The Agony Column
by Earl Derr Biggers
London that historic summer was almost unbearably hot. It seems,
looking back, as though the big baking city in those days was meant to
serve as an anteroom of torture—an inadequate bit of preparation for
the hell that was soon to break in the guise of the Great War. About
the soda-water bar in the drug store near the Hotel Cecil many American
tourists found solace in the sirups and creams of home. Through the
open windows of the Piccadilly tea shops you might catch glimpses of
the English consuming quarts of hot tea in order to become cool. It is
a paradox they swear by.
About nine o'clock on the morning of Friday, July twenty-fourth, in
that memorable year nineteen hundred and fourteen, Geoffrey West left
his apartments in Adelphi Terrace and set out for breakfast at the
Canton. He had found the breakfast room of that dignified hotel the
coolest in London, and through some miracle, for the season had passed,
strawberries might still be had there. As he took his way through the
crowded Strand, surrounded on all sides by honest British faces wet
with honest British perspiration he thought longingly of his rooms in
Washington Square, New York. For West, despite the English sound of
that Geoffrey, was as American as Kansas, his native state, and only
pressing business was at that moment holding him in England, far from
the country that glowed unusually rosy because of its remoteness.
At the Carlton news stand West bought two morning papers—the Times
for study and the Mail for entertainment and then passed on into the
restaurant. His waiter—a tall soldierly Prussian, more blond than West
himself—saw him coming and, with a nod and a mechanical German smile,
set out for the plate of strawberries which he knew would be the first
thing desired by the American. West seated himself at his usual table
and, spreading out the Daily Mail, sought his favorite column. The
first item in that column brought a delighted smile to his face:
“The one who calls me Dearest is not genuine or they would write to
Any one at all familiar with English journalism will recognize at
once what department it was that appealed most to West. During his
three weeks in London he had been following, with the keenest joy, the
daily grist of Personal Notices in the Mail. This string of intimate
messages, popularly known as the Agony Column, has long been an honored
institution in the English press. In the days of Sherlock Holmes it was
in the Times that it flourished, and many a criminal was tracked to
earth after he had inserted some alluring mysterious message in it.
Later the Telegraph gave it room; but, with the advent of halfpenny
journalism, the simple souls moved en masse to the Mail.
Tragedy and comedy mingle in the Agony Column. Erring ones are urged
to return for forgiveness; unwelcome suitors are warned that “Father
has warrant prepared; fly, Dearest One!” Loves that would shame by
their ardor Abelard and Heloise are frankly published—at ten cents a
word—for all the town to smile at. The gentleman in the brown derby
states with fervor that the blonde governess who got off the tram at
Shepherd's Bush has quite won his heart. Will she permit his addresses?
Answer; this department. For three weeks West had found this sort of
thing delicious reading. Best of all, he could detect in these messages
nothing that was not open and innocent. At their worst they were merely
an effort to side-step old Lady Convention; this inclination was so
rare in the British, he felt it should be encouraged. Besides, he was
inordinately fond of mystery and romance, and these engaging twins
hovered always about that column.
So, while waiting for his strawberries, he smiled over the
ungrammatical outburst of the young lady who had come to doubt the
genuineness of him who called her Dearest. He passed on to the second
item of the morning. Spoke one whose heart had been completely
MY LADY sleeps. She of raven tresses. Corner seat from Victoria,
Wednesday night. Carried program. Gentleman answering inquiry desires
acquaintance. Reply here. —LE ROI.
West made a mental note to watch for the reply of raven tresses. The
next message proved to be one of Aye's lyrics—now almost a daily
feature of the column:
DEAREST: Tender loving wishes to my dear one. Only to be with you
now and always. None “fairer in my eyes.” Your name is music to me. I
love you more than life itself, my own beautiful darling, my proud
sweetheart, my joy, my all! Jealous of everybody. Kiss your dear hands
for me. Love you only. Thine ever. —AYE.
Which, reflected West, was generous of Aye—at ten cents a word
—and in striking contrast to the penurious lover who wrote, farther
along in the column:
—loveu dearly; wantocu; longing; missu—
But those extremely personal notices ran not alone to love. Mystery,
too, was present, especially in the aquatic utterance:
DEFIANT MERMAID: Not mine. Alligators bitingu now. 'Tis well;
delighted. —FIRST FISH.
And the rather sanguinary suggestion:
DE Box: First round; tooth gone. Finale. You will FORGET ME NOT.
At this point West's strawberries arrived and even the Agony Column
could not hold his interest. When the last red berry was eaten he
turned back to read:
WATERLOO: Wed. 11:53 train. Lady who left in taxi and waved, care to
know gent, gray coat? —SINCERE.
Also the more dignified request put forward in:
GREAT CENTRAL: Gentleman who saw lady in bonnet 9 Monday morning in
Great Central Hotel lift would greatly value opportunity of obtaining
This exhausted the joys of the Agony Column for the day, and West,
like the solid citizen he really was, took up the Times to discover
what might be the morning's news. A great deal of space was given to
the appointment of a new principal for Dulwich College. The affairs of
the heart, in which that charming creature, Gabrielle Ray, was at the
moment involved, likewise claimed attention. And in a quite unimportant
corner, in a most unimportant manner, it was related that Austria had
sent an ultimatum to Serbia. West had read part way through this stupid
little piece of news, when suddenly the Thunderer and all its works
became an uninteresting blur.
A girl stood just inside the door of the Carlton breakfast room.
Yes; he should have pondered that despatch from Vienna. But such a
girl! It adds nothing at all to say that her hair was a dull sort of
gold; her eyes violet. Many girls have been similarly blessed. It was
her manner; the sweet way she looked with those violet eyes through a
battalion of head waiters and resplendent managers; her air of being at
home here in the Carlton or anywhere else that fate might drop her
down. Unquestionably she came from oversea—from the States.
She stepped forward into the restaurant. And now slipped also into
view, as part of the background for her, a middle-aged man, who wore
the conventional black of the statesman. He, too, bore the American
label unmistakably. Nearer and nearer to West she drew, and he saw that
in her hand she carried a copy of the Daily Mail.
West's waiter was a master of the art of suggesting that no table in
the room was worth sitting at save that at which he held ready a chair.
Thus he lured the girl and her companion to repose not five feet from
where West sat. This accomplished, he whipped out his order book, and
stood with pencil poised, like a reporter in an American play.
“The strawberries are delicious,” he said in honeyed tones.
The man looked at the girl, a question in his eyes.
“Not for me, dad,” she said. “I hate them! Grapefruit, please.”
As the waiter hurried past, West hailed him. He spoke in loud
“Another plate of the strawberries!” he commanded. “They are better
than ever to-day.”
For a second, as though he were part of the scenery, those violet
eyes met his with a casual impersonal glance. Then their owner slowly
spread out her own copy of the Mail.
“What's the news?” asked the statesman, drinking deep from his glass
“Don't ask me,” the girl answered, without looking up. “I've found
something more entertaining than news. Do you know—the English papers
run humorous columns! Only they aren't called that. They're called
Personal Notices. And such notices!” She leaned across the table.
“Listen to this: 'Dearest: Tender loving wishes to my dear one. Only to
be with you now and always. None “fairer in my eyes.”—'“
The man locked uncomfortably about him. “Hush!” he pleaded. “It
doesn't sound very nice to me.”
“Nice !” cried the girl. “Oh, but it is—quite nice. And so
deliciously open and aboveboard. 'Your name is music to me. I love you
“What do we see to-day?” put in her father hastily.
“We're going down to the City and have a look at the Temple.
Thackeray lived there once—and Oliver Goldsmith—”
“All right—the Temple it is.”
“Then the Tower of London. It's full of the most romantic
associations. Especially the Bloody Tower, where those poor little
princes were murdered. Aren't you thrilled?”
“I am if you say so.”
“You're a dear! I promise not to tell the people back in Texas that
you showed any interest in kings and such—if you will show just a
little. Otherwise I'll spread the awful news that you took off your hat
when King George went by.”
The statesman smiled. West felt that he, who had no business to, was
smiling with him.
The waiter returned, bringing grapefruit, and the strawberries West
had ordered. Without another look toward West, the girl put down her
paper and began her breakfasting. As often as he dared, however, West
looked at her. With patriotic pride he told himself: “Six months in
Europe, and the most beautiful thing I've seen comes from back home!”
When he rose reluctantly twenty minutes later his two compatriots
were still at table, discussing their plans for the day. As is usual in
such cases, the girl arranged, the man agreed.
With one last glance in her direction, West went out on the parched
pavement of Haymarket.
Slowly he walked back to his rooms. Work was waiting there for him;
but instead of getting down to it, he sat on the balcony of his study,
gazing out on the courtyard that had been his chief reason for
selecting those apartments. Here, in the heart of the city, was a bit
of the countryside transported—the green, trim, neatly tailored
countryside that is the most satisfying thing in England. There were
walls on which the ivy climbed high, narrow paths that ran between
blooming beds of flowers, and opposite his windows a seldom-opened,
most romantic gate. As he sat looking down he seemed to see there below
him the girl of the Carlton. Now she sat on the rustic bench; now she
bent above the envious flowers; now she stood at the gate that opened
out to a hot sudden bit of the city.
And as he watched her there in the garden she would never enter, as
he reflected unhappily that probably he would see her no more—the idea
came to him.
At first he put it from him as absurd, impossible. She was, to apply
a fine word much abused, a lady; he supposedly a gentleman. Their sort
did not do such things. If he yielded to this temptation she would be
shocked, angry, and from him would slip that one chance in a thousand
he had—the chance of meeting her somewhere, some day.
And yet—and yet—She, too, had found the Agony Column entertaining
and—quite nice. There was a twinkle in her eyes that bespoke a
fondness for romance. She was human, fun-loving—and, above all, the
joy of youth was in her heart.
Nonsense! West went inside and walked the floor. The idea was
preposterous. Still—he smiled—it was filled with amusing
possibilities. Too bad he must put it forever away and settle down to
this stupid work!
Forever away? Well—
On the next morning, which was Saturday, West did not breakfast at
the Carlton. The girl, however, did. As she and her father sat down the
old man said: “I see you've got your Daily Mail.”
“Of course!” she answered. “I couldn't do without it. Grapefruit
She began to read. Presently her cheeks flushed and she put the
“What is it?” asked the Texas statesman.
“To-day,” she answered sternly, “you do the British Museum. You've
put it off long enough.”
The old man sighed. Fortunately he did not ask to see the Mail. If
he had, a quarter way down the column of personal notices he would have
been enraged—or perhaps only puzzled—to read:
CARLTON RESTAURANT: Nine A.M. Friday morning. Will the young woman
who preferred grapefruit to strawberries permit the young man who had
two plates of the latter to say he will not rest until he discovers
some mutual friend, that they may meet and laugh over this column
Lucky for the young man who liked strawberries that his nerve had
failed him and he was not present at the Carlton that morning! He would
have been quite overcome to see the stern uncompromising look on the
beautiful face of a lady at her grapefruit. So overcome, in fact, that
he would probably have left the room at once, and thus not seen the
mischievous smile that came in time to the lady's face —not seen that
she soon picked up the paper again and read, with that smile, to the
end of the column.
The next day was Sunday; hence it brought no Mail. Slowly it dragged
along. At a ridiculously early hour Monday morning Geoffrey West was on
the street, seeking his favorite newspaper. He found it, found the
Agony Column—and nothing else. Tuesday morning again he rose early,
still hopeful. Then and there hope died. The lady at the Canton deigned
Well, he had lost, he told himself. He had staked all on this one
bold throw; no use. Probably if she thought of him at all it was to
label him a cheap joker, a mountebank of the halfpenny press. Richly he
deserved her scorn.
On Wednesday he slept late. He was in no haste to look into the
Daily Mail; his disappointments of the previous days had been too keen.
At last, while he was shaving, he summoned Walters, the caretaker of
the building, and sent him out to procure a certain morning paper.
Walters came back bearing rich treasure, for in the Agony Column of
that day West, his face white with lather, read joyously:
STRAWBERRY MAN: Only the grapefruit lady's kind heart and her great
fondness for mystery and romance move her to answer. The strawberry-mad
one may write one letter a day for seven days—to prove that he is an
interesting person, worth knowing. Then—we shall see. Address: M. A.
L., care Sadie Haight, Carlton Hotel.
All day West walked on air, but with the evening came the problem of
those letters, on which depended, he felt, his entire future happiness.
Returning from dinner, he sat down at his desk near the windows that
looked out on his wonderful courtyard. The weather was still torrid,
but with the night had come a breeze to fan the hot cheek of London. It
gently stirred his curtains; rustled the papers on his desk.
He considered. Should he at once make known the eminently
respectable person he was, the hopelessly respectable people he knew?
Hardly! For then, on the instant, like a bubble bursting, would go for
good all mystery and romance, and the lady of the grapefruit would lose
all interest and listen to him no more. He spoke solemnly to his
“No,” he said. “We must have mystery and romance. But where—where
shall we find them?”
On the floor above he heard the solid tramp of military boots
belonging to his neighbor, Captain Stephen Fraser-Freer, of the Twelfth
Cavalry, Indian Army, home on furlough from that colony beyond the
seas. It was from that room overhead that romance and mystery were to
come in mighty store; but Geoffrey West little suspected it at the
moment. Hardly knowing what to say, but gaining inspiration as he went
along, he wrote the first of seven letters to the lady at the Carlton.
And the epistle he dropped in the post box at midnight follows here:
DEAR LADY OF THE GRAPEFRUIT: You are very kind. Also, you are wise.
Wise, because into my clumsy little Personal you read nothing that was
not there. You knew it immediately for what it was—the timid tentative
clutch of a shy man at the skirts of Romance in passing. Believe me,
old Conservatism was with me when I wrote that message. He was fighting
hard. He followed me, struggling, shrieking, protesting, to the post
box itself. But I whipped him. Glory be! I did for him.
We are young but once, I told him. After that, what use to signal to
Romance? The lady at least, I said, will understand. He sneered at
that. He shook his silly gray head. I will admit he had me worried. But
now you have justified my faith in you. Thank you a million times for
Three weeks I have been in this huge, ungainly, indifferent city,
longing for the States. Three weeks the Agony Column has been my sole
diversion. And then—through the doorway of the Carlton restaurant—you
It is of myself that I must write, I know. I will not, then, tell
you what is in my mind—the picture of you I carry. It would mean
little to you. Many Texan gallants, no doubt, have told you the same
while the moon was bright above you and the breeze was softly
whispering through the branches of—the branches of the—of the—
Confound it, I don't know! I have never been in Texas. It is a vice
in me I hope soon to correct. All day I intended to look up Texas in
the encyclopedia. But all day I have dwelt in the clouds. And there are
no reference books in the clouds.
Now I am down to earth in my quiet study. Pens, ink and paper are
before me. I must prove myself a person worth knowing.
From his rooms, they say, you can tell much about a man. But, alas!
these peaceful rooms in Adelphi Terrace—I shall not tell the
number—were sublet furnished. So if you could see me now you would be
judging me by the possessions left behind by one Anthony Bartholomew.
There is much dust on them. Judge neither Anthony nor me by that. Judge
rather Walters, the caretaker, who lives in the basement with his
gray-haired wife. Walters was a gardener once, and his whole life is
wrapped up in the courtyard on which my balcony looks down. There he
spends his time, while up above the dust gathers in the corners—
Does this picture distress you, my lady? You should see the
courtyard! You would not blame Walters then. It is a sample of Paradise
left at our door—that courtyard. As English as a hedge, as neat, as
beautiful. London is a roar somewhere beyond; between our court and the
great city is a magic gate, forever closed. It was the court that led
me to take these rooms.
And, since you are one who loves mystery, I am going to relate to
you the odd chain of circumstances that brought me here.
For the first link in that chain we must go back to Interlaken. Have
you been there yet? A quiet little town, lying beautiful between two
shimmering lakes, with the great Jungfrau itself for scenery. From the
dining-room of one lucky hotel you may look up at dinner and watch the
old-rose afterglow light the snow-capped mountain. You would not say
then of strawberries: “I hate them.” Or of anything else in all the
A month ago I was in Interlaken. One evening after dinner I strolled
along the main street, where all the hotels and shops are drawn up at
attention before the lovely mountain. In front of one of the shops I
saw a collection of walking sticks and, since I needed one for
climbing, I paused to look them over. I had been at this only a moment
when a young Englishman stepped up and also began examining the sticks.
I had made a selection from the lot and was turning away to find the
shopkeeper, when the Englishman spoke. He was lean,
distinguished-looking, though quite young, and had that well-tubbed
appearance which I am convinced is the great factor that has enabled
the English to assert their authority over colonies like Egypt and
India, where men are not so thoroughly bathed.
“Er—if you'll pardon me, old chap,” he said. “Not that stick—if
you don't mind my saying so. It's not tough enough for mountain work. I
To say that I was astonished is putting it mildly. If you know the
English at all, you know it is not their habit to address strangers,
even under the most pressing circumstances. Yet here was one of that
haughty race actually interfering in my selection of a stick. I ended
by buying the one he preferred, and he strolled along with me in the
direction of my hotel, chatting meantime in a fashion far from British.
We stopped at the Kursaal, where we listened to the music, had a
drink and threw away a few francs on the little horses. He came with me
to the veranda of my hotel. I was surprised, when he took his leave, to
find that he regarded me in the light of an old friend. He said he
would call on me the next morning.
I made up my mind that Archibald Enwright—for that, he told me, was
his name—was an adventurer down on his luck, who chose to forget his
British exclusiveness under the stern necessity of getting money
somehow, somewhere. The next day, I decided, I should be the victim of
But my prediction failed; Enwright seemed to have plenty of money.
On that first evening I had mentioned to him that I expected shortly to
be in London, and he often referred to the fact. As the time approached
for me to leave Interlaken he began to throw out the suggestion that he
should like to have me meet some of his people in England. This, also,
was unheard of—against all precedent.
Nevertheless, when I said good-by to him he pressed into my hand a
letter of introduction to his cousin, Captain Stephen Fraser-Freer, of
the Twelfth Cavalry, Indian Army, who, he said, would be glad to make
me at home in London, where he was on furlough at the time —or would
be when I reached there.
“Stephen's a good sort,” said Enwright. “He'll be jolly pleased to
show you the ropes. Give him my best, old boy!”
Of course I took the letter. But I puzzled greatly over the affair.
What could be the meaning of this sudden warm attachment that Archie
had formed for me? Why should he want to pass me along to his cousin at
a time when that gentleman, back home after two years in India, would
be, no doubt, extremely busy? I made up my mind I would not present the
letter, despite the fact that Archie had with great persistence wrung
from me a promise to do so. I had met many English gentlemen, and I
felt they were not the sort—despite the example of Archie—to take a
wandering American to their bosoms when he came with a mere letter. By
easy stages I came on to London. Here I met a friend, just sailing for
home, who told me of some sad experiences he had had with letters of
introduction—of the cold, fishy,
“My-dear-fellow-why-trouble-me-with-it?” stares that had greeted their
presentation. Good-hearted men all, he said, but averse to strangers;
an ever-present trait in the English—always excepting Archie.
So I put the letter to Captain Fraser-Freer out of my mind. I had
business acquaintances here and a few English friends, and I found
these, as always, courteous and charming. But it is to my advantage to
meet as many people as may be, and after drifting about for a week I
set out one afternoon to call on my captain. I told myself that here
was an Englishman who had perhaps thawed a bit in the great oven of
India. If not, no harm would be done.
It was then that I came for the first time to this house on Adelphi
Terrace, for it was the address Archie had given me. Walters let me in,
and I learned from him that Captain Fraser-Freer had not yet arrived
from India. His rooms were ready—he had kept them during his absence,
as seems to be the custom over here—and he was expected soon.
Perhaps—said Walters—his wife remembered the date. He left me in the
lower hail while he went to ask her.
Waiting, I strolled to the rear of the hall. And then, through an
open window that let in the summer, I saw for the first time that
courtyard which is my great love in London—the old ivy-covered walls
of brick; the neat paths between the blooming beds; the rustic seat;
the magic gate. It was incredible that just outside lay the world's
biggest city, with all its poverty and wealth, its sorrows and joys,
its roar and rattle. Here was a garden for Jane Austen to people with
fine ladies and courtly gentlemen—here was a garden to dream in, to
adore and to cherish.
When Walters came back to tell me that his wife was uncertain as to
the exact date when the captain would return, I began to rave about
that courtyard. At once he was my friend. I had been looking for quiet
lodgings away from the hotel, and I was delighted to find that on the
second floor, directly under the captain's rooms, there was a suite to
Walters gave me the address of the agents; and, after submitting to
an examination that could not have been more severe if I had asked for
the hand of the senior partner's daughter, they let me come here to
live. The garden was mine!
And the captain? Three days after I arrived I heard above me, for
the first time, the tread of his military boots. Now again my courage
began to fail. I should have preferred to leave Archie's letter lying
in my desk and know my neighbor only by his tread above me. I felt that
perhaps I had been presumptuous in coming to live in the same house
with him. But I had represented myself to Walters as an acquaintance of
the captain's and the caretaker had lost no time in telling me that “my
friend” was safely home.
So one night, a week ago, I got up my nerve and went to the
captain's rooms. I knocked. He called to me to enter and I stood in his
study, facing him. He was a tall handsome man, fair-haired,
mustached—the very figure that you, my lady, in your boarding-school
days, would have wished him to be. His manner, I am bound to admit, was
“Captain,” I began, “I am very sorry to intrude—” It wasn't the
thing to say, of course, but I was fussed. “However, I happen to be a
neighbor of yours, and I have here a letter of introduction from your
cousin, Archibald Enwright. I met him in Interlaken and we became very
“Indeed!” said the captain.
He held out his hand for the letter, as though it were evidence at a
court-martial. I passed it over, wishing I hadn't come. He read it
through. It was a long letter, considering its nature. While I waited,
standing by his desk—he hadn't asked me to sit down—I looked about
the room. It was much like my own study, only I think a little dustier.
Being on the third floor it was farther from the garden, consequently
Walters reached there seldom.
The captain turned back and began to read the letter again. This was
decidedly embarrassing. Glancing down, I happened to see on his desk an
odd knife, which I fancy he had brought from India. The blade was of
steel, dangerously sharp, the hilt of gold, carved to represent some
Then the captain looked up from Archie's letter and his cold gaze
fell full upon me.
“My dear fellow,” he said, “to the best of my knowledge, I have no
cousin named Archibald Enwright.”
A pleasant situation, you must admit! It's bad enough when you come
to them with a letter from their mother, but here was I in this
Englishman's rooms, boldly flaunting in his face a warm note of
commendation from a cousin who did not exist!
“I owe you an apology,” I said. I tried to be as haughty as he, and
fell short by about two miles. “I brought the letter in good faith.”
“No doubt of that,” he answered.
“Evidently it was given me by some adventurer for purposes of his
own,” I went on; “though I am at a loss to guess what they could have
“I'm frightfully sorry—really,” said he. But he said it with the
London inflection, which plainly implies: “I'm nothing of the sort.”
A painful pause. I felt that he ought to give me back the letter;
but he made no move to do so. And, of course, I didn't ask for it.
“Ah—er—good night,” said I and hurried toward the door.
“Good night,” he answered, and I left him standing there with
Archie's accursed letter in his hand.
That is the story of how I came to this house in Adelphi Terrace.
There is mystery in it, you must admit, my lady. Once or twice since
that uncomfortable call I have passed the captain on the stairs; but
the halls are very dark, and for that I am grateful. I hear him often
above me; in fact, I hear him as I write this.
Who was Archie? What was the idea? I wonder.
Ah, well, I have my garden, and for that I am indebted to Archie the
garrulous. It is nearly midnight now. The roar of London has died away
to a fretful murmur, and somehow across this baking town a breeze has
found its way. It whispers over the green grass, in the ivy that climbs
my wall, in the soft murky folds of my curtains. Whispers—what?
Whispers, perhaps, the dreams that go with this, the first of my
letters to you. They are dreams that even I dare not whisper yet.
And so—good night.
THE STRAWBERRY MAN.
With a smile that betrayed unusual interest, the daughter of the
Texas statesman read that letter on Thursday morning in her room at the
Carlton. There was no question about it—the first epistle from the
strawberry-mad one had caught and held her attention. All day, as she
dragged her father through picture galleries, she found herself looking
forward to another morning, wondering, eager.
But on the following morning Sadie Haight, the maid through whom
this odd correspondence was passing, had no letter to deliver. The news
rather disappointed the daughter of Texas. At noon she insisted on
returning to the hotel for luncheon, though, as her father pointed out,
they were far from the Canton at the time. Her journey was rewarded.
Letter number two was waiting; and as she read she gasped.
DEAR LADY AT THE CARLTON: I am writing this at three in the morning,
with London silent as the grave, beyond our garden. That I am so late
in getting to it is not because I did not think of you all day
yesterday; not because I did not sit down at my desk at seven last
evening to address you. Believe me, only the most startling, the most
appalling accident could have held me up.
That most startling, most appalling accident has happened.
I am tempted to give you the news at once in one striking and
terrible sentence. And I could write that sentence. A tragedy, wrapped
in mystery as impenetrable as a London fog, has befallen our quiet
little house in Adelphi Terrace. In their basement room the Walters
family, sleepless, overwhelmed, sit silent; on the dark stairs outside
my door I hear at intervals the tramp of men on unhappy missions—But
no; I must go back to the very start of it all:
Last night I had an early dinner at Simpson's, in the Strand—so
early that I was practically alone in the restaurant. The letter I was
about to write to you was uppermost in my mind and, having quickly
dined, I hurried back to my rooms. I remember clearly that, as I stood
in the street before our house fumbling for my keys, Big Ben on the
Parliament Buildings struck the hour of seven. The chime of the great
bell rang out in our peaceful thoroughfare like a loud and friendly
Gaining my study, I sat down at once to write. Over my head I could
hear Captain Fraser-Freer moving about—attiring himself, probably, for
dinner. I was thinking, with an amused smile, how horrified he would be
if he knew that the crude American below him had dined at the
impossible hour of six, when suddenly I heard, in that room above me,
some stranger talking in a harsh determined tone. Then came the
captain's answering voice, calmer, more dignified. This conversation
went along for some time, growing each moment more excited. Though I
could not distinguish a word of it, I had the uncomfortable feeling
that there was a controversy on; and I remember feeling annoyed that
any one should thus interfere with my composition of your letter, which
I regarded as most important, you may be sure.
At the end of five minutes of argument there came the heavy
thump-thump of men struggling above me. It recalled my college days,
when we used to hear the fellows in the room above us throwing each
other about in an excess of youth and high spirits. But this seemed
more grim, more determined, and I did not like it.—However, I
reflected that it was none of my business. I tried to think about my
The struggle ended with a particularly heavy thud that shook our
ancient house to its foundations. I sat listening, somehow very much
depressed. There was no sound. It was not entirely dark outside—the
long twilight—and the frugal Walters had not lighted the hall lamps.
Somebody was coming down the stairs very quietly —but their creaking
betrayed him. I waited for him to pass through the shaft of light that
poured from the door open at my back. At that moment Fate intervened in
the shape of a breeze through my windows, the door banged shut, and a
heavy man rushed by me in the darkness and ran down the stairs. I knew
he was heavy, because the passageway was narrow and he had to push me
aside to get by. I heard him swear beneath his breath.
Quickly I went to a hall window at the far end that looked out on
the street. But the front door did not open; no one came out. I was
puzzled for a second then I reentered my room and hurried to my
balcony. I could make out the dim figure of a man running through the
garden at the rear—that garden of which I have so often spoken. He did
not try to open the gate; he climbed it, and so disappeared from sight
into the alley.
For a moment I considered. These were odd actions, surely; but was
it my place to interfere? I remembered the cold stare in the eyes of
Captain Fraser-Freer when I presented that letter. I saw him standing
motionless in his murky study, as amiable as a statue. Would he welcome
an intrusion from me now?
Finally I made up my mind to forget these things and went down to
find Walters. He and his wife were eating their dinner in the basement.
I told him what had happened. He said he had let no visitor in to see
the captain, and was inclined to view my misgivings with a cold British
eye. However, I persuaded him to go with me to the captain's rooms.
The captain's door was open. Remembering that in England the way of
the intruder is hard, I ordered Walters to go first. He stepped into
the room, where the gas flickered feebly in an aged chandelier.
“My God, sir!” said Walters, a servant even now.
And at last I write that sentence: Captain Fraser-Freer of the
Indian Army lay dead on the floor, a smile that was almost a sneer on
his handsome English face!
The horror of it is strong with me now as I sit in the silent
morning in this room of mine which is so like the one in which the
captain died. He had been stabbed just over the heart, and my first
thought was of that odd Indian knife which I had seen lying on his
study table. I turned quickly to seek it, but it was gone. And as I
looked at the table it came to me that here in this dusty room there
must be finger prints—many finger prints.
The room was quite in order, despite those sounds of struggle. One
or two odd matters met my eye. On the table stood a box from a florist
in Bond Street. The lid had been removed and I saw that the box
contained a number of white asters. Beside the box lay a scarf-pin—an
emerald scarab. And not far from the captain's body lay what is
known—owing to the German city where it is made—as a Homburg hat.
I recalled that it is most important at such times that nothing be
disturbed, and I turned to old Walters. His face was like this paper on
which I write; his knees trembled beneath him.
“Walters,” said I, “we must leave things just as they are until the
police arrive. Come with me while I notify Scotland Yard.”
“Very good, sir,” said Walters.
We went down then to the telephone in the lower hall, and I called
up the Yard. I was told that an inspector would come at once and I went
back to my room to wait for him.
You can well imagine the feelings that were mine as I waited. Before
this mystery should be solved, I foresaw that I might be involved to a
degree that was unpleasant if not dangerous. Walters would remember
that I first came here as one acquainted with the captain. He had
noted, I felt sure, the lack of intimacy between the captain and
myself, once the former arrived from India. He would no doubt testify
that I had been most anxious to obtain lodgings in the same house with
Fraser-Freer. Then there was the matter of my letter from Archie. I
must keep that secret, I felt sure. Lastly, there was not a living soul
to back me up in my story of the quarrel that preceded the captain's
death, of the man who escaped by way of the garden.
Alas, thought I, even the most stupid policeman can not fail to look
upon me with the eye of suspicion!
In about twenty minutes three men arrived from Scotland Yard. By
that time I had worked myself up into a state of absurd nervousness. I
heard Walters let them in; heard them climb the stairs and walk about
in the room overhead. In a short time Walters knocked at my door and
told me that Chief Inspector Bray desired to speak to me. As I preceded
the servant up the stairs I felt toward him as an accused murderer must
feel toward the witness who has it in his power to swear his life away.
He was a big active man—Bray; blond as are so many Englishmen. His
every move spoke efficiency. Trying to act as unconcerned as an
innocent man should—but failing miserably, I fear—I related to him my
story of the voices, the struggle, and the heavy man who had got by me
in the hall and later climbed our gate. He listened without comment. At
the end he said:
“You were acquainted with the captain?”
“Slightly,” I told him. Archie's letter kept popping into my mind,
frightening me. I had just met him—that is all; through a friend of
his—Archibald Enwright was the name.”
“Is Enwright in London to vouch for you?”
“I'm afraid not. I last heard of him in Interlaken.”
“Yes? How did you happen to take rooms in this house?”
“The first time I called to see the captain he had not yet arrived
from India. I was looking for lodgings and I took a great fancy to the
It sounded silly, put like that. I wasn't surprised that the
inspector eyed me with scorn. But I rather wished he hadn't.
Bray began to walk about the room, ignoring me.
“White asters; scarab pin; Homburg hat,” he detailed, pausing before
the table where those strange exhibits lay.
A constable came forward carrying newspapers in his hand.
“What is it?” Bray asked.
“The Daily Mail, sir,” said the constable. “The issues of July
twenty-seventh, twenty-eighth, twenty-ninth and thirtieth.”
Bray took the papers in his hand, glanced at them and tossed them
contemptuously into a waste-basket. He turned to Walters.
“Sorry, sir,” said Walters; “but I was so taken aback! Nothing like
this has ever happened to me before. I'll go at once—”
“No,” replied Bray sharply. “Never mind. I'll attend to it—”
There was a knock at the door. Bray called “Come!” and a slender
boy, frail but with a military bearing, entered.
“Hello, Walters!” he said, smiling. “What's up? I-”
He stopped suddenly as his eyes fell upon the divan where
Fraser-Freer lay. In an instant he was at the dead man's side.
“Stephen!” he cried in anguish.
“Who are you?” demanded the inspector—rather rudely, I thought.
“It's the captain's brother, sir,” put in Walters. “Lieutenant
Norman Fraser-Freer, of the Royal Fusiliers.”
There fell a silence.
“A great calamity, sir—” began Walters to the boy.
I have rarely seen any one so overcome as young Fraser-Freer.
Watching him, it seemed to me that the affection existing between him
and the man on the divan must have been a beautiful thing. He turned
away from his brother at last, and Walters sought to give him some idea
of what had happened.
“You will pardon me, gentlemen,” said the lieutenant. “This has been
a terrible shock! I didn't dream, of course—I just dropped in for a
word with—with him. And now—”
We said nothing. We let him apologize, as a true Englishman must,
for his public display of emotion.
“I'm sorry,” Bray remarked in a moment, his eyes still shifting
about the room—“especially as England may soon have great need of men
like the captain. Now, gentlemen, I want to say this: I am the Chief of
the Special Branch at the Yard. This is no ordinary murder. For reasons
I can not disclose—and, I may add, for the best interests of the
empire—news of the captain's tragic death must be kept for the present
out of the newspapers. I mean, of course, the manner of his going. A
mere death notice, you understand—the inference being that it was a
natural taking off.”
“I understand,” said the lieutenant, as one who knows more than he
“Thank you,” said Bray. “I shall leave you to attend to the matter,
as far as your family is concerned. You will take charge of the body.
As for the rest of you, I forbid you to mention this matter outside.”
And now Bray stood looking, with a puzzled air, at me.
“You are an American?” he said, and I judged he did not care for
“I am,” I told him.
“Know any one at your consulate?” he demanded.
Thank heaven, I did! There is an under-secretary there named
Watson—I went to college with him. I mentioned him to Bray.
“Very good,” said the inspector. “You are free to go. But you must
understand that you are an important witness in this case, and if you
attempt to leave London you will be locked up.”
So I came back to my rooms, horribly entangled in a mystery that is
little to my liking. I have been sitting here in my study for some
time, going over it again and again. There have been many footsteps on
the stairs, many voices in the hall.
Waiting here for the dawn, I have come to be very sorry for the cold
handsome captain. After all, he was a man; his very tread on the floor
above, which it shall never hear again, told me that.
What does it all mean? Who was the man in the hall, the man who had
argued so loudly, who had struck so surely with that queer Indian
knife? Where is the knife now?
And, above all, what do the white asters signify? And the scarab
scarf-pin? And that absurd Homburg hat?
Lady of the Canton, you wanted mystery. When I wrote that first
letter to you, little did I dream that I should soon have it to give
you in overwhelming measure.
And—believe me when I say it—through all this your face has been
constantly before me—your face as I saw it that bright morning in the
hotel breakfast room. You have forgiven me, I know, for the manner in
which I addressed you. I had seen your eyes and the temptation was
It is dawn in the garden now and London is beginning to stir. So
this time it is—good morning, my lady.
THE STRAWBERRY MAN.
It is hardly necessary to intimate that this letter came as
something of a shock to the young woman who received it. For the rest
of that day the many sights of London held little interest for her—so
little, indeed, that her perspiring father began to see visions of his
beloved Texas; and once hopefully suggested an early return home. The
coolness with which this idea was received plainly showed him that he
was on the wrong track; so he sighed and sought solace at the bar.
That night the two from Texas attended His Majesty's Theater, where
Bernard Shaw's latest play was being performed; and the witty Irishman
would have been annoyed to see the scant attention one lovely young
American in the audience gave his lines. The American in question
retired at midnight, with eager thoughts turned toward the morning.
And she was not disappointed. When her maid, a stolid Englishwoman,
appeared at her bedside early Saturday she carried a letter, which she
handed over, with the turned-up nose of one who aids but does not
approve. Quickly the girl tore it open.
DEAR Texas LADY: I am writing this late in the afternoon. The sun is
casting long black shadows on the garden lawn, and the whole world is
so bright and matter-of-fact I have to argue with myself to be
convinced that the events of that tragic night through which I passed
The newspapers this morning helped to make it all seem a dream; not
a line—not a word, that I can find. When I think of America, and how
by this time the reporters would be swarming through our house if this
thing had happened over there, I am the more astonished. But then, I
know these English papers. The great Joe Chamberlain died the other
night at ten, and it was noon the next day when the first paper to
carry the story appeared—screaming loudly that it had scored a beat.
It had. Other lands, other methods.
It was probably not difficult for Bray to keep journalists such as
these in the dark. So their great ungainly sheets come out in total
ignorance of a remarkable story in Adelphi Terrace. Famished for real
news, they begin to hint at a huge war cloud on the horizon. Because
tottering Austria has declared war on tiny Serbia, because the Kaiser
is to-day hurrying, with his best dramatic effect, home to Berlin, they
see all Europe shortly bathed in blood. A nightmare born of torrid days
and tossing nights!
But it is of the affair in Adelphi Terrace that you no doubt want to
hear. One sequel of the tragedy, which adds immeasurably to the mystery
of it all, has occurred, and I alone am responsible for its discovery.
But to go back:
I returned from mailing your letter at dawn this morning, very tired
from the tension of the night. I went to bed, but could not sleep. More
and more it was preying on my mind that I was in a most unhappy
position. I had not liked the looks cast at me by Inspector Bray, or
his voice when he asked how I came to live in this house. I told myself
I should not be safe until the real murderer of the poor captain was
found; and so I began to puzzle over the few clues in the
case—especially over the asters, the scarab pin and the Homburg hat.
It was then I remembered the four copies of the Daily Mail that Bray
had casually thrown into the waste-basket as of no interest. I had
glanced over his shoulder as he examined these papers, and had seen
that each of them was folded so that our favorite department —the
Agony Column—was uppermost. It happened I had in my desk copies of the
Mail for the past week. You will understand why.
I rose, found those papers, and began to read. It was then that I
made the astounding discovery to which I have alluded.
For a time after making it I was dumb with amazement, so that no
course of action came readily to mind. In the end I decided that the
thing for me to do was to wait for Bray's return in the morning and
then point out to him the error he had made in ignoring the Mail.
Bray came in about eight o'clock and a few minutes later I heard
another man ascend the stairs. I was shaving at the time, but I quickly
completed the operation and, slipping on a bathrobe, hurried up to the
captain's rooms. The younger brother had seen to the removal of the
unfortunate man's body in the night, and, aside from Bray and the
stranger who had arrived almost simultaneously with him, there was no
one but a sleepy-eyed constable there.
Bray's greeting was decidedly grouchy. The stranger, however—a tall
bronzed man—made himself known to me in the most cordial manner. He
told me he was Colonel Hughes, a close friend of the dead man; and
that, unutterably shocked and grieved, he had come to inquire whether
there was anything he might do. “Inspector,” said I, “last night in
this room you held in your hand four copies of the Daily Mail. You
tossed them into that basket as of no account. May I suggest that you
rescue those copies, as I have a rather startling matter to make clear
to you?” Too grand an official to stoop to a waste-basket, he nodded to
the constable. The latter brought the papers; and, selecting one from
the lot, I spread it out on the table. “The issue of July
twenty-seventh,” I said.
I pointed to an item half-way down the column of Personal Notices.
You yourself, my lady, may read it there if you happen to have saved a
copy. It ran as follows:
“RANGOON: The asters are in full bloom in the garden at Canterbury.
They are very beautiful—especially the white ones.”
Bray grunted, and opened his little eyes. I took up the issue of the
following day—the twenty-eighth:
“RANGOON: We have been forced to sell father's stick-pin—the
emerald scarab he brought home from Cairo.”
I had Bray's interest now. He leaned heavily toward me, puffing.
Greatly excited, I held before his eyes the issue of the twenty-ninth:
“RANGOON: Homburg hat gone forever—caught by a breeze—into the
“And finally,” said I to the inspector, “the last message of all, in
the issue of the thirtieth of July—on sale in the streets some twelve
hours before Fraser-Freer was murdered. See!”
“RANGOON: To-night at ten. Regent Street. —Y.0.G.”
Bray was silent.
“I take it you are aware, Inspector,” I said, “that for the past two
years Captain Fraser-Freer was stationed at Rangoon.”
Still he said nothing; just looked at me with those foxy little eyes
that I was coming to detest. At last he spoke sharply:
“Just how,” he demanded, “did you happen to discover those messages?
You were not in this room last night after I left?” He turned angrily
to the constable. “I gave orders—”
“No,” I put in; “I was not in this room. I happened to have on file
in my rooms copies of the Mail, and by the merest chance—”
I saw that I had blundered. Undoubtedly my discovery of those
messages was too pat. Once again suspicion looked my way.
“Thank you very much,” said Bray. “I'll keep this in mind.”
“Have you communicated with my friend at the consulate?” I asked.
“Yes. That's all. Good morning.”
So I went.
I had been back in my room some twenty minutes when there came a
knock on the door, and Colonel Hughes entered. He was a genial man, in
the early forties I should say, tanned by some sun not English, and
gray at the temples.
“My dear sir,” he said without preamble, “this is a most appalling
“Decidedly,” I answered. “Will you sit down?”
“Thank you.” He sat and gazed frankly into my eyes. “Policemen,” he
added meaningly, “are a most suspicious tribe—often without reason. I
am sorry you happen to be involved in this affair, for I may say that I
fancy you to be exactly what you seem. May I add that, if you should
ever need a friend, I am at your service?”
I was touched; I thanked him as best I could. His tone was so
sympathetic and before I realized it I was telling him the whole
story—of Archie and his letter; of my falling in love with a garden;
of the startling discovery that the captain had never heard of his
cousin; and of my subsequent unpleasant position. He leaned back in his
chair and closed his eyes.
“I suppose,” he said, “that no man ever carries an unsealed letter
of introduction without opening it to read just what praises have been
lavished upon him. It is human nature—I have done it often. May I make
so bold as to inquire—”
“Yes,” said I. “It was unsealed and I did read it. Considering its
purpose, it struck me as rather long. There were many warm words for
me—words beyond all reason in view of my brief acquaintance with
Enwright. I also recall that he mentioned how long he had been in
Interlaken, and that he said he expected to reach London about the
first of August.”
“The first of August,” repeated the colonel. “That is to-morrow.
Now—if you'll be so kind—just what happened last night?”
Again I ran over the events of that tragic evening—the quarrel; the
heavy figure in the hall; the escape by way of the seldom-used gate.
“My boy,” said Colonel Hughes as he rose to go, “the threads of this
tragedy stretch far—some of them to India; some to a country I will
not name. I may say frankly that I have other and greater interest in
the matter than that of the captain's friend. For the present that is
in strict confidence between us; the police are well-meaning, but they
sometimes blunder. Did I understand you to say that you have copies of
the Mail containing those odd messages?”
“Right here in my desk,” said I. I got them for him.
“I think I shall take them—if I may,” he said. “You will, of
course, not mention this little visit of mine. We shall meet again.
And he went away, carrying those papers with their strange signals
Somehow I feel wonderfully cheered by his call. For the first time
since seven last evening I begin to breathe freely again.
And so, lady who likes mystery, the matter stands on the afternoon
of the last day of July, nineteen hundred and fourteen.
I shall mail you this letter to-night. It is my third to you, and it
carries with it three times the dreams that went with the first; for
they are dreams that live not only at night, when the moon is on the
courtyard, but also in the bright light of day.
Yes—I am remarkably cheered. I realize that I have not eaten at
all—save a cup of coffee from the trembling hand of Walters —since
last night, at Simpson's. I am going now to dine. I shall begin with
grapefruit. I realize that I am suddenly very fond of grapefruit.
How bromidic to note it—we have many tastes in common!
The third letter from her correspondent of the Agony Column
increased in the mind of the lovely young woman at the Carlton the
excitement and tension the second had created. For a long time, on the
Saturday morning of its receipt, she sat in her room puzzling over the
mystery of the house in Adelphi Terrace. When first she had heard that
Captain Fraser-Freer, of the Indian Army, was dead of a knife wound
over the heart, the news had shocked her like that of the loss of some
old and dear friend. She had desired passionately the apprehension of
his murderer, and had turned over and over in her mind the
possibilities of white asters, a scarab pin and a Homburg hat.
Perhaps the girl longed for the arrest of the guilty man thus keenly
because this jaunty young friend of hers—a friend whose name she did
not know—to whom, indeed, she had never spoken—was so dangerously
entangled in the affair. For from what she knew of Geoffrey West, from
her casual glance in the restaurant and, far more, from his letters,
she liked him extremely.
And now came his third letter, in which he related the connection of
that hat, that pin and those asters with the column in the Mail which
had first brought them together. As it happened, she, too, had copies
of the paper for the first four days of the week. She went to her
sitting-room, unearthed these copies, and—gasped! For from the column
in Monday's paper stared up at her the cryptic words to Rangoon
concerning asters in a garden at Canterbury. In the other three issues
as well, she found the identical messages her strawberry man had
quoted. She sat for a moment in deep thought; sat, in fact, until at
her door came the enraged knocking of a hungry parent who had been
waiting a full hour in the lobby below for her to join him at
“Come, come!” boomed her father, entering at her invitation. “Don't
sit here all day mooning. I'm hungry if you're not.”
With quick apologies she made ready to accompany him down-stairs.
Firmly, as she planned their campaign for the day, she resolved to put
from her mind all thought of Adelphi Terrace. How well she succeeded
may be judged from a speech made by her father that night just before
“Have you lost your tongue, Marian? You're as uncommunicative as a
newly-elected office-holder. If you can't get a little more life into
these expeditions of ours we'll pack up and head for home.”
She smiled, patted his shoulder and promised to improve. But he
appeared to be in a gloomy mood.
“I believe we ought to go, anyhow,” he went on. “In my opinion this
war is going to spread like a prairie fire. The Kaiser got back to
Berlin yesterday. He'll sign the mobilization orders to-day as sure as
fate. For the past week, on the Berlin Bourse, Canadian Pacific stock
has been dropping. That means they expect England to come in.”
He gazed darkly into the future. It may seem that, for an American
statesman, he had an unusual grasp of European politics. This is easily
explained by the fact that he had been talking with the bootblack at
the Carlton Hotel.
“Yes,” he said with sudden decision, “I'll go down to the steamship
offices early Monday morning”