written.
Vincent was terribly upset by the arrest of Roy. He liked the young man and he had believed in his innocence so far as was possible. But in the face of such strong evidence, he was forced to believe him guilty. Yet he blamed himself severely that he had not lent the money and so averted the catastrophe.
‘I had no idea that the matter was of such moment,’ he said to me, ‘else I would have gone down to Brixton myself and have given him the money. Then his frenzy would have spared my wife and himself a death on the scaffold.’
‘What do you think of his defence?’
‘It is wholly untrue. I did not write a note, nor did I tell him to go to Brixton. Why should I, when I fully believed no one was in the house?’
‘It was a pity you did not go home, Mr Vincent, instead of to the Alhambra.’
‘It was a mistake,’ he assented, ‘but I had no idea Roy would attempt the robbery. Besides, I was under engagement to go to the theatre with my friend Dr Monson.’
‘Do you think that idol belongs to Roy?’
‘I can’t say. I never saw it in his possession. Why?’
‘Because I firmly believe that if Roy had not the idol in his pocket on that fatal night he is innocent. Oh, you look astonished, but the man who murdered your wife owns that idol.’
The morning after this conversation a lady called at Scotland Yard and asked to see me concerning the Brixton case. Fortunately, I was then in the neighbourhood, and, guessing who she was, I afforded her the interview she sought. When all left the room she raised her veil, and I saw before me a noble-looking woman, somewhat resembling Mr Maudsley’s clerk. Yet, by some contradiction of nature, her face was the more virile of the two.
‘You are Miss Ford,’ I said, guessing her identity.
‘I am Clara Ford,’ she answered quietly. ‘I have come to see you about Mr Roy.’
‘I am afraid nothing can be done to save him.’
‘Something must be done,’ she said passionately. ‘We are engaged to be married, and all a woman can do to save her lover I will do. Do you believe him to be guilty?’
‘In the face of such evidence, Miss Ford -’
‘I don’t care what evidence is against him,’ she retorted. ‘He is as innocent of the crime as I am. Do you think that a man fresh from the committal of a crime would place the money won by that crime in the hands of the woman he professes to love? I tell you he is innocent.’
‘Mr Vincent doesn’t think so.’
‘Mr Vincent!’ said Miss Ford, with scornful emphasis.
‘Oh, yes! I quite believe he would think Julian guilty.’
‘Surely not if it were possible to think otherwise! He is, or rather was, a staunch friend to Mr Roy.’
‘So staunch that he tried to break off the match between us. Listen to me, sir. I have told no one before, but I tell you now. Mr Vincent is a villain. He pretended to be the friend of Julian, and yet he dared to make proposals to me – dishonourable proposals, for which I could have struck him. He, a married man, a pretended friend, wished me to leave Julian and fly with him.’
‘Surely you are mistaken, Miss Ford. Mr Vincent was most devoted to his wife.’
‘He did not care at all for his wife,’ she replied steadily. ‘He was in love with me. To save Julian annoyance I did not tell him the insults offered to me by Mr Vincent. Now that Julian is in trouble by an unfortunate mistake Mr Vincent is delighted.’
‘It is impossible. I assure you Vincent is very sorry to -’
‘You do not believe me,’ she said, interrupting. ‘Very well, I shall give you proof of the truth. Come to my brother’s rooms in Bloomsbury. I shall send for Mr Vincent, and if you are concealed you shall hear from his own lips how glad he is that my lover and his wife are removed from the path of his dishonourable passion.’
‘I will come, Miss Ford, but I think you are mistaken in Vincent.’
‘You shall see,’ she replied coldly. Then, with a sudden change of tone, ‘Is there no way of saving Julian? I am sure that he is innocent. Appearances are against him, but it was not he who committed the crime. Is there no way?’
Moved by her earnest appeal, I produced the green-stone idol, and told her all I had done in connection with it. She listened eagerly, and readily grasped at the hope thus held out to her of saving Roy. When in possession of all the facts she considered in silence for some two minutes. At the end of that time she drew down her veil and prepared to take her departure.
‘Come to my brother’s rooms in Alfred Place, near Tottenham Court Road,’ said she, holding out her hand. ‘I promise you that there you shall see Mr Vincent in his true character. Good-bye till Monday at three o’clock.’
From the colour in her face and the bright light in her eye, I guessed that she had some scheme in her head for the saving of Roy. I think myself clever, but after that interview at Alfred Place I declare I am but a fool compared to this woman. She put two and two together, ferreted out unguessed-of evidence, and finally produced the most wonderful result. When she left me at this moment the greenstone idol was in her pocket. With that she hoped to prove the innocence of her lover and the guilt of another person. It was the cleverest thing I ever saw in my life.
The inquest on the body of Mrs Vincent resulted in a verdict of wilful murder against some person or persons unknown. Then she was buried, and all London waited for the trial of Roy. He was brought up charged with the crime, reserved his defence, and in due course he was committed for trial. Meantime I called on Miss Ford at the appointed time, and found her alone.
‘Mr Vincent will be here shortly,’ she said calmly. ‘I see Julian is committed for trial.’
‘And he has reserved his defence.’
‘I shall defend him’ said she with a strange look in her face. ‘I am not afraid for him now. He saved my unhappy brother. I shall save him.’
‘Have you discovered anything?’
‘I have discovered a good deal. Hush! That is Mr Vincent,’ she added, as a cab drew up to the door. ‘Hide yourself behind this curtain and do not appear until I give you the signal.’
Wondering what she was about to do, I concealed myself as directed. The next moment Vincent was in the room, and then ensued one of the strangest of scenes. She received him coldly, and motioned him to a seat. Vincent was nervous, but she might have been of stone, so little emotion did she display.
‘I have sent for you, Mr Vincent,’ she said, ‘to ask for your help in releasing Julian.’
‘How can I help you?’ he answered in amazement – ‘willingly would I do so, but it is out of my power.’
‘I don’t think it is!’
‘I assure you, Clara,’ he began eagerly, when she cut him short.
‘Yes, call me Clara! Say that you love me! Lie, like all men, and yet refuse to do what I wish.’
‘I am not going to help Julian to marry you,’ declared he sullenly. ‘You know that I love you – I love you dearly, I wish to marry you -’
‘Is not that declaration rather soon after the death of your wife?’
‘My wife is gone, poor soul. Let her rest.’
‘Yet you loved her?’
‘I never loved her,’ he said, rising to his feet. ‘I love you! From the first moment I saw you I loved you. My wife is dead! Julian Roy is in prison on a charge of murdering her. With these obstacles removed there is no reason why we should not marry.’
‘If I marry you,’ she said slowly, ‘will you help Julian to refute this charge?’
‘I cannot! The evidence is too strong against him!’
‘You know that he is innocent, Mr Vincent.’
‘I do not! I believe that he murdered my wife.’
‘You believe that he murdered your wife,’ she reiterated, coming a step nearer and holding out the green-stone idol-’do you believe that he dropped this in the study when his hand struck the fatal blow?’
‘I don’t know!’ he said, cooly glancing at the idol. ‘I never saw it before.’
‘Think again, Mr Vincent – think again. Who was it that went to the Alhambra at eight o’clock with Dr Monson and met there the captain of a New Zealand steamer with whom he was acquainted?’
‘It was I,’ said Vincent defiantly, ‘and what of that?’
‘This!’ she said in a loud voice. ‘This captain gave you the green-stone idol at the Alhambra, and you placed it in your breastpocket. Shortly afterwards you followed to Brixton the man whose death you had plotted. You repaired to your house, killed your unhappy wife who received you in all innocence, took the balance of the money, hacked the desk, and then dropped by accident this idol which convicts you of the crime.’
During this speech she advanced step by step towards the wretched man, who, pale and anguished, retreated before her fury. He came right to my hiding-place, and almost fell into my arms. I had heard enough to convince me of his guilt, and the next moment I was struggling with him.
‘It is a lie! a lie!’ he said hoarsely, trying to escape.
‘It is true!’ said I, pinning him down. ‘From my soul I believe you to be guilty.’
During the fight his pocket-book fell on the floor and the papers therein were scattered. Miss Ford picked up one spotted with blood.
‘The proof!’ she said, holding it before us. ‘The proof that Julian spoke the truth. There is the letter written by you which authorized your unhappy wife to give him one hundred pounds.’
Vincent saw that all was against him and gave in without further struggles, like the craven he was.
‘Fate is too strong for me,’ he said, when I snapped the handcuffs on his wrists. ‘I admit the crime. It was for love of you that I did it. I hated my wife who was a drag on me, and I hated Roy who loved you. In one sweep I thought to rid myself of both. His application for that money put the chance into my hand. I went to Brixton, I found that my wife had given the money as directed, and then I killed her with the foil snatched from the wall. I smashed the desk and overturned the chair, to favour the idea of the robbery, and then I left the house. Driving to a higher station than Brixton, I caught a train and was speedily back at the Alhambra. Monson never suspected my absence, thinking I was in a different corner of the house. I had thus an alibi ready. Had it not been for that letter, which I was fool enough to keep, and that infernal idol that dropped out of my pocket, I should have hanged Roy and married you. As it turns out, the idol has betrayed me. And now, sir,’ he added, turning to me, ‘you had better take me to gaol.’
I did so there and then. After the legal formalities were gone through, Julian Roy was released and ultimately married Miss Ford. Vincent was hanged, as well deserved to be, for so cowardly a crime. My reward was the green-stone god, which I keep as a memento of a very curious case. Some weeks later Miss Ford told me the way in which she had laid the trap.
‘When you revealed your suspicions about the idol,’ she said, ‘I was convinced that Vincent had something to do with the crime. You mentioned Dr Monson as having been with him at the Alhambra. He is one of the doctors at the hospital in which I am employed. I asked him about the idol and showed it to him. He remembered it being given to Vincent by the captain of the Kaitangata. The curious look of the thing had impressed itself on his memory. On hearing this I went to the docks and I saw the captain. He recognized the idol and remembered giving it to Vincent. From what you told me I guessed the way in which the plot had been carried out, so I spoke to Vincent as you heard. Most of it was guesswork, and only when I saw that letter was I absolutely sure of his guilt. It was due to the green-stone god.’
So I think, but to Chance also. But for the accident of the idol dropping out of Vincent’s pocket, Roy would have been hanged for a crime of which he was innocent. Therefore do I say that in nine cases out of ten Chance does more to clinch a case than all the dexterity of the man in charge.
Favenc used his wide experience of the outback to colour both his journalism and adventure fiction. While publishing both poetry and non-fiction accounts of his expeditions in Queensland and Western Australia he is best remembered for his fiction.
My Only Murder is a fine example of Favenc’s exemplary style. His prose is only slightly tainted by the Victorian partiality for the turgid. He also managed to write with considerable wit, a rare quality for its time. This story which lampoons the essential differences between the romaticised mateship of the bush and the social constraints of urban society, is without doubt one of the best short crime pieces of the late nineteenth century.
It was simply a choice between killing a man, and outraging all the finer sensibilities of my nature. Had I not done the deed I should have had to appear in another man’s eyes as a coldblooded, selfish ingrate. I swear to you that it was to spare the feelings of both of us that I took upon myself the terrible responsibility of slaying a fellow-creature.
Do I regret the deed? Not at all.
Twelve years ago, I was just coming to the end of my term of partnership in a North Queensland station, and well pleased I was to get out of it, for pastoral property was falling rapidly. My two partners were not so happy over the matter. The rate at which they were buying me out had, under our agreement, been fixed some time previously, and as prices had since steadily fallen, they had to pay me more than the market value. But, then, had stations gone up, as was anticipated by them when the rate was agreed upon, I should have been forced to accept less than the market value, so it was just the fortune of war.
I had to be up on the station by a fixed date, the wet season had arrived, and there was not a day to spare. If I did not attend on the date specified for delivery, it might form a pretext for the other side to repudiate their bad bargain. The rain came down steadily, and I knew that my work was cut out to reach the place in time. Once across the Banderoar river, I was safe, but when I arrived on the bank it was a swim, and fast rising. There was too much at stake to hesitate; crocodiles or not, I must cross. My horse could swim well, I knew, and so could I. It was growing late, so, without more ado, I undressed, strapped my clothes on the saddle, unbuckled the reins, crossed the stirrup-leathers in front, and started.
As soon as old Hielandman (my horse) was out of his depth and swimming straight, I slipped off and swam alongside him. We were nearly two-thirds of the way across when suddenly Hielandman struck against a submerged snag. The shock and the strong current made me foul him, and ere I could get clear he had clipped me on the head with his fore-foot. I don’t remember much about what happened immediately afterwards, only it seemed mighty hard to drown just as I was about to retire with a small competency and get married. Then I felt cold, and oh! so sick, and, after an interval, I found myself ashore with a great singing in my ears and a taste in my mouth as though I had swallowed all the flood-water in North Queensland.
I had been pulled out by one of a party of men camped on the bank I was making for. He had bravely jumped in without waiting to undress, and after being nearly drowned himself, had dragged me ashore. He was standing by the fire wringing out his wet clothes, and, with the glow of new-born life within me, I thought he was the most glorious fellow I had ever seen.
‘By Jove, old man!’ he said to me cheerily, ‘if I had waited to take my trousers off you would have been feeding the crocodiles now.’
I did not doubt it, and I told him how deeply grateful I felt, and how I could never thank him sufficiently. To die just then would have been especially bitter, and I said so.
Hielandman had got free of the snag and swum to land safely. Beyond the lump on my head there was no damage done. My new friends were a party of drovers returning from delivering a mob of cattle. I camped with them that night, and next morning, with a light heart, departed for my destination. Needless to say, I had assured Jenkins, my rescuer, of my undying gratitude, and told him that whenever he desired it, my home should be his home, and my purse his purse. He took it all very nicely, told me that he was sure I would have done the same for him, that he wanted nothing; but to oblige me, if ever he did become ‘stone broke’ he would remember my kind offer.
Twelve years elapsed. The money I had received for my share of I he station had, by judicious investment, turned into a nice little fortune. I was married to a wife exactly suited to me, we had three healthy children, and lived in good style in one of the prettiest suburbs of Sydney. I had often told my wife of the gallant way in which Jenkins, whom I had never since seen, plunged into the flooded river and rescued me, and she as often said that it would crown the happiness of her life to see him and thank him with her own lips.
One day I was accosted in George street by a bearded and sunburnt bushman dressed in unmistakeable slop clothes, who seized me by the hand and ejaculated, ‘But for being told, I should never have known you. You look a different sort of fellow to what you did when I pulled you out of the Banderoar. By love, old man, had I waited to take off my trousers you’d have been a gone coon!’ It was Jenkins, my preserver.
I was delighted to see him and insisted on his coming out to stay with me. He agreed willingly, and I was at last able to present to my wife the saviour of her husband. That she was disappointed, I could see; but, being a good little woman, she did not let the guest observe it. Truth to tell, I somehow shared her sentiments. I had, perhaps, rather over done my description, and had made my wife expect to see something akin to one of Ouida’s heroes. Jenkins certainly did show to better advantage at his own camp fire than in town in his newly-creased reach-me-downs, but we forgave all that, and made him royally welcome. At dinner he was rather awkward, and insisted on telling my wife the story of my rescue twice over, always emphasising the fact that, had he stopped to doff his trousers, I should have been drowned.
From that date there commenced an ordeal which I would not willingly – nay, one which I could not – again endure. When Jenkins gained a little confidence he became argumentative and dictatorial. I am a sociable man, and my house was a favourite with my friends, but Jenkins sat upon them all. He asserted his opinions loudly and emphatically, and when unacquainted with the place or topic under discussion, always had some friend of the past to quote who knew all about it. He held views on the labour troubles which were rank heresy to my circle of pastoral friends, but never did he hesitate to loudly assert them. And yet he was a good fellow, evidently looking upon me as a sort of a creation of his own.
‘Ah!’ he would say, as we stood regarding my pretty house, the sunny, flowering garden, and the children playing on the lawn, ‘we should never have seen this if you had gone to the bottom of the Banderoar. If I had stopped to take off’ -
I felt this, too, and wrung his hand in response. Perhaps that very evening we had a small dinner-party, and when I saw a demure smile steal over everybody’s face, I knew that in the coming silence I should hear Jenkins describing what would have happened had he ‘stopped to pull’ – Then, I could have slain him. We had not a lady friend to whom he had not confided, in a loud voice, that singular instance of his presence of mind in refraining from undressing. Those male friends whom Jenkins had not insulted, I had quarrelled with on account of their frivolity in always asking me if ‘Jenkins had taken his trousers off yet?’
But the worst of it was that the dear fellow really believed that he was affording me the most exquisite happiness in entertaining him. He was convinced that for twelve years I had been pining to pay off my debt, and that now I was enraptured. He was my shadow and reverenced everything belonging to me. How could I break this charm by declaring that I was tired of him? It would have been worse than heartless.
At last my patient wife began to grow short-tempered and restless. She told me plainly once that Jenkins had not pulled her out of the Banderoar, and that she did not see why she should put up with him any longer. I tried to point out that as she and I were one it really amounted to the same thing, but she replied that it certainly did not. We were not married when it happened, and if I had been drowned she would have married somebody else – perhaps someone not oppressed by having barnacled to him a devoted rescuer who was eternally advertising that he had not taken off his trousers.
I felt that a climax neared – and that something must be done to prevent the breaking up of my once happy home. At times I meditated investing a portion of my capital in a small selection somewhere and getting Jenkins to go and look after it for me, but he expressed himself as being contented where he was, and so greatly averse to returning to the bush, that I abandoned the ideas. Now, too, he began to indulge in sheepish flirtations with the maids, and my wife sternly requested me to ‘speak to your friend.’ I attempted to do so, but when I saw his mild, affectionate eyes gazing at me and knew that he was thinking of the time when he struggled beneath the muddy flood waters without taking off his trousers, I broke down. I could not wound his gentle heart.
It came to me suddenly – the inspiration, the solution of the difficulty. Jenkins must die!
Once resolved, I acted. I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t help it, any more than Deeming could help killing his wives, or Mr Neill Cream could help poisoning all those poor girls in London. Jenkins was a friendless bushman; I was a man with responsibilities and a family. Their happiness stood first, and it was kinder to Jenkins to kill him at once than to undeceive him.
I shall not enter into details as to the carrying out of my design. Enough to say that it was perfectly successful. I have no intention of teaching the art of murder made easy. Jenkins died peacefully and painlessly. The doctor said that his constitution had been undermined by exposure and hardship. When he was confined to his bed my wife forgave him everything, and nursed him with unremitting care. I have even seen tears in the poor little woman’s eyes as she murmured that she was afraid we should lose him. Other people came to see him, and he passed away happy in the firm belief that he left behind him a large circle of sorrowing friends.
I buried him in my own ground in Waverley cemetery, and erected a neat stone with a suitable inscription, stating that he had risked his life in preserving me from death.
All my old friends are back again. Everybody has told me what a manly fellow I was, and how they admired my social pluck in not looking coldly upon an old benefactor who did not happen to be quite up to the Government House standard of dress and manners. My conscience is easy.
Ernest William Hornung was born at Marton near Middlesbrough, North Yorkshire, in 1866. He came to Australia in 1884, spending two years as a tutor in the Riverina before returning to England. It was enough time to provide Hornung with the material for several novels. The first, The Bride from the Bush (London, Smith & Elder; New York, United States Book Company) was published in 1890. In 1891 he began writing for a newly established journal, The Strand Magazine, where he became acquainted with Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1893 Hornung married Doyle’s sister, Constance.
Hornung published over a dozen novels and collections of short stories in the 1890s but his greatest fame came with The Amateur Cracksman (London, Methuen) in 1899. Raffles, the gentleman thief, was introduced in this collection of short stories. There was much in common with Sherlock Holmes, not the least of which was a Watson-like associate and chronicler by the name of Bunny.
The well-bred champion cricketer who lapses into crime to supplement his income is now a well-known creation. Though subsequent adventures remained thoroughly English, Raffles’ first adventure on the wrong side of the law occurred in Yea, Victoria and forms the basis for ‘Le Premier Pas’.
Raffles’ fame outlived his creator. Hornung died at St Jean de Luz in the Pyrenees in 1921. Another writer, Barry Perowne, continued the series and did quite a good job of it. Hornung also created an Australian version of Raffles. In his novel Stingaree (London, Chatto & Windus and New York, Scribners, 1905), the main character is a gentleman bushranger with a pure heart, a monocle, a love of Gilbert and Sullivan and a dashing white charger called Barmaid.
‘Le Premier Pas’ is far more than Raffles’ rare brush with antipodean law and order. It is well regarded as one of Hornung’s best stories – or should that be one Bunny Manders?
That night he told me the story of his earliest crime. Not since the fateful morning of the Ides of March, when he had just mentioned it as an unreported incident of a certain cricket tour, had I succeeded in getting a word out of Raffles on the subject. It was not for want of trying. He would shake his head and watch his cigarette smoke thoughtfully; a subtle look in his eyes, half cynical, half wistful, as though the decent honest days that were no more had their merits after all. Raffles would plan a fresh enormity, or glory in the last, with the unmitigated enthusiasm of the artist. It was impossible to imagine one throb or twitter of compunction beneath those frankly egoistic and infectious transports. And yet the ghost of a dead remorse seemed still to visit him with the memory of his first felony, so that I had given the story up long before the night of our return from Milchester. Cricket, however, was in the air, and Raffle’s cricket bag back where he sometimes kept it, in the fender, with the remains of an old Orient label still adhering to the leather. My eyes had been on this label for some time, and I suppose his eyes had been on mine, for all at once he asked me if I still burned to hear that yarn.
‘It’s no use,’ I replied. ‘You won’t spin it. I must imagine it for myself.’
‘How can you?’
‘Oh, I begin to know your methods.’
‘You take it I went with my eyes open, as I do now, eh?’
‘I can’t imagine your doing otherwise.’
‘My dear Bunny, it was the most unpremeditated thing I ever did in my life!’
His chair wheeled back into the books as he sprang up with sudden energy. There was quite an indignant glitter in his eyes.
‘I can’t believe that,’ said I craftily. ‘I can’t pay you such a poor compliment.’
‘Then you must be a fool -’
He broke off, stared hard at me, and in a trice stood smiling in his own despite.
‘Or a better knave than I thought you, Bunny, and by Jove, it’s the knave! Well – I suppose I’m fairly drawn; I give you best, as they say out here. As a matter of fact, I’ve been thinking of the thing myself. Last night’s racket reminds me of it in one or two respects. I tell you what, though, this is an occasion in any case, and I’m going to celebrate it by breaking the one good rule of my life. I’m going to have a second drink!’
The whisky tinkled, the syphon fizzed, and ice plopped home; and seated there in his pyjamas, with the inevitable cigarette, Raffles told me the story that I had given up hoping to hear. The windows were wide open; the sounds of Piccadilly floated in at first. Long before he finished, the last wheels had rattled, the last brawler was removed, we alone broke the quiet of the summer night.
‘… No, they do you very well indeed. You pay for nothing but drinks, so to speak, but I’m afraid mine were of a comprehensive character. I had started in a hole; I ought really to have refused the invitation. Then we all went to the Melbourne Cup, and I had the certain winner that didn’t win, and that’s not the only way you can play the fool in Melbourne. I wasn’t the steady old stager I am now, Bunny. My analysis was a confession in itself. But the others didn’t know how hard up I was, and I swore they shouldn’t. I tried the Jews, but they’re extra fly out there. Then I thought of a kinsman of sorts, a second cousin of my father’s whom none of us knew anything about, except that he was supposed to be in one or other of the Colonies. If he were a rich man, well and good, I would work him. If not there would be no harm done. I tried to get on his tracks, and as luck would have it, I succeeded (or thought I had) at the very moment when I happened to have a few days to myself. I was cut over on the hand just before the big Christmas match, and couldn’t have bowled a ball if they had played me.
‘The surgeon who fixed me up happened to ask me if I was any relation of Raffles of the National Bank, and the pure luck of it almost took my breath away. A relation who was a high official in one of the banks, who would finance me on my mere name – could anything be better? I made up my mind that this Raffles was the man I wanted, and was awfully sold to find next moment that he wasn’t a high official at all. Nor had the doctor so much as met him, but had merely read of him in connection with a small sensation at the suburban branch which my namesake managed. An armed robber had been rather pluckily beaten off with a bullet in him by this Raffles; and the sort of thing was so common out there that this was the first I had heard of it! A suburban branch – my financier had faded into some excellent fellow with a billet to lose if he called his soul his own. Still a manager was a manager, and I said I would soon see whether this was the relative I was looking for, if he would be good enough to give me the name of that branch.
‘I’ll do more,’ says the doctor. ‘I’ll give you the name of the branch he’s been promoted to, for I think I heard they’d moved him up already.’ And the next day he brought me the name of the township of Yea, some fifty miles north of Melbourne; but, with the vagueness which characterised all his information, he was unable to say whether I should find my relative there or not.
‘He’s a single man and his initials are W.F.,’ said the doctor, who was certain enough of the immaterial points. ‘He left his old post several days ago, but it appears he’s not due at the new one till the New Year. No doubt he’ll go before then to take things over and settle in. You might find him up there and you might not. If I were you I should write.’
‘That’ll lose two days,’ said I, ‘and more if he isn’t there,’ for I’d grown quite keen on this up-country manager, and I felt that if I could get at him while the holidays were still on, a little conviviality might help matters considerably.
‘Then,’ said the doctor, ‘I should get a quiet horse and ride. You needn’t use that hand.’
‘Can’t I go by train?’
‘You can and you can’t. You would still have to ride. I suppose you’re a horseman?’
‘Then I should certainly ride all the way. It’s a delightful road, through Whittlesea and over the Plenty Ranges. It’ll give you some idea of the bush, Mr. Raffles, and you’ll see the sources of the water supply of this city, sir. You’ll see where every drop of it comes from, the pure Yan Yean! I wish I had time to ride with you.’
‘But where can I get a horse?’
‘The doctor thought a moment.’
‘I’ve a mare of my own that’s as fat as butter for want of work,’ said he. ‘It would be a charity to me to sit on her back for a hundred miles or so, and then I should know you’d have no temptation to use that hand.’
‘You’re far too good,’ I protested.
‘You’re A.J. Raffles,’ he said.
‘And if ever there was a prettier compliment, or a finer instance of even Colonial hospitality, I can only say, Bunny, that I never heard of either.’
He sipped his whisky, threw away the stump of his cigarette, and lit another before continuing.
‘Well, I managed to write a line to W.F. with my own hand, which, as you will gather, was not very badly wounded. It was simply this third finger that was split and in splints. The next morning the doctor packed me off on a bovine beast that would have done for an ambulance. Half the team came up to see me start the rest were rather sick with me for not stopping to see the match out, as if I could help them to win by watching them. They little knew the game I’d got on myself, but still less did I know the game I was going to play.
‘It was an interesting ride enough, especially after passing the place called Whittlesea, a real wild township on the lower slopes of the ranges, where I recollect having a deadly meal of hot mutton and tea with the thermometer at three figures in the shade. The first thirty miles or so was a good metal road, too good to go half round the world to ride on, but after Whittlesea, it was a mere track over the ranges, a track I often couldn’t see and left entirely to the mare. Now it dipped into a gully and ran through a creek, and all the time the local colour was inches thick, gum trees galore and parrots all colours of the rainbow. In one place a whole forest of gums had been ringbarked and were just as though they had been painted white, without a leaf or a living thing for miles. And the first living thing I did meet was the sort to give you the creeps. It was a riderless horse coming full tilt through the bush, with the saddle twisted round and the stirrup irons ringing. Without thinking, I had a shot at heading him with the doctor’s mare, and blocked him just enough to allow a man who came galloping after to do the rest.
‘Thank ye, mister,’ growled the man, a huge chap in a red checked shirt, with a beard like W.G. Grace, but the very devil of an expression.
‘Been an accident?’ said I, reining up.
‘Yes,’ said he, scowling as though he defied me to ask any more.
‘And a nasty one,’ I said, ‘if that’s blood on the saddle!’
‘Well, Bunny, I may be a blackguard myself, but I don’t think I ever looked at a fellow as that chap looked at me. But I stared him out and forced him to admit that it was blood on the twisted saddle, and after that he became quite tame. He told me exactly what had happened. A mate of his had been dragged under a branch and had his nose smashed, but that was all; had sat tight after it till he dropped from loss of blood. Another mate was with him back in the bush.
‘As I’ve said already, Bunny, I wasn’t the old stager that I am now – in any respect – and we parted good enough friends. He asked me which way I was going, and when I told him, he said I should save seven miles, and get a good hour earlier to Yea, by striking off the track and making for a peak that we could see through the trees, and following a creek that I should see from the peak. Don’t smile, Bunny! I began by saying I was a child in those days. Of course, the short cut was the long way round, and it was nearly dark when that unlucky mare and I saw the single street of Yea.
‘I was looking for the bank when a fellow in a white suit ran down from the verandah.
‘Mr Raffles?’ said he.
‘Mr Raffles!’ said I, laughing, as I shook his hand.
‘I was misdirected.’
‘That all? I’m relieved,’ he said, ‘Do you know what they are saying? There are some brand-new bushrangers on the road between Whittlesea and this – a second Kelly gang! They’d have caught a Tartar in you, eh?’
‘They would in you,’ I retorted, and my tu quoque shut him up and seemed to puzzle him. Yet there was much more sense in it than in his compliment to me, which was absolutely pointless.
‘I’m afraid you’ll find things pretty rough,’ he resumed, when he had unstrapped my valise and handed my reins to his man. ‘It’s lucky you’re a bachelor like myself.’
‘I could not quite see the point of this remark either, since, had I been married, I should hardly have sprung my wife upon him in this free-and-easy fashion. I muttered the conventional sort of thing, and then he said I should find it all right when I settled, as though I had come to graze upon him for weeks! ‘Well,’ thought I, ‘these Colonials do take the cake for hospitality!’ And still marvelling, I let him lead me into the private part of the bank.
‘Dinner will be ready in a quarter of an hour,’ said he, as we entered. ‘I thought you might like a tub first, and you’ll find all ready in the room at the end of the passage. Sing out if there’s anything you want. Your luggage hasn’t turned up yet, by the way, but here’s a letter that came this morning.’
‘Not for me?’
‘Yes, didn’t you expect one?’
‘I certainly did not!’
‘Well, here it is.’
‘And as he lit me to my room, I read my own superscription of the previous day – to W.F. Raffles!
‘Bunny, you’ve had your wind bagged at footer, I daresay. You know what that’s like? All I can say is that my moral wind was bagged by that letter as I hope, old chap, I have never yet bagged yours. I couldn’t speak. I could only stand with my own letter in my hands until he had the good taste to leave me by myself.
‘W.F. Raffles! We had mistaken each other for W.F. Raffles – for the new manager who had not yet arrived! Small wonder we had conversed at cross-purposes. The only wonder was that we had not discovered our mutual mistake. How the other man would have laughed! But I – I could not laugh. By Jove, no, it was no laughing matter for me! I saw the whole thing in a flash, without a tremor, but with the direct depression from my own single point of view. Call it callous if you like, Bunny, but remember that I was in much the same hole as you’ve since been in yourself, and that I had counted on W.F. Raffles even as you counted on A.J. I thought of the man with the W.G. beard – the riderless horse with the bloody saddle – the deliberate misdirection that had put me off the track and out of the way – and now the missing manager and the report of bushrangers at this end. But I simply don’t pretend to have felt any personal pity for a man whom I had never seen. That kind of pity’s usually cant, and besides, all mine was needed for myself.
‘I was in as big a hole as ever. What the devil was I to do? I doubt if I have sufficiently impressed upon you the absolute necessity of my returning to Melbourne in funds. As a matter of fact it was less the necessity than my own determination which I can truthfully describe as absolute.
‘Money I would have – but how – but how? Would this stranger be open to persuasion – if I told him the truth? No, that would set us all scouring the country for the rest of the night. Why should I tell him? Suppose I left him to find out his mistake… would anything be gained? Bunny, I give you my word that I went to dinner without a definite intention in my head or one premeditated lie upon my lips. I might do the decent, natural thing and explain matters without loss of time. On the other hand, there was no hurry, I had not opened the letter, and could always pretend I had not noticed the initials. Meanwhile something might turn up. I could wait a little and see. Tempted I already was, but as yet the temptation was vague, and its very vagueness made me tremble.
‘Bad news, I’m afraid,’ said the manager, when at last I sat down at his table.
‘A mere annoyance,’ I answered – I do assure you – on the spur of the moment and nothing else. But my lie was told; my position was taken; from that moment onward there was no retreat. By implication, without realising what I was doing, I had already declared myself W.F. Raffles. Therefore, W.F. Raffles I would be, in that bank, for that night. And the devil teach me how to use my lie!’
‘Again he raised his glass to his lips – I had forgotten mine. His cigarette case caught the gaslight as he handed it to me. I shook my head without taking my eyes from his.
‘The devil played up,’ continued Raffles, with a laugh.
‘Before I tasted my soup I had decided what to do. I had determined to rob that bank instead of going to bed, and be back in Melbourne for breakfast if the doctor’s mare could do it. I would tell the old fellow that I had missed my way and been bushed for hours, as I easily might have been, and had never got to Yea at all. At Yea, on the other hand, the personation and robbery would ever after be attributed to a member of the gang that had waylaid and murdered the new manager with that very object. You are acquiring some experience in such matters, Bunny. I ask you, was there ever a better get-out? Last night’s was something like it, only never such a certainty. And I saw it from the beginning – saw to the end before I had finished my soup!
‘To increase my chances, the cashier, who also lived in the bank, was away over the holidays, had actually gone down to Melbourne to see us play, and the man who had taken my horse also waited at table, for he and his wife were the only servants and they slept in a separate building. You may depend I ascertained this before we had finished dinner. Indeed, I was by way of asking too many questions (the most oblique and delicate was that which elicited my host’s name, Ewbank), nor was I careful enough to conceal their drift.
‘Do you know,’ said this fellow Ewbank, who was one of the downright sort, ‘if it wasn’t you, I should say you were in a funk of robbers? Have you lost your nerve?’
‘I hope not,’ said I, turning jolly hot. I can tell you ‘but – well, it’s not a pleasant thing to have to put a bullet through a fellow!’
‘No?’ said he coolly. ‘I should enjoy nothing better myself. Besides, yours didn’t go through.’
‘I wish it had!’ I was smart enough to cry.
‘Amen!’ said he.
‘And I emptied my glass. Actually I did not know whether my wounded bank robber was in prison, dead, or at large!
‘But now that I had more than enough of it, Ewbank would come back to the subject. He admitted that the staff was small, but as for himself, he had a loaded revolver under his pillow all night, under the counter all day, and he was only waiting for his chance.
‘Under the counter, eh?’ I was ass enough to say.
‘Yes, so had you!’
‘He was looking at me in surprise, and something told me that to say ‘of course – I had forgotten!’ would have been quite fatal, considering what I was supposed to have done. So I looked down my nose and shook my head.
‘But the papers said you had!’ he cried.
‘Not under the counter,’ said I.
‘But it’s the regulation!’
‘For the moment, Bunny, I felt stumped, though I trust I only looked more superior than before, and I think I justified my look.
‘The regulation!’ I said at length, in the most offensive tone at my command. ‘Yes, the regulation would have us all dead men! My dear sir, do you expect your bank robber to let you reach for your gun in the place where he knows it’s kept? I had mine in my pocket, and I got my chance by retreating from the counter with all visible reluctance.’
‘Ewbank stared at me with open eyes and a five-barred forehead, then came down his fist on the table.
‘By God, that was smart! Still,’ he added, like a man who would not be in the wrong, ‘the papers said the other thing, you know!’
‘Of course,’ I rejoined, ‘because they said what I told them. You wouldn’t have had me advertise the fact that I improved upon the bank’s regulations, would you?’
‘So that cloud rolled over, and by Jove it was a cloud with a golden lining! Not silver – real good Australian gold! For old Ewbank hadn’t quite appreciated me till then. He was a hard nut, a much older man than myself, and I felt pretty sure he thought me young for the place and my supposed feat a fluke. But I never saw a man change his mind more openly. He got out his best brandy, he made me throw away the cigar I was smoking and opened a fresh box. He was a convivial-looking party, with a red moustache, and a very humorous face (not unlike Tom Emmett’s), and from that moment I laid myself out to attack him on his convivial flank. But he wasn’t a Rosenthall, Bunny. He had a treble-seamed, hand-sewn head and could have drunk me under the table ten times over.
‘All right,’ I thought, ‘you may go to bed sober, but you’ll sleep like a timber yard!’ And I threw half he gave me through the open window when he wasn’t looking.
‘But he was a good chap, Ewbank, and don’t you imagine he was at all intemperate. Convivial I called him, and I only wish he had been something more. He did, however, become more and more genial as the evening advanced, and I had not much difficulty in getting him to show me round the bank at what was really an unearthly hour for such a proceeding. It was when he went to fetch the revolver before turning in. I kept him out of his bed another twenty minutes, and I knew every inch of the business premises before I shook hands with Ewbank in my room.
‘You won’t guess what I did with myself for the next hour. I undressed and went to bed. The incessant strain involved in even the most deliberate impersonation is the most wearing thing I know; then how much more so when the impersonation is impromptu! There’s no getting your eye in; the next word may bowl you out. It’s batting in a bad light all through. I haven’t told you of half the tight places I was in during a conversation that ran into hours and became dangerously intimate towards the end. You can imagine them for yourself, and then picture me spread out on my bed, getting my second wind for the big deed of the night.
‘Once more I was in luck, for I had not been lying there long before I heard my dear Ewbank snoring like a harmonium, and the music never ceased for a moment. It was as loud as ever when I crept out and closed my door behind me, as regular as ever when I stopped to listen at his. And I have still to hear the concert that I shall enjoy much more. The good fellow snored me out of the bank, and was still snoring when I again stood and listened under his open window.
‘Why did I leave the bank first? To catch and saddle the mare and tether her in a clump of trees close by: to have the means of escape nice and handy before I went to work. I have often wondered at the instinctive wisdom of the precaution. Unconsciously I was acting on what has been one of my guiding principles ever since. Pains and patience were required. I had to get my saddle without waking the man, and I was not used to catching horses in a horse paddock. Then I distrusted the poor mare, and I went back to the stables for a hatful of oats, which I left with her in the clump, hat and all. There was a dog, too, to reckon with (our very worst enemy, Bunny), but I had been cute enough to make immense friends with him during the evening, and he wagged his tail, not only when I came downstairs, but when I reappeared at the back door.
‘As the soi-disant new manager, I had been able in the most ordinary course to pump poor Ewbank about anything and everything connected with the working of the bank, especially in those twenty last invaluable minutes before turning in. And I had made a very natural point of asking him where he kept, and would recommend me to keep, the keys at night. Of course, I thought he would take them with him to his room, but no such thing. He had a dodge worth two of that. What it was doesn’t much matter, but no outsider would have found those keys in a month of Sundays.
‘I, of course, had them in a few seconds, and in a few more I was in the strongroom itself. I forgot to say that the moon had risen and was letting quite a lot of light into the bank. I had, however, brought a bit of candle with me from my room, and in the strongroom which was down some narrow stairs behind the counter in the banking chamber, I had no hesitation in lighting it. There was no window down there, and though I could no longer hear old Ewbank snoring, I had not the slightest reason to anticipate disturbance from that quarter. I did think of locking myself in while I was at work, but, thank goodness, the iron door had no keyhole on the inside.
‘Well, there was heaps of gold in the safe, but I only took what I needed and could comfortably carry, not much more than a couple of hundred altogether. Not a note would I touch, and my native caution came out also in the way I divided the sovereigns between all my pockets and packed them up so that I shouldn’t be like the old woman of Banbury Cross. Well you think me too cautious still, but I was insanely cautious then. And so it was that, just as I was ready to go, whereas I might have been gone ten minutes, there came a violent knocking at the outer door.
‘Bunny, it was the outer door of the banking chamber! My candle must have been seen! And there I stood, with the grease running hot over my fingers in that brick grave of a strong room!
‘There was only one thing to be done. I must trust to the sound sleeping of Ewbank upstairs, open the door myself, knock the visitor down, or shoot him with the revolver I had been new chum enough to buy before leaving Melbourne, and make a dash for that clump of trees and the doctor’s mare. My mind was made up in an instant, and I was at the top of the strongroom stairs, the knocking still continuing, when a second sound drove me back. It was the sound of bare feet coming along a corridor.
‘My narrow stair was stone I tumbled down it with little noise and had only to push open the iron door, for I had left the keys in the safe. As I did so I heard a handle turn overhead, and thanked my gods that I had shut every single door behind me. You see, old chap, one’s caution doesn’t always let one in!
‘Who’s that knocking?’ said Ewbank, up above.
‘I could not make out the answer, but it sounded to me like the irrelevant supplication of a spent man. What I did hear plainly was the cocking of the bank revolver before the bolts were shot back. Then, a tottering step, a hard, short, shallow breathing, and Ewbank’s voice in horror:
‘Good Lord! What’s happened to you? You’re bleeding like a Pig!’
‘Not now,’ came with a grateful sort of sigh.
‘But you have been! What’s done it?’
‘Down the road?’
‘This and Whittlesea – tied to tree – cock-shots – left me – bleed to death.
‘The weak voice failed, and the bare feet bolted. Now was my time – if the poor devil had fainted. But I could not be sure, and there I crouched down below in the dark at the half-shut iron door, not less spellbound than imprisoned. It was just as well, for Ewbank wasn’t gone a minute.
‘Drink this,’ I heard him say, and, when the other spoke again his voice was stronger.
‘Now I begin to feel alive.’
‘It does me good. You don’t know what it was, all those miles alone, one an hour at the outside! I never thought I should come through. You must let me tell you – in case I don’t!
‘Well, have another sip,’
‘Thank you… I said bushrangers. Of course there are no such things nowadays.’
‘What were they, then?’
‘Bank thieves; the one that had the pot-shots was the very brute I drove out of the bank at Coburg with a bullet in him!’
‘I knew it!’
‘Of course you did, Bunny. So did I down in that strongroom but old Ewbank didn’t, and I thought he was never going to speak again.
‘You’re delirious,’ he says at last. ‘Who in blazes do you think you are?’
‘The new manager.’
‘The new manager’s in bed and asleep upstairs!’
‘When did he arrive?’
‘Call himself Raffles?’
‘Well, I’m damned!’ whispered the real man. ‘I thought it was just revenge, but now I see what it was. My dear sir, the man upstairs is an impostor – if he’s upstairs still! He must be one of the gang. He’s going to rob the bank – if he hasn’t done so already!’
‘If he hasn’t done so already,’ muttered Ewbank after him, ‘if he’s upstairs still! By God, if he is I’m sorry for him!’
‘His tone was quiet enough, but about the nastiest I ever heard. I tell you, Bunny, I was glad I’d brought that revolver. It looked as though it must be mine against his, muzzle to muzzle.’
‘Better have a look down here, first,’ said the new manager.
‘While he gets through his window? No, no, he’s not down here.’
‘It’s easy to have a look.’
‘Bunny, if you ask me what was the most thrilling moment of my infamous career, I say it was that moment. There I stood at the bottom of those narrow stairs; inside the strongroom, with the door a good foot open; and I didn’t know whether it would creak or not. The light was coming nearer – and I didn’t know! I had to chance it. And it didn’t creak a bit; it was far too solid and well-hung; and I couldn’t have banged it if I’d tried, it was too heavy; and it fitted so close that I felt and heard the air squeeze out in my face. Every shred of light went out, except the streak underneath, and it brightened. How I blessed that door!
‘No, he’s not down there,’ I heard, as though through cotton wool. Then the streak went out too, and in a few seconds I ventured to open once more and was in time to hear them creeping to my room.
‘Well, now, there was not a fifth of a second to be lost but I’m proud to say I came up those stairs on my toes and fingers, and out of that bank (they’d gone and left the door open) just as gingerly as though my time had been my own. I didn’t even forget to put on the hat that the doctor’s mare was eating her oats out of, as well as she could with a bit, or it alone would have landed me. I didn’t even gallop away, but just jogged off quietly in the thick dust at the side of the road (though I own my heart was galloping), and thanked my stars the bank was at that end of the township in which I really hadn’t set foot. The very last thing I heard was the two managers raising Cain and the coachman. And now, Bunny -’
He stood up and stretched himself, with a smile that ended in a yawn. The black windows had faded through every shade of indigo. They now framed their opposite neighbours, stark and livid in the dawn, and the gas seemed turned to nothing in the globes.
‘But that’s not all?’ I cried.
‘I’m sorry to say it is,’ said Raffles apologetically.
‘The thing should have ended with an exciting chase, I know, but somehow it didn’t. I suppose they thought I had got no end of a start. Then they had made up their minds that I belonged to the gang which was not so many miles away, and one of them had got as much as he could carry from that gang as it was. But I wasn’t to know all that, and I’m bound to say that there was plenty of excitement left for me. Lord, how I made that poor brute travel when I got among the trees! Though we must have been well over fifty miles from Melbourne, we had done it at a snail’s pace, and those stolen oats had brisked the old girl up to such a pitch that she fairly bolted when she felt her nose turned south. By Jove, it was no joke, in and out among those trees, and under branches with your face in the mane! I told you about the forest of dead gums? It looked perfectly ghostly in the moonlight. And I found it as still as I had left it – so still that I pulled up there, my first halt, and lay with my ear to the ground for two or three minutes. But I heard nothing – not a thing but the mare’s bellows and my own heart. I’m sorry, Bunny, but if ever you write my memoirs, you won’t have any difficulty in working up that chase. Play those dead gum trees for all they’re worth and let the bullets fly like hail. I’ll turn round in my saddle to see Ewbank coming up hell-for-leather in his white suit, and I’ll duly paint it red. Do it in the third person, and they won’t know how it’s going to end.’
‘But I don’t know myself,’ I complained. ‘Did the mare carry you all the way back to Melbourne?’
‘Every rod, pole, or perch! I had her well seen to at our hotel, and returned her to the doctor in the evening. He was tremendously tickled to hear I had been bushed. Next morning he brought me the paper to show me what I had escaped at Yea!’
‘Without suspecting anything?’
‘Ah!’ said Raffles, as he put out the gas. ‘That’s a point on which I’ve never made up my mind. The mare and her colour was a coincidence – luckily she was only a bay – and I fancy the condition of the beast must have told a tale. The doctor’s manner was certainly different. I’m inclined to think he suspected something, though not the right thing. I wasn’t expecting him, and I fear my appearance may have increased his suspicions.’
I asked him why.
‘I used to have rather a heavy moustache,’ said Raffles, ‘but I lost it the day after I lost my innocence.’
Bedford was born at Camperdown, Sydney, in 1868, and a taste for adventure that was never quite fulfilled propelled him across the continent from a very early age. By the late 1880s he had settled into journalism, writing for a number of newspapers and magazines, including The Bulletin.
A continuing interest in mining, both as a promoter and amateur engineer financed his travels. He combined mining and journalism with the creation of the Clarion, a much respected journal that ran from 1897 until 1909. He spent the early years of the twentieth century in Europe, where his first novels, including True Eyes and The Whirlwind (London, Duckworth, 1903), were published.
Bedford produced novels, short stories, plays and articles although his mining endeavours often took precedence. At one time or another, so it was said, Bedford inhabited every mining field in Australia and New Zealand and doubtless turned a profit in each one. In 1923, for example, he was the promoter of a fledgling field at a distant north-west Queensland location known as Mount Isa.
Bedford ’s third career was as a politician. He unsuccessfully campaigned in a number of elections until 1917 when he won a seat in Queensland ’s Legislative Council. In 1934, after assisting in the dismantling of the Upper House, he transferred to the Legislative Assembly, representing the outback seat of Warrego until his death in 1941.
During his lifetime, Bedford was much read and admired although his reputation is now negligible. In 1965 Norman Lindsay, with whom Bedford worked at The Bulletin, commented perhaps rather too cruelly: ‘His novels have long since sunk into that mysterious abyss where all the transient art of a generation goes.’
The Billy Pagan stories, published in 1911, display Bedford ’s descriptive skills and keen eye for detail. The locations vary from Western Australia to Tasmania and northern Queensland as Pagan, a largely autobiographical character who first appeared in True Eyes and the Whirlwind, displays a cerebral approach to crime detection that would do Sherlock Holmes proud.
A willy-willy blowing over Coolgardie filled with dust our camp on the twenty-five mile road. We ate dust, breathed dust, and wore it as our most intimate garment; we wrote in a mixture of organic matter and mud.
‘Twenty-five per cent moisture, twenty-five per cent dust, and fifty per cent dead blowfly,’ said Billy Pagan as he decoded the cable from London.
‘What does it say?’ said I, when he had closed the codebook.
‘It’s from Harmer. There’s a show at English Flag under offer to him, and his option expires in four days. Did you ever hear of a big mine there, Harry?’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘Is it supposed to be big?’
‘Judging by the price, yes. Harmer says it’s under offer to them for fifty thousand pounds, and that other people are ready to take it up when his option expires. He’s had a report on it, and it’s so good he wants me to confirm it.’
‘Whose report was it?’
‘Manning’s. He says it’s a two-ounce show with unlimited quantities of ore proved.’
‘Do you know Manning?’
‘Only by reputation, and that says he’s very straight but not very smart.’
‘And you’ve got to confirm in four days?’
‘Yes. Do you feel inclined for a trip? It’s not a nice day but there’s only fifty miles of it.’
‘I’ll come, certainly.’
‘Right, old man. I’ll get the buggy round.’
Late that night we drove up to the mine – a mile or so beyond the grogshop of galvanized iron roof, salmon gum wallplates and rafters, and hessian sides – having been directed to the track to the mine by the owner of the shanty. A great blow of quartz, a mountain in size and of precipitous steepness, loomed grey and mysterious at our right, but the light of a camp to the left bore us away from the mammoth outcrop. At the sound of buggy wheels the door of the camp opened, and the white rays of a kerosene lamp invaded the darkness, except where it was broken by the figure of a man who appeared in the doorway.
‘All right, Mr Pagan,’ said the man. ‘Jim’ll take care o’ your horses.’
‘H’m,’ said Billy Pagan to me, and I saw that he was not pleased at the meeting, although he replied, ‘Hullo, Swainger. What are you doing here?’
‘Just come along to measure up for the contractor tomorrow, Mr Pagan.’
‘H’m.’ We had alighted and entered the hut when Billy Pagan spoke again. ‘Sinking the shaft on contract, are you?’ he said.
‘Yes, Mr Pagan. Sit down here. I’ve got a bunk ready for you. Didn’t expect your mate.’
‘Never mind troubling about the bunk,’ said Billy Pagan. ‘We’ve got our blankets and I’d rather camp outside.’
There were three men at the rough table – two of the usual type of young Australians, very tall and spare, very silent – their faces wrinkled by blinding suns to the semblance of middle-aged men, whereas they were little more than youths. The third man was short, broad and black-bearded – every hair of him gave the impression of the immense strength of their owner. He received us sullenly, as if we were men he was forced to meet and would be glad to part with. Peculiar glances as of enquiry on one side and of warning in reply passed between this pocket Hercules and Swainger.
‘Have a drink, mates,’ said the Hercules almost commandingly, and although neither of us desired it, we could not be guilty of a refusal – which is a serious infraction of bush law. But after we had drunk the whisky and the hot water, which proved that it had known the condenser only a few minutes before, Billy Pagan said that we were tired and would talk in the morning. Without waiting for a reply, he said ‘Goodnight,’ and led the way out to our buggy, and I followed him.
In silence we spread our blankets near the buggy, filled the last pipe for the night, removed our boots, and turned in. We smoked for a few minutes in silence – a silence broken by the first of the questions that tormented me.
‘Why don’t you like Swainger, Billy?’
‘S-s-sh – not so loud… I don’t know anything against him except indefinite hearsay, but I don’t like him on sight, and I trust to my instinct.’
‘But how can your likings affect this business?’
‘He was in Coolgardie when we left. He was loafing about the post office when I drove down Bailey street… looking as if he were at rest and likely to stay so. Yet he turns up here to receive us.’
‘How could he know where we were going?’
‘A cable from whoever is trying to sell this mine in London, or leakage in the telephone office here.’
‘I see, but -’
A quartz splinter cracked under a heavy boot. I looked in the direction of the sound and saw two figures so indefinite as to appear mere shadows. They had approached from the back of the camp.… now they stood motionless.
Billy Pagan’s whisper came to me, ‘Talk – laugh – so they can go away again.’
I took the cue.
‘Hang this pipe… It’s foul. Got your knife, Billy?’
‘No,’ replied he as loudly. ‘There’s saltbush growing near you – get a twig.’
He continued talking advice as to pipe cleaning while I turned over to pluck the saltbush, and I heard the quartz splinter crepitate as if its broken edges were relieved of weight. I looked up and the two shadows had vanished.
The midnight winds sprang up and ruffled the plain; the night showed fever stars and darker than usual.
‘What’s their game, Billy?’
‘S-s-sh – no more talking tonight… It’s risky.’
There were sounds as of shovels being moved from the ground behind the camp. Then the noise of retreating footsteps.
‘But what are they doing?’
‘They’re going to the shaft. It’s none of our business, though.’
‘What shall we do then?’
‘S-s-sh. When in doubt, keep quiet – go to sleep.’
He rolled over, his face set from the dawn. In a few minutes his deep and regular breathing told me that he had followed his own advice. For myself, I was too excited by the mystery I felt afoot, and by turns dozed and awakened to every sound from the camp, the shaft and the plain.
Morning showed us the great outcrop of quartz that had been grey mystery in the starlight, a white crystalline mountain glaring and eye-wearing in the sun. In the centre it had weathered to fragments that strewed the plain – rising again in towers and pinnacles of whiteness, showing only the infrequent discoloration of millions of years of moss.
‘H’m,’ said Billy Pagan, chipping a boulder as if with his prospecting hammer – hungry as a swamper.’
Swainger interpolated hastily, ‘She’s not all brick quartz like this. She’s better below – and she’ll get richer with depth.’
‘H’m,’ said Billy, as Swainger and the sullen Hercules walked before us to the shaft. ‘Same old lie, Harry – the stone will get richer with depth. Will it? I’ve never known a reef that did – it’s always the other way.’ We reached the shaft, and the engineer, addressing Swainger, said, ‘What’s the depth?’
‘Two hundred and twenty; we’ve opened out and driven at the hundred and the two hundred. I suppose you like to do the sampling alone?’
‘Yes, my friend and myself will go.’
‘Right you are – we’ll lower you then’. As he spoke he looped and knotted the end of the windlass rope as a foothole.
‘No thanks. We’ll go down the ladders. Will you lower the sample bags, Harry, after I’ve got down? There’s a connection between the hundred foot level and the two hundred, isn’t there, Mr Swainger?’
‘Yes, there’s a winze through and ladders in it.’
‘Right. Is your friend here’ – he indicated the sullen Hercules – ‘the leaseholder?’
‘I’m one of ‘em, mister,’ replied Hercules, answering for himself, and truculently, as if he expected opposition and wanted to anticipate it.
Swainger silenced him with a look.
‘And you, Mr Swainger?’ pursued Pagan imperturbably, as if he had neither heard nor seen the truculence nor its correction.
‘I’ve got the option,’ replied Swainger, flushing uneasily.
‘And who has given the option to my people?’
‘He’s in London, I think?’
‘Ye-e-es – he’s in London.’
‘H’m… Lower away when I call, Harry.’
I sat in the hundred foot level, looking at a glistening mass of quartz. Billy Pagan’s candle burned steadily in its spider-socket driven into the soft slate of the reef-enclosing rock. I held my candle in my hand and the tallow guttered to my fingers.
He had spread a long sampling sheet of canvas on the floor of the drive and drove the pick at random into the quartz that stood up well, although it was shattered in all directions.
We had sampled the drive in sections of ten feet, had then roughly quartered each sample, packed it in its bag – numbered for identification – and sealed it.
When he had finished every section of the level Billy walked back into one of the crosscuts and measured the width of the lode.
'She's a beauty for size,' he said. 'Thirty feet if it's an inch… Let's go down the winze… Wait a minute. What about a sample from the floor?'
'But you didn't knock it down. All you knocked down fell on the sapling sheet.'
'Never mind that. We'll see what it's worth.' He scraped away half an inch of the surface and smiled as he saw moisture in the debris below.
‘Who would have expected water? Eh! hold the bag, Harry. That’ll do… Now to No. 2.’
I climbed down the hundred feet of crazy Jacob’s ladder and Billy Pagan lowered the tools and sample bags, threw down the sampling sheet, and followed slowly – holding the candle to the white walls around him, scanning each point and crevice of the rock.
‘Won’t you sample the winze?’
‘Yes,’ he said loudly – and then whispered, ‘S-s-sh, this place carries sound like a railway tunnel… No. It’s not worth the smell of gold to the acre.’
‘But it’s the same stone as in the level.’
‘S-s-sh – what if it is? We’ll sample number two now, and then we’ll get away.’
The reef at the lower level showed the same characteristics as the upper stone, but with fewer of the laminated veinings that had distinguished the reef at shallower depths. He sampled it quickly, and then he took a sample of the floor, which the sampling sheet had hidden, bagged it and sealed the bag, enclosed the samples in two gunny bags and sealed them. We carried them along the drive and to the shaft, and as he prepared to ascend by the ladders he handed me the last half inch of his candle – guttering tallow and sealing wax and nigh extinction.
‘I’ll climb quickly and lower the rope for the samples. Don’t take your eyes off the bags, Harry – not for a moment.’
‘Why – there’s no one here?’
‘There’s always somebody everywhere… keep one eye on each bag. I won’t be long.’
He climbed out of the circle of candlelight and into the half gloom of the shaft.
I looked at the bags as he had bidden, but the eye wearied of them, and I must have been looking at the candleflame for some minutes when I was conscious of the nearness of a man. There is a sensation something approaching horror at the sudden consciousness of the espionage of an enemy; and at the moment I must confess I was at least disagreeably startled.
I turned swiftly, and there, in the entrance to the drive, stood the sullen Hercules – his black beard and piercing eyes more commandingly sinister than usual, his left foot arrested suddenly in the act of taking another step towards me.
‘Hallo!’ said I, astounded at finding him behind me. ‘How did you get here?’
‘Same way as you. Down the ladders to the hundred foot and then down the winze, and along this level.’
‘But in the dark?’ For I saw he had no candle.
‘Yes. I know every stone in this show… You finished sampling pretty slick.’
I did not immediately reply – I felt a new dislike to him. This man who went wandering through a mine and down crazy Jacob’s ladders in the dark and then showed that he wished me to believe that he had taken the risks carelessly, motivelessly and merely to pass the time, was not at all to my taste or understanding.
‘You got through the sampling in quick time,’ he said again.
‘Yes,’ I replied, then, ‘Mr Pagan is a quick worker.’
‘It isn’t fair to a mine to jump through it like that,’ he replied, plainly showing that the rapid sampling had not been anticipated by him and had disarranged his plans.
‘Mr Pagan doesn’t scamp his work,’ I replied with some warmth.
‘More haste – less speed, I think,’ he said doggedly, and then his eye suddenly flamed as he saw the sampling sheet folded up, with all Billy Pagan’s finnicky orderliness, on the bags. I saw the glance, shifted the candle to my left hand, and prepared for war.
‘Under below,’ called the voice of Billy Pagan cheerily, and with feelings of relief I heard the hook on the windlass rope strike metallically against the walls of the shaft. There were two slings on the hook. I slung the two bags of samples, called to the men on top to ‘haul away,’ and as soon as the samples were out of reach took the sampling sheet over my shoulder, put the prospecting hammer in my belt, blew out the candle and started for the surface.
I expected Hercules, maddened by his black and silent rage, to wrench me from the ladder, and I climbed through the half gloom with only one sensation, and that, the instinct to reach the good earth’s surface quickly; but I had no need for fear. Hercules warred in no such open ways. I could hear him muttering curses in the blackness of the drive, but I was on the last ladder before he began to climb.
Billy Pagan stood on guard over the bags. At the mouth of the shaft Swainger, looking furtively depressed and making his anxiety more apparent by affecting an air of good fellowship, deprecated an immediate departure.
‘Give the show a chance, Mr Pagan,’ he said. ‘There’s another reef further over there.’
‘But no work done on it?’
‘Not as much as on this one – just potholes.’
‘Well, I don’t trouble to see them,’ replied Billy Pagan. ‘My instructions were to sample a mine not potholes.’
‘But you’d better wait and drive back in the cool. Your horses are getting a bit of green feed, too.’
Billy Pagan smiled – he knew how much ‘green feed’ there was in that drought-stricken wilderness, and then he suddenly snapped rather than said, ‘Green feed! Much more likely poison plant… Hallo! What’s that fellow doing with my horses?’
I looked in the direction of his gaze and saw one of the over-tall youths stoning Pagan’s two greys. They had halted to browse on the ridge three hundred yards from us, and the lanky youth attempted to drive them on. Another minute and they would have been driven down the ridge and out of our sight in the gullies.
‘Hey, you! Leave those horses alone,’ Billy shouted, and at the sound of his voice the lanky youth dropped behind a boulder and disappeared, and the horses resumed feeding on the scanty salt-bush.
Billy Pagan’s eyes glittered, but he said no word to betray the fact that his suspicions were aroused to their highest pitch.
‘Will you bring my horses back here, Harry,’ he said quietly, and I threw the sampling sheet on the bags. At sight of it Swainger’s eyes were filled with murder.
As I turned to go the sullen face of Hercules appeared at the mouth of the shaft.
When I returned with the horses the group of three at the shaft mouth were waiting in silence; Hercules, with his strong, sullen head bent, relieving his passion by pulling fragments of stout chip with fingers that seemed to be made of steel – so hard and irresistible seemed their grip upon the wood. Swainger, in doubt, glaring at the sampling sheet; Billy Pagan, cool, calmly smiling his superiority in the struggle.
As I came up he said, ‘Will you put the horses in, Harry? The harness is in the buggy’, and as I nodded acquiescence, his tone became stern as he hailed the second lanky youth who hovered round the buggy with an axle-nut wrench.
‘Hey, you! What are you doing?’
‘Goin’ to put a drop o’ neatsfoot in the axleboxes,’ replied the youth sulkily.
‘Well, why don’t you?’ I, who knew him, detected irony in the question – irony that was sure of the weakness of its opponent.
‘Our wrench won’t fit,’ said the youth, even more sulkily than before.
‘Won’t it? Well, there’s a wrench in the box under the seat.’
The youth started towards it.
‘Wait a minute – the box is locked.’
The youth stopped with an oath.
‘Never mind – I’ll oil the axles myself. I like greasy work… Come here, my lad.’
The youth slouched to the mouth of the shaft. ‘Take one of these bags, will you? I’ll take the other.’
‘I’ll carry one,’ said Hercules with a little badly disguised eagerness in his voice.
‘I won’t trouble you,’ said Billy soothingly, as if he were merely careful that Hercules should not overtax his strength. ‘But you may carry the sampling sheet.’
Hercules snatched up the canvas and cursed in a whisper as audible as a stage aside.
The little procession came to the buggy. Billy Pagan stacked the bags in the front of the vehicle, took his seat and put a foot on each bag. I handed him the reins as Swainger came from the camp with a bottle and glasses.
‘No thanks,’ said Billy; ‘I never drink before twelve.’
‘But it’s after twelve now,’ said Swainger.
‘I mean before twelve midnight then.’
Swainger scowled, but affected to laugh off his disappointment.
I fastened the traces to the bars and mounted to the buggy beside the engineer.
He bore upon the reins to feel the mouths of the horses and let them know the journey was beginning. Then he shook hands with Swainger, thanking him for the hospitality of the camp in the usual set terms, and concluded to the lanky youth.
‘Good-bye, sonny – I take the will for the deed in the matter of greasing the axles… Good-b’ – Hallo! Where’s your mate, Mr Swainger?’
Hercules had disappeared.
‘In the camp, I think,’ replied Swainger confusedly.
‘All right… Well, good-bye.’
He put the horses up to the collar as he spoke, and the buggy moved.
‘Good-bye, Mr Pagan… Hey! You’re left the sampling sheet.’
‘Never mind… I’ll give it to you. You’ll find it handy next time.’
If Swainger made reply he never heard it. The beautiful team took us swiftly past the spurs of gleaming quartz into the deep-milled dust of the main track.
‘So the mine’s a fraud, Billy?’
‘Fraud’s no name for it… And those fellows would stick at nothing. That black scoundrel sneaking after us in the dark; the murder in the eyes of both of them when they saw the sampling sheet, and knew that the little game of salting the bottom edges of the drive was no good to them… I knew when I saw the stone it was N.G… They sunk that shaft on the strength of little rich leaders that I could see at the surface had been payable… Then they say, Well, here’s a boom. We’ll be in it. We’ve got any quantity of stone, and we’ll make the quality good enough… I don’t grumble at them doing that… It’s all in the game – their game; and it’s all in my game to crab them if I can.’
‘What are you hot about then?’
‘Because they’ve done things that are not in the game. They’d have thrown us both down that shaft and the samples after us, only they hadn’t quite enough courage for it. If we had shown the least sign of fear we were done. But they couldn’t understand a man having sufficient front to laugh at ‘em. And what clumsy liars! Swainger had come along to measure up the work of the contractors, and there’s no contractors there and not a foot of work has been done for months. They tried to lose our horses, didn’t they? – and that long-necked young thief who was monkeying round with a wrench – trying to kindly grease the wheels and lose an axle-nut or two… They’ve put my back up. We’ve only two days to stop Harmer paying the money to the other thief in London – less than two days, because Australia is nine hours ahead of England.’
‘And where did the black ruffian go to?’
‘Did you see a cloud of dust away to the right – two miles back?’
‘Well, I’ll lay a wager that was Mr Hercules rounding up his horses and galloping them back to the English Flag.’
‘They’ll follow us then?’
‘My colonial oath they will. The game’s just begun, but we’ll win it.’
‘We! What do you get out of it, Billy?’
His face hardened at that, and he replied almost coldly, ‘My fee – and so far as actual inspection goes, it’s the easiest two hundred and fifty I ever earned.’
‘But you’ll get it whether you beat these fellows or not?’
‘Harry,’ said Billy Pagan severely, ‘I’m surprised at you. You’re no sportsman!’
‘Now, Mr Manning,’ said Billy, the night after our arrival in Coolgardie, ‘will you please tell me how you took your samples?’
‘In the usual way,’ replied the older man, but deprecatingly – ‘all along the drive diagonally in six feet sections.’
‘But you didn’t use a sampling sheet. All the stone you broke down fell to the floor and you shovelled it up from there and then quartered it.’
‘Yes, but -’
‘And the result is this. I’ve crushed and panned all my samplings, and I can only get a few grains to the ton. But I took a special sample of the broken stuff along the side of the drive and I got twelve ounces to the ton for one sample and fourteen ounces for the other.’
‘Good heavens! Then I was salted?’
‘I’m ashamed of myself. I am sick of myself. I might have known by the character of the rock, but I don’t trust my eyes, as I’m shortsighted.’
‘It can’t be helped – you got an average of two ounces for all the stone in sight, didn’t you?’
‘Yes – two ounces.’
‘Then we’ve just got time to stop the swindle… Now don’t be downhearted. Nobody could doubt your straightness.’
The old man smiled sadly. ‘But I doubt my own ability now, Mr Pagan.’
‘We must go now… Good-bye. See you later… Off to the telephone office, Harry.’
The terminus of the telegraph line was twenty miles further west, and from Coolgardie telegrams were sent by telephone to the operator at the terminus at Pink Rocks.
Billy Pagan coded a cable that was translatable thus, ‘Refuse to complete. The mine is an absolute swindle.’
We walked to the Post Office feeling very successful and confident, but Billy Pagan stopped at the entrance as Swainger’s figure disappeared within.
‘They’re here, Harry – but they’re later than I thought. And what’s the good of them being here now and cabling?’
We entered. Hercules leaned against the wall of the inner office and glared at us, drunkenly truculent.
Billy rapped at the wooden shutter of the telephone room, and the clerk appeared and demanded our business.
‘I’ve got a cable I want sent right away.’
‘Can’t send it till I’ve got this message through.’
‘And how long will that be?’
‘About two hours.’
‘Two hours! Man, it must go through at once. I’ll pay urgent rates.’
‘It’s an urgent I’ve got on now, and it’s a long message.’
Billy thought a moment and then replied, ‘All right, I’ll come back in two hours. You must arrange to break the long message if it’s not through then.’
The clerk said ‘All right,’ and closed the shutter. The telephone bell rang again – the voice of the transmitter spoke again.
We left the office, Billy leading me into the scrub beyond the office, and then by a detour back to the Post Office, but at its side and not its front.
‘Quiet,’ he whispered. ‘Keep out of the ray of the lamp. Now… crawl behind me.’
We crawled through a little belt of scrub and past the piles of a building – built, as usual, high from the ground on zinc-covered piles to delay the ravages of white ants.
We were under the Post Office.
‘Listen – Harry – what is it?’
We listened and heard this: -
‘In the last summer number of The Clarion we reviewed the Westralian discoveries by sea – ‘Have you got that? eh. … Never mind whether it’s rot or not - this is the message and I’m being paid for it -’ By sea. Inseparably connected with the land discoveries are the travels of John Forrest, Alexander Forrest, Fyre Austin and others whose names we know and of that great and nameless legion of explorers and prospectors and adventurers who have beaten the ways for the little men of the cities in all countries and at all times. And if there is one thing that calls for the adventurous Australian’s gratitude it is - ‘Got that?”
‘Come away quietly,’ whispered Billy, and knowing the uselessness of questioning him I backed out silently after him.
He did not speak until we were well clear of the scrub and near his camp again.
‘What’s the game, Billy? What does it all mean? What is it they are telephoning?
‘You’ll laugh at the idea. That was an article out of the ‘Clarion’. They are probably telephoning the whole paper.’
‘But what for?’
'To hold the line, man. While they pay they hold the wires, and I can't get my cable through.'
'But the cost?'
‘They cut that down by waiting until they saw me leave Manning's house. They're probably only telegraphing it as far as Fremantle, and what's a penny a word to fifty thousand for a shicer?'
'So you're beaten?'
'Not yet – the horses have had a day off. We'll yoke 'em up.'
'Where away now?'
'To the telegraph station at Pink Rocks.'
Can I ever forget the romance of the track that night – the beauty of the bush lying under the starlight without a breath to ruffle it; the smoke of our pipes curling up as incense; the ghostly track lying coiled and mysterious through scrub and forest; the horses enjoying their own rapid motion through the cool air; the only sounds the occasional clicking of shoe on shoe, the straining of the harness and the silky rustling of tyres in the sand.
As we sped through the divinely soft air, he told me my part of the programme.
‘I’ll drop you at twenty miles out, drive the other ten alone, get my cable away and drive back to you.’
‘But if the operator has started on the long message he won’t stop it for the cable.’
‘I won’t ask him to, but as there’ll be a sudden interruption of communication with the place we’ve come from, he’ll take my cable all right.’
I looked at him, and in the half darkness could just see that he was smiling.
‘You mean to cut the telephone wire?’
‘I mean that you shall. It’s half past twelve now – you mustn’t cut it till a quarter past two. I’ll be in the office at Pink Rock then.’
‘I see – that gives you an alibi.’
‘Of course – they’d suspect me at once if I first cut a wire and then drive to the next office to get a cable through.’
‘I see – all right, old man. How do I get up the poles?’
‘There are no poles. Civilisation hasn’t come along yet. The insulators are spiked to trees.’
‘Good. And what do I cut the wire with?’
He pressed a fencing wire cutter into my hand, and we drove on in silence and I dozed.
A touch brought me to consciousness, and I found he had stopped the buggy.
‘There you are, old man. There’s the wire. What’s your time? – five minutes to one! Right. I can do the ten miles by twenty past two, easy. Cut at twenty past. Good luck, old man – I’ll be here again at four thirty, but it will be best for you to walk west, and I’ll meet you sooner.’
‘Good-bye, Billy, and good luck.’
We clasped hands. I lit my pipe and settled down to waiting – the buggy disappeared in the long perspectives of the aisles of salmon gum.
‘Can’t do it – I’ve got a long message,’ said the operator.
‘All right, I’ll wait,’ replied Billy Pagan, with one eye on his sweating but still strong team at the door, and the other on the telephone.
‘It won’t be much good waiting unless you’ve brought your blankets,’ said the operator, laughing. ‘Some crank up on the field has taken a ninety-nine years lease of this ‘phone. He’s sent half The Clarion up to now – all except the illustrations – and I suppose when he’s through with that he’ll start on Johnston ’s Dictionary and poor Doctor. Watt’s hymns. Sorry to keep you, but I can’t help it.’
‘I know,’ replied Billy. ‘It’s not your fault. Fire away. Give that lunatic asylum at the other end another chance.’
‘All right – you take it easily, anyhow – Hello! Are you there? Yes. Go on. What’s my last? ‘Repeat’ did you say? All right? Here you are – ‘Governor Denison writing to H. Labouchere of the Colonial Office, respecting the formation of the first New South Wales Ministry, said’ -
‘Can you hear that?… Can you hear that? Hello! – Shake your battery… Oh, damn!’
Billy Pagan looked at his watch. It was fifteen minutes past two.
At that moment I had climbed the tree and cut the wire.
In the early dawn I met him driving gaily through the dewy bush, and he stopped the buggy to pick me up, and laughed. And when he had me in the buggy he laughed again, as at an excellent joke, and called me his good mate and his blood brother and many other pleasant things.
‘Swainger will be on our track when they know of the broken wire. I’m game to bet that he’s been admiring through my window a dummy in the bed, supposing it to be me.’
The wire must have been repaired the next day, for twenty-four hours after we reached Coolgardie came a cable for Billy Pagan and its decodation said this:
‘Many thanks. We were on the point of paying. Please make complete examination Jindabine mines and cable report.
Vincent Gatton Kelly was born on 26 December 1898. Formerly an editor with Smith’s Weekly in Melbourne, he came to Sydney where he worked for The Sun newspaper and became something of a legend among the city’s journalists.
In a professional sense, he was far better known as a political commentator than as a writer of fiction. On his death in April 1976, many of the state’s top politicians and civil servants, including the Premier, Sir Robert Askin, and a former Commissioner of Police, Norman Allan, publicly voiced their regrets while a special contingent of police escorted the funeral cortege.
Kelly is well known as the author of 15 books, many dealing with crime cases or famous police. These include The Shadow: The Amazing Exploits of Frank Fahy (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1954), The Bogeyman: The Exploits of Sergeant C.J. Chuck, Australia’s Most Unpopular Cop (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1956), Rugged Angel: the Amazing Career of Policewoman Lillian Armfield (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1961) and The Shark Arm Case (Sydney, Horwitz, 1963). He also edited a history of Woollahra Municipality and wrote a biography of the Governor-General, Sir William McKell.
Kelly’s fictional works are less well known. The Mail newspaper group in Adelaide published a number of cheap paperback titles, including All Sorts (1944). In 1943 the company released The Last Minute Clue, the hero of which, Inspector Price, returned the following year in The Sinister Street. The latter work, from which ‘The Passing of Pansy’ is taken, was a collection of stories with a common theme – the life and crimes of Hutchinson Alley, a run-down, crime ridden part of the big city.
Kelly displays considerable talent as a writer of fiction and many of his characters could well be drawn from life. Detective-Inspector William Price has the feel of the Australian career cop of the period, and his young partner is suitably wet behind the ears.
In 1958 Angus and Robertson published The Greedy Ones, another thriller with police as the central characters. Here Kelly utilises a crooked cop, Detective Porkreth, and a noble hero, Inspector Rogerson, as the protagonist. The Greedy Ones reads well after 30 years and it seems a shame that Kelly didn’t continue to write fiction.
Kelly worked with the New South Wales Department of Communications following his retirement from The Sun, although he was chief book reviewer with the newspaper until his death.
‘The Passing of Pansy’ best illustrates the diverse character of Kelly’s fictional output. The leading characters are sympathetic and well drawn and to some degree predate the English police detective exemplified by John Creasey’s Commander Gideon.
Old Pansy was a pathetic challenge to the disillusioned and patient social workers of other districts before she gravitated to Hutchinson Alley, after which they gave her up in despair.
Her blouse and skirt were ragged, and it would have seemed tidier had she worn no stockings at all rather than the remnants which revealed extensive areas of flesh where her legs vanished into the overrun and dirty shoes.
The aged derelict had lost all association with any other name than that by which she was known in Hutchinson Alley, that most unsavory street in the sinister and frowsy suburb where she did her drinking and managed to live, somehow or other.
On this late afternoon she was more drunk than usual, which as Hutchinson Alley would have admitted, was saying plenty.
When she tottered out of the hotel and swayed, blinking foolishly while she gathered her sense of direction, even her over tolerant acquaintances murmured that ‘old Pansy had a load on.’
They encouraged her with: ‘Goodnight, Pansy.’ ‘Whoops, Pansy, hold your chin up and don’t spill any.’
But the old woman was too sodden in drink to return their greetings. With eyes glazed, and retaining her equilibrium by some amazing instinct of the sozzled brain, she lurched tipsily away into the gathering shadows of the brownout.
She swayed perilously close to falling before she at last commenced her journey down the narrow alley which led to the room she called home.
In the minute or two before the group on the street corner forgot her, they speculated idly whether old Pansy would reach the squalid dwelling in which she had a room.
Most of them thought not.
But they were wrong! This was proved later when her dead body was found next morning.
It was Pokey Joe Malone who made the discovery. Pokey Joe had a marine dealer’s licence, but was more commonly known as a bottle-o.
It was only by chance that Detective-Inspector Price and Detective Richardson happened along just then and saw a uniformed policeman hurry to the hovel on the heels of an excited and grubby little boy whom Pokey Joe had despatched for help.
Detective-Inspector Price was sardonically amused to observe the rather strained look on the face of the uniformed man. The constable did not look happy. The uniformed police officers had taken a lot of beatings in Hutchinson Alley, and it was only natural that none of them liked entering it singly.
The C.I.B. chief and Richardson crossed the road just as Pokey Joe was explaining, ‘I only just poked me nose in to see if old Pansy might ‘ave an empty or two.’
There was a whine in the voice of Pokey Joe, a voice which was singularly harsh and unattractive from over much raucous yelling of his trade slogan connected with the purchase of ‘Empt EEEE bo’l’s!’.
Like all other residents of Hutchinson Alley, Pokey Joe disliked being associated with police inquiries. But he had sufficient cunning not to involve himself more deeply by concealing his discovery of the corpse. His eyes glanced from one to the other like those of a stray dog expecting a kick.
‘And that’s all I know about it, s’welp me Gawd, Mr Price,’ he whined.
The officers looked at the body of the old woman as it lay on the sorry palliase of rags in the corner. There was a dignity about her face in death which it had not worn in life within their memory.
‘Lived here like an animal, sir,’ said the young uniformed man gazing about him in disgust.
He was relieved to find that he had official company so quickly, and relieved also to think that if there should be anything criminal associated with the death of the old derelict. The chief of the C.I.B. was here in person to assume responsibility for investigations.
Detective Richardson also wrinkled his nose. ‘Her heart gave out, or she took an overdose of metho’, he said tersely.
‘Maybe, but it looks to me as though she had some sort of seizure,’ said Inspector Price. ‘She’s doubled up as though she was in some pain when she passed out, and her knuckles on her right hand are barked.’
‘Probably where she fell over when reeling home three sheets in the wind last night,’ suggested Richardson.
‘Maybe,’ said Price again.
He was looking reflectively at the dusty surface of the oilcloth covering the packing case which served the old woman as a combination dining table and cupboard. Near the centre was a stained ring, where a glass or a bottle had stood.
Price bent down and examined the makeshift table closely. Then he peered into the interior at the pitiful collection of such pantry commodities as the old woman had possessed.
He straightened up with a grunt and wandered round the untidy room, peering about him with a thoroughness which inwardly amused Richardson and openly impressed the uniformed man. Richardson was beginning to feel bored and unhappy.
‘Seems to be a simple enough case for the coroner here, sir,’ he suggested. ‘Just a case of her heart conking out after too much cheap plonk.’
‘Yes, that’ll be it sure enough,’ agreed the constable. ‘Old Pansy was a whale for the grog and there’s no reason why anyone should do her in.’
‘Yet I think it was murder.’
The two young men were startled by Price’s quiet statement.
‘MURDER!’ gasped the uniformed constable.
‘Who would want to murder this poor old derelict?’ demanded Richardson.
‘In our records you’ll find quite a number of cases where old women, just as unlovely and bedraggled as Pansy, were murdered,’ said Price slowly. ‘The first question young detectives always asked was who could be bothered murdering such frowsy old waifs, and why.’
Richardson looked a bit shamefaced. Off hand, he could recall several similar cases which had caused the C.I.B. infinite trouble before it was able to put the murderers in the dock.
‘Better telephone to the C.I.B. and get the Science Section men here at once,’ Price told him. ‘I want every bit of this room investigated before the body is examined and taken away.’
Richardson hastened down the street to the nearest telephone. In his own mind he was quite satisfied that Inspector Price was over-dramatising a case of what, at the worst, could only be alcoholic poisoning.
He returned from telephoning, and a few minutes later, was watching the fingerprint men and the police photographer at work.
He looked in vain for indications of a struggle. There was no sign, as far as he could see, that a murderer had either violently or subtly brought death to this old woman whose dignity of features was now in curious contrast to her rags.
In spite of this, he noted that the Science Section men were going over every inch of the room with a thoroughness that pleased Inspector Price as much as it irked the young detective to witness such waste of time.
Price left them at it while he interviewed the other dwellers in the ramshackle dwelling. Most of them he knew, and with his old-fashioned hat stuck carelessly on the back of his head, he questioned them with a camaraderie which surprised Richardson. The interrogation of a bleary old hag in a front room was typical.
‘Hello, Maggie, you’re looking more beautiful than ever. Now you know that you have lost your good friend and neighbor, old Pansy, you might tell us if she had any callers last night.’
The blowsy old crone leered in a manner which Richardson found most objectionable.
‘Now, Mr Price, you know – well, that Pansy and me was past having visitors. The only man that ever called on us was that hook-nosed so-and-so squirt sent by the landlord. Who the hell else would call on Pansy?’
She leered again, and it made Detective Richardson feel unclean merely to behold it. Immorality and debauchery had carved their repulsive tracery deeply into the face of the old woman.
The sensitive and impressionable imagination of the young detective sought to picture her as a young woman, and failed abjectly. Snaggled-toothed and brazenly vile, she winked at Price.
‘This young feller here is too high and mighty, Inspector. He wouldn’t believe that Pansy and me was as fine a pair as you could see, when we was young ‘uns. But we was, you take it from me.’
Inspector Price did not reveal his quickened interest as he said casually, ‘So you knew Pansy when she was young eh, Maggie?’
The hag shrugged. To his disappointment, she added:
‘Hell, no, of course I didn’t. Never seen her in me life before she came to Hutchinson Alley, but you could tell she was a good looker when she was young. At least, they could as ain’t too superior,’ she went on with a sharp and disapproving glance at Detective Richardson.
Inspector Price was very patient. He chattered on and on with one after another as though he had all day to spare and could think of no better way of spending his time than exchanging pleasantries with residents of Hutchinson Alley. His patience got him nowhere.
No one could remember any stranger calling. More than a dozen could testify that old Pansy had reached her abode about 6.30 the previous evening, a bit drunker than usual, but no different otherwise.
Richardson was peeved as well as bored by the time Price had concluded his inquiries in the vicinity. Yet when they returned to the C.I.B. after lunch, Richardson received a shock.
On Price’s desk was a report from the police medical officer which stated that the woman known as Pansy Morton had died of poisoning by cyanide.
Price peered at Richardson quizzically as the young detective handed back the report with a ‘Well, I’m jiggered! Who would want to murder old Pansy?’
He flushed as the inanity of his remark was driven home to him by Price’s terse reply. ‘Exactly! Who? That’s the job ahead of us.’
He sat back in his chair and contemplated the elastic-sided boots which were known throughout the force as ‘old Price’s laughing-sides,’ as though from their highly polished and comfortable appearance he would derive inspiration.
Richardson, very subdued and crestfallen, was staring humbly at his chief. It was really surprising, he confessed to himself, how difficult it was to keep in mind the undoubted shrewdness and ability of old Price, in spite of the innumerable occasions when the old man had proved capacity almost to the point of genius.
‘Tell me, sir, if you don’t mind,’ he said. ‘Why were you so sure that it was a case of murder as soon as we went in?’
‘I wasn’t sure at all,’ replied Price. ‘Better to say that I was sort of very, very doubtful.’
‘But why? What was the obvious clue to foul play that I missed?’
‘It was on the oilcloth which old Pansy used to cover the box that served as a table and pantry. There was the impression of a glass or a bottle – in my opinion a glass.’
‘I saw that,’ said Richardson. ‘I hope I don’t seem to be too dumb, but I can’t see where that furnished the direct clue to murder.’
‘You don’t eh? Well, the impression of that glass was still moist.’
‘Yes, I noticed that. So what?’
‘Yet there was no glass or bottle in the room which could have made it. Someone took that glass away. Who was it?’
Richardson stared at his chief more subdued and crestfallen than ever. He paid sincere tribute to Inspector Price’s alertness.
It looks as though we have to find out the answer to your question, why would anyone murder old Pansy, before we can find out who murdered her,’ went on Price.
‘I’m afraid that’s not going to be very easy,’ said Richardson dolesfully. ‘All I can hope, sir, is that your foresight in having the Science Section on the job before anything was disturbed will produce something to help us.’
‘So do I,’ said Price grimly.
A little later they found that the only assistance the Science Section could offer them was several sets of unidentifiable fingerprints.
‘Those of the left hand were taken just here on the floor,’ explained Sergeant Jarman. ‘You will see from the plan that they were near to the old cushion Pansy used for a pillow. And just here we got a full impression of the right hand. There are a couple of smudged prints from the oilcloth, but they had been rubbed over. They might have been anybody’s, but these are clear enough and they don’t belong to you, or Richardson, or Bailey, the uniformed man.’
‘And it’s too much to hope that they belong to somebody we know, of course, Sergeant?’ asked Price.
Jarman nodded. ‘Sorry, Inspector. That does happen to be the case, worse luck for you.’
Price stared at the photographs. ‘It’s plain enough, I think,’ he said, ‘that the prints of the right hand were made when he rested his weight on it to lift up her head while he gave her the drink of poison. The left hand prints would be from resting his weight on that hand while he put down the glass on the box she used for a table.’
‘Yes, that’s the way we reconstructed it,’ agreed the sergeant. ‘There was nothing in the room which could have left an impression identical with that left by the glass on the oilcloth. There was evidence of cyanide in that smear, but the glass itself was gone. It proves it’s a clear case of murder all right. Now, I wonder who would want to murder old Pansy, and why?’
Sergeant Jarman left the room happily aware that this knotty problem was not his pigeon, and pleasantly unconscious of the indignant glare his final remark evoked from Richardson.
‘Well, now we’ve got to face up to it, I suppose,’ said Richardson gloomily. ‘Nothing else to help us, I suppose?’
‘Only one thing which seems a bit out of the ordinary,’ replied Price. ‘At the morgue they found that in spite of old Pansy’s dirty outside rags, her underclothes were of much better quality and her body was amazingly clean. Can we make anything out of that?’
If something could be made out of it, it would not be by Richardson, and he admitted as much.
He was relieved when Price suggested that he start at once questioning everybody who lived in the immediate neighborhood of the murdered woman, and devote himself entirely to getting on the track of the man who had entered her room the previous night.
‘Well, that’s something definite to track up, anyhow,’ he said, and was pleased when Price added, ‘And it’s most important that you find someone who saw him. When we find out who he was, we shall need that identification as well.’
As Detective Richardson departed he was amazed at Inspector Price’s cheerfulness, and thought Price would not be so jaunty when their investigations had failed to locate the mysterious visitor to a frowsy old nobody who bade fair to furnish an insoluble problem for the C.I.B.
Richardson had not yet absorbed Inspector Price’s confidence in the belief, based on records, that the great majority of crimes are solved in due course.
That evening and the whole of the next day Richardson devoted to questioning people in Hutchinson Alley where old Pansy had been found dead.
They told him that they ‘would never have known old Pansy from her picture in the papers. It made her look like a bloomin’ toff, and no error.’ Richardson thought so, too, and wondered why Price had had the photo so much touched up.
To describe the photograph as ‘touched up’ was to put it mildly. Under Inspector Price’s instructions, an artist had made an entirely new picture out of the photograph of old Pansy, while, at the same time, contriving to leave a resemblance which seemed grotesque to the young detective.
It was as though old Pansy had had a twin sister, one who had closely resembled her in features while differing from her in habits. He found it impossible to believe that old Pansy could have looked like this, even if she had never taken to drink and the other weaknesses which had made her face a tragic caricature of the picture reproduced under the deft brush of the artist working under Inspector Price’s careful instructions.
To the young detective, it seemed a foolish bit of business on Inspector Price’s part. What could be the value to police detection of pandering in this way to a drunken old flibberty-gibbet – and a dead one, at that?
If she had been alive, Price’s motive would have been understandable, for the young detective was well aware of an aptitude of Inspector Price for indulging in flattery, and the flattery did not always have to be subtle.
Richardson banished this aspect of the matter from his mind, writing it down as just one more of Price’s whimsicalities, and devoted himself assiduously to the more practical side.
Early in his inquiries he had been exhilarated on learning from several of them that a man had been seen to enter the dwelling and had also been seen to leave again within a few minutes.
This information whetted his interest and he devoted his whole attention to the task of building up a clear impression of this individual, who undoubtedly was the murderer.
But persist as he would, he could get no detailed description of the visitor. All agreed that he was a man about 5 ft 10 ins. and walked with a slight limp.
‘All I have to do now is go round and find the right one out of about 5,000 men who walk with a slight limp in the left leg,’ said Richardson sourly as he returned to the C.I.B. to report.
But Inspector Price appeared pleased with the results, scantry though they were.
‘Good work, my boy. You’ve been very patient and thorough, and that’s the only way to solve a difficult police case,’ he commended. ‘Now you can come along with me and I think we might take the investigation a step further. It will please you to have a drink with an up-and-coming public man who intends getting into Parliament at the next elections.’
In the police car they called at the large and comfortable hotel in Camperdown. In a few minutes they were seated in the proprietor’s private office, just off the saloon bar.
‘I think you know Richardson, Mr Dalton.’
Mr Dalton was a very handsome man. He was also well groomed, and his voice was exceedingly pleasant.
Richardson liked him at once. Seated in his office, the proprietor shook hands affably with the detectives and discussed a burglary which had occurred, so Price said, in the neighborhood the previous night.
But Mr Dalton was unable to help them, as he had noticed no strangers of the type to excite suspicion within the past few days. Price insisted on taking out the tray himself for the second round of drinks, after which the C.I.B. men departed.
‘Dafton’s a nice chap, even if he couldn’t help us,’ said Richardson.
‘I hope he doesn’t miss his whisky glass I pinched,’ replied Price. ‘It’s a very serious offence to steal glasses from hotels, and there’s been a lot of it going on lately. I feel like a criminal.’
Inspector Price did not appear contrite. In fact, there was an undeniable smirk on his face.
While Richardson stared, he gently withdrew from his coat pocket a whisky glass which was held carefully between two fingers distended within the glass itself.
‘His fingerprints will be plain on the outside of it, you see,’ said Price. ‘I hope they’ll tell us something.’
‘But where the devil does the publican come into it?’
‘Maybe you’ll be surprised – and maybe I will,’ detorted Price. ‘Anyhow, we’ll soon find out.’
Within a couple of minutes after their return, Jarman was able to assure them that Dalton ’s fingerprints were identical with those on the floor. ‘You’ve got your man,’ he said.
Richardson was nonplussed. ‘How the devil did you get a lead up to him?’ he asked in amazement.
‘It wasn’t so difficult,’ said Price. ‘The newspapers really did the job for me.’
He gestured to the ‘doctored’ photographs of the dead woman which were scattered about the desk.
‘You probably wondered why I used such a flattering photo of old Pansy, but I wanted to know who she was before she became nobody except old Pansy. The letters there are from people who knew her years ago. They all thought she was dead, but all of them could remember her as a Mrs Emily Dalton, who had a son named James Arthur Dalton. In other words the man we just left. Quite simple after all, wasn’t it?’
‘But why would he poison his own mother? That’s what we’ve got to prove, isn’t it?’
‘These letters describe Emily Dalton as a woman who became an habitual drunkard years ago, and who was in and out of inebriates’ homes until they finally lost track of her,’ said Price. ‘As we know, she became old Pansy, and I think we’ll find that Dalton, who was steadily rising in the world, was plagued by the nightmare of people finding out her relationship to him. It would be damning to a cove with his social and political ambitions.’
‘What a swine!’
‘Oh – well – I don’t know,’ said Inspector Price slowly. ‘Human nature is unpredictable, and perhaps he thought she would be better dead.’
‘Good heavens, sir! You’re not defending a murderer, are you? And a murderer who put away his own mother?’
‘This is a hard, hard world, my boy. If you’ll read through those letters, you’ll find that James Arthur Dalton has always been a model son, even in circumstances which must have been always exasperating and very often frightfully humiliating. The letters point out that he looked after his mother devotedly, giving up everything for her sake.’
‘That puts a different complexion on it, of course, but it can’t make much difference to the jury, for all that.’
‘That’s so. It’ll be almost impossible for the jury not to see the crime in its worst light. To them it will be a case of a coldblooded poisoner killing his own mother.’
‘What else could he expect?’
‘That’s so,’ agreed Inspector Price again. ‘They can hardly be expected to be interested in pictures of a younger James Arthur Dalton almost carrying his mother from hotel bars and wine saloons. Some of the people who wrote these letters, though, thought it very pathetic. They refer to the patience and devotion and loyalty of young Jimmy to his mother. It seems to me that the scales of justice in this case are off the balance, that it’s old Pansy who should be in the dock for ruining the life of her son.’
‘Her influence certainly warped it.’
‘Warped it is the word. Did you know that he got his limp when he was hurt a dozen years ago while rescuing her from the bedroom she had set on fire while boozed? Ironical, isn’t it? And I can’t help feeling sorry for him, but I don’t know that the Crown Prosecutor won’t let him down as lightly as possible seeing that she was so full of booze that she must have died painlessly.’
‘It seems a hell of a pity,’ said Detective Richardson, whose sympathies had now swung completely to the pleasant-mannered hotelkeeper. ‘He was such a smart and capable type of fellow. I’m sure he would have gone a long way.’
Inspector Price’s telephone interrupted them. Price listened carefully, and laid the receiver back in its cradle thoughtfully.
‘You’re very right about Dalton being smart, my boy,’ he said. ‘He was smarter even than I thought. He must have been suspicious about our visit. He rang the local police station after we left, and asked if there had been a burglary, which was our excuse for going out. The local sergeant told him that there had not been one, which was only natural of course.’
‘He’s smart all right,’ said Richardson. ‘Fancy bowling us out like that! I’ll bet he’s even missed the glass you took!’
‘I never bet when I think I’m going to lose,’ returned Inspector Price. ‘I feel quite sure that he’s missed the glass, and I feel quite sure, too, now, that there’ll be no case for the jury.’
‘You mean – you mean – that he -!’
‘That’s just what I do mean, my boy. You heard me tell the sergeant to go round to the hotel. Well, that’s why I wanted him to go, but I think he’ll be too late.’
They gazed at each other in silence until the telephone bell again buzzed sharply. Inspector Price picked up the receiver. His conversation was short.
As he replaced the receiver, he said. ‘Yes, Dalton was smart. He knew we were on his wheel, and he took the same fatal medicine as he dished out to old Pansy. He even left a brief confession, which tidies up the whole business very nicely. Poor devil. As I said before, I can’t help feeling sorry for him.’
Max Afford was Australia ’s most prolific radio dramatist. Before television, there was radio and it took a man of Afford’s skill and professionalism to turn out as many hours of entertainment as he did right up until his death in 1954. Born in Parkside, Adelaide, in 1906, Afford was a journalist before turning to radio serials and stage plays.
From 1932 until his death, Afford wrote many of the most popular serials of the time including Digger Hale’s Daughter, Hagen ’s Circus, and Danger Limited. It was said that in the 1930s Afford was one of the few people to make a living from writing drama. His radio success spilled over onto stage. He created Australian theatrical history by having two plays presented professionally – Lady in Danger in May 1944 and Mischief in the Air in August 1944 (both produced by J.C. Williamson at Sydney’s Theatre Royal). Lady in Danger was also staged on Broadway.
Afford wrote five detective novels. These were: Blood On His Hands (London, J. Long, 1936; Sydney, Frank Johnson, 1945), Death Mannikins (London, J. Long, 1937; Sydney, Frank Johnson, 1945), The Dead Are Blind (London, J. Long, 1937; Sydney, Collins, 1949), Fly by Night (London, J. Long 1942; as Owl Of Darkness, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1945). In December 1948 the short story ‘Vanishing Trick’ appeared in Frank Johnson’s new magazine, Detective Fiction. The magazine was short lived but an extremely worthy production which included the work of such writers as Frank Walford, Bob McKinnon, Audrey Francis, Richard and Alfreda Phillips, and Norman Way.
Following the first issue, Johnson received a letter from Arthur Upfield who said: ‘I thought the range of stories very good and give best marks to Max Afford.’ Johnson also reprinted some of Afford’s novels in his Magpie paperback series, Afford receiving the munificent sum of £25 for every 10,000 copies sold.
Jeffrey and Elizabeth Blackburn, stars of a long-running Afford radio series as well as several novels, made a late curtain call in Detective Fiction. ‘Vanishing Trick’ typifies the mannered, slightly tongue in cheek, stories of the period – heavy on drawing rooms, witty dialogue and deductive brilliance.
‘No ghost,’ said Sally Rutland firmly. ‘But we’ve got a kinda haunted room!’
She pronounced it ‘hanted’ since Sally Rutland hailed from Dallas, Texas.
Mr Jeffrey Blackburn, seated in the deep leather chair in the panelled room at Kettering Old House, looked across at Elizabeth and lowered his right eyelid an imperceptible fraction. The movement said plainly, ‘Darling, I told you so!’
Mrs Blackburn, swathed in satin, her corn-yellow hair shining under the massive electric chandelier, caught the expression.
‘But, darling! If you’ve got a haunted room, then you must have a ghost!’
‘Then what happened in this room?’
Sally Rutland said calmly, ‘People just vanish into thin air!’
‘Oh-oh,’ chuckled Mr Blackburn inwardly. His eyes slid around, taking in the expressions of the assembled guests.
There were six other people in the great reception room at Kettering. Almost opposite Blackburn, the thriller writer Evan Lambert hunched his thin body forward in an attitude curiously suggestive of a question mark.
On the square, ruddy face of the man next to him there was absolutely no expression at all. John Wilkins, of the Wilkins Trust and Finance Company, sat motionless, a statue to Mammon in well-cut tweeds, a business colossus whose self control was as rigid as the wall behind him.
Then there was Miss Rountree, an obscure relative of Jim Rutland’s – middle-aged, greying and somehow pathetic, like the bedraggled artificial roses she wore at her flat bosom. Her sagging face was ringed in circles – round eyes behind rounded spectacles, the little mouth pursed into an O of wondering anticipation. With all the ardour of the very lonely, Miss Rountree grasped at the promise of a new sensation, as in the past she had grasped at Yogism, Mental Healing, Physical Perfection in Diet and Inner Truths through Controlled Breathing.
Jeffery’s eyes came around to their hosts.
Strangers often wondered what Sally van Peters, daughter of the Dalls oil magnate, had ever seen in lanky, balding Jim Rutland, with his serious expression and quiet, almost stolid personality. Never were appearances more deceptive! For their intimates knew, by bitter experience, that one of the strongest bonds between these two was their wicked sense of humour. Jeffery mentally winced when he recalled the squeaking cushion, the leaking wineglass and trick cigarettes without which no Rutland party was complete.
‘Well,’ said Sally Rutland. ‘Don’t just sit there like dummies! Let’s see some reactions.’ She gave a quick, mischievous glance at her husband, standing tall by the heavy marble mantel. ‘They reckon it’s just another of our crazy gags, honey -’
Lambert’s mouth twisted.
‘At least it shows a little more originality than the electric matchbox -’
From the fireplace, Jim Rutland spoke.
‘No fooling, Evan. What Sally says is quite true.’ Was it Jeffery’s imagination or had the deep tone the faintest undercurrent of mockery? ‘She found an old book in the library with the craziest story about this room. Believe it or not, Satan himself is supposed to have come down here, breathed on a man – and he vanished! Just like that!’ A snap of his fingers emphasised the problem.
‘Now, really, Rutland -’ It was Wilkins. In contrast to Lambert’s frank ridicule, the financier’s tone was sceptical but polite. ‘He’s not one of us,’ thought Jeffery. ‘He’s an outsider. It isn’t like the Rutland ’s to mix close friends and casual acquaintances like this.’ Then he became aware that Miss Rountree was speaking to him from across the room.
‘And just what is your opinion of this, Mr Blackburn?’ she asked archly. ‘You’ve been so quiet in your little corner I thought you were asleep.’
‘Oh, no,’ said Jeffery firmly. ‘Definitely not! But before I commit myself, I’d like to hear something more about the story.’
Rutland said levelly, ‘I’ll give it you boiled down small. Back in the year seventeen hundred and something, there was a local parson – chap named the Reverend Gideon Perman. He was accused of witchcraft, brought along here and shoved into this room. The door was locked and barred. When they opened it, two hours later, Gideon had vanished -’
Rutland shrugged. ‘That’s all.’
‘Stop me if you’ve heard this one,’ crowed Elizabeth. ‘But there was a secret passage -’
Sally Rutland shook her head, ‘You get the gong darling.’
‘No secret passage?’
‘Not even a chink. Because Benson – that’s the pale looking guy who just served the cocktails – Benson said the room was searched high and low for some outlet. That wasn’t the original vanishing trick, of course. I’m talking now about the last one.’
Jeffery said quickly, ‘The last one?’
Sally nodded. ‘It happened about three years ago.’
Evan Lambert sat up, a movement like the opening of a jack-knife. ‘As recent as that?’
‘The Lattimers owned the place then,’ Rutland told him. ‘They were the people we bought it from. Benson says one of their servants was sent down to clean out the room. The door slammed shut on the poor devil. When they opened it again – hey presto! No servant!’
‘Fantastic!’ Wilkins spoke so softly Jeffery had the impression he was talking to himself. Then he looked up at his host. ‘But surely the police were informed?’
‘You bet.’ It was Sally who replied. ‘Benson says the police brought a couple of architect guys from London. They tapped and measured for weeks and all they got was housemaid’s knee.’
An uncertain little silence fell, to be broken by Elizabeth. ‘Aren’t you relying quite a lot on what Benson says? How do we know that your butler, having found the old book with the legend, isn’t having us all on toast?’
Jim Rutland stared at them. ‘I never thought of that.’
But his wife waved the suggestion aside. ‘Nonsense,’ she said crisply, ‘you’ve only got to look at Benson to see he’s got less sense of humour than Jimmy has hair.’ She paused, then added, ‘Anyway, why should he make up such a crazy story?’
The sudden appearance of the man himself precluded further discussion. He stood just inside the entrance, pale, poised, punctilious, announcing that dinner was served.
‘What those men really need,’ said Sally Rutland, ‘is a lesson.’
‘But darling -’ began Elizabeth, but her companion cut her short.
‘You and I, Beth, we’re going to give it to them.’ Sally lowered her voice and glanced towards the dining room, still alive with the murmur of masculine voices and the clink of glasses. ‘You see, I’ve got the most gorgeous idea for a laugh.’
The two women were in the reception room following dinner. Miss Rountree had sought her upstairs bedroom for a book. At her exit, Sally had motioned her friend to draw her chair closer to the fire. Elizabeth, watching the flames colour and darken Sally’s thin, eager face, had fallen into the comfortable silence born of a good dinner, a cosy fireside and a deep chair. Now she gave a deep sigh of resignation.
‘Overproduction of thyroid,’ she murmured.
‘All Americans have it,’ said Mrs Blackburn sleepily. ‘That’s why they can’t keep still. Look at Mrs Roosevelt.’
Sally tossed her half-smoked cigarette into the fireplace. ‘It makes me boil,’ she said. ‘Here we buy one of the oldest houses in England, with a dandy legend, and instead of treating it with the respect it deserves, what do those men do? Laugh at it!’
‘Have another cigarette,’ advised Elizabeth soothingly.
‘We have got a genuine mystery room where people just disappear! What’s more, I’m going to prove it. And you, Elizabeth, you’re going to help me!’
‘How?’ asked Mrs Blackburn cautiously.
‘Just suppose Jeffery, Evan and Mr Wilkins went down to investigate that room -?’
‘And found the body of the servant who was supposed to have disappeared three years ago!’ As Elizabeth suddenly sat up, Sally hurried on. ‘And don’t tell me that there’ll be no body to find. You leave that to me.’
‘My dear -’
‘I’ll borrow an old pair of overalls and a cap from Jim’s cupboard. All I have to do is to rig myself out in these things and stand against the wall. Of course, admitted Sally, I can’t hope to fool them for long, but the sight of their faces when they throw open that door and find me should be well worth the trouble of the gag.’
She paused, watching Elizabeth ’s patently dismayed face.
‘You can,’ said Mrs Blackburn, ‘include me out.’
‘ Elizabeth, for Pete’s sake.’
‘No, darling, for mine. If Jeffery ever knew I’d had a hand in a thing like this, he’d have me certified.’
‘Jeffery won’t know,’ Sally persisted. ‘All you have to do is to bolt that door on the outside.’
Afterwards, reviewing the whole sinister business with Jeffery, Elizabeth could never actually explain how Sally talked her into this initial gambit. She could only confess that, despite her rooted disapproval of such an infantile scheme, ten minutes later found the two of them burdened with clothing and creeping down a winding stone staircase that threw back the sullen echoes of their footsteps.
‘There it is,’ announced Sally.
The steps flattened, widened abruptly into a passage which rose into a groined roof over their heads. This passage ended in a blank wall and in the centre, a stone door stood slightly ajar, an extremely massive portal, at least two feet thick, such rugged depth corresponding to the width of the wall in which it was slung. Heavy iron hinges laced one side, two sets of bolts, thicker than Elizabeth ’s wrist, were welded to the other. There was rust and dust and cobwebs.
Mrs Blackburn gave a little, unaccountable shiver and stopped in her tracks.
‘Over to you, darling,’ she announced.
‘Nonsense,’ said Sally briskly. ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of.’
‘I’m not -’ began Elizabeth, then she stopped. Not afraid, just – well – apprehensive. She wished it was Jeffery who walked by her side instead of this keen-faced young woman who had almost been expelled from Bryn Mawr for trying to land her plane on the lacrosse field. This business of people vanishing into thin air! Up stairs with the men it had seemed too ludicrous for a second thought. But down here in this world of stone and stillness -
Heavy as the door seemed, it swung back easily when Sally dragged at it. As Elizabeth took an unwilling step into the blackness, her companion’s torch cut a swathe of light across the small room. And it was surprisingly tiny compared with the dimensions of the upper apartments; certainly no more than twelve feet square.
Sally flashed the torch around.
‘You see? Nothing to raise even a solitary goosepimple – just a bare room. Now then -,’ she thrust out the torch and grabbed at the bundled clothing. ‘Hold the light while I slip into these things.’
In turn, Mrs Blackburn played the silver finger of light over the rough unbroken walls and up to the ceiling that seemed to press down on her neat head. Then she pronounced her judgment. ‘I wouldn’t stay alone in this place for a cartload of silver foxes.’ She turned to where Sally was struggling with the stained overalls. ‘Listen, darling. Be sensible. Call the whole thing off.’
‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’
‘Sally!’ Elizabeth ’s voice was shrill. ‘Don’t say that, not down here!’
‘Peanuts,’ snapped Mrs Rutland inelegantly. She fumbled here and there, then pulled the cap over her dark curls. ‘There, I’m ready. Now – bring those doubting Thomases down here fast as you can. And be sure to bolt that door on the outside.’
‘Sally -’ it was a final appeal.
‘Outside, Infirm of Purpose! And bolt that door!’
For just a second. Elizabeth hesitated. Then she passed out into the dimly lit passage and strained at the door. It seemed to swing shut with almost sinister haste and she reached up and shot the bolts with none-too-steady fingers.
She was half way down the passage when she heard the first cry.
It was so faint, so muffled and so indistinct that Elizabeth wondered, at first, if it was merely her imagination stimulated by the hushed and sinister surroundings. Yet that curious echo had been so urgent and so arresting that, despite her eagerness to leave this place, she hesitated with one small foot on the lowest stair. In that moment, it came again and this time there was no mistaking the quality of terror which seeped through even walls of stone.
‘ Elizabeth – help! Come back!’
Some actions are purely automatic, made without conscious thought. Elizabeth only knew that she was back at that massive door, pounding on it, crying out, ‘Sally – Sally, what is it?’ Then as no answer came, she wrenched at the rusting bolts, tearing a nail. The door, seeming a dozen times as heavy in her panic, almost resisted her efforts to drag it open. It gave suddenly and swung wide with a sour grating of hinges. Elizabeth stood trembling in the entrance.
‘Sally,’ she called unsteadily.
The small black pit ahead threw back the echoes of her voice. Mrs Blackburn’s uncertain fingers found the sliding catch on the torch and a spear of light shot forward, wavered, explored the full circle, while the girl stared, amazed and incredulous.
The room was empty!
‘Oh, no,’ whispered Elizabeth Blackburn. Then she swallowed, for there was an odd, sick feeling in her stomach. Nerving herself, she moved forward into the room and its cold dankness rose up around her, so that she swallowed again and put out one hand to the thick wall for support. Standing thus, she played the torch around again, grimly, doggedly, choking down the panic within her, covering every inch of those solid, unbroken walls enclosing that unbelievable, incredibly empty space.
‘There’s no one here,’ she said huskily.
And then, right at her very side, something chuckled.
There was no amusement in it, nor was it a loud sound. It was, however, more than enough for Elizabeth. She swung around, played the light on the blank wall at her side, then with a little choking gasp, she bolted, – bolted frankly and unashamedly, taking the steps three at a time, running with outstretched hands through the long hall, across the armoury, past the stained glass windows with their heavy curtains, through the living quarters and into the sanctuary of the reception room, with its cheerful fire, its deep chairs and the comforting, though undeniably startled, faces of the assembled menfolk.
‘Darling,’ said Mr Blackburn.
‘Another little sip of brandy,’ advised Jim Rutland.
‘Slip this cushion behind the lady’s head,’ suggested the financier Wilkins.
Mrs Blackburn, recumbent, panting, choked with brandy, glared up at the good Samaritans and strove to get her breath. Then she sat up and began to pat her hair into place.
‘Listen to me, all of you -’
Jeffery placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. ‘Take it easy sweetheart.’
‘But Sally -’
‘More brandy?’ said Jim Rutland. Anyone with a hide less thick would have recoiled from Elizabeth ’s look. But Rutland merely replaced the decanter on the table.
‘Now, what’s all this about Sally?’
Elizabeth said breathlessly, ‘I’ve told you. She had me lock her in that horrible little room downstairs – it was to be a joke on you men. Then I heard that cry. I rushed back, opened the door – and she’d vanished!’ She paused, looking from face to face. ‘Well! Say something!’
‘She was obviously hiding behind the door,’ explained Mr Blackburn and calmly lit a cigarette.
‘The door opens outward,’ replied his wife shortly. ‘Besides, while I stood looking into that room – a room bare as the palm of my hand, mark you – something chuckled!’
Jim Rutland grinned. ‘You bet it did!’
Elizabeth wheeled on him, but Evan Lambert cut in quickly. ‘Tell me, Elizabeth – was there any special reason why you should accompany Sally down to that room?’
‘Yes, I had to shoot the bolts on the door.’
‘But,’ persisted Lambert, ‘if the object was to scare us, why bolt the door at all? That wasn’t necessary.’
Jeffery nodded. ‘Good point Lambert.’ He turned to his wife. ‘Is your face red?’
‘Should it be?’ asked Elizabeth acidly.
‘Magenta,’ Jeffery assured her. ‘Don’t you see, darling? Sally’s real intention was not to scare us, but you! She concocted the other story just to get you down there.’ He blew a smoke ring. ‘No wonder she chuckled!’
‘But -,’ then Mrs Blackburn stopped. Her pretty face was such a study in conflicting emotions that Wilkins, watching her, spoke for the second time, spoke carefully, precisely, with a cold authority that stripped the discussion of all nonsense, reducing it to blueprint saneness.
‘All this doesn’t explain one very essential point.’ His eyes, piercing blue, close set, moved from one face to another. ‘Where, when Mrs Blackburn returned, was the lady hidden?’
Jeffery said ‘It’s possible, of course, that my wife had such a shock she didn’t trouble to look very closely.’
‘Perhaps,’ Wilkins smiled. ‘Yet Mrs Blackburn strikes me as being an extremely thorough young woman. Out of fairness to her, I suggest we four men should go down and search the room for ourselves.’
He paused. Elizabeth beamed on him. Jim Rutland shrugged. ‘We’re merely playing into Sally’s hands by keeping the joke going like this,’ he pointed out.
But Evan Lambert made the decision for them all. ‘Does that matter?’ he asked. ‘You were going to show us this room, anyway.’
Five minutes later, the little party met at the head of the stone steps. Rutland had a lighted candle, Elizabeth clung to her torch. They started downward. Where the stairs began to widen into the passage, Jeffery stopped and gestured to a slit-like aperture in the wall.
Rutland explained it was a passage leading out to the summer-house in the garden. As they walked forward, his eye lighted on the stone door, still ajar. He turned to Elizabeth.
‘Didn’t you bolt that door after you?’
The girl shook her head. ‘My one thought was to get back to sanity.’
‘Then,’ announced Rutland, ‘we’re wasting our time searching for Sally in that room. The moment your back was turned, she was out of that room and into the summerhouse passage. I’ll wager we’ll find her back in the library, helpless with mirth over all this fuss.’
‘Let’s see inside the room,’ said Jeffery.
But even as their host had warned, they might have saved themselves the trouble. In the flickering light, the room looked just as bare and just as sinister. Lambert, his professional imagination piqued, moved around giving perfunctory taps on the walls, but their solidness precluded any suggestion of secret passages. Jeffery, who had taken the torch, was poking the light into shadowed corners, achieving nothing more than the startled rout of generations of spiders. Wilkins stood watching the other men, his face frowning and mouth petulant, as though, in his opinion at least, this absurd business had gone on long enough.
Mrs Blackburn suddenly gave an exclamation of disgust and irritation.
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake! Come on – let’s get out of this.’
She made a movement towards the door and as if by mutual consent, all activity within that room stopped. They filed through, one after the other. Without a world, Rutland pushed home the stone door and thrust the bolts into place.
They began to walk towards the steps when:
It was Jeffery, bringing up the rear of the party, who spoke. The others – Elizabeth, Lambert, Rutland – halted and looked around in surprise.
The stifled scream and the muffled pounding came almost simultaneously. ‘Oh, my stars,’ cried Rutland. ‘I’ve locked the poor blighter inside!’ And in a body, they leapt for the door.
To Elizabeth, tired, slightly hazy from the brandy, shaken by her previous experience, what happened next was vague but terrifying like a nightmare which keeps recurring even after dawn. She remembered the bolts yielding under Rutland ’s scrabbling fingers, the door being heaved back violently, Lambert shouting out Wilkin’s name. Jeffery taking a half-step forward, flashing his torch into the darkness – and then, clearly, more vividly than anything, the grotesque thunder-struck, stupefied expressions on the faces of the three men.
And standing there in that silent corridor, Mrs Blackburn knew it had happened again; that something had occurred that was against all natural, accepted laws; that within half an hour, a woman and a man, solid, matter-of-fact figures of flesh, bone and blood, had stepped into the haunted room at Kettering Old House and had disappeared – vanished – almost in the twinkling of an eye.
‘Now are you satisfied?’ asked Elizabeth.
‘No,’ replied Mr Blackburn, ‘far from satisfied.’
‘I should say not,’ grunted his host. Jim Rutland’s face was pale; on his upper lip were tiny beads of perspiration and Jeffery realised that of them all, this man seemed the most scared. Suddenly, as though conscious of Blackburn’s eyes on him, Rutland turned toward the fireplace and made a little helpless gesture. ‘What happens now? What should we do?’
‘We must,’ said Florence Rountree firmly, ‘remain very calm.’ A thin wisp of grey hair streaked across her forehead and she pushed it back, only to have it fall again. ‘We must remain perfectly tranquil in mind. Thoughts are things – tangible things.’ And she fixed her pale eyes on Elizabeth as if daring her to debate the point.
Half an hour had passed since the disappearance of John Wilkins and the return of the slightly dazed party to the reception room. But not before both Jeffery and Lambert had insisted on a thorough examination of that exasperating chamber. Each man, with the help of Rutland, had taken a section of the wall and sounded it with the thoroughness bred of savage bewilderment. This was no haphazard examination as before; now no single foot of wall escaped their scrutiny.
With absolutely no result!
Elizabeth rose abruptly. ‘I’m going to ‘phone the police.’
But Jeffery put out a restraining hand.
‘What are you going to tell them?’ he asked.
‘That two people in this house walked into a certain room and faded like a dream?’
‘At least they’d do something.’
‘Something is right.’ It was Evan Lambert. ‘They’d probably cart us all off to the asylum!’
‘That,’ said Elizabeth firmly, ‘would be a rest-cure compared to what’s been happening here.’ Evading Jeffery’s hand, she crossed to the hall and they heard the flicking of the pages of a telephone book. Then came the whirr of a number being dialled.
Florence Rountree broke the silence. ‘All this,’ she announced, ‘would be quite unnecessary if you’d only listen to me.’
‘I know,’ snapped Rutland, ‘those people didn’t really disappear. We just imagined it!’
Miss Rountree’s small mouth set. ‘There is no occasion to be rude, James -’
From where the lady sat, she could not perceive the mocking curve of Lambert’s mouth as he said ‘You mean. Miss Rountree, that our minds, conditioned by the legend of the room, were already expecting it to be empty?’
She beamed on him, nodding triumphantly. ‘Exactly, Mr Lambert. You saw not with the eye, but with the brain.’
‘Oh, fiddle-faddle,’ snapped Rutland.
‘James!’ squeaked Miss Rountree.
There was tension in the air and nerves were stretched to breakingpoint. All the material for a first-class row was mounting. Then Lambert, with an almost sadistic satisfaction, chuckled in his corner.
‘Then, madam, according to your reasoning, Mrs Rutland and Wilkins are still down in that room, playing handy-pandies! Just wait until the local police hear that!’
‘The local police,’ said Mrs Blackburn from the doorway, ‘aren’t going to hear anything, at least not on this phone!’ She held up the hand-instrument and the useless flex coiled limply across the floor. ‘It’s been cut through with a pair of scissors, I’d say.’
‘Now that,’ said Mr Blackburn softly ‘is most interesting.’ He turned to Rutland. ‘How far away is the police station?’
‘Matter of five miles,’ the other answered. ‘We’re pretty isolated down here.’
‘That,’ returned Jeffery, ‘seems to have been the idea! Whoever is responsible for those vanishing tricks doesn’t want a police investigation. So I suggest you hop in your car and bring over the local sergeant.’
‘But – can he do any good?’
Jeffery regarded him thoughtfully. ‘I may be quite wrong, Jim. But I have an idea that once the police are brought into this, the whole mystery will collapse like a house of cards.’ Suddenly his manner became brisk. ‘Now, jump to it, old man. Meanwhile, I’ve another little job on my hands.’
Rutland, halfway out of the room, paused and looked back. ‘What’s that?’ he asked.
Mr Blackburn said complacently, ‘Me – I’m a detective, so now I’m going to start to detect.’
Jeffery Blackburn held the flame of the candle to the cigarette between his lips, then bending, placed the light on the rough floor and surveyed his surroundings. He blew a thin fan of smoke that hung on the motionless air, then began to unfold and undulate slowly, reaching out grey tentacles to the grey walls that hemmed him in.
Two people had entered this room, and approximately fifteen seconds later, had vanished from it. There was, of course, the legend, but that sinister story made no mention of an amputated telephone wire. To prevent news of these fantastic happenings reaching outside of Kettering, someone had cut all communication. Obviously because a police investigation must reveal the means by which these disappearances had been contrived.
How the devil did one get out of a locked room? Not by any secret passage through the walls, of that he was convinced. By the door? But that massive, two foot thickness of stone had been shut and bolted on the outside.
Jeffery tossed his cigarette aside and crossed to the entrance. The heavy door hung half-open. He raised both hands in an effort to push it wider, but to his surprise the massive portal moved so easily that he suspected oil on the hinges. But the dry grinding in his ears dismissed such a suggestion.
Mr Blackburn frowned.
Something was wrong. Somewhere, at the back of his mind, two small details clashed and contradicted. Standing there in the entrance, one hand on the rough stonework of the door, Jeffery sent his mind racing back over the details of Wilkins’s disappearance.
They had walked out of that room. With a thrust of his arm, Rutland had pushed the door shut and slid the bolts. But – and here Jeffery’s eyes narrowed suddenly – when Wilkins’s muffled cry had sent them racing back, it had taken the combined efforts of the three men to open this same door. This curious, grey, enigmatic door, which was light and easy to move at one time – and fifteen seconds later, so much heavier -
‘Give!’ said Mr Blackburn and tapped the door encouragingly. Next moment, his fingers snapped back as though the surface had become white-hot. Wonderingly, almost incredulously, he tapped again and this time there was no mistaking that hollow resonance.
The door was nothing more than a hollow shell!
‘Oh, my aunt,’ whispered Jeffery. He stared unbelievingly. But surely there was some mistake? They had sounded the four walls – Lambert, Rutland and himself. He even recalled Rutland thumping and bumping on the solid stonework surrounding the doorway. Then, surely, if the door had given up its secret so easily to Jeffery, Rutland must have known, too?
And if he did?
Mr Blackburn chuckled softly. One part of the tangle was already coming free in his mind, so that he could follow the loosening end to a logical conclusion. In time, he would deal with the second snarl. But first things first. Jeffery switched on his torch and moving closer to the door began running tentative fingers over the surface.
Ten minutes later, he walked into the reception room. Elizabeth, dozing in front of the dying fire, blinked at his dusty but patently triumphant expression.
‘Hello,’ she said vaguely, ‘I must have fallen asleep.’
‘We’ve all been asleep,’ returned Jeffery. He sat down and lit a cigarette with cobwebby fingers. ‘Tell me, Beth. When you ran to that door after Sally’s scream, was it difficult to open?’
Mrs Blackburn frowned. ‘Yes -’ then quickly, ‘yes, it was, Jeff! Somehow, it seemed much heavier.’
‘Naturally,’ agreed Jeffery, ‘You see, Sally was inside that door.’ He hesitated a moment, savouring the expression on his wife’s face. ‘I’ve solved the secret of the vanishing trick, darling. That door is literally a hollow cupboard – the inside opens like a panel. Sally and Wilkins waited until we had left the room, raised the alarm then stepped inside that door and closed the panel behind them. Just like that!’
Incredulity raised Elizabeth ’s voice a tone. ‘Then how did they get out again?’
‘In both cases, the door was left unbolted after the discovery. They stepped out, pushed open the door and just walked out of the room.’
‘Oh, no,’ said Mrs Blackburn.
‘But you men sounded every inch of that room for cavities.’
‘Except the door,’ her husband pointed out. ‘One doesn’t expect cavities in doors. That was where Rutland was so clever.’
‘He knew the panel was concealed in that door. That was why, when we sounded those walls, he chose the one with the door – to stop us discovering the trick for ourselves.’
Jeffery crossed to the ashtray on the mantel and crushed out his cigarette. Then he turned. ‘Let’s start at the beginning. The Rutlands knew of this trick door and saw an excellent opportunity for one of their crazy jokes. That’s why we were asked down here. I have some small reputation as a solver of riddles – Lambert has a big name as a detective novelist. Can’t you,’ asked Mr Blackburn, ‘see the Rutlands gloating over this opportunity – presenting us both with a first-class mystery, then chuckling up their sleeves at our attempts to solve it?’
But his wife shook a stubborn head. ‘I still can’t believe it.’
Jeffery said austerely, ‘The type of mind that would sit me down on a squeaking cushion is capable of anything.’
‘John Wilkins hasn’t that type of mind.’
‘Know anything more about him?’
‘Only,’ returned Elizabeth, ‘what Sally told me. He’s the merest acquaintance – a comparative stranger. Jim met him casually in the city and he came down a few days ago with his chauffeur – a tough looking gent named Tucker.’ And here Mrs Blackburn ran off at a tangent. ‘Besides, who cut the telephone wire?’
‘Why not,’ suggested Mr Blackburn, ‘think something out for yourself?’
Elizabeth said sweetly, ‘Meaning you haven’t the faintest idea, darling?’
‘Frankly, no! But I know this much. As I said, the Rutlands planned this as the joke of the season. But someone,’ continued Jeffery, ‘took it right smack out of their hands, someone who wanted Wilkins out of the way – and who cut the telephone wire to stop police interference.’
‘But why John Wilkins?’
‘Wilkins is a financier, darling. Financiers deal in large sums of money. And money, as the copybooks used to tell us, is the root of all evil. Everyone wants money. Even Miss Rountree, living in her cloud, cuckoo-land of metaphysics, couldn’t exist without -’, and suddenly Jeffery stopped, his mouth open on the word, staring at his wife as though she was some complete and surprising stranger.
‘Darling,’ cried Mrs Blackburn in sudden alarm.
Then Jeffery grinned. A wide grin in which enlightenment, relief and admiration were somehow blended. He walked across and bending, kissed Elizabeth on the tip of her pretty nose. It was a charming scene of domestic felicity, only slightly marred by the expression of complete bewilderment on Mrs Blackburn’s face. Then a voice spoke harshly from the entrance.
They turned. Evan Lambert stood there, his thin figure hunched and suggestive of a spring tightly coiled. He wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. They saw him swallow before he spoke again.
‘Can I use your car?’
‘Of course! But -?’
‘I’ve got to get Doctor Preston,’ Lambert cut in, ‘and I’ll bring back the police myself. There’s been some more monkey business – some of the servants are carrying him inside -’
Elizabeth said sharply, ‘Who?’
‘ Rutland! They found him unconscious in the grounds near the garage, bleeding from a nasty wound.’ The novelist took a step forward into the room.
‘You see, Blackburn, somebody round here coshed him over the head with the proverbial blunt instrument. Don’t ask me who – because Rutland just isn’t talking!’
Eleven-thirty p.m. at Kettering Old House.
Benson eased the traymobile, with its silver and snowy napery through the entrance to the reception room and brought it to rest opposite Mr and Mrs Blackburn.
He spoke apologetically. ‘I trust tea and toast is sufficient, madam?’ He whisked the lid from a salver. ‘With the exception of William Darby, the servants are all in bed.’
‘So they should be,’ replied Jeffery. ‘Er – this William Darby – he was the man who struggled with Mr Rutland’s attacker?’
The butler nodded. From beneath the traymobile, he brought up a black leather bag. ‘This, sir, was found on the ground near Mr Rutland. It’s the property of Mr Wilkins, sir.’
As Jeffery took the bag and turned it over in his hands, Benson added, ‘The master, sir – is he all right?’
‘He will be,’ Jeffery assured him. ‘Miss Rountree is with him now. There’s nothing much we can do except wait for Mr Lambert to return with the doctor.’
Sensing dismissal, Benson started for the door. But Jeffery’s voice halted him. ‘Oh, Benson -’
‘What’s this story you told about a servant who was supposed to have disappeared from that room downstairs when the last people owned this place?’
On features less wooden, the expression that crossed Benson’s face might have been termed pained surprise. His pale eyes blinked.
‘Some mistake, sir, surely? Nothing like that happened while I was in service with the Lattimer family.’ He inclined his head as Jeffery dismissed him.
Blackburn turned to his wife. ‘Just as I said – a pack of naughty fibs on Sally’s part. And stop wolfing that toast. You’ll put on pounds overnight!’
Mrs Blackburn’s glance was withering. She reached for another buttered finger. ‘What actually happened out there in the garden?’
‘As far as we can make out, Rutland was walking toward the garage,’ Jeffery explained. ‘The Dark Invader leapt out of the shadows. William Darby, in the garage, came out just in time to see his employer tapped smartly on the head and the unknown disappearing into the darkness, leaving behind that bag.’
Elizabeth picked it up, and weighed it in her hand. ‘It’s locked,’ she announced.
‘Brilliant,’ observed Mr Blackburn. ‘For that you may have the last piece of toast.’
‘Don’t cavil. Now, how the devil does one open a locked bag?’
‘I can lend you a bobby-pin -’
‘Darling,’ said Mr Blackburn with restraint, ‘outside of a B-class quickie, have you ever seen a man open a lock with a bobby-pin? No – hand me that butterknife!’
‘Jeff – now be careful!’
‘Leave it to me.’ He inserted the thin blade between the metal clasps and strained. Two things happened almost simultaneously. The blade broke and Mrs Blackburn gave a cry of alarm.
‘The hell with it,’ snarled Mr Blackburn, sucking an outraged finger. ‘I’m wounded, and it’s hurting like mad!’
‘Oh, don’t be a great boob,’ snapped Elizabeth. ‘Anyhow, according to Miss Rountree, there’s just no such thing as physical pain!’
‘Quite right, Mrs Blackburn!’
They wheeled. Florence Rountree stood in the entrance. That unruly wisp of grey hair snaked across a face correspondingly pale. Her thin fingers plucked and worried the artificial bouquet at her waist. She came forward, surveying the traymobile. Jeffery said hospitably.
‘Have the last piece of toast, Miss Rountree?’
‘No, thank you.’
‘How wise,’ murmured Jeffery. ‘It’s frightfully burnt underneath.’
Miss Rountree said coldly, ‘I may be rather old-fashioned in such matters. But you both appear singularly unperturbed about the happenings here.’
Jeffery shrugged. ‘Even a detective must keep body and soul together! Thank you, Beth. I’ll have another cup of tea.’
‘As a detective, Mr Blackburn, you seem to have made surprisingly little progress.’ Acidity edged her words. ‘Mr Wilkins – vanished! My poor nephew – brutally attacked! And Sally – where is she?’
Mr Blackburn smiled. ‘Suppose you answer that one?’
Jeffery sipped his tea. ‘She was to have taken the short cut to the summer house and then come up to your room. That was why you pretended to go upstairs after dinner for that book. But you went to your room, to wait for Sally and join in the grand laugh against my wife. But Sally didn’t turn up. How worried you must have been! And how frantic you are right now!’
Miss Rountree sat down very suddenly. Her face seemed to shrivel and contract. She took off her glasses and dabbed at her eyes with a lace handkerchief. But no tears came; only short, dry sobs so embarrassing to hear that Elizabeth turned her face away.
‘I didn’t want to do it.’ Miss Rountree whispered. ‘Sally said it would be all right. That it was only a party game – a joke.’ The husky mutter ended abruptly in a quick, choked-off gasp. Elizabeth, looking up, saw she was staring at the french windows – windows which framed the figure of John Wilkins. A different Wilkins, no longer pink, immaculate and imperturbable, but flushed, and with the appearance of a man who had dressed in a great hurry.
‘Hello,’ he said and they noticed that he was breathless. ‘I suppose you’ve wondered what on earth happened to me?’
‘Mr Wilkins,’ gasped Florence Rountree. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘I can tell you that,’ replied Jeffery and he held up the black bag. ‘Mr Wilkins has come back for this.’
Then things happened very quickly. Wilkins gave a little snort of anger and strode forward, snatching at the bag with greedy hands. At the same moment, Jeffery’s fingers tightened like iron on the handle. For some seconds, this frenzied tug-of-war continued, both men swaying and straining. There came the sudden sound of ripping material and the antagonists staggered back each holding part of the dismembered bag – a bag that vomited forth packets of crisp new banknotes. Some of these packets burst the rubber bands which held them and notes fluttered wildly to the floor so that Elizabeth stood soles-deep in a fortune. Then, like a quick-motion film suddenly jammed in the projector, the tableau froze. The two men stared down at the littered floor and while Wilkin’s face was angry and dismayed, Mr Blackburn’s countenance was deeply reproachful.
He looked up at Wilkins and shook his head. ‘Your shareholders are going to be very, very annoyed about this,’ he announced. ‘This is their money, you know.’ And as the absconding financier stared at him, stonyfaced, Jeffery went on. ‘You were staying with Jim and Sally Rutland, so you overheard them planning the disappearing trick on us. That’s how you learned about the panel in the door. And you saw a heaven-sent opportunity to disappear yourself – and let the Rutland ’s face up to the police investigation that must follow.
‘I rather suspect that the shifty-eyed chauffeur you employ is in this thing with you. Tonight he was waiting in the summerhouse for you, but Sally, taking the passage to the summerhouse following her vanishing trick, surprised him there. No doubt he trussed her up to prevent her talking too much.’
Wilkins had recovered some of that hard poise. Now he thrust his hands in his pockets and managed a twisted smile. ‘Interesting. Blackburn,’ he murmured, ‘but go on.’
‘Thank you,’ said Mr Blackburn, ‘I intend to. When Sally disappeared, Rutland didn’t turn a hair. But when you presumably vanished, he was worried, for here was something he hadn’t planned. And when he found you’d cut the telephone wire, he was dead scared. He knew then it was a ease for the police. But you had other ideas. Unfortunately for you, in the scuffle with Rutland, you dropped this bag and a servant brought it in here. And naturally, you weren’t going to leave without this money!’
Wilkins said smoothly. ‘Circumstances alter cases, Blackburn!’ One hand shot from his pocket and it held a small black automatic. ‘I regret this touch of melodrama, but it’s essential that I’m out of this country by the morning.’ Keeping that automatic ominously steady, he began to retreat toward the french windows. ‘And I don’t intend letting anyone stop me!’
Elizabeth turned her head slowly. Miss Rountree sat like someone paralysed, jaw dropping and codfish eyes wide and staring. Jeffery’s face was dark and set. He made a half-movement and the automatic swung up level with his chest. Oh, my God, thought Elizabeth – he’s going to charge! She gave an almost audible sigh of relief when Jeffery stiffened and was immobile. A coal fell in the fireplace and her spine prickled with the shock. Wilkins was almost to the french window and reaching out one stiff hand to push it wider.
And there was Evan Lambert. Evan Lambert and two stocky figures in blue uniforms who leapt forward almost simultaneously. There was a sharp crack and the acrid tang of gunpowder before Wilkins disappeared in a tangle of waving arms.
Midnight was chiming when Lambert returned. ‘Seems I came back just in time,’ he observed, then paused as the hum of a retreating car was heard. ‘There go the Terrible Twins, alias Wilkins and Tucker.’
‘And good riddance, too,’ said Elizabeth shakily. ‘Now, what about Sally?’
‘She’s in her room,’ Lambert replied. ‘They found her tied up in the summer-house. Poor kid – she’s had the scare of her life -’
Mr Blackburn nodded with some satisfaction. ‘The trouble with practical jokes,’ he announced, ‘is that they have the damndest way of kicking back!’ He took his wife’s hand. ‘Come on, darling, let’s go up and comfort Jim Rutland. Doctor Preston tells me he’s going to have a very sore head tomorrow.’
One of the giants of Australian crime fiction, Arthur Upfield, was born in Gosport, Hampshire, in 1888 and came to Australia in 1911. He worked and travelled widely, particularly through the outback, and upon the outbreak of World War 1 joined the Australian Imperial Forces. Upfield served at Gallipoli, and in Egypt and France, and returned to England after the war as private secretary to a British Army officer.
Australia proved too much of an attraction and Upfield was back in 1921. He tried prospecting, pearling and labouring, and at one time patrolled a 320 kilometer section of a rabbit-proof fence across Western Australia. The year was 1929 and it proved an important period in Upfield’s career.
While working as a boundary rider, Upfield was busy planning the perfect crime, or rather the perfect plot for his newly realised fictional detective, Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte of the Queensland Police. With the help of his workmates, Upfield devised the central mechanism of his 1931 novel, The Sands of Windee (London, Hutchinson, 1931), a short story, ‘Wisp of Wool and Disk of Silver’, and unintentionally, a real life murder mystery. One John Thomas Smith, alias Snowy Rowies, a station hand who had assisted Upfield in the search for the perfect murder plot, put it into action. In March 1932 Rowies was found guilty of murder and executed three months later.
The Sands of Windee, serialised in The Western Mail newspaper at the time of Rowies’ Trial, was a major success for Upfield. His own account of the Snowy Rowies story, The Murchison Murders, was published (Sydney, Midget Masterpiece Publishing Company) in 1934. Upfield continued producing Bony thrillers, 29 novels in all, until his death in Bowral, New South Wales, in 1964. The last, The Lake Frome Monster, was completed by J.L. Price and Dorothy Strange and published in 1966.
‘Wisp of Wool and Disk of Silver’ was especially written for the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and is the only short story by Upfield. It is interesting to compare it with The Sands of Windee, if only to discover how authors sometime hate to leave a good idea alone.
It was Sunday. The heat drove the blowflies to roost under the low staging that supported the iron tank outside the kitchen door. The small flies, apparently created solely for the purpose of drowning themselves in the eyes of man and beast, were not noticed by the man lying on the rough bunk set up under the verandah roof. He was reading a mystery story.
The house was of board, and iron-roofed. Nearby were other buildings: a blacksmith’s shop, a truck shed, and a junk house. Beyond them a windmill raised water to a reservoir tank on high stilts, which in turn fed a long line of troughing. This was the outstation at the back of Reefer’s Find.
Reefer’s Find was a cattle ranch. It was not a large station for Australia – a mere half-million acres within its boundary fence. The outstation was forty-odd miles from the main homestead, and that isn’t far in Australia.
Only one rider lived at the outstation – Harry Larkin, who was, this hot Sunday afternoon, reading a mystery story. He had been quartered there for more than a year, and every night at seven o’clock, the boss at the homestead telephoned to give orders for the following day and to be sure he was still alive and kicking. Usually, Larkin spoke to a man face to face about twice a month.
Larkin might have talked to a man more often had he wished. His nearest neighbor lived nine miles away in a small stockman’s hut on the next property, and once they had often met at the boundary by prearrangement. But then Larkin’s neighbor, whose name was William Reynolds, was a difficult man, according to Larkin, and the meetings stopped.
On all sides of this small homestead the land stretched flat to the horizon. Had it not been for the scanty, narrow-leafed mulga and the sick-looking sandalwood trees, plus the mirage which turned a salt bush into a Jack’s beanstalk and a tree into a telegraph pole stuck on a bald man’s head, the horizon would have been as distant as that of the ocean.
A man came stalking through the mirage, the blanket roll on his back making him look like a ship standing on its bowsprit. The lethargic dogs were not aware of the visitor until he was about ten yards from the verandah. So engrossed was Larkin that even the barking of his dogs failed to distract his attention, and the stranger actually reached the edge of the verandah floor and spoke before Larkin was aware of him.
‘He, he! Good day, mate! Flamin’ hot today, ain’t it?’
Larkin swung his legs off the bunk and sat up. What he saw was not usual in this part of Australia – a sundowner, a bush waif who tramps from north to south or from east to west, never working, cadging rations from the far-flung homesteads and having the ability of the camel to do without water, or find it. Sometimes Old Man Sun tricked one of them, and then the vast bushland took him and never gave up the cloth-tattered skeleton.
‘Good day,’ Larkin said, to add with ludicrous inanity, ‘Traveling?’
‘Yes, mate. Makin’ down south.’ The derelict slipped the swag off his shoulder and sat on it. ‘What place is this?’
Larkin told him.
‘Mind me camping here tonight, mate? Wouldn’t be in the way. Wouldn’t be here in the mornin’, either.’
‘You can camp over in the shed,’ Larkin said. ‘And if you pinch anything, I’ll track you and belt the guts out of you.’
A vacuous grin spread over the dust-grimed, bewhiskered face.
‘Me, mate? I wouldn’t pinch nothin’. Could do with a pinch of tea, and a bit of flour. He, he! Pinch – I mean a fistful of tea and sugar, mate.’
Five minutes of this bird would send a man crazy. Larkin entered the kitchen, found an empty tin, and poured into it an equal quantity of tea and sugar. He scooped flour from a sack into a brown paper bag, and wrapped a chunk of salt meat in an old newspaper. On going out to the sundowner, anger surged in him at the sight of the man standing by the bunk and looking through his mystery story.
‘He, he! Detective yarn!’ said the sundowner. ‘I give ‘em away years ago. A bloke does a killing and leaves the clues for the detectives to find. They’re all the same. Why in ‘ell don’t a bloke write about a bloke who kills another bloke and gets away with it? I could kill a bloke and leave no clues.’
‘You could,’ sneered Larkin.
‘Course. Easy. You only gotta use your brain – like me.’
Larkin handed over the rations and edged the visitor off his veranda. The fellow was batty, all right, but harmless as they all are.
‘How would you kill a man and leave no clues?’ he asked.
‘Well, I tell you it’s easy.’ The derelict pushed the rations into a dirty gunny sack and again sat down on his swag. ‘You see, mate, it’s this way. In real life the murderer can’t do away with the body. Even doctors and things like that make a hell of a mess of doing away with a corpse. In fact, they don’t do away with it, mate. They leave parts and bits of it all over the scenery, and then what happens? Why, a detective comes along and he says, ‘Cripes, someone’s been and done a murder! Ah! Watch me track the bloke what done it.’ If you’re gonna commit a murder, you must be able to do away with the body. Having done that, well, who’s gonna prove anything? Tell me that, mate.’
‘You tell me,’ urged Larkin, and tossed his depleted tobacco plug to the visitor. The sundowner gnawed from the plug, almost hit a dog in the eye with a spit, gulped, and settled to the details of the perfect murder.
‘Well, mate, it’s like this. Once you done away with the body, complete, there ain’t nothing left to say that the body ever was alive to be killed. Now, supposin’ I wanted to do you in. I don’t, mate, don’t think that, but I ‘as plenty of time to work things out. Supposin’ I wanted to do you in. Well, me and you is out ridin’ and I takes me chance and shoots you stone-dead. I chooses to do the killin’ where there’s plenty of dead wood. Then I gathers the dead wood and drags your body onto it and fires the wood. Next day, when the ashes are cold, I goes back with a sieve and dolly pot. That’s all I wants then.
‘I takes out your burned bones and I crushes ‘em to dust in the dolly pot. Then I goes through the ashes with the sieve, getting out all the small bones and putting them through the dolly pot. The dust I empties out from the dolly pot for the wind to take. All the metal bits, such as buttons and boot sprigs, I puts in me pocket and carries back to the homestead where I throws ‘em down the well or covers ‘em with sulphuric acid.
‘Almost sure to be a dolly pot here, by the look of the place. Almost sure to be a sieve. Almost sure to be a jar of sulphuric acid for solderin’ work. Every thin’ on tap, like. And just in case the million-to-one chance comes off that someone might come across the fire site and wonder, sort of, I’d shoot a coupler kangaroos, skin ‘em, and burn the carcases on top of the old ashes. You know, to keep the blowies from breeding.’
Harry Larkin looked at the sundowner, and through him. A prospector’s dolly pot, a sieve, a quantity of sulphuric acid to dissolve the metal parts. Yes, they were all here. Given time a man could commit the perfect murder. Time! Two days would be long enough.
The sundowner stood up. ‘Good day, mate. Don’t mind me. He, he! Flamin’ hot, ain’t it? Be cool down south. Well, I’ll be movin’.’
Larkin watched him depart. The bush waif did not stop at the shed to camp for the night. He went on to the windmill and sprawled over the drinking trough to drink. He filled his rusty billy-can, Larkin watching until the mirage to the southward drowned him.
The perfect murder, with aids as common as household remedies. The perfect scene, this land without limits where even a man and his nearest neighbor are separated by nine miles. A prospector’s dolly pot, a sieve, and a pint of soldering acid. Simple! It was as simple as being kicked to death in a stockyard jammed with mules.
‘William Reynolds vanished three months ago, and repeated searches have failed to find even his body.’
Mounted Constable Evans sat stiffly erect in the chair behind the littered desk in the Police Station at Wondong. Opposite him lounged a slight dark-complexioned man having a straight nose, a high forehead, and intensely blue eyes. There was no doubt that Evans was a policeman. None would guess that the dark man with the blue eyes was Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte.
‘The man’s relatives have been bothering Headquarters about William Reynolds, which is why I am here,’ explained Bonaparte, faintly apologetic. ‘I have read your reports, and find them clear and concise. There is no doubt in the Official Mind that, assisted by your black tracker, you have done everything possible to locate Reynolds or his dead body. I may succeed where you and the black tracker failed because I am peculiarly equipped with gifts bequeathed to me by my white father and my aboriginal mother. In me are combined the white man’s reasoning powers and the black man’s perceptions and bushcraft. Therefore, should I succeed there would be no reflection on your efficiency or the powers of your tracker. Between what a tracker sees and what you have been trained to reason, there is a bridge. There is no such bridge between those divided powers in me. Which is why I never fail.’
Having put Constable Evans in a more cooperative frame of mind, Bony rolled a cigarette and relaxed.
‘Thank you, sir,’ Evans said and rose to accompany Bony to the locality map which hung on the wall. ‘Here’s the township of Wondong. Here is the homestead of Morley Downs cattle station. And here, fifteen miles on from the homestead, is the stockman’s hut where William Reynolds lived and worked.
‘There’s no telephonic communication between the hut and the homestead. Once every month the people at the homestead trucked rations to Reynolds. And once every week, every Monday morning, a stockman from the homestead would meet Reynolds midway between homestead and hut to give Reynolds his mail, and orders, and have a yarn with him over a billy of tea.’
‘And then one Monday, Reynolds didn’t turn up,’ Bony added, as they resumed their chairs at the desk.
‘That Monday the homestead man waited four hours for Reynolds,’ continued Evans. ‘The following day the station manager ran out in his car to Reynolds’ hut. He found the ashes on the open hearth stone-cold, the two chained dogs nearly dead of thirst, and that Reynolds hadn’t been at the hut since the day it had rained, three days previously.
‘The manager drove back to the homestead and organized all his men in a search party. They found Reynolds’ horse running with several others. The horse was still saddled and bridled. They rode the country for two days, and then I went out with my tracker to join in. We kept up the search for a week, and the tracker’s opinion was that Reynolds might have been riding the back boundary fence when he was parted from the horse. Beyond that the tracker was vague, and I don’t wonder at it for two reasons. One, the rain had wiped out tracks visible to white eyes, and two, there were other horses in the same paddock. Horse tracks swamped with rain are indistinguishable one from another.’
‘How large is that paddock?’ asked Bony.
‘Approximately two hundred square miles.’
Bony rose and again studied the wall map.
‘On the far side of the fence is this place named Reefer’s Find,’ he pointed out. ‘Assuming that Reynolds had been thrown from his horse and injured, might he not have tried to reach the outstation of Reefer’s Find which, I see, is about three miles from the fence whereas Reynolds’ hut is six or seven?’
‘We thought of that possibility, and we scoured the country on the Reefer’s Find side of the boundary fence,’ Evans replied. ‘There’s a stockman named Larkin at the Reefer’s Find outstation. He joined in the search. The tracker, who had memorized Reynolds’ footprints, found on the earth floor of the hut’s verandah, couldn’t spot any of his tracks on Reefer’s Find country, and the boundary fence, of course, did not permit Reynolds’ horse into that country. The blasted rain beat the tracker. It beat all of us.’
‘Him. Did you know this Reynolds?’
‘Yes. He came to town twice on a bit of a bender. Good type. Good horseman. Good bushman. The horse he rode that day was not a tricky animal. What do Headquarters know of him, sir?’
‘Only that he never failed to write regularly to his mother, and that he had spent four years in the Army from which he was discharged following a head wound.’
‘Head wound! He might have suffered from amnesia. He could have left his horse and walked away – anywhere – walked until he dropped and died from thirst or starvation.’
‘It’s possible. What is the character of the man Larkin?’
‘Average, I think. He told me that he and Reynolds had met when both happened to be riding that boundary fence, the last time being several months before Reynolds vanished.’
‘How many people beside Larkin at that outstation?’
‘No one else excepting when they’re mustering for fats.’
The conversation waned while Bony rolled another cigarette.
‘Could you run me out to Morley Downs homestead?’ he asked.
‘Yes, of course,’ assented Evans.
‘Then kindly telephone the manager and let me talk to him.’
Two hundred square miles is a fairly large tract of country in which to find clues leading to the fate of a lost man, and three months is an appreciable period of time to elapse after a man is reported as lost.
The rider who replaced Reynolds’ successor was blue-eyed and dark-skinned, and at the end of two weeks of incessant reading he was familiar with every acre, and had read every word on this large page of the Book of the Bush.
By now Bony was convinced that Reynolds hadn’t died in that paddock. Lost or injured men had crept into a hollow log to die, their remains found many years afterward, but in this country there were no trees large enough for a man to crawl into. Men had perished and their bodies had been covered with wind-blown sand, and after many years the wind had removed the sand to reveal the skeleton. In Reynolds’ case the search for him had been begun within a week of his disappearance, when eleven men plus a policeman selected for his job because of his bushcraft, and a black tracker selected from among the aborigines who are the best sleuths in the world, had gone over and over the 200 square miles.
Bony knew that, of the searchers, the black tracker would be the most proficient. He knew, too, just how the mind of that aborigine would work when taken to the stockman’s hut and put on the job. Firstly, he would see the lost man’s horse and memorize its hoofprints. Then he would memorize the lost man’s bootprints left on the dry earth beneath the verandah roof. Thereafter he would ride crouched forward above his horse’s mane and keep his eyes directed to the ground at a point a few feet beyond the animal’s nose. He would look for a horse’s tracks and a man’s tracks, knowing that nothing passes over the ground without leaving evidence, and that even half an inch of rain will not always obliterate the evidence left, perhaps, in the shelter of a tree.
That was all the black tracker could be expected to do. He would not reason that the lost man might have climbed a tree and there cut his own throat, or that he might have wanted to vanish and so had climbed over one of the fences into the adjacent paddock, or had, when suffering from amnesia, or the madness brought about by solitude, walked away beyond the rim of the earth.
The first clue found by Bonaparte was a wisp of wool dyed brown. It was caught by a barb of the top wire of the division fence between the two cattle stations. It was about an inch in length and might well have come from a man’s sock when he had climbed over the fence.
It was most unlikely that any one of the searchers for William Reynolds would have climbed the fence. They were all mounted, and when they scoured the neighboring country, they would have passed through the gate about a mile from this tiny piece of flotsam. Whether or not the wisp of wool had been detached from Reynolds’ sock at the time of his disappearance, its importance in this case was that it led the investigator to the second clue.
The vital attribute shared by the aboriginal tracker with Napoleon Bonaparte was patience. To both, Time was of no consequence once they set out on the hunt.
On the twenty-ninth day of his investigation Bony came on the site of a large fire. It was approximately a mile distant from the outstation of Reefer’s Find, and from a point nearby, the buildings could be seen magnified and distorted by the mirage. The fire had burned after the last rainfall – the one recorded immediately following the disappearance of Reynolds – and the trails made by dead tree branches when dragged together still remained sharp on the ground.
The obvious purpose of the fire had been to consume the carcase of a calf, for amid the mound of white ash protruded the skull and bones of the animal. The wind had played with the ash, scattering it thinly all about the original ash mound.
Question: ‘Why had Larkin burned the carcase of the calf?’ Cattlemen never do such a thing unless a beast dies close to their camp. In parts of the continent, carcases are always burned to keep down the blowfly pest, but out here in the interior, never. There was a possible answer, however, in the mentality of the man who lived nearby, the man who lived alone and could be expected to do anything unusual, even burning all the carcases of animals which perished in his domain. That answer would be proved correct if other fire sites were discovered offering the same evidence.
At daybreak the next morning Bony was perched high in a sandalwood tree. There he watched Larkin ride out on his day’s work, and when assured that the man was out of the way, he slid to the ground and examined the ashes and the burned bones, using his hands and his fingers as a sieve.
Other than the bones of the calf, he found nothing but a soft-nosed bullet. Under the ashes, near the edge of the splayed-out mass, he found an indentation on the ground, circular and about six inches in diameter. The bullet and the mark were the second and third clues, the third being the imprint of a prospector’s dolly pot.
‘Do your men shoot calves in the paddocks for any reason?’ Bony asked the manager, who had driven out to his hut with rations. The manager was big and tough, grizzled and shrewd.
‘No, of course not, unless a calf has been injured in some way and is helpless. Have you found any of our calves shot?’
‘None of yours. How do your stockmen obtain their meat supply?’
‘We kill at the homestead and distribute fortnightly a little fresh meat and a quantity of salted beef.’
‘D’you think the man over on Reefer’s Find would be similarly supplied by his employer?’
‘Yes, I think so. I could find out from the owner of Reefer’s Find.’
‘Please do. You have been most helpful, and I do appreciate it. In my role of cattleman it wouldn’t do to have another rider stationed with me, and I would be grateful if you consented to drive out here in the evening for the next three days. Should I not be here, then wait until eight o’clock before taking from the tea tin over there on the shelf a sealed envelope addressed to you. Act on the enclosed instructions.’
‘Very well, I’ll do that.’
‘Thanks. Would you care to undertake a little inquiry for me?’
‘Then talk guardedly to those men you sent to meet Reynolds every Monday and ascertain from them the relationship which existed between Reynolds and Harry Larkin. As is often the case with lonely men stationed near the boundary fence of two properties, according to Larkin he and Reynolds used to meet now and then by arrangement. They may have quarreled. Have you ever met Larkin?’
‘On several occasions, yes,’ replied the manager.
‘And your impressions of him? As a man?’
‘I thought him intelligent. Inclined to be morose, of course, but then men who live alone often are. You are not thinking that -?’
‘I’m thinking that Reynolds is not in your country. Had he been still on your property, I would have found him dead or alive. When I set out to find a missing man, I find him. I shall find Reynolds, eventually – if there is anything of him to find.’
On the third evening that the manager went out to the little hut, Bony showed him a small and slightly convex disk of silver. It was weathered and in one place cracked. It bore the initials J.M.M.
‘I found that in the vicinity of the site of a large fire,’ Bony said. ‘It might establish that William Reynolds is no longer alive.’
Although Harry Larkin was supremely confident, he was not quite happy. He had not acted without looking at the problem from all angles and without having earnestly sought the answer to the question: ‘If I shoot him dead, burn the body on a good fire, go through the ashes for the bones which I pound to dust in a dolly pot, and for the metal bits and pieces which I dissolve in sulphuric acid, how can I be caught?’ The answer was plain.
He had carried through the sundowner’s method of utterly destroying the body of the murder victim, and to avoid the million-to-one-chance of anyone coming across the ashes of the fire and being made suspicious, he had shot a calf as kangaroos were scarce.
Yes, he was confident, and confident that he was justified in being confident. Nothing remained of Bill Reynolds, damn him, save a little grayish dust which was floating around somewhere.
The slight unhappiness was caused by a strange visitation, signs of which he had first discovered when returning home from his work one afternoon. On the ground near the blacksmith’s shop he found a strange set of boot tracks which were not older than two days. He followed these tracks backward to the house, and then forward until he lost them in the scrub.
Nothing in the house was touched, as far as he could see, and nothing had been taken from the blacksmith’s shop, or interfered with. The dolly pot was still in the corner into which he had dropped it after its last employment, and the crowbar was still leaning against the anvil. On the shelf was the acid jar. There was no acid in it. He had used it to dissolve, partially, buttons and the metal band around a pipestem and boot sprigs. The residue of those metal objects he had dropped into a hole in a tree eleven miles away.
It was very strange. A normal visitor, finding the occupier away, would have left a note at the house. Had the visitor been black, he would not have left any tracks, if bent on mischief.
The next day Larkin rode out to the boundary fence and on the way he visited the site of his fire. There he found the plain evidence that someone had moved the bones of the animal and had delved among the ashes still remaining from the action of the wind.
Thus he was not happy, but still supremely confident. They could not tack anything onto him. They couldn’t even prove that Reynolds was dead. How could they when there was nothing of him left?
It was again Sunday, and Larkin was washing his clothes at the outside fire when the sound of horses’ hoofs led him to see two men approaching. His lips vanished into a mere line, and his mind went over all the answers he would give if the police ever did call on him. One of the men he did not know. The other was Mounted Constable Evans.
They dismounted, anchoring their horses by merely dropping the reins to the ground. Larkin searched their faces and wondered who was the slim half-caste with, for a half-caste, the singularly blue eyes.
‘Good day,’ Larkin greeted them.
‘Good day, Larkin,’ replied Constable Evans, and appeared to give his trousers a hitch. His voice was affable, and Larkin was astonished when, after an abrupt and somewhat violent movement, he found himself handcuffed.
‘Going to take you in for the murder of William Reynolds,’ Evans announced. ‘This is Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte.’
‘You must be balmy – or I am,’ Larkin said.
Evans countered with, ‘You are. Come on over to the house. A car will be here in about half an hour.’
The three men entered the kitchen where Larkin was told to sit down.
‘I haven’t done anything to Reynolds, or anyone else,’ asserted Larkin, and for the first time the slight man with the brilliant blue eyes spoke.
‘While we are waiting, I’ll tell you all about it, Larkin. I’ll tell it so clearly that you will believe I was watching you all the time. You used to meet Reynolds at the boundary fence gate, and the two of you would indulge in a spot of gambling – generally at poker. Then one day you cheated and there was a fight in which you were thrashed.
‘You knew what day of the week Reynolds would ride that boundary fence and you waited for him on your side. You held him up and made him climb over the fence while you covered him with your.32 high-power Savage rifle. You made him walk to a place within a mile of here, where there was plenty of dry wood, and there you shot him and burned his body.
‘The next day you returned with a dolly pot and a sieve. You put all the bones through the dolly pot, and then you sieved all the ashes for metal objects in Reynolds’ clothes and burned them up with sulphuric acid. Very neat. The perfect crime, you must agree.’
‘If I done all that, which I didn’t, yes,’ Larkin did agree.
‘Well, assuming that not you but another did all I have outlined, why did the murderer shoot and burn the carcase of a calf on the same fire site?’
‘You tell me,’ said Larkin.
‘Good. I’ll even do that. You shot Reynolds and you disposed of his body, as I’ve related. Having killed him, you immediately dragged wood together and burned the body, keeping the fire going for several hours. Now, the next day, or the day after that, it rained, and that rainfall fixed your actions like words printed in a book. You went through the ashes for Reynolds’ bones before it rained, and you shot the calf and lit the second fire after it rained. You dropped the calf at least two hundred yards from the scene of the murder, and you carried the carcase on your back over those two hundred yards. The additional weight impressed your boot prints on the ground much deeper than when you walk about normally, and although the rain washed out many of your boot prints, it did not remove your prints made when carrying the dead calf. You didn’t shoot the calf, eh?’
‘No, of course I didn’t,’ came the sneering reply. ‘I burned the carcase of a calf that died. I keep my camp clean. Enough blowflies about as it is.’
‘But you burned the calf s carcase a full mile away from your camp. However, you shot the calf, and you shot it to burn the carcase in order to prevent possible curiosity. You should have gone through the ashes after you burned the carcase of the calf and retrieved the bullet fired from your own rifle.’
Bony smiled, and Larkin glared.
Constable Evans said, ‘Keep your hands on the table, Larkin.’
‘You know, Larkin, you murderers often make me tired,’ Bony went on. ‘You think up a good idea, and then fall down executing it.
‘You thought up a good one by dollying the bones and sieving the ashes for the metal objects on a man’s clothes and in his boots, and then – why go and spoil it by shooting a calf and burning the carcase on the same fire site? It wasn’t necessary. Having pounded Reynolds’ bones to ash and scattered the ash to the four corners, and having retrieved from the ashes the remaining evidence that a human body had been destroyed, there was no necessity to burn a carcase. It wouldn’t have mattered how suspicious anyone became. Your biggest mistake was burning that calf. That act connects you with that fire.’
‘Yes, well, what of it?’ Larkin almost snarled. ‘I got a bit lonely livin’ here alone for months, and one day I sorta got fed up. I seen the calf, and I up with me rifle and took a pot shot at it.’
‘It won’t do,’ Bony said, shaking his head. ‘Having taken a pot shot at the calf, accidentally killing it, why take a dolly pot to the place where you burned the carcase? You did carry a dolly pot, the one in the blacksmith’s shop, to the scene of the fire, for the imprint of the dolly pot on the ground is still plain in two places.’
‘Pretty good tale, I must say,’ said Larkin. ‘You still can’t prove that Bill Reynolds is dead.’
‘No?’ Bony’s dark face registered a bland smile, but his eyes were like blue opals. ‘When I found a wisp of brown wool attached to the boundary fence, I was confident that Reynolds had climbed it, merely because I was sure his body was not on his side of the fence. You made him walk to the place where you shot him, and then you saw the calf and the other cattle in the distance, and you shot the calf and carried it to the fire.
‘I have enough to put you in the dock, Larkin – and one other little thing which is going to make certain you’ll hang. Reynolds was in the Army during the war. He was discharged following a head wound. The surgeon who operated on Reynolds was a specialist in trepanning. The surgeon always scratched his initials on the silver plate he inserted into the skull of a patient. He has it on record that he operated on William Reynolds, and he will swear that the plate came from the head of William Reynolds, and will also swear that the plate could not have been detached from Reynolds’ head without great violence.’
‘It wasn’t in the ashes,’ gasped Larkin, and then realized his slip.
‘No, it wasn’t in the ashes, Larkin,’ Bony agreed. ‘You see, when you shot him at close quarters, probably through the forehead, the expanding bullet took away a portion of the poor fellow’s head – and the trepanning plate. I found the plate lodged in a sandalwood tree growing about thirty feet from where you burned the body.’
Larkin glared across the table at Bony, his eyes freezing as he realized that the trap had indeed sprung on him. Bony was again smiling. He said, as though comfortingly, ‘Don’t fret, Larkin. If you had not made all those silly mistakes, you would have made others equally fatal. Strangely enough, the act of homicide always throws a man off balance. If it were not so, I would find life rather boring.’
The 1930s and 1940s were times of great opportunity for Australian writers. Magazines and newspapers published original fiction, publishers clamoured to sign new names, particularly in the mystery field, and for those capable of mastering the exacting art of scriptwriting, radio beckoned with almost non-stop work.
One of the more interesting talents of the time was Archibald Edward Martin. Born in Adelaide in 1885, Martin worked in a variety of fields including boxing promoter, showman, theatrical press agent for such groups as J.C. Williamson, film importer, travel agent, and sometimes journalist. In this latter role, he assisted C.J. Dennis in the establishment of the satirical weekly journal, The Gadfly.
In 1912 he travelled to Europe, signing acts for a variety circus that toured Australia the following year. The people he met in this endeavour, and throughout the next few decades in the theatre world, provided the basis for many of his future stories.
In 1942 he won the £1,000 first prize in a literary competition organised by The Australian Women’s Weekly. The novel, Common People, was published by Consolidated Press in 1944. With a circus background, this mystery had as its central character, a personable spruiker and con-man by the name of Pel Pelham.
Pelham made a return in a later Martin mystery, The Chinese Bed Mysteries (London, Max Reinhardt, 1955), which also used a circus backdrop. Among his many superior thrillers is the notable Sinners Never Die (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1944).
Martin’s short fiction was widely published in Australia and in such celebrated overseas publications as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post. Three Martin stories also appeared in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. ‘The Power of the Leaf, ‘The Scarecrow Murders’ and ‘The Flying Corpse.’ The last, another with a circus background, won third prize in the magazine’s 1947 International Mystery Competition. He adapted Sinners Never Die and Death in the Limelight (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1946) into radio plays, and went on to write a number of 52 episode serials for producer George Edwards.
Martin died in 1955, soon after the publication of The Chinese Bed Mysteries. His last novel, The Hive of Glass, was completed by his son, Jim Martin. Interestingly, Martin’s last novel, just like his first, won a competition organised by an Australian publisher. It was released by Rigby in 1963.
The Power of the Leaf undoubtedly ranks among Martin’s finest stories. After it appeared in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine it was included in an anthology, The Queen’s Awards (London, Gollancz, 1950).
In the year 1847 Ooloo of the Narranyeri, busy with his boomerangs and wresting by violence a living from territory where, as yet, no man had planted seed, was delighted when the headman put the message stick in his hand and sent him on a peaceable mission to the neighbouring Munamulla tribe. He took no arms with him but his boomerang and the throwing-stick carved for him by his young son, now grievously dead, and pointed with a barb made from a spike taken from a sting ray.
Ooloo was old now and greyer than he had been a month ago when his son had been brought to him tossing his head, frothing at the mouth, and flailing his arms. It was all too evident, as the medicine man had said, that someone had pointed a stick at Young Oo-omal – a stick with several sharp, twisted prongs – and that the stick had entered the lad’s body attached to an invisible string upon which some unseen enemy had pulled and thus brought about the painful quivering.
The medicine man had watched his patient for an hour, crouching before the writhing form, and then, leaping abruptly, had succeeded in seizing and cutting the unseen string. Shuddering and moaning himself, he had sucked the place of pain, extracting for all to see broken pieces of the barbed stick. Gradually, Oo-omal’s convulsions had subsided and it was plain to everyone that he had no more agony – plainest of all to his stricken father who knew he was dead.
As he tramped through the bush, his eye wary lest he be attacked before he could produce his symbol of peace, Ooloo thought much of the unknown enemy who had struck down his son. The medicine man had been vague. The lad would have lived, he asserted, had he been brought to him a few moments earlier. The enemy? One of great power, living at a distance. He waved in a general direction and promised he would keep an eye open.
All this Ooloo had found unsatisfactory. Resting beneath a giant gum in the territory of the Munamullas, he meditated deeply, permitting himself the luxury of a thought that astonished and then intrigued him. Perhaps the medicine man was not as powerful as he pretended. He began to wonder. Whence did these men derive their authority? From dreams, they said, but, after all, one had only their word for what they dreamed.
It would be very nice, Ooloo thought, to possess the influence of a medicine man and live easily at others’ expense.
Unyama, the Munamulla headman, received him courteously. He was in a genial mood. It had been a good season, game was plentiful, and the request of the Narranyeri not unreasonable. Besides, he loved to gossip and all he lacked was a new listener. It was a pity, he told Ooloo, he had not reached the camp a day earlier when he might have witnessed the trial of a young man who had murdered his hunting companion. The affair had had some interesting and puzzling features. Firstly, there was no dead body; secondly, the murderer himself had brought news of his friend’s death; thirdly, the young man, owing to a certain popularity because of his gift for story-telling, had been offered the opportunity of admitting himself mad and thus, for his life-time, enjoying all the privileges of the happy-minded – and had refused. And so, shortly, he must be speared to death by the uncle of the young man he had killed.
It was a pity, Unyama declared, that the tribe should lose one who was undaunted in the hunt, clever beyond his fellows in tracking and killing game, who had faithfully obeyed the injunctions of the old men at his initiation and had never been known to covet or molest the young women. But the medicine man, Urgali, had demanded the death sentence, maintaining that evil would befall the tribe if the murderer were not eliminated.
‘If it is permissible, I should like to see this young man,’ Ooloo said, ‘for it would seem he has some of the qualities I saw in my own son and while I do not condone the murder of one’s companions, you have said sufficient to intrigue me. I wish I had arrived in time to hear his story from his own lips.’
The guest had expressed a wish. Hospitality demanded that it should be fulfilled. Unyama thought of the tribe’s well stocked larder and ease with which even the youngest children and the oldest gins could collect a meal of fat white grubs or caterpillars. They had plenty of everything and of all things of which they had an abundance they had most of time.
‘It shall be as you desire,’ he told Ooloo. ‘The uncle of Kuduna can bring his poisoned spear tomorrow. Today we shall question Wendourie again and you, a stranger and therefore impartial, shall give us the benefit of your wisdom and advice.’
Ooloo sat upon a tree stump in the place of honour beside the headman. In a semicircle before them sat the men of the tribe, the greyheads squatting in the front rows, behind them the young bucks; at the rear and at a respectful distance, the women. On the outskirts, too far away for their noisy fun to distract, the children played.
‘Let Wendourie be brought,’ Unyama ordered.
‘Wait.’ It was Urgali, the Munamulla medicine man, striding toward them. He was long and thin and the lines of pipe-clay drawn in half-circles from shoulder to hip and down the thighs and shins emphasised his height and his authority. He paused in front of the headman. ‘Last night,’ he announced, ‘I projected myself into space. I saw many things on the earth below and much in the sky above. I searched behind the thickest and blackest clouds but I saw nothing to bear out the story Wendourie has told. Many heard me returning to earth. Is it not so?’ he cried, throwing out his skinny hands in a gesture of appeal to the young bucks.
‘It is so,’ they shouted.
‘I descended into a large tree and made my way through the branches. I was heard. Is it not so?’
‘It is so,’ the young men cried again.
‘And leaped to the ground in the presence of some, leaving my footprints for all to see. I twisted my ankle. Behold, I limp.’ He demonstrated, walking up and down, lamely, then, stopping in front of the headman and Ooloo, folded his arms. ‘I have spoken,’ he said. ‘It is unwise to hold further talk upon this matter.’
‘We have a guest,’ Unyama said. ‘He cannot be deprived of our hospitality.’
‘Death waits for us all,’ Ooloo said quietly. ‘It will not mind waiting a little longer for Wendourie.’
‘Besides,’ the headman said, ‘it will pass the time of which we have more than enough.’ He called his guest’s attention to the approach of a young man, guarded on either side by three bucks. ‘See, here is Wendourie. Let us hear his story again that our friend may carry word of our justice to the Narranyeri.’
Ooloo, gazing at the young man who stepped, unarmed, before his headman, felt a sudden tug at his throat, for here was his own son again. The same age, the same proud stance, the same clear eye flashing defiance.
‘Wendourie,’ the headman said gravely, ‘would it not be wise to confess that all you have said is but a fine story and one that will go down to our children and their children and be repeated at campfires long, long after we have all joined the spirits?’
‘All I have spoken,’ the young man said, ‘is the truth.’
Unyama said, ‘So be it. Here is a stranger who is our welcome guest. He would hear what you have to say.’
Wendourie looked long and earnestly as if he would divine what manner of man Ooloo was. The old one said, ‘Be of courage.’
Wendourie bowed. ‘When the stranger goes he will take the truth with him.’
The medicine man, Urgali, made an impatient gesture. ‘So be it,’ he said and pointed a skinny finger. ‘You, Wendourie, went forth with your friend, Kuduna. But you returned alone. Why?’
Wendourie folded his arms. ‘It is as I have said. A hole was suddenly in his forehead and he was dead.’
‘A small hole, you said?’ The headman was anxious his guest should be impressed.
‘No larger than the top of my thumb,’ Wendourie agreed.
Urgali cried, ‘So small a thing! Had I been there I would have sucked the place and spat out the magic.’
Wendourie regarded him calmly. ‘Since you are so powerful, why did you not know what had happened?’
There was a murmur of surprise and awe at the boldness of the question. Unyama shifted uneasily on his seat, wondering how the medicine man would take it, but Ooloo, with his own private views, found his heart warming to the young man. Urgali made light of it. He bent double and cackled with thin laughter. ‘Why did I not know, simple one?’ he asked at length, looking toward the young men for support. ‘Because it never happened!’
The following laughter was quickly suppressed by Unyama. ‘This is not a campfire gossip,’ he said. ‘Let us behave with circumspection before our visitor. Let us make it plain to him what happened!’
Urgali bowed low. ‘With all respect,’ he said, ‘I submit it should first be made plain to our guest that our young men are not so effete that they die from trifling holes in their foreheads.’
‘It is known far and wide that we are a hardy race,’ Unyama said. ‘Let us not dally with self-evident facts. Proceed, Wendourie.’
The young man said, ‘We, Kuduna and I, were three days’ walk from here when…’
Urgali was waving his arms, shouting, ‘Hear, you of the Narranyeri. There was wrongdoing from the beginning. Three days from here in the direction which Wendourie took would take him into the territory of the Koliju.’ He whirled on the accused man. ‘Did you carry a message stick?’
‘You were trespassing with evil intent?’
‘No. I did not realise where we were.’
‘So!’ Urgali looked about him triumphantly. ‘The great hunter, Wendourie, was lost.’
The young men in the semicircle laughed and even the grey-heads smiled but Ooloo remarked smoothly, ‘It might be. Temporarily, of course. I myself, busy with my thoughts, have sometimes momentarily forgotten my exact whereabouts.’
Urgali spoke with false deference. ‘But you, welcome one, are weighted with years. You have much to ponder. Wendourie, however, is young and without responsibility.’ He pointed an emaciated finger at the youth. ‘I suggest to you that you lured Kuduna into foreign territory the more easily to hide his body.’
Unyama said testily, ‘Let us get on with the matter of the magic tracks. Proceed, Wendourie.’
The young man said, ‘Kuduna saw them first and called to me excitedly. It was late in the day but there was still time to follow them. They were like no tracks I have ever seen. At first they were a little confused but presently they became quite clear.’
Unyama beckoned one of Wendourie’s guards. ‘Bring two long sticks with blunt ends,’ he ordered and said in an undertone to his guest, ‘Now you will see something.’
The medicine man said, ‘We have had all this before.’
‘I am anxious to see and know all,’ Ooloo remarked suavely, and presently Wendourie was holding the sticks that had been brought, one in either hand, trailing them after him, pressing their ends into the dusty ground, making two roughly parallel lines.
He explained to Ooloo. ‘Thus were the tracks, but thicker and even and always even, and ever between them great marks made by some monster.’
‘Bigger than the pads of the great kangaroo?’ Urgali enquired.
‘Bigger and different.’
The medicine man appealed to the greyheads. ‘You who have hunted all your long lives, have you known pads larger than the giant kangaroo’s?’
Unyama turned to Ooloo. ‘Wendourie thought they were the marks of spirits. Is it not so?’
‘It was so,’ the young man agreed. ‘We were frightened and Kuduna was terrified by the sight and the strangeness of the smell but I persuaded him to follow the tracks. On and on they went, the two broad lines, never approaching each other and always with the same queer marks between, and suddenly Kuduna trembled and would go no further.’
‘But you,’ the medicine man interposed with sarcasm, ‘were unafraid?’
‘No,’ Wendourie said gravely. ‘I was very frightened because of what I had seen in the tree.’
‘Tell our guest what you had seen,’ Unyama said, watching Ooloo to note the effect of what was coming.
‘Someone… something had grasped a bough in passing.’
Unyama could not restrain himself. ‘Later,’ he told Ooloo eagerly, ‘he saw that other boughs had been grasped and the yellow blossoms and leaves scattered as though whole branches had disappeared.’
‘It is nothing,’ the medicine man said. ‘Children at their games…’
‘To grasp these branches,’ Wendourie said, ‘one would have had to sit upon my shoulders.’
‘To pluck the blossoms of which he speaks a man must need be a giant,’ Unyama emphasised, anxious that his guest should thoroughly understand.
‘I have a very clear picture.’ Ooloo said dryly, and addressed the young man. ‘You think, Wendourie, the hand that grasped the high branches and scattered the yellow blossoms belonged to the monster which made the strange tracks between the parallel lines?’
‘I did,’ Wendourie said, ‘and then I didn’t know what to think.’
‘Listen to this carefully,’ Unyama bade his visitor quite unnecessarily, for the Narranyeri man was absorbed in the recital.
Wendourie said, ‘Suddenly, in an open space, there were the tracks of a man.’
‘Coming from nowhere,’ Unyama implemented.
‘Ah!’ The medicine man smiled. ‘Tell us, young man, of the origin of these miraculous tracks.’
Unyama, greedy for his guest’s reaction, was not disappointed when Wendourie answered, ‘They were made by a man without toes.’
Urgali threw back his head and cackled. ‘And so,’ he cried, ‘now it seems we have two strange lines which never come closer each to the other, which is an impossibility as has been proved by every young man in the tribe who has experimented with trailing sticks; strange tracks of animals bigger than exist; and lastly, a man without toes!’
‘It may be that his toes had been cut off,’ Ooloo suggested.
‘Wait till you hear,’ Unyama said, his eyes bright. ‘Tell him, Wendourie.’
‘The toes had not been cut off,’ the young man said. ‘They were just not there; but the whole foot was the same shape and bigger than mine.’
‘Much bigger?’ Ooloo enquired.
‘Only slightly bigger,’ Wendourie explained.
‘You are sure it was a man’s track?’
‘It smelled like a man’s but not a man of our tribe, nor,’ – with a little bow to Ooloo – ‘of one of the Narranyeri.’
‘Answer the question,’ Urgali shouted. ‘Was it a man’s track?’
‘But for being toeless, it was a man’s.’
Urgali’s contemptuous glance swept the semicircle of tribesmen. ‘I ask the young men. I appeal to the greyheads. Where shall we find a toeless man? How would he climb trees? How pick up without stooping?’
The headman smothered the titter that followed. ‘Silence!’ he barked. ‘The man’s life may depend upon this.’ He whispered to Ooloo, ‘Now comes a very amazing statement.’
Wendourie said, ‘The tracks made by the toeless one ran, for a few yards alongside and outside one of the two, broad, parallel lines and then disappeared.’
‘But the tracks such as Wendourie has described, the two lines never varying in distance each from the other, went on,’ Unyama informed his guest.
Urgali bent his great height, stooping toward the young man in mock humility. ‘I am overwhelmed,’ he said. ‘I – Urgali, who consort with demons… demons peaceably inclined toward the Munamulla,’ he added hastily, ‘I, who can leave my sleeping form in my hut and travel the heavens by night and am versed in all magic, am willing to be taught. What is the explanation for the sudden disappearance of the toeless man’s tracks? Was the man absorbed into the earth? Did he fly into the sky? Did he evaporate?’
‘I thought,’ Wendourie said simply, ‘the monster had eaten the man.’
‘Tut, tut,’ Urgali protested. ‘You must do better than that. Had the tracks not abruptly appeared? Are you suggesting that this so-called monster was walking about alternately spewing out and gobbling up this remarkable toeless man?’
Unyama said testily, ‘Get on, get on. We are not here to listen to suggestions but to hear the whole story.’ He glanced at Ooloo for approval and signalled Wendourie to speak. Urgali, however, waved his long arms. ‘I think,’ he urged, ‘we are entitled to know what Kuduna thought of this miracle.’
The young man said, ‘We were both very frightened,’ Kuduna said, ‘truly, here are signs of a magic-man more powerful than any we have known – one who makes our own medicine man look like a child.’
Unyama covered his thick lips with his hand to conceal his smile and with his elbow nudged Ooloo in the ribs, calling his attention to Urgali’s scowl. ‘Continue, Wendourie,’ he said.
‘What Kuduna said or thought is immaterial.’
‘Night came,’ the young man continued. ‘We feared much but we heard nothing, saw nothing, smelled nothing. And in the dawn we saw that the tracks had gone.’
‘Very convenient,’ the medicine man said with fine sarcasm.
‘Very convenient, indeed. Like the remarkable toeless man, this alleged monster which, apparently, was trailing a couple of large snakes, one in either hand, disappeared into space, snakes and all.’
‘It had rained heavily in the night,’ Wendourie explained. ‘I know of no tracks which will stand against such rain.’
‘You were three days’ walk from here,’ Urgali snarled. ‘Only Kuduna could confirm this opportune rain. And so ends the first part of an ingenious story. It leaves Kuduna alive and well, if a little frightened at what no doubt I could have easily explained had I been on the spot. Now we come to Kuduna dead.’
Unyama shifted uneasily on his tree stump. He whispered to Ooloo, ‘I am afraid, as a logical man, I cannot accept what Wendourie will now relate. However, I don’t want to say anything to influence you.’ He motioned the young man to go on.
‘Kuduna wished to return to camp but I persuaded him to stay,’ Wendourie said. ‘If the monster has eaten the toeless one, he will be no longer hungry and will spare us, I told him. And then, of a sudden, there was salt in our nostrils and I knew we must be close to the great water which Kuduna had never seen. In his eagerness I think he forgot the monster and the strange tracks. As we crept through the scrub a voice shouted and it was like no voice we had ever heard and what is said was meaningless to us. We crouched, trembling, behind a bush but none spoke again, and by and by Kuduna raised his head cautiously. ‘Look!’ he cried in astonishment, and then there came the sound of a devil cracking a giant whip and it was as if the earth and the boulders about us had become alive with hidden monsters shouting one to the other.
‘I looked at Kuduna and he had fallen and was lying very still and I saw that he had a little hole in his forehead. I shook him and he did not move, and I knew he was dead, and I was very frightened that one could be dead so swiftly and from so simple a hurt, and I turned and ran and ran.’
Wendourie covered his eyes with his hands for a few moments before he went on. ‘But the shame of running away made me stop at last and wait, hiding. I heard nothing and could see nothing, and presently I decided to go back.’
‘Go back and face a thousand devils?’ the medicine man sneered.
‘No; go back and get Kuduna and bring him to the camp.’
‘It is a pity you didn’t carry out so noble a resolve,’ Urgali said. ‘I would undoubtedly have saved him.’
Unyama whispered in Ooloo’s ear. ‘He is very powerful in magic. I’m obliged to let him have his head a bit.’ To Wendourie he said, ‘Proceed.’
‘I went back slowly and very fearfully to the spot where I had left Kuduna,’ Wendourie told them, ‘but he wasn’t there.’
Urgali barked. ‘Hah! He was dead when you abandoned him but had gone when you returned. Tell us, brave boy, since when have the newly dead walked?’ He smirked. ‘Come, come, Wendourie. Let us return to this thing Kuduna saw before the small hole came in his head. What had he seen?’
‘I don’t know,’ Wendourie admitted.
‘Oh, but surely your fertile brain can invent something?’
‘I invent nothing,’ Wendourie said with spirit. ‘The terrible whip crack which woke the lurking demons frightened me, so I fled at once.’
‘But having overcome this fear,’ Urgali urged, ‘what did you do?’
‘I came back to the camp and told my story to the headman.’
‘And a very good story it makes,’ the medicine man said. ‘Unfortunately, it is no more than a story. And it lacks a happy ending.’
‘That is true,’ Unyama said. ‘If only you would admit you were mad, Wendourie…’
Urgali snapped, ‘He was not mad when he killed Kuduna.’
A greyhead in the front row of the semicircle arose and held aloft his spear. ‘I demand the life of this man who killed my brother’s son,’ he said. ‘Let him be killed at once lest he talk his way out of punishment.’
Ooloo said, ‘Patience, old one. Among the Narranyeri when there is a killing it is always asked, ‘Why was this thing done?’ Why, I ask you, should Wendourie kill his friend, Kuduna?’
The headman gaped, but Urgali shouted promptly, ‘Why? Because the hot blood of youth leaps in his veins. If his secret heart spoke it would tell you he was jealous of Kuduna and some young women.’
Unyama pondered. ‘Nothing of that has reached my ears,’ he said at length. ‘Is it true, Wendourie?’
‘It is not true,’ Wendourie said.
‘Words are cheap on the lips of campfire entertainers,’ Urgali scoffed. ‘But, by tomorrow’s dawn, all shall be known. With my magic I shall discover this woman who has remained silent and she will confess and provide the motive for this secret killing.’ He threw up his arms, palms out, subduing the murmur of the tribesmen and the distant gins. ‘Tonight will be an evil night,’ he warned. ‘Since the dead lies unavenged, let none stir from the huts in the hour before the dawn for there will be malignancy in the air.’ He addressed the headman. ‘This night, Unyama, I will soar into the clouds and, looking down, spy out that woman who is withholding evidence. I, Urgali the all-powerful, will confer with ghosts.’
Unyama looked uneasy. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Wendourie shall be brought before us tomorrow. If this woman exists we shall question her.’
‘One moment, if you please, headman,’ Ooloo begged. He leaned toward Wendourie. ‘Think well, young man. Is there not something that may help prove the truth of your story? Something which, perhaps, till now you have forgotten or refrained from mentioning.’
Wendourie hesitated; then, with sudden resolve, he thrust his fingers into the folds of his possum-skin belt. He said, as he withdrew his hand, ‘This I will give to no man but Unyama or his guest.’
Unyama frowned at what Wendourie was holding and held back, but Ooloo took it while the medicine man peered. ‘It is a leaf,’ Urgali suggested.
‘Have you ever seen such a leaf?’ Wendourie asked. ‘Is there a feather so light? Do you know of a leaf so thin or so white?’
Urgali said offhandedly, ‘In far parts grow many curious plants. This one has been blown hither.’
‘Examine closely,’ Wendourie invited the Narranyeri man. ‘You will note there are no veins.’
‘It is smothered in veins,’ the medicine man contradicted as Ooloo held the thing up to the sun.
‘No,’ Ooloo said meditatively. ‘They are not veins because they connect with no common stem. There is no stem.’
Unyama spoke uneasily. ‘Do you think, Wendourie, this thing was left by the monster of which you spoke?’
‘I do not know,’ Wendourie said. ‘I saw it clinging to a bush.’
‘It is of no consequence,’ Urgali said. ‘It is evident that Wendourie seeks to divert our minds and delude us with this leaf he has happened upon. Drowning in his own infamy, he clutches at reeds. But I warn him, this pallid thing he has plucked from a bush of his imagining will not save him from the vengeance of Kudana’s kinsman. He may clutch at the reed but the waters of the billabong will close over him.’
Unyama whispered to Ooloo, ‘He does this sort of thing rather well but, personally, it bores me.’
It had not escaped the Narranyeri man’s notice that, although Urgali ranted with assurance, he was a little puzzled and concerned about the thing he had maintained was a leaf. ‘This may mean much,’ Ooloo said.
‘Or little,’ Urgali scoffed. ‘If the thing were placed in my hands I would study it tonight and learn its implication.’
Wendourie shook his head. ‘Tonight you can describe it to the ghosts.’
The medicine man drew himself up proudly. ‘That will I do,’ he said thunderously, ‘for am I not all-powerful?’
‘There is in Ooloo’s hand something more powerful than medicine men,’ Wendourie said quietly.
‘Pah,’ Urgali exploded. ‘More powerful than I, say you?’ He frowned at the headman. ‘Did I not suck devil stones from your wife’s cousin? Have I not a belt made from the hair of a witch’s mother-in-law that will heal battle wounds?’ He went on, boastfully, ‘Can I not spit into a man’s footmark and render him lame? And did I not and but recently, as a simple experiment, throw into the body of a total stranger, and at a distance, a barbed stick attached to an invisible string which I tugged – to bring first intolerable pain, then death?’
Unyama shuffled uneasily but Ooloo stiffened on his seat on the tree stump. ‘Are such things possible?’ he murmured. ‘Is it really true, great Urgali, this matter of the barbed stick and the invisible string?’
‘That and many other wonders have I worked with surprising ease,’ the medicine man said grandly, ‘Tonight I will float in the air and confer with ghosts. Tomorrow I will bring before Unyama the woman Wendourie coveted.’ He strode off, limping, and all waited in silence till he had disappeared.
Unyama sighed. ‘Oh, dear,’ he said, ‘now we’ve offended him. Wendourie has not helped his case by mocking him. Perhaps it would have been better had I permitted Kuduna’s uncle to use his spear. However, tomorrow Urgali will tell us what the spirits advise and bring before us the young woman. We may then be able to put Wendourie to death with an easier conscience.’ He dismissed the assemblage.
In the early dark Ooloo left the stifling hut of the headman, leaving him snoring by the fire, and made his way to where the young men were guarding Wendourie. Hospitality demanded they should open the way for him. ‘Young man,’ he began, when he was alone with the prisoner, ‘you spoke boldly, questioning the power of Urgali. Have you no faith in medicine men?’
‘In Urgali, none, Welcome guest.’
‘And yet he had killed at a distance, throwing at a stranger an invisible barb held by an invisible string.’
‘He has said it.’
‘I know it to be true.’
Wendourie considered this. ‘Since you say it, it must be the truth,’ he said slowly. ‘I am bewildered. I have been taught to believe but often I doubt. There is this business of soaring in the clouds, for instance.’
‘Urgali has promised tonight to confer with ghosts.’
‘Tomorrow, when the sun rises,’ Wendourie said with a half-smile, ‘there will be a great rustling of leaves and shaking of branches in the highest gumtree. Those who watch will see him leap to the ground. All will be able to follow his tracks back to his hut. But, if they searched, they would see also the earlier tracks he made when he walked to the tree in the darkness before dawn. They would see the marks on the bole and know that he had climbed up as well as down.’
Ooloo regarded the young man steadily. ‘Then, if one dared be abroad at the dread hour before dawn about which your medicine man warned the tribe, he might see Urgali on the way to his ghosts?’
‘Is there one who would dare?’ Wendourie asked. ‘I will tell you now there is none among the Munamulla.’ He shrugged his shoulders and added bitterly, ‘It will be said Urgali’s ghosts are against me and he will drag before Unyama some timid girl out of whom he has frightened the wits and she will confess that I loved her and Kuduna loved her and it will be made manifest that I killed him because of my jealousy.’
Ooloo took from his belt that which Wendourie had given him. ‘If this be a leaf,’ he said, ‘there is no leaf like it in all our world. With this strange thing a man might become mighty in magic.’
Wendourie said, ‘I know not what it is but it has some connection with the monster whose tracks I followed and the devil sounds I heard.’ He hesitated and asked, ‘Why do you speak to me with such kindness?’
‘Because,’ Ooloo told him, ‘I believe you have spoken the truth even as my son who is grievously dead would have spoken. To none have I told this but he, too, questioned the magic of the medicine men.’
‘And you?’ Wendourie asked. ‘How much do you believe?’
‘Some things I believe,’ the older man said simply, ‘but often, like you, I am bewildered. If at times there is deception, it does not follow there is never truth.’ He hesitated briefly and went on softly, ‘If I had this leaf for my very own, I might accomplish much. Will you give it to me?’
‘Is it not in your hands? I cannot take it from you?’
‘Nevertheless, I ask for it.’
‘You have been kind. It is yours.’
Ooloo smiled. ‘With this magic I shall save your life.’
Abruptly he left.
In the morning, early, Urgali the medicine man was found dead of a blow and lying beneath the tallest gum. His tracks made it clear that he had been going toward the tree and had almost reached the trunk when he had been struck down by the nulla-nulla found lying beside his body. The headman had been barely awakened with the news than there came a wailing from the hut of the kinsman of Kuduna. The man’s wife told how, in the dread hour against which they had been warned, her husband had heard a strange voice softly calling his name. She had begged him to ignore it but, vastly curious, he had put his head outside. No more than his head, she was sure, but she saw his whole body shoot into the dark without and he had not returned. She had waited, trembling, till dawn and found him but a few yards from the hut, lying beneath a small tree, his head mangled. A bloodstained nulla-nulla lay beside him.
When the old men had been summoned, Unyama said, ‘Urgali is dead. The uncle of Kuduna is dead. It is for us to discover who has done this violence.’
‘Who but Wendourie?’ a greyhead asked and there was a chorus of approval. ‘Let him die at once.’
Unyama shook his head. ‘Are we of lesser wisdom that the Narranyeri? Shall we not ask ourselves what reason Wendourie had for killing these men?’
An old man rose and said mildly, ‘To me it is quite evident. Today Urgali was to have produced the young girl he coveted.’
Unyama frowned. ‘True,’ he said. ‘Let Wendourie be brought.’
Ooloo, standing beside him in the open space, suggested, ‘Let also the six young men who guarded him through the night be brought.’
The headman gave the order. ‘Let us be grateful for the wisdom of our welcome guest,’ he said to the greyheads. ‘Since he is a stranger and impartial, I propose to let him question Wendourie.’
The prisoner was brought, three guards on either side of him, and Ooloo asked, ‘How did you spend the night, young man?’
Wendourie looked surprised. ‘Why, how but in sleep?’
‘Since I am a prisoner, all know that.’
Ooloo beckoned a young buck. ‘Does he speak true? Did he once leave the hut?’
The man explained how guard had been kept. Always while three slept, three stayed awake.
‘He is undisputed evidence, trebly confirmed,’ Ooloo said. ‘Wendourie never left the hut and thus could not have killed Urgali nor the kinsman of Kuduna.’
‘Who then is the slayer?’ Unyama asked.
Ooloo asked, ‘Who would be abroad in the hour before the dawn?’
‘No one,’ Unyama said promptly. ‘Were we not warned by Urgali of the dread hour?’
‘Then,’ Ooloo said, ‘since Wendourie slept and it is agreed that none other would venture out at the hour these men died, it is evident that the spirits are angry.’ Deferring to Unyama he asked that the nulla-nullas with which the two men were killed should be brought.
When the blood-stained weapons were set before him, he lifted one and held it by the ends, twirling it about, examining it closely while Unyama watched, fascinated. ‘It is as I thought,’ he said at last. ‘See, Unyama.’ He nodded his head and the headman saw. In the centre of a blood splotch, adhering to the nulla-nulla by a bit of gum, was a piece of the strange leaf found by Wendourie. Ooloo took up the other nulla-nulla and there, also, was a piece of the leaf in the very midst of the horrid stains.
But Unyama had seen something else. ‘These are my nulla-nullas,’ he gasped.
‘It is very simple,’ Ooloo said, confidently. ‘The ghosts did not wait for Urgali but in their anger came for him.’ He looked at Unyama. ‘Since they used your nulla-nullas, it is evident that they were in our hut, invisibly, as we slept. Indeed, this much I know, for with the first streak of dawn I wakened and took from my belt the magic thing Wendourie had found clinging to the bush, and, behold, it was smaller.’ He fumbled for a moment and produced the strange leaf, holding it out to Unyama who took it with some trepidation. ‘Observe,’ he said, ‘that the two scraps on the nulla-nullas might be fitted perfectly into the larger.’
Unyama said in awe, ‘What does it mean?’
‘It means,’ Ooloo told him, ‘so long as any of this magic leaf remains, death will visit the tribe.’ He frowned at the thing lying on Unyama’s reluctant palm and went on, judicially, ‘I estimate there is enough left to make fifty bloodied nulla-nullas.’
Unyama shuddered and hastily placed the thing he held on a tree stump. ‘Let no man touch it,’ he cried largely, ‘till this matter has been investigated.’
‘It has been investigated,’ Ooloo said coolly. ‘It is plain that the spirits are angry with those who demanded Wendourie’s death. First, it was Urgali and he is dead; then the kinsman of Kuduna and he also is dead. Who else cried for his death?’
‘Not I,’ Unyama said hastily. ‘I always felt the boy was innocent.’
One of the old men cried, ‘Look,’ and pointed. The ‘leaf had fallen from the tree stump and, fluttered by the breeze, was trailing along the ground. A tiny spiral of dust began to move toward it, growing in density, and presently it had become part of the incipient willy-willy. Caught by a current of air, it leaped up, dived, then rose abruptly and soared, straight and swift, over the gum-trees.
And at that moment one came running, eyes wide, breathless with his news. ‘Unyama! Beside the hut of Kuduna’s kinsman! The mark of the toeless man!’
Unyama’s mouth fell open. Ooloo broke the awed silence. ‘It is not surprising,’ he said. ‘Did I not say the spirits were with us last night? The Toeless Thing is a creature of the ghosts which killed Urgali. Is it not a fact that many saw the tracks of Urgali moving toward the spreading tree, but who among us saw tracks of the killer?’
The old men sought each other’s eyes, wonderingly. ‘There were no tracks,’ they said. ‘Only Urgali’s.’
When they had gone to investigate and Ooloo was alone with Wendourie, the Narranyeri man said, ‘The spirits have been kind to you.’
The young man said blandly, ‘And to you, clever one. May it ever be so.’ He looked about him, assuring himself none was within earshot. ‘It shall be a secret between us that you swung into the great gum from a branch on the west and climbing inward, waited till Urgali came from the east; then, leaning as he was about to reach up, struck. Afterwards you climbed to a far branch and leaped.’
‘You, too, are clever,’ Ooloo smiled. ‘But the tracks of the toeless one? Can this astonishing thing be explained?’
Wendourie showed all his teeth. ‘I have thought much since I first saw the toeless tracks,’ he said. ‘Those I saw cannot be explained but they may be imitated frighteningly by cutting bark in the shape of a man’s feet and binding it to his naked soles.’ He added in another tone, ‘I am sorry your magic leaf was blown away. Do you really believe the spirits took it?’
Ooloo shrugged. ‘Maybe,’ he said. He glanced round cautiously, then, opening his belt, revealed to Wendourie the scrap of whiteness lying within. ‘I took the precaution of saving part of it,’ he said. ‘This, skillfully used, and with the aid of some strange dream I shall think up, will make me a powerful man among my own people.’
Wendourie asked with difference, ‘Would I be impertinent if I asked your permission to accompany you on part of your return journey? I feel there is much I could learn from you quickly which, without you, only the years could teach.’
In the middle of the next day Ooloo and Wendourie stood together on a high hill, their faces wet with the sweat of exertion, and gazed down upon an endless vista of trees which smothered the surface and hid the contour of the land, concealing plain and precipice alike. No thing stirred.
Ooloo pointed with his throwing-stick. ‘There lies my territory,’ he said. ‘Beyond the Narranyeri is the land of the Wirriwirri; beyond the Wirriwirri, the Bulpanarra and beyond them, ‘tis said, a tribe so ignorant it has not yet learned how to procure water from gum scrub roots. But beyond and far beyond… what?’
‘Nothing,’ Wendourie replied promptly. ‘The world ends.’
Ooloo blinked at him. ‘Perhaps,’ he said slowly. They stood, busy with disturbing thoughts, till their ears caught the sound of rustling leaves and then a little breeze fanned their heated bodies and simultaneously they lifted their heads, sniffing.
‘The great water…the great mysterious water,’ Ooloo said. ‘Even here the salt fills our nostrils.’ Half to himself, he murmured, ‘How strange if there were another side to it from which men might cross…’
‘I have stood and watched in awe,’ Wendourie said. ‘It can be peaceful as the billabong and then suddenly turbulent and angry, its voice more frightening than the bull-roarer. It would devour even the biggest canoes.’
Ooloo nodded. ‘True,’ he agreed. ‘None would dare risk their lives.’ He lifted his shoulders in a characteristic shrug. ‘Still, it is a pity Kuduna died before he told what he had seen.’
As he stood watching Wendourie’s black body merge and lose itself in the tangle of scrub, in the distant north-east Captain Madge of the ketch Ulysses, making its way from Sydney with a small party of colonists for the new settlement at Brisbane, was sitting in his cabin, a glass of grog in his hand, a Bible on his knee, and on the table before him the log in which he had lately written:
August 17, 1847: This day, the sea being calm with a light breeze, moored in a little cove very lovely to behold alongside a rock ledge providing a natural dock and giving us six fathoms no less. Being greatly enamoured of the place and the morrow being her wedding anniversary, nothing would satisfy Mistress Turner but her husband should make an excursion ashore to gather branches of the golden blossoms growing abundantly in scrubland bordering a flat pasture. Facilities for disembarking being good and weather mild, Mr Turner decided to land the light dray and our horse and go a little inland for to spy out the country and perhaps obtain game. Party returned safely aboard with no game and nothing to show for their pains but a load of blossoms which they pulled from the trees as the dray passed beneath. No sign of savages but serpents being observed they remained in dray for fear of being bit. Mr Scott, descending once, almost stepped upon a giant snake and was right glad to clamber back to safety.
August 18, 1847: The rain which fell during the night with some violence ceased early this morning and dawn brought a beautiful day, to be marred, unhappily, by a distressing incident. Mr Turner, watching from the deck, observed movement in the near bushes ashore and, suspecting savages, and first shouting as a warning, fired a shot to frighten them away. Sent two men ashore to investigate who returned with a poor naked heathen whom Mr Turner had accidentally shot dead, but he and the other gentlemen being by this time deeply engaged with the ladies in preparation for the festivities, thought it befitting to say naught to mar their lightheartedness and had my men dispose of the body.
Feeling a little sad at heart and asking God’s forgiveness for our part in this calamity, tide and breeze being favourable, sailed from this most lovely spot amid the laughter of the ladies and gentlemen and with Mr Scott’s little daughter sitting prettily in the stern, a garland of golden blossoms about her neck, singing to herself as she tore up an old newspaper and watched the scraps float away through the air like birds making for the bush.
Carter Brown, the pseudonym of British-born Alan Geoffrey Yates, must easily be Australia ’s most prolific author. At the time of his death in May 1985, a Sydney newspaper estimated he had written 270 books, selling more than 70 million copies in 14 different languages. A more recent estimate by his widow, Mrs Denise Yates, is 325 novels.
Yates was a genuine pulp writer and he established himself on the market when pulp was king. Before the crime thrillers that established the Carter Brown name, Yates churned out numerous westerns, science fiction and horror stories under various pen-names including Paul Valdez, Tom Conway and Tex Conrad. However he will always be better known as Carter Brown.
Literary recognition remained elusive. Not that it seemed to matter too much. The Carter Brown thrillers, all paperback originals published by Horwitz, sold extremely well in Australia, the United States and numerous foreign markets. Yet the critics ignored him. An exception was Anthony Boucher, who reviewed crime fiction for the New York Times Book Review and was himself a pulp writer of considerable talent. In the 850-odd columns he wrote for the Times, he found time to champion Carter Brown. Paradoxically, Boucher disliked the Raymond Chandler stories.
Yate’s adventures were largely set in the United States yet he didn’t visit the country until many years into his career. That didn’t particularly matter as the background he used was a purely idealised view of how big cities should be, especially the mean streets where heroes created order out of chaos.
Alan Yates was born in England in 1923 and settled in Sydney following World War II. He began writing soon afterwards and, following a period with the public relations department of Qantas, became a full-time author. The release of his work in the United States through New American Library unleashed his skills on a new market.
Several of his novels were banned in Queensland, two were made into films in France, one became a play, while others served as fodder for a Japanese television series and the Carter Brown Mystery Theatre that ran on Australian radio in the late 1950s. Richard O’Brien, creator of The Rocky Horror Show, transformed The Stripper (published in 1961) into a musical in 1982.
‘Poison Ivy’ is one of the master’s shorter works and it is a fine indication of what Carter Brown could do with a well-worn premise.
The face under the fez was sad and drooping – a thinker’s face. He had plenty of time to think while he sat there cross-legged, thumping out a steady beat on the drum with the flat of his right hand. On the small wooden platform, four dames stepped backwards and forwards rhythmically. They wore veils, silk jackets and pants, and slippers.
The barker stepped forward and cleared his throat. ‘Walk up!’ he shouted in a metallic voice. ‘Walk up! Walk up! See the sirens of the East! See the four genuine harem girls. See the dance of the seven veils! See…’ His voice faded as I walked away.
Further down the lane was death-defying Deane, preparing to ride the wall of death for the fourth time that day. Then there was the woman with two heads, the fat lady, the human skeleton – they were all there.
I went almost to the end of the row and there was the sign – Mollo, the magician. The barker was in full gallop. ‘Mollo’s magic will delight you, thrill you, terrify you! You will be mystified, horrified, terrified! You won’t believe your eyes! See the beautiful girl turned to stone! See the paper dolls come to life! See…’
I walked past him, paid my quarter and ducked under the curtain. There weren’t any more than ten people inside, patiently waiting for the show to start. I took a seat in the front row and lit a cigarette. The dark blue curtain across the front of the stage had the signs of the zodiac painted in faded gold all over it. A couple more people drifted in and then the show started.
It wasn’t a bad show – it wasn’t good, either. The best thing about it was Mollo’s assistant. She was a brunette with wistful eyes and a perfect figure. Mollo was a little guy with long black hair and a wisp of black moustache. He didn’t seem to care whether the audience liked the show or not – maybe there weren’t enough of them to matter.
But when it was finished, he came back on stage and bowed to the smattering of applause. The curtain came down and the people filed out. All except me. I stayed. I lit another cigarette and waited.
After a while, the barker walked in. He looked at me. ‘The show is over, bud,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to pay if you want to see it again.’
I flipped him a quarter. He looked at me curiously, then climbed up to the stage, ducked behind the curtain and disappeared. A minute later Mollo came out. He looked at me curiously, too.
‘I hope you don’t mind my staring,’ he said in a cultured voice that was tinged with sarcasm, ‘but this is the first time that anyone has ever paid twice to see my show!’
‘Yeah?’ I raised by eyebrows.
‘I feel flattered,’ he said.
‘You needn’t be,’ I told him, ‘it was the dame I wanted to see.’
‘Oh?’ The sardonic gleam was still in his eyes. ‘Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m afraid she never talks to a member of the audience – never!’
I flicked ash onto the floor. ‘How is Ivy these days?’ I asked him. ‘Still peddling dope on the side for a fast buck?’
His eyebrows came together. ‘I’m sorry – I don’t follow you.’
‘You don’t have to,’ I said. ‘Just tell Ivy that Rex Kaufman wants to say hullo.’
‘Very well,’ he bowed and withdrew between the curtains.
Ivy came out a few seconds later. ‘Why, Rex!’ She made it sound enthusiastic. ‘How are you?’
‘Fine,’ I said, ‘just fine.’ She was still in her costume and she looked very nice. ‘How are you keeping these days?’
She wrinkled her nose. ‘I’m making out – just. But what with four shows a day, my feet are just killing me!’
‘If anyone could make a fast buck, you could,’ I told her. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve turned honest?’
‘I have, Rex,’ she said seriously. ‘I learned my lesson the last time. If you hadn’t squared things with the cops for me, I’d still have been in gaol right now. Never again!’
‘I’m glad to hear it,’ I grinned at her, ‘even if I don’t believe it. How about me buying you a cup of coffee?’
‘I’d love to, Rex,’ her big blue eyes shone at me, ‘but I’ve got another show in twenty minutes – sorry.’
‘That’s the last one, isn’t it?’
‘That’s right, she agreed.
‘Then I’ll buy you a cup of coffee after that. I’ll wait outside for you.’
‘You’ve got time for a cup of coffee,’ I told her. I’ll see you after the last show!’
I walked out, wondering if I should ask the barker for my quarter back, then thought it looked as if they were having a tough time, anyway. I went and saw the harem girls. At close quarters, they could have been called the harem mothers to advantage. The trouble with me is that I’ve got no illusions left.
When the show was over, I strolled back and waited outside Mollo’s sideshow. I waited a quarter of an hour, then Ivy came out. She looked good. Ivy always looked good, I remembered. I drove downtown to where the lights were brighter and we stopped for coffee in a joint that didn’t put cloths on the tables, but they made good coffee.
‘How’s the private eye business these days, Rex?’ Ivy asked.
I shrugged my shoulders. ‘It could be better, but I’m not starving.’ I drank some coffee. ‘How is Mollo’s show doing?’
She wrinkled her nose again. ‘I don’t think he’ll stay in business much longer. We average about fifteen a show – that’s not quite four bucks, gross!’
‘Does it worry you if it folds?’
‘I’ve got to earn a living,’ she told me, ‘it’s not easy.’ She reached out her arm and flicked ash into the ashtray. Then she looked at me suddenly and grinned. ‘Come clean, Rex,’ she said softly. ‘You didn’t look me up just to buy me a cup of coffee – or even just to look into my bright blue eyes! What’s on your mind?’
I hesitated for a moment. ‘You really sure you’re clear of the rackets now?’
‘Of course I am!’ she said indignantly. ‘I told you I had learned my lesson!’
‘Okay, Ivy,’ I said, ‘only there’s a nice racket being worked in the carnival show and I’m interested.’
‘Oh? She looked interested. ‘What is it?’
‘I don’t know,’ I admitted.
Ivy looked blank. ‘You don’t even know what it is? How do you know there is a racket?’
‘There must be,’ I said. ‘You just told me that Mollo is averaging four bucks a show – four shows a day makes it sixteen bucks. He can’t pay expenses on that! I spent yesterday and today at the carnival. I’ve been to about a dozen sideshows all told. They’re all the same – fifteen suckers inside the tent and they’re doing well!’
‘So where is the pay-off?’ I said. ‘They all lose dough, but they all stay there.’
She shook her head. ‘I think you’re imagining things, Rex. I don’t think there are any rackets. Things have been tough lately, that’s all. People stick there because it’s a permanent site and the rents are cheap. If carnival is doing badly here, it’s probably doing badly all over the country at the moment.’
I grinned at her. ‘You could be right, but I don’t think so. Anyway, keep your eyes open, will you? If anything looks funny, let me know.’ I took one of my cards out of my wallet and gave it to her. ‘Just in case you’ve forgotten the phone number.’
‘I’ll keep my eyes open, of course, Rex,’ she said, ‘but I think you’re wasting your time. Who’s your client, anyway?’
‘Client?’ I said. ‘Who said anything about a client?’
‘You wouldn’t be working for free,’ she dimpled, ‘that’s for sure. I imagine, for a private eye, you come expensive, Rex.’
After we’d finished the coffee I offered to drive her home, but she said she had to call on a girl friend, so I drove myself home – which wasn’t half so interesting.
I got myself a drink when I got home and sat down at the table and thought how far I’d got with the case. I came up with a snap decision of… nowhere. I’d seen the district attorney that morning. My face was still red remembering how it had gone.
His office was neat and very plush. The district attorney is around forty, the right type in looks but not in brains. He’s strictly a political appointment – they could have chosen a more suitable man with their eyes shut.
He gave me a sour look as soon as I got into his office. ‘I can give you ten minutes, Kaufman,’ he said. Then he put his watch on the desk.
‘It’s about the carnival lot,’ I started to say.
‘What about it?’ he snapped.
I took a deep breath and tried to keep my voice polite. ‘There is something going on there, sir. Something illegal.’
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
He bristled. ‘Is this your idea of a joke, Kaufman? Wasting my time like this?’
‘No sir,’ I said.
He wagged his index finger at me. ‘Now look here, Kaufman. You’re a private detective – your licence is issued from this office, don’t forget. I appreciate you are working for a client and obviously your client in this case is Dusberg. Dusberg owns that carnival lot!’
‘That is quite correct, sir,’ I said. ‘But the thing is that the people who have shows there are losing money. I’ve checked it, sir. They don’t make enough to keep them in food alone – yet they stay on!’
‘Rubbish!’ he snorted.
I kept my temper with an effort. ‘If you could carry out an investigation – even a small one – you’d find out that I’m telling the truth, sir. Why do they persist in staying there when they don’t earn sufficient money legitimately from the sideshows? I would say they’re making it illegitimately somehow!’
He gave me his conceited look. ‘Look, Kaufman, don’t take me for a fool! I know that the carnival lot if converted to real estate could make Dusberg a small fortune. It’s highly valuable land. I also know the only way Dusberg can get rid of the carnival people is by having the law close the place down. I don’t particularly blame you for trying to think up something but please don’t waste my time!’
I looked him in the eyes. ‘You won’t carry out an investigation?’
‘Certainly not!’ he snapped. ‘It would be a criminal waste of public funds! The carnival people are law-abiding – there’s never any trouble down there. You had better think up something better than this, Kaufman!’ He looked down at his watch. ‘And your ten minutes are very nearly up!’
I got up from my chair. ‘I won’t waste my time any longer,’ I told him. ‘It’s quite obvious that I’m wasting my breath!’
Looking back on it, the interview had hit an all-time low. The district attorney was quite right about my client, of course – he was Dusberg and Dusberg wanted to get rid of the carnival people so that he could sell the land and clean up. On the other hand, I hadn’t been lying to the district attorney, either. As I’d told Ivy, everyone seemed to be losing money – but they all still stuck there. I didn’t get it.
Thinking of Ivy, I got another drink and thought some more. I had been working on a dope case six months back and Ivy had been one of the peddlers. She’d only been a pawn in the game and I’d managed to see that she didn’t get arrested with the others. She’d sworn undying gratitude, kissed me hard and told me that from then on she was a reformed character. I hadn’t seen her since, until tonight, it was a lucky break that someone else who knew her had mentioned casually they had seen her helping Mollo to perform his magic.
I was in the office pretty early the next morning. I had a report to type for an insurance job I’d just finished and I didn’t get paid until the report was in. I finished it around eleven, put the typewriter away and was debating where I’d have a drink, when she walked in.
She gave me a slow smile. ‘Mr Kaufman?’ she asked.
‘That’s right,’ I agreed and goggled at her. ‘Won’t you sit down?’
‘Thank you.’ She sat down gracefully in the visitor’s chair and then crossed her legs. She was blonde with an urchin-cut which left her hair in tight curls close to her head. It suited her beautifully. She was wearing a grey suit, perfectly cut, with a grey sweater underneath. Long pearl earrings hung from her ears.
‘I’m Lucinda Brent,’ she said. ‘I was hoping you could help me.’
‘That’s my business,’ I told her. ‘Why do you need help?’
‘It’s my husband,’ she said simply.
I shook my head. ‘I’m sorry, Mrs Brent. I don’t handle divorce cases at all. I could tell you a couple of guys who could probably help you.’
‘It’s nothing to do with divorce,’ she said, ‘my husband is missing. I want him found.’
That was different. She smiled at me. ‘I know you are going to ask me have I been to the police or the missing persons bureau – and the answer is, I haven’t and I don’t want to.’
‘Why?’ I asked her bluntly.
‘I may as well be frank, Mr Kaufman,’ she said. ‘I think my husband makes his money in a dubious manner, to say the least. That is why I won’t go to the police or the bureau. I am wholly dependent on my husband for income and I’ve never queried where that income is earned – or how it is earned.’
I nodded. ‘I appreciate your point. If you’re hiring me to find your husband, I’ll do my best to find him. So far as I’m concerned, how he earns his money is beside the point. I take it you only want him found?’
She looked happier. ‘That’s it, exactly, Mr Kaufman! John and I do not get along very well together. I may as well tell you this now – we haven’t lived together for the last year or so. He provides me with a generous income and has never even mentioned divorce. I’ve no reason to want a divorce, either.’
‘I see,’ I said. I didn’t.
‘Regularly every week he calls on me and gives me my allowance,’ she continued, ‘but for the last three weeks I haven’t set eyes on him. It has never happened before and I’m worried. I feel something must have happened to him.’
The more she talked, the less I liked it. ‘What makes you think he doesn’t earn his money honestly?’ I asked her.
‘He hasn’t got an office, he never goes to work at regular hours. He never mentioned who he works with, where he worked or what he did. From the day we were married, I never knew. He wouldn’t answer my questions and just shouted at me if I kept on with them.’ She shrugged her shoulders. ‘So the only conclusion I could come to was that it was something dishonest.’
I stubbed the cigarette in the ashtray. ‘It doesn’t sound as if it’s going to be easy,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t know where to start looking. For all we know, he could be anywhere in the country. You need a large organisation to find a missing person, Mrs Brent. The bureau is the logical place to go to.’
‘But I can’t go to the bureau,’ she said anxiously. ‘I’ve just told you why!’
I thought I had enough troubles without taking on her troubles. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘but if I took your money, I’d just be robbing you. I wouldn’t know where to start looking for him.’
‘I could help you there,’ she said hopefully.
‘How?’ I asked.
‘I didn’t live with John for two years without knowing anything about where he went,’ she said. ‘I never knew what he did, but men are careless – they leave things in the pockets of suits that are going to the cleaners. Things like that.’
‘Such as?’ I prompted.
‘Hatcheck stubs from a nightclub – there were quite a few of those. All from the same place – the Green Dragon. Then there was a receipt once. It was for two hundred dollars and it was signed by a man named Tyson. It had a rubber-stamped address underneath it – Harem Girl’s Hall.’ She smiled wryly. ‘I thought the worst about that, so I checked on it. Guess where it was?’
‘The carnival ground,’ I said softly.
She nodded. ‘You’ve seen it?’
‘You’ve got nothing to worry about,’ I said, ‘all those girls are old enough to be your mother!’
‘It might have been an odd visit there, of course,’ she said. ‘I’m just telling you everything I can think of.’
‘You’re doing fine,’ I told her. ‘Keep going.’
She pulled a rueful face. ‘I’m afraid there isn’t much else. There was a name scribbled on the back of a blank card once. Cielli was the name. That’s about all I can think of.’
So far as I was concerned, the mention of the carnival ground was enough. ‘It looks a lot better even now,’ I told her. ‘Those could be definite leads. I’ll take the job, Mrs Brent, if you still want me to.’
‘Please!’ She smiled happily. ‘The question of money?’
I shook my head. ‘Not at the moment. I’m already working on a case for someone else and I’d rather charge you as I get results. You could give me twenty dollars for expenses and we’ll see how I get on.’
She fumbled in her purse and produced a roll of notes. She took two tens from the outside and handled them to me. I put them in my wallet and wrote her out a receipt.
‘Have you a photograph of your husband?’ I asked her.
She shook her head. ‘John would never have his photograph taken. I can give you a description of him. He’s just over six feet tall, weighs around one hundred and eighty. Aged thirty-five. Dark hair and a thin black moustache. Blue eyes. Quite good-looking, really, and he always dresses very smartly. He has a scar across the knuckles of his left hand.’
I wrote it all down. ‘That sounds pretty good,’ I said. ‘Where can I get in touch with you?’
She gave me her address and phone number. ‘I’ll do my best, Mrs Brent,’ I told her.
‘I’m sure you will. Thank you again, Mr Kaufman.’ Then she left.
I went out and had some lunch, mailed my insurance report and then went down to the carnival ground again. I was getting sick and tired of the place. I’d seen practically every sideshow there was to see, I’d fired rifles with crooked barrels at moving targets, I’d eaten candy and even tried the rasberry-coloured soft drink they sold.
I ambled along to the harem girls. I watched them sway automatically to the beat of the drum, heard the barker talk himself hoarse and saw maybe a dozen people pay their quarter and go inside. The barker went inside and the thinker in the fez still sat there moodily and gazed into nothing.
I walked up to him. ‘You look tired,’ I said conversationally.
He focused on me slowly. ‘I am tired,’ he agreed. His voice was thin and reedy.
‘How’s business?’ I asked him.
‘Very quiet,’ he told me.
‘You want some new girls,’ I suggested, ‘young ones.’
He nodded gloomily. ‘Don’t I know it! But they cost too much. The only dames who’ll come and work for the dough we pay are the ones who are too old to get a job in the chorus or burlesque any more. So we don’t have any choice.’
‘I wonder you stick it out,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you quit?’
He gave the drum a hard slap. ‘Can’t afford to,’ he said, ‘don’t know anything else.’
‘But the guy who owns the business,’ I said, ‘surely he can’t afford to go on losing dough the whole time?’
‘I own the business,’ he said. ‘Used-to do my own barking until my voice gave out – so now I beat the drum. It saves me paying somebody else to do it.’
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Well, why don’t you quit?’
‘It isn’t as bad as that,’ he said. ‘I can eat on what the show pulls in.’
‘That’s something, anyway,’ I agreed. ‘Say, your name Tyson?’
I tried to look pleasantly surprised. ‘That’s a coincidence, if there ever was one!’ I said heartily. ‘You know a friend of mine, Johnny Brent.’
‘I’ve never heard of him,’ he said coldly.
I looked puzzled. ‘I don’t get it.’ I said. ‘Johnny told me he comes to your show quite a lot. He told me the guy who owned it, a guy named Tyson, was a particular friend of his.’
The little guy stood up and picked up his drum. ‘You must have the wrong Tyson,’ he said brusquely and went inside the tent.
I stood there for a moment, looking after him, then I went along the lane slowly. Somebody jostled me, their elbow thudding into my ribs so that I staggered a couple of paces before I regained my balance.
The next moment something hit me across the back of the neck and I stumbled onto my knees. ‘I don’t like guys who pick fights!’ a voice behind me said loudly.
The first guy came in and I saw his boot riding toward my jaw. I managed to dodge it and it whistled past my ear. I got to my feet and saw the second one. He was short and squat with long arms. The two of them came at me, grinning nastily.
I dived my hand inside my coat and pulled out the.32. I thumbed back the safety-catch. ‘You guys want real trouble,’ I told them, ‘just keep on coming!’
They stopped where they were. The big guy started cursing, but he didn’t do anything else. The short one watched me carefully. ‘Now beat it!’ I said.
‘We’ll go,’ the short one said softly, ‘because you’ve got that gun, mister. But stay away from the carnival from now on. If you come back, we’ll get you before you get a chance to even go for that gun! And the damage we’ll do to you will be permanent!’ They turned and walked away slowly – they didn’t look back.
I walked back down the lane again past the harem girls. It was nearly time for the next show and Tyson was beating the drum steadily. I looked at him and nodded. He stared stonily straight through me as if I wasn’t there.
All of a sudden my name was mud in the carnival ground. I wondered why as I drove home. I wasn’t getting anywhere fast. Dusberg rang just before I went out that evening and wanted to know what progress I’d made. I told him not very much. He told me I was expensive when I was producing results, let alone when I wasn’t. I told him if he wasn’t satisfied, he knew what he could do. Altogether, it wasn’t a very bright day.
The green dragon had a green dragon in neon lights above the door. It had a commissionaire, two hatcheck girls and a large foyer which was decorated with cut flower. In fact, it had class – I was glad I’d put on my tuxedo.
It was a slack time. The two hatcheck girls were talking to each other. The commissionaire was having a quiet cigarette. I went over to the girls. One of them held out her hand for my hat. I put a five-spot in her hand instead. She looked surprised.
I grinned at her. ‘I’m trying to check on a friend of mine – he comes here pretty often. Name of Johnny Brent. Do you know him, by any chance?’
She shook her head. ‘We don’t know many people by name. What does he look like?’
I gave her the description Mrs Brent had given me. The girl shook her head slowly. ‘Sorry, doesn’t mean anything to me – you had better take your five-spot back, mister.’
‘Wait a minute!’ the other girl said. ‘I seem to remember the guy. I’ve seen him a few times. He went up to Mr Gatt’s office a couple of times.’
‘When did you last see him?’ I asked her.
She thought hard. ‘Be more than a week ago – going on two weeks, I guess. I haven’t seen him since then.’
‘Thanks a lot,’ I said. I put a five-spot on the counter in front of her. ‘By the way, how do you get to Mr Gatt’s office?’
‘Straight up the stairs,’ she said, pointing to the staircase across the other side of the foyer. She picked up the five spot. ‘Thanks, mister.’
‘Thank you,’ I said to both of them. I went up the stairs and found a door with ‘Mr Gatt’ neatly stencilled on it in gold letters. I knocked.
‘Come in,’ said a deep voice.
The guy who was seated behind the desk stood up. It was a delicate operation. He must have hit the scales around two hundred and fifty, if they built scales tough enough to take him. Fat bulged everywhere. He could have been around forty, with a mass of shiny black hair and a fixed grin not far above his three chins.
‘Mr Gatt?’ I asked.
He nodded genially. ‘Sure, that’s me. What can I do for you? Take a seat, anyway.’
I sat down. ‘My name is Kaufman,’ I said. ‘I am trying to trace a friend of mine and I thought you might be able to help me.’
‘Sure,’ he grinned. ‘What’s your friend’s name?’
‘Brent,’ I told him. ‘Johnny Brent.’
The smile slid off his face and disappeared amongst the chins. ‘No,’ he shook his head ponderously, ‘I am sorry, Mr Kaufman, I do not know the name.’
I gave him the description. ‘I am sorry,’ he said again, ‘I’m sure I do not know him. What made you think I might?’
‘He comes here often,’ I said. ‘He has mentioned your name a few times to me – he seemed to know you very well,’ I lied.
‘Strange!’ he mused. ‘I do not understand it.’
‘Neither do I,’ I agreed.
He smiled again. ‘I am sorry I cannot help you, Mr Kaufman.’ He leaned back in the chair, which creaked with his weight.
I got to my feet. ‘Too bad,’ I said, ‘I particularly wanted to see him. Thanks, anyway.’
I could feel his eyes watching me as I went out of the room. I got myself a table and had a few drinks. Then came the floor show and it was good. The final act was even better. Her name was Katherine. She came into the centre of the floor, one spot staying with her, the rest of the place in darkness. She started to strip and each time she took a garment off, the spotlight went out, then came on again. Finally, when the light came on again, she wasn’t there. It was quite an act and she was quite a dame.
I had another drink and a few minutes later someone stopped at my table. ‘Hullo,’ a husky voice said. I looked up and saw it was Katherine – she was dressed in a red gown that contrasted nicely with her black hair. She smiled down at me. ‘On your own?’
‘That’s right,’ I agreed.
‘Would you mind if I joined you?’
‘Mind!’ I nearly broke my neck getting the chair out for her. The waiter came over and I ordered her a drink. ‘This is the sort of thing I dream about, but it never really happens!’ I told her.
She smiled. ‘After the floor show is over, I like to sit out here for a while. I would rather sit with someone who hasn’t a partner than with someone who has.’ Her smile broadened. ‘When I sit with someone who has a partner, the partner worries all the time that I might start my act over again!’
‘It’s certainly some act!’ I said enthusiastically.
She shrugged her beautiful shoulders. ‘It’s not a very clever act,’ she said. ‘I have little talent, but for a floor show the manager says my figure is better than my talent. So,’ she shrugged her shoulders again, ‘who am I to argue when he pays my salary?’
‘You must have an awful lot of talent,’ I told her, ‘if it comes anywhere close in comparison with your figure!’
‘Thank you,’ she said softly.
An hour and five drinks later she was still at my table. She was calling me Rex and I was calling her Katherine and we were old friends. Then she looked at her watch. ‘It’s getting late,’ she said, ‘I should be going home.’
‘Can I drive you?’ I offered.
‘That would be very nice,’ she said softly. ‘I’ll pick up my wrap and meet you in the foyer.’
We stopped outside her apartment block. ‘Won’t you come in for a drink, Rex?’ she asked. I was halfway across the sidewalk before she caught up with me.
Her apartment was nice – cosy on a lavish scale. We sat together on the sofa and had the drink – and then a couple more. ‘I guess I should be going,’ I said eventually.
‘There’s no hurry,’ she said. We had another couple of drinks. I was beginning to feel high and I wasn’t sure whether it was the liquor or her perfume.
‘If I stay here much longer,’ I told her, ‘I’m going to kiss you!’
She laughed softly. ‘I should be disappointed if you didn’t!’
Four a.m. when I got back to my own apartment, I put the key in the lock and the door opened before I could turn the key. I looked at it. I thought I remembered shutting the door before I’d gone out. I went inside, switched on the lights, then made my way into the living room.
I had a visitor. There was a guy sitting in an armchair, waiting for me. He was tall and dark with a thin moustache. You could have called him good looking. Almost without thinking, I glanced down at his left hand and saw the scar running across his knuckles.
He stood up as I came in – and there was a gun in his right hand. ‘I thought you were never coming home!’ he said thickly.
I walked over to the liquor cabinet. ‘Like a drink?’ I suggested.
‘I could use one,’ he said, ‘but don’t try any smart play!’
‘You’re Johnny Brent,’ I said as I poured out the drinks. ‘I’ve been looking for you.’
‘And I’ve been looking for you,’ he said. ‘Small world, isn’t it?’
I turned around and handed him one of the glasses – he took it carefully. His face was taut and his hands trembled slightly. ‘What’s the idea?’ he demanded. ‘What’s the idea of putting the finger on me?’
‘Just a job, as far as I’m concerned,’ I said easily. I didn’t like him being strung up like that. He could pull the trigger almost without knowing it. ‘I’m a private eye – I get paid to do things like that.’
‘Yeah?’ He took a pull on the rye. ‘Who’s paying you to put the finger on me?’
‘Your wife,’ I told him, ‘she’s worried about her income.’
‘My wife!’ He looked at me blankly.
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘She hasn’t seen you in three weeks and she’s worried.’
He finished the rye. ‘You’ve been asking in the carnival ground,’ he said hoarsely, ‘you’ve been asking in the Green Dragon. I don’t like it, Kaufman, it doesn’t do me any good – it doesn’t do my business any good!’
‘What exactly is your business?’ I asked.
‘Never mind!’ he said.
I sipped my own drink. ‘The answer is easy enough,’ I said. ‘Pay your wife some dough and she’ll call me off.’
‘Yeah,’ he liked his lips nervously, ‘where does she live again?’
I raised my eyebrows. ‘You must have a short memory!’
‘I’ve got things on my mind,’ he said. ‘Give me the address.’
I put my hand into the inside pocket of my jacket. The gun jerked up quickly. ‘It’s okay,’ I told him. ‘Relax! I’ve got it written down and the piece of paper is in my wallet.’
‘Just don’t make any mistake about it!’ he said.
I took the wallet out slowly and opened. ‘Here it is,’ I said. ‘She lives at…’
The noise of the shot reverberated around the room. I looked up and saw Johnny Brent’s astonished lace. The gun dropped out of his hand and his legs gave way underneath him. He crumpled to the floor. I still stood there looking at him. Then I looked towards the open door.
I came to life at last. I grabbed the.32 out of my shoulder holster and ran out into the corridor. There was no sign of anyone there. I could hear the faint whine of the elevator going down. I walked slowly back into the apartment, closing the door behind me. I knelt down beside him and felt for heartbeats – there weren’t any. Johnny Brent was dead.
I poured myself another drink and the glass shook as I lifted it to my mouth. I started to function again. I knelt down beside him again and went through his pockets systematically. His wallet contained seven hundred bucks in cash and a driver’s licence. The only other thing was a torn page from a desk diary with a date ringed in heavy pencil – the twenty-seventh, five days away. Underneath was written – Cielli.
I got to my feet, lit a cigarette and wondered what I was going to do with him. I didn’t want to report it to the cops – I’d have a hard time explaining how I didn’t even see who killed him. I’d also have to tell them the story about the carnival ground – the story that the district attorney didn’t believe, in any case.
I looked at my watch – an hour and a half to daylight. I just might get away with it – I thought it was worth the chance. I picked him up off the floor and put him over my shoulder in a fireman’s lift. I almost buckled at the knees under his weight.
Down on the ground floor, I got him as far as the outside door and left him huddled in the corner while I went outside. There wasn’t anyone on the street. I brought the car along and parked it right outside the door. Then I went back for Brent. I dragged him to his feet and put one of his arms around my shoulders. I put one arm around him and staggered towards the door.
Just as I got to it, it opened. A guy in a tuxedo, with a bottle in one hand and a cigar in the other, stood there weaving slightly. ‘Morning,’ he said brightly.
‘Good morning,’ I said politely.
‘Had a lovely party,’ he said in a blurred voice. ‘Looks like you did, too!’ He peered at Brent, then he chuckled. ‘Too much for him, eh?’
‘Sure,’ I said, ‘I’m just taking him home.’
‘Ah!’ the drunk said. He leaned forward until his face was only a couple of inches from Brent’s. ‘Wake up, old chap!’ he said in a loud voice. ‘You’re going home!’
‘I don’t think he’ll wake up,’ I said,’ ‘but if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get him into the car.’
‘Course,’ he said gravely, ‘give you a hand.’
‘I can manage,’ I said desperately.
‘Nonsense!’ he said violently. ‘Help a fellow man in distress – only decent thing to do!’ He grabbed hold of Brent’s other arm and together we staggered across the sidewalk to the car and somehow got Johnny inside.
The drunk dusted his hands proudly. ‘There you are,’ he said, ‘he’s all set now!’
‘Thanks,’ I told him.
I drove down to the carnival ground. There were no lights on and I didn’t see anyone around. I stopped the car outside the Harem Girl’s Hall and switched off the engine and the lights. I sat there for five long minutes in the darkness with Johnny beside me and waited.
I got out of the car, walked around the other side, opened the door and dragged Brent out. I left him propped up against the barker’s box in front of the tent, then went back to the car. I drove home slowly, had a final drink and went to bed.
I didn’t wake until midday. Maybe I wouldn’t have woken then, except for the phone jangling in my ear. I answered it.
‘Good morning,’ a husky voice said in my ear. ‘How’s my man this morning?’
‘Suffering from a hangover,’ I said. ‘How are you?’
‘I’m wonderful,’ she told me. ‘I’ve been missing you ever since you left.’
‘That’s nice to hear,’ I said. I tried to stop my head throbbing.
‘If you recover from your hangover in time,’ she said, ‘how about coming to the club again tonight?’
‘Is this the way you get paying customers?’ I asked her.
She laughed. ‘No, darling. You can pick me up at the club at midnight. I’ll see you in the foyer.’
I wondered if they found Brent’s body yet. If they had, it would be in the afternoon’s papers. I thought about Mrs Brent. How the hell could I tell her that her husband was dead?
I went to the office and sat there for half an hour, thinking about it. Then I finally decided that whether or not I was sticking my neck out, I’d have to tell her. I rang her number and listened to the phone ringing monotonously. Finally, I hung up.
I waited half an hour and rang again. There was still no answer. I thought I’d go around to her apartment and wait until she came home. The block where she lived was shabbier than I’d expected. I walked up the stairs to the third floor and pressed the buzzer. No one answered the door. I pressed it again just to make sure, then lit a cigarette and settled down to wait.
An old dame came up the stairs slowly and looked at me curiously. She hesitated for a moment, then said, ‘You waiting for somebody?’
‘I’m waiting for Mrs Brent to come home,’ I told her.
She shook her head slowly. ‘You’ve got the wrong address, mister. There’s nobody living in that apartment. It has been empty for a couple of days.’
‘It can’t have been,’ I said. I pulled out the piece of paper with Mrs Brent’s address on it. ‘I’ve got it here,’ I said and showed it to her.
She peered short-sightedly at it. ‘That’s the right phone number,’ she said. ‘There was someone in there until a couple of days ago, but like I told you, it has been empty since then.’
‘Who was in there then?’ I asked her.
‘A girl,’ she said, ‘a Miss Jones.’
‘What did she look like?’
‘Pretty. Blonde with her hair cut short. Always wore pearl ear-rings. She only stayed one day, though.’
‘Thanks,’ I muttered, ‘I must have the wrong address.’
I walked down the stairs slowly, wondering whether I was crazy or Mrs Brent was crazy. The old dame’s description of the Miss Jones who’d had the apartment sounded awfully like Mrs Brent.
I drove back to the office. There was no mention in the paper of any corpse being found in the carnival ground. I read through it from front page to back page. Whoever had found Brent’s body was keeping the fact very quiet. I gave up.
Midnight, she came out into the foyer and smiled warmly when she saw me. ‘It’s good to see you, Rex,’ she said and tucked her arm firmly into mine. ‘How is the hangover?’
‘Fine,’ I said. We walked out to the car. I started the engine.
‘Rex,’ she said, ‘I want you to take me to a party.’
‘I’m easy,’ I said. ‘Where is it?’
‘In the carnival ground,’ she said. I felt something hard press into my ribs and looked down. She was holding a gun. ‘Please don’t be difficult, Rex,’ she said. ‘I like you – I really do. I’d hate to have to shoot you.’
We reached the carnival ground twenty minutes later. The shows were all shut down and the last few people were leaving. I drove down the lane and she told me to stop outside the Harem Girls’ Hall. Tyson was waiting there. He also had a gun in his hand.
‘Good work,’ he said to Katherine. ‘Sorry to bring you out this late, Mr Kaufman, but we wanted to ask you some questions. Follow me.’
We went across the stage and down to the back of the tent. Waiting there were the two guys who’d picked a fight with me the day before. Tyson went over to a large wooden box standing in the corner and lifted the lid. I looked down at the corpse of Johnny Brent.
‘Since you left him on our doorstep this morning,’ Tyson said, ‘we thought you might like to tell us why.’
‘I thought he belonged to you,’ I said, ‘so I returned him.’
‘I can assure you, Mr Kaufman,’ there was an edge to his voice, ‘I am not in the mood for jokes! Rudolph and Hans over there,’ he looked at the two hoods, ‘are both itching to lay their hands on you! You can either answer my questions sensibly, or I’ll turn you over to them.’
‘He was shot in my apartment,’ I said. ‘I don’t know who by. He was standing there talking to me one moment and the next moment he was dead. I never saw who killed him. By the time I got outside into the corridor, the elevator was on the way down.’
Tyson sniffed. ‘Why did you bring him here?’
‘I thought he belonged here,’ I said. ‘I didn’t want him and he had always said you were a great friend of his.’
‘To be strictly truthful, his wife gave me your name. She’d seen a receipt for two hundred bucks signed in your name.’
‘Wife?’ Tyson repeated. ‘What story is this? Brent never had any wife!’
I began to feel awfully tired. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘this dame came to see me, said she was Brent’s wife and he was missing and would I find him for her. She told me about that receipt, that he used to go to the Green Dragon a lot and there was a name written on a piece of paper.’
‘Cielli?’ he asked.
‘That’s right,’ I agreed.
Tyson paced up and down. ‘Brent had no wife!’ he said harshly.
‘I wouldn’t know,’ I said. ‘I tried to contact her this afternoon at the address she gave me. No one had been there for the last two days. A Miss Jones, who sounded awfully like the Mrs Brent I knew, had the apartment for one day.’
Tyson stopped and looked at me. ‘Your story is too stupid to be anything else but the truth,’ he said.
‘Perhaps, now I think of it, it is just as well you did put Brent’s body outside here last night.’
‘I’m so glad you’re happy,’ I said.
Katherine lit a cigarette. ‘What do we do now?’ she asked.
‘We can get rid of Brent’s body,’ Tyson said, ‘that is one thing for sure.’ He looked at me again. ‘Kaufman is a problem. I am not sure about him.’
‘Don’t hurt him,’ Katherine pouted. ‘I like him.’
Tyson started pacing up and down the room again. ‘Why were you snooping around the carnival?’ he asked. ‘Who hired you to do that?’
‘The dame who called herself Mrs Brent,’ I told him. ‘She wanted me to find her husband – she said.’
‘You’re lying! You were snooping before that.’
‘Dusberg wants to get the carnival off the lot,’ I said. ‘He hired me to find out why everyone stays here when they don’t make any dough.’
‘And have you found out why?’
‘Not yet,’ I grinned, ‘I was hoping you were going to tell me.’
He snorted and went on pacing. ‘Tyson,’ I said, ‘I’ve got something in my wallet that might interest you.’
He stopped pacing and looked at me. ‘What?’ he asked.
‘Information,’ I said. I put my hand up casually inside my jacket. Just a bunch of amateurs – they hadn’t even looked to see if I had a gun. I brought my hand away with the.32 in it. ‘Drop it!’ I told Katherine.
She didn’t need to be told twice. I swung the.32 in a short arc which covered the lot of them. Tyson glared at Katherine. ‘Now it’s my turn to ask some questions,’ I said. ‘Just why does everyone stay here and lose dough?’
‘I have no idea,’ he said.
‘You can tell me or I ring the cops and tell them I’ve just found you with Brent’s corpse,’ I said. ‘Take your choice.’
‘Ring them!’ Tyson said loftily. ‘Brent was murdered in your apartment, remember?’
I was remembering. I was remembering the drunk who had helped me put Brent into the car. Sober, he’d remember. I was remembering that probably Brent’s fingerprints were all over my apartment.
‘Why don’t you ring them?’ Tyson jeered.
I hooked Katherine’s gun closer to me, picked it up and put it in my pocket. ‘You’re coming with me,’ I told her. I looked at the others. ‘Anyone tries to follow me and they’ll collect lead!’
I told her to drive back to her own apartment. When we got there I closed the door behind me, then locked it. I put the.32 back into the holster and gave her gun back to her.
‘How deep are you in this thing?’ I asked her.
‘Pretty deep,’ she admitted.
‘It’s going to blow up,’ I told her. ‘It’s starting now – you want to get out?’
‘How can I get out?’ she asked.
‘Maybe I could get you out,’ I said. ‘If you told me what you know I could put you on a fast train tonight to somewhere a long way away. When this thing blows up, people will be too busy to worry where you are.’
‘It’s not so easy as that,’ she shuddered. ‘Wherever I went to, Cielli would find me. You don’t know that man!’
‘I don’t even want to know him!’ I said.
A gun pressed hard into my back. ‘Now is that polite?’ a suave voice asked. I didn’t move. ‘That’s being sensible,’ the voice went on.
‘How did you get in here?’ Katherine whispered.
‘I was early,’ he said, ‘and I thought I might spend the evening with you, but you were out. So I waited. When I realised that someone was with you, I hid in the kitchen and listened to the conversation. Very interesting! Just exactly who is this man?’
‘He’s Rex Kaufman, a private detective,’ she said.
‘Really?’ The gun was removed from my back and he walked round in front of me, a tall, lean character with deep-set grey eyes and a hard jaw. He looked tougher than the rest of the bunch put together. Then he frisked me expertly and removed the.32 from my holster.
Katherine looked at him with fear in her eyes. ‘You didn’t take me seriously when I was talking to him, did you?’ she asked. ‘I was only kidding him along. He brought me here with a gun poked in my ribs.’
She told him the story as I had told it to Tyson. He listened carefully. ‘A blonde with her hair in short curls around her head?’ He shook his head slowly. ‘It doesn’t mean anything to me,’ he frowned.
I was getting tired of watching them. ‘If you’re all through with me, I think I’ll be going home,’ I said.
‘I don’t think so, Mr Kaufman,’ Cielli said courteously. ‘I’m afraid you seem to have had too much success with your snooping. I think you’re going to have to stick around for a while.’ He turned to Katherine. ‘I think we had better go and see Tyson. That body must be got rid of correctly.’
It was just after two in the morning when we grouped ourselves in the Harem Girls’ Hall again. Cielli had a look at the corpse. ‘I’m sorry for Johnny,’ he shrugged his shoulders, ‘but we must get rid of him quickly.’
‘What do you suggest?’ Tyson asked.
Cielli stroked his chin thoughtfully. ‘I think perhaps the best way is to drop him from the launch into the sea. Mr Kaufman can go the same way. He knows too much – he’s got too many of the pieces – sooner or later he must put them all together. We can’t afford to take the risk.’
‘It’s not a very clever idea, Cielli,’ I said. ‘Dusberg employed me to find out what was happening in the carnival ground. If I disappear, then it will be pretty obvious that I found out too much. The police will move in then.’
Cielli shook his head. ‘I don’t agree. They’ll investigate your disappearance, possibly, as a matter of routine. The carnival ground will be a model for all law-abiding citizens to copy. They’ll get tired alter a couple of days and you’ll be a name on the files in the missing persons bureau.’
He turned to Tyson. I’ll take Hans and Rudolph with me. You stay here. Gatt should have the stuff prepared quite soon. I don’t imagine he will deliver now, but he may. Someone should be here.’
‘Of course,’ Tyson agreed. ‘I’ll wait.’
Katherine stepped forward out of the shadows. ‘What about me?’
‘You can come along with us for the ride,’ he said, ‘but Hans and Rudolph can handle the launch.’
We covered the twenty miles out to the coast in thirty minutes. We stopped beside a boatshed at the end of a small jetty. It seemed deserted everywhere and there was a fog creeping in from the sea.
Cielli got out of the car. ‘Watch Kaufman,’ he told the two hoods.
I felt Katherine’s hand close over mine. Something cold was pressed into the palm. Something cold, made of steel. I felt glad I’d given her automatic back to her in the apartment. I gently rammed the gun down the top of my sock and hoped it stayed there.
Cielli came back. ‘The launch is okay,’ he said. ‘You guys get Brent aboard. I’ll watch the shamus.’
Then it was my turn. The launch was sleek and powerful. They put me in the tiny cabin next to Brent, who was on the bunk. ‘You can do it which way you like, shamus,’ Rudolph said. ‘You can let yourself be tied up now – or we’ll slug you, then tie you up.’
I heard the car’s engine start, then the sound died as the car moved away with Cielli and Katherine. ‘You can tie me up,’ I said, ‘but first let me scratch my leg – it itches like hell!’
‘Make it snappy!’ he snapped.
I bent down and clasped my fingers around the butt of the gun and thumbed back the safety-catch. Then I brought the gun up quickly and pressed the trigger. Rudolph fell forward.
Hans came cluttering down the ladder. ‘What did you shoot him for, Rudolph?’ he said, then his eyes bulged as he saw me. He reached for his gun and I pulled the trigger again.
The launch was still secured to the jetty, its engine throbbing gently. I cut the engine and climbed back to the jetty. I followed the road for a couple of miles before it linked up with the highway, then got a lift back to the city in a truck.
As soon as I got home, I rang the police and told them where they’d find the launch with three bodies in it. They asked who was calling and I told them Santa Claus. Then I went to bed.
The phone rang and I answered it. ‘Mr Kaufman?’ The voice was female, tremulous.
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Who’s that?’
There was a pause. ‘I told you I was Mrs Brent,’ she said in a low voice. I sat bolt upright. ‘I don’t know how to say this, Mr Kaufman,’ she went on, ‘but the money meant such a lot to me and they said it was just a practical joke.’
‘The lady who got me to do it,’ she said.
‘Supposing,’ I suggested, ‘you start from the beginning?’
‘I’m Lucinda Bray,’ she said, ‘I’m an actress – not a very good one or highly paid one, but an actress. This lady came along to me and said she wanted me to help her play a practical joke on a friend of hers who was a private detective. She told me to say all the things that I said to you. She paid me two hundred dollars for doing it. It seemed wonderful at the time, but then I read the paper this morning.’
‘What about the paper this morning?’ I asked.
‘The description of one of those men – it fits exactly, even down to the scar across the knuckles. It’s exactly the type of man I was told to describe to you!’
‘I wouldn’t worry too much,’ I told her. ‘What was the name of the dame who gave you the job?’
‘She didn’t give me any name. But she was a brunette – young and very attractive.’
‘Where can I get in touch with you?’ I asked.
‘The Ambassador Theatre is the easiest.’ Then her voice broke. ‘Mr Kaufman, what should I do? Should I tell the police?’
‘Now you’ve told me, you don’t have to worry,’ I said. ‘Forget it for the time being – if anything happens, I’ll let you know.’
An hour later I was pressing the buzzer outside her apartment. I had my fingers wrapped around her gun in case Cielli was there. She opened the door and threw her arms around my neck. ‘Darling!’ she cried, ‘you’re alive! I couldn’t let them do it last night – I couldn’t bear the thought of you dying like that!’
I pushed her back into the apartment and closed the door behind me. ‘You double-crossing little heel!’ I said. ‘You put that actress into my office to kid me she was Mrs Brent! You started the whole damn thing! I ought to take you apart!’
‘But I didn’t!’ she screamed. ‘I don’t even know what you’re talking about!’
‘She told me over the phone this morning,’ I said wearily. ‘There’s no point in lying about it.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ she said, ‘I swear it!’
‘The description fitted you like a glove – a beautiful brunette,’ I said.
She threw her hand to her forehead. ‘I’m the only beautiful brunette in this city, I suppose!’
‘You’re the only beautiful brunette who has anything to do with the carnival ground,’ I said, ‘and that’s enough for me! Who else would there be in the…’ My voice trailed away suddenly as I remembered.
‘Have you quite finished?’ she asked coldly.
‘Listen, honey,’ I said as I backed towards the door, ‘there’s just a chance I could be wrong.’
‘Just a chance you could be wrong.’ Her eyes flashed fire. Then she picked up a bottle of rye from the liquor cabinet. ‘Just a chance!’ she screamed. The bottle hurled through the air towards me. I ducked and it thudded against the door, then dropped to the floor.
I opened the door quickly and shut it after me just in time. Another bottle thudded into the panels a second later. I made quick time to the elevator and out of the apartment block. I went home.
I left my apartment just after eight and had to get a cab down to the carnival ground. I wondered how Cielli was treating my car or whether he’d run it over a cliff. I hoped not – the insurance was overdue.
I paid my quarter and went inside the tent to see Mollo’s magic for the second time. I waited until the show was over and the customers had departed. I had stayed in the back row and I didn’t think Mollo or Ivy had seen me. I went up on the stage and ducked between the curtains. It was pretty much the same layout that Tyson’s tent had at the back.
I went down the steps and there they were. Mollo was sitting on a camp-stool, lighting a cigarette. Ivy was sitting on another stool, with her feet up on a packing-case. ‘Hi!’ I said brightly.
Ivy jumped. Mollo looked up casually. ‘Ah!’ he said. ‘Your admirer is back, Ivy!’
Ivy stood up. She smiled at me. ‘Hullo, Rex, it’s good to see you!’
‘It is?’ I asked her.
‘Of course!’ Her smile grew a little uncertain.
‘You heel’ I said. ‘You two-timing female heel!’
‘Rex!’ She looked hurt. ‘What’s come over you?’
‘To think I pulled you out of a peddling rap once before!’ I said. I jerked a thumb in Mollo’s direction, ‘Is he in this, or would you prefer I talked to you alone?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about!’ she said.
‘Oh, yes you do!’ I sneered. ‘Poison Ivy!’
She turned her back on me and started to walk towards the door. ‘I’m not going to stay here and be insulted!’ she said.
‘You don’t know the half of it!’ I told her. I grabbed her arm and pulled her back. ‘Brother!’ I said. ‘I wince when I remember just how dumb I was – spilling the lot to you over a cup of coffee and asking you for help!’ I pulled her closer. ‘I had a nice long cosy chat with Lucinda Bray this morning!’
‘Oh!’ She looked startled. Mollo was watching interestedly.
‘Look,’ I said, ‘you’re in real trouble now Cielli’s on the warpath and it won’t take him long to figure out who’s behind all the trouble – who started it in the first place. So you’d better come clean. It’s dope again, isn’t it?’
She nodded dumbly. ‘And Cielli brings it with him in his launch?’
‘Yes,’ she whispered, ‘it’s dropped in watertight containers from the big ships at a certain rendezvous. Cielli picks it up.’
‘Then it goes to the Green Dragon and Gatt breaks it down into pellets?’ She didn’t answer. I shook her arm vigorously. ‘Doesn’t he?’
‘Yes!’ she squealed. ‘Stop it, you’re hurting me!’
‘I’m only just starting if you don’t answer the questions quickly,’ I told her. ‘Johnny Brent was the contact between Gatt and the carnival ground?’ She nodded.
‘Two main sources – two avenues,’ I said. ‘One through the Harem Girls’ Hall and the other through you?’
‘Yes, damn you!’ she said sullenly.
‘That’s why the people stayed here even though they weren’t making any dough through legitimate carnival?’
‘Of course,’ she said.
‘What about the honest ones?’
‘Cielli paid them two hundred bucks a week to stay – Johnny Brent made the payments,’ she said.
‘What was the idea of that?’ I asked her.
She took a deep breath. ‘Because if the carnival ground had been half empty, even the cops would have been interested to know why the other half stayed on. We had to keep them all here.’
‘You weren’t frightened they might talk?’
‘When they were getting two hundred bucks a week for nothing?’ she sneered. ‘Don’t be stupid!’
I gave her another shake to mend her manners.
‘What happened? You got ambitious?’
‘We knew the whole set-up,’ she said. ‘There were too many in it. Gatt was all right, but Cielli took too big a cut for himself – and we could distribute Tyson’s lot as well as our own.’
‘Then I came along?’
‘Then you came along,’ she agreed. ‘When you told me what you were looking for, I thought it was too good a chance to miss. So we coached that actress and she did a good job – sold you on it completely. We figured that the more you went around asking about Johnny Brent, the more worried Cielli and the rest of them would be. They’d start to distrust each other – particularly Johnny. That way, it would be much easier for us when the time came to take over.’
‘You were doing all the work for us. You were taking all the risks. We gave the actress those clues to give to you. You aren’t too bad a private eye,’ she said reluctantly, ‘so we knew you’d keep adding it up and eventually come up with the right answer. By that time they would either knock you off or we’d have to – it didn’t matter much.’
I resisted an impulse. ‘What about Johnny? He was killed because he was going to tell me that he never had a wife. Is that right?’
‘That’s right,’ she agreed.
‘Who killed him?’
‘Why, Mr Kaufman,’ Mollo said smoothly, ‘that’s a question easily answered – I did!’ I looked down the barrel of the automatic he was holding firmly in his right hand.
He glanced quickly at his watch. ‘Ivy, my dear,’ he said, ‘it’s nearly time for the next show.’
‘You can’t put it on now,’ she protested.
‘We must,’ he said, ‘it’s one of the specials’ He smiled at me. ‘For your information, it’s at special shows that we sell the stuff. Done up in popcorn packets, with some genuine popcorn on the tray for those who really want it.’
Ivy looked at him sourly. ‘That’s all right,’ she said, ‘but what are you going to do with big-eyes?’ She pointed her thumb at me.
Mollo looked at me coldly, ‘You may realise that I have a silencer on this gun,’ he said. ‘You will do exactly as I say. First, give me the gun I can see bulging in your pocket.’
I gave it to him. ‘Now get in there,’ he said, ‘quickly!’ He pointed to a wooden box mounted on a stool. I got into it awkwardly. My head protruded from one end and my feet from the other. He screwed down the lid tightly and I was helpless. ‘One yelp and it is the last!’ he said.
The curtains were pulled aside and there was a scattered burst of applause. I imagined that the applause was for Mollo, the dope-peddler, not Mollo, the magician.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Mollo said solemnly, ‘on special nights I do the most dangerous of all magicians’ wonders. On special nights I saw someone in half.’ He paused for a moment. ‘This is a most difficult and dangerous thing to do. My female assistant has been through the ordeal before and, frankly, her nerve has failed her. I cannot blame her. But tonight,’ he raised his voice slightly, ‘tonight, a very good friend of mine has volunteered to help me out!’ He slapped the box briskly and grinned down at me. ‘My good friend Rex has the highest confidence in my ability!’
He produced a gigantic saw and measured the line with his eye carefully, then made the first cut. There was absolute silence in the tent – except for the rasp of the saw as it started to cut through the cabinet. I began to feel very hot. The saw rasping through the wood set my whole nervous system on edge.
Mollo made the final cut and stepped back.
‘Perhaps, ladies and gentlemen,’ his eyebrows had an ironic twist, ‘perhaps you do not believe that Rex has been sawn in half?’ Then he grabbed the box close to where my head stuck out and swung it inward suddenly. The audience gasped.
I realised that only half the box had swung. The other half with the other half of me in it was still resting in its original position. The ceiling swam crazily and then everything went black.
I was left in the cabinet for what seemed an eternity of time, but was probably no longer than half an hour. Then Mollo’s face leaned over.
‘I’m going to let you out, Kaufman,’ he said, ‘but take it easy – your life isn’t worth a dime at the moment so don’t try crowding your luck!’
Mollo unscrewed the lid and I climbed out, stiff and bruised. He had me covered with a gun in his hand. He gestured towards the steps. ‘We are going out the front way, Kaufman, into my car. Don’t try any tricks!’
Ivy walked up the steps onto the stage and as she reached the top step, someone stepped through the curtains and thrust a gun at her. At the same time I heard a thud behind me. I turned around and saw Mollo slumping to the ground.
Ivy walked backwards a couple of paces and Cielli stepped through the curtains. ‘Why, Mr Kaufman,’ he smiled pleasantly, ‘this is a nice surprise!’
Katherine’s living room looked almost crowded. I sat on the sofa with Mollo one side of me and Ivy the other. Tyson stood with a gun in his hand, just behind us. To one side, Katherine sat. Gatt sat facing us, patting his face with a perfumed handkerchief.
Cielli stood easily in the centre of the room, smoking a cigarette and enjoying it. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘now we’re all together, who would like to tell the story?’
Mollo glared at him malevolently. ‘I should have thought of you before Brent!’ he snarled.
‘Perhaps you should,’ Cielli agreed, ‘but then, it’s a little late now, don’t you think?’ Mollo relapsed into silence.
‘It’s the usual story of a tribe of rats,’ I said to Cielli. ‘They all try and double-cross each other!’
‘I think we know the story,’ Cielli said. ‘The problem is, what to do about it? We’ve got to lay off for a while – that’s obvious. There wasn’t any stuff on board that launch, but if they have a close look at it, they might wonder why it has the engine it has – and so on. They might also wonder why no one has come forward to claim it. I took the precaution of registering it in Brent’s name, so we’re fairly safe there.’
I wondered who he was talking to – Tyson? Tyson was the only one on his side. ‘Yes,’ Cielli went on, ‘the problem is what to do about the organisation. I feel it is hopeless. We can’t hope to go on in the same way. So much has got to be done that will cause unpleasantness. The police will be very active for quite a while.’
‘Why don’t you come to the point, Cielli?’ Mollo snarled.
‘I’m going to,’ Cielli said crisply. ‘We had a good merchandising set-up and now what have we got? Our supply line is crippled until we can get another launch. Our distributing set-up has been cut down quite considerably.’ He looked at Katherine. ‘I find I can’t trust anyone – except perhaps you, Tyson, and you, Gatt.’ He sighed deeply. ‘I really think we shall have to disband the organisation for a time.’
‘What about these?’ Tyson asked. I presumed he was talking about the three of us on the sofa.
‘An artistic solution,’ Cielli smiled briefly. ‘Gatt is all right – he can go on running his nightclub as a legitimate business for a while.’ He turned to Gatt. ‘Though I’m afraid you will need a new star for your floorshow.’
Gatt shrugged his shoulders. ‘It is regrettable,’ he said, ‘but it can be overcome.’
Cielli turned back to us. ‘An artistic solution,’ he repeated. ‘I feel that the police, the public, even Mr Dusberg, should not go unsatisfied. So we’ll leave them a neat solution. In the tent of Mollo, the magician,’ he gave Mollo an ironical bow, ‘will be the remains of a tense drama that should fill the front pages of almost every newspaper in the States.’
‘A permanent tableau of death!’ He was obviously very pleased with himself. ‘There are the three dope-peddlers – Mollo, Ivy and Katherine – dead! There also, lying on the floor, is the brilliant private detective who discovered the dope-ring and shot it out with them. Unfortunately he was killed for his valour!’
Mollo looked at him icily. ‘If you’ve quite finished grandstanding,’ he said, ‘let’s get it over with!’
‘Why not?’ Cielli agreed. ‘Gatt, I think you had better come with us. Another gun will be useful.’
‘Of course,’ Gatt muttered. He mopped his face again. I had a feeling that the fat one wasn’t made of steel underneath. Underneath the fat was only more fat.
‘There is the question of cars,’ Cielli said. ‘I’ve still got Kaufman’s car downstairs. I think we might give him the pleasure of driving it for the last time. You travel with him, Gatt, and Tyson and Ivy can travel in the back. Mollo can drive his own car and I’ll take Katherine with me.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘All right,’ he said crisply, ‘let’s go!’
Gatt sat beside me, his gun thrust into my ribs. I saw Mollo’s car move away and I followed it slowly. I came to the turn-off into the carnival ground. I pressed the accelerator gently and the needle went up to the forty-five mark. For a moment they didn’t notice it because the pick-up was smooth. Then I swung around the corner into the lane between the tents and I put my foot flat down. The needle crept up to sixty and climbed rapidly.
‘Hey!’ Gatt rammed me in the ribs with his gun. ‘Slow down!’
I kept going. ‘Slow down,’ Tyson yelled from the back seat, ‘or I’ll plug you!’
‘You do that,’ I yelled back at him, ‘and you won’t have a driver!’
Mollo had parked slightly to one side and I blessed him for it. Gatt was yelling with fear. I saw something flash in the air above me and I threw up a hand to ward off the blow. The butt of Tyson’s automatic hit my elbow, numbing the whole arm.
Then we were almost on top of the tent. To hell with the insurance! I swung the wheel hard over so that the car leaped straight towards the tent. I let go of the steering wheel with both hands and ducked under the dashboard, flattening myself against the floor of the car. At the last moment I turned the ignition off.
There was a rending, splintering crash and I heard one agonised shout from Gatt. Then my head thudded against the handbrake and I didn’t know anything about anything for a while.
I put one hand up to my head and it came away wet. I levered myself in a sitting position and looked around. Gatt had disappeared completely. The front seat was pressing against me and it took me a couple of minutes to push it back far enough to get out the door.
I edged myself along to the rear of the car and looked in one of the back windows. Ivy was huddled on the floor, the spare tyre on top of her. The position of her body made it impossible for her to be alive.
Tyson had disappeared entirely, along with Gatt, but his gun was still there, half-embedded in the upholstery of the front seat. I dug it out. Then I left the car and ploughed through the canvas on the stage trying to find my way out. I found Gatt on the way, he was dead. Further on was Tyson, trying to get up.
I hobbled on to where the canvas lay in heavy folds. I lay on my side and started burrowing into it. The further I burrowed, the heavier and darker was the canvas. I began to panic, thinking I’d suffocate under the weight. I burrowed even more desperately. Then, when I was ready to give up, I was suddenly out in the cool night air on the other side.
It took me a little while to get used to the light. Then I could make out the figures – three of them. Cielli standing there, his bulk looming against the sky. Katherine, limp and motionless on the ground. Mollo, on his knees, his hands clasped together in front of him.
‘Well!’ Cielli cackled. ‘Here he is! The man who planned a different ending!’
‘Where’s Ivy?’ Mollo drew in a shuddering breath ‘Where’s Ivy?’
‘Dead,’ I told him.
Cielli cackled again. ‘The others?’ he asked.
‘Gatt went through the windscreen’ I said, ‘Tyson’s under the canvas – he’s alive.’ I fumbled for Tyson’s gun, then I saw the blue object in Cielli’s hand.
‘You have a mastermind, Kaufman,’ Cielli said. ‘This is death on a grand scale!’
‘It includes you, Cielli,’ I told him. ‘It includes you!’ I tried to get to my feet, but I couldn’t make it. I started dragging myself along.
‘That’s it,’ he said, ‘come closer so that I’ll make sure I don’t miss!’
The distance between us came down to six feet, then five, then four. ‘This is it, Kaufman!’ Cielli cried exultantly. There was the sound of a shot and the moment before it sounded, a dark shadow came in between me and Cielli. Mollo had flung himself in front of Cielli.
Cielli brought the gun up again but before he could fire a second shot I had Tyson’s gun out, then I pulled the trigger. Cielli crashed to the ground. I passed out again.
When I started taking an interest again, all I could see were bandages. On the fourth day they thought I was well enough to make a statement and a lieutenant came in with the district attorney for company. The district attorney looked a little embarrassed.
‘Must apologise, Kaufman,’ he said gruffly. ‘You were quite right, of course. But there it is – I get so many people wanting me to investigate this or that and I’m responsible for the way public money is spent. I mean, I can’t just…’
‘Sure,’ I said.
The lieutenant took the opportunity while the district attorney was trying to sort himself out. ‘Okay, Kaufman, give me the story,’ he said, and held his notebook ready. I gave it to him.
The next visitor was Dusberg who cheered me up quite a lot. He gave me a cheque for two thousand bucks and I don’t know of anything more cheering. The carnival was finished, cleared off the lot and he was already starting to divide it up into lots for sale.
The days dragged by. One by one the bandages came off and stayed off. I still didn’t dare ask. I was frightened they’d tell me. Frightened they’d look at me sorrowfully and say, ‘Why, didn’t you know? She died that night. She was dead by the time you had crawled from under the canvas.’ That’s what I was frightened they’d say.
Then came the day. The day I left the hospital. I couldn’t wait for the day to go. I paced up and down the apartment, more nervous than a kitten. Around seven I put on my tuxedo and all the trimmings. Even if she was dead, then this would be a sort of private funeral, I thought.
The house lights went out, the single spot beamed on and there, in the centre of it, was Katherine. She did her act as before. I sat there and felt I could have sat there forever and been happy just watching her. Then the final on-off of the lights and she was gone.
I ran… past the protesting waiters and bandsmen, past the shocked wardrobe mistress, until I found her room. I didn’t bother to knock. I just burst in and then we were in each other’s arms.
‘Why didn’t you come and see me when I was in hospital?’ I asked her when we came up for air. ‘Why didn’t you even let me know you were alive?’
She turned her face away. ‘I didn’t know whether you were interested – I didn’t even know if you cared!’ she told me.
‘Honey!’ I pulled her back into my arms. ‘I nearly went crazy just thinking about you. I didn’t know whether you were dead when I got through that canvas. Nobody told me, nobody mentioned you – and I thought that was probably because you were dead!’
‘You poor darling!’ she whispered.
When we had calmed down a little, I asked her what had happened that night. She shuddered as she thought of it. ‘We got there first, as you know. Cielli took us through to the back – the room behind the stage. He was gloating over us, telling us exactly where we’d be when we were shot. He kept on and on. Finally, Mollo couldn’t stand it any longer and he tried to jump Cielli.
‘Cielli waited until Mollo was almost onto him, then he shot him.’ She shuddered again. ‘He laughed when he did it. I started screaming and I couldn’t stop. He told me to shut up – that he wasn’t going to shoot me until you arrived. He was looking forward to watching your face while he did it.’
She was trembling as she remembered. ‘Take it easy, honey,’ I said.
‘Then he hit me,’ she went on, ‘knocked me off my feet and I fell to the ground. The next moment the car came crashing in. I thought the world had come to an end – I’ve never heard anything like it in all my life! There was the crash and then canvas came down over everything. Splintered glass came over us. I was lucky being on the ground – it missed me. I saw a piece hit Cielli and he just laughed.
‘I think he was crazy even then. He said that you’d arrived with a vengeance. He was waiting for you to come to him. He said that it was meant for him to kill you. He was raving. Then a piece of metal hit me on the head. I didn’t know any more until I came to in the ambulance. They only kept me a couple of days in hospital, then I came home.’
She smiled up at me faintly. ‘With Gatt gone, the club is quite a nice place. I went back to work and I’ve been here ever since – hoping.’
I’d bought a new car with some of the dough that Dusberg had paid me, so I drove her home. We got up to her apartment. ‘Pour yourself a drink, honey,’ she said, ‘while I get changed into something more comfortable.’
I poured the drinks. ‘Will you marry me?’ I asked her.
‘Huh?’ She looked at me blankly.
‘I mean it,’ I said. ‘A private eye should have a wife to come home to at night – I’m sure of it. You think I want to spend the rest of my life pouring my own drinks?’
She stammered but didn’t say anything. ‘Go and think about it while you’re getting changed,’ I suggested. ‘I don’t want you to make a rush decision. I’ll give you until you’ve changed.’ She went out of the room.
I drank my drink and her drink while I waited.
‘Rex!’ Her voice was soft and husky.
I looked around but I couldn’t see her. ‘Where are you?’ I called.
‘Right here,’ she said. I saw an arm waving from behind the door. I wondered what sort of an answer that was!