An Ozro Reade Mystery.
After the ladies had retired, our conversation wandered hither and yon, as it usually does, until old Major D’Autard brought up the affair of the Archbishop’s cane. As I recall, his exact words were, “But I say, Reade, you promised us last time that you’d tell us all about the adventure of the Archbishop’s cane.”
“Ah!” Reade replied. “The Archbishop’s cane! Yes, it was certainly among my more remarkable cases. But I should not like to try the patience of this company with yet another narration from my admittedly thrilling career.”
We all assured him, however, that we should like nothing better than to hear his tale; and so, after a certain show of reluctance, he began his narration thus:
It was, as I believe is usual on these occasions, a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, and buckets, and sheets, and cats and dogs; the lightning flashed and the thunder roared almost continuously. Nevertheless, the inconveniences of the weather did not prevent a glittering assembly from coagulating at the country house of Lady Agrippina Pinchbeck, the ravishing young widow of Sir Humphrey Pinchbeck, who had died in mysterious circumstances two years previously. As you doubtless recall, Sir Humphrey made his fortune in the costume-jewelry trade, so when I say that the assembly was glittering, I should like it to be understood that no one glittered with more determination than Lady Agrippina herself. The other guests, however, if they did not outsparkle their hostess, were certainly among the most sought-after ornaments for any week-end party. Miss Cecily Warble, the Nanticoke Nightingale, was just returned from her enormously successful tour of the Continent, and had been induced to delay her return to America for the sole purpose of enlivening Lady Agrippina’s week-end. Professor Alfred Creak, discoverer of the mango, had promised to bring enough of that delectable fruit to serve every one of the guests. Then, of course, there was the Archbishop of York, who, though getting on in years, could still preach a sermon that had the young girls screaming and swooning in the aisle. We also had Sir Inigo Scotch-Terrier, the famous explorer who had charted the back streets of Croydon; Elbert Ramshackle, the aesthete and wit, fresh from the extraordinarily successful run of his latest epigram in Drury Lane; Dr. Ethelbert Washing-Machine, inventor of the useful appliance that bears his name; Mme Louise-Claude de Fronsac, author of a scandalous treatise on beets; and Sir Sigismond Prattle, Her Majesty’s Minister of Tweed. And I must not neglect myself, of course, since without my presence the mysterious affair of the Archibishop’s cane might yet remain a mystery, instead of merely another thrilling adventure in my long list of thrilling adventures.
I arrived just about half past eight in the evening, having been delayed by patches of mud and nearly impassable puddles on my way from the station. Just as I was handing my dripping coat to Eames, the ever-attentive butler, I heard the familiar voice of the Archbishop behind me.
“What ho, Ozro, old chap!”
“Archie!” I turned around with a warm smile for my old friend. Now, I see a few expressions of surprise that I should address the Archbishop of York in such a familiar way; but you must understand that I had known the man since I was a tiny tot solving my first mystery in knee-pants [see The Adventure of the Pilfered Pudding, No. 1 in the Ozro Reade series]; and that the name he was christened with, by one of those singular coincidences in which our world abounds, was Archibald Bysshop. “Archie” (or “Uncle Archie” when I was younger) is therefore the name by which I have always known him.
“Beastly weather tonight,” I continued. “Did you have any trouble along the way?”
“Not with the weather. Fortunately I came up on the 3:38 train, before the storm came in. But I had a most vexing time at the station. I was positively besieged by a mob of teenage girls demanding autographs. Well, as a minister of the Gospel, one can hardly afford to disappoint one’s fans. I must have signed no fewer than two hundred copies of my Sermon on 1 Chronicles 7:37, which, printed in pamphlet form, has become something of a ‘smash hit single,’ as we call it in ecclesiastical circles. Even then I barely escaped with my dignity. The little trollops started pulling at my clothes, and one of them made off with my collar. Had it not been for the timely arrival and intervention of Lady Agrippina’s chauffeur, I might have resorted to beating them off with my cane—and you know how such things are always misinterpreted in the Mirror.”
“Yes, the Labour press can be shockingly unsympathetic to the clubbing of schoolgirls. Ridiculous, of course. It’s not as though they were baby seals or something.”
At that moment, our pleasant conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Sir Sigismond Prattle. “Blast this weather!” he thundered at Eames. “One would think a man in my position would rate a better grade of weather than this.—Well, confound it, are you going to stand there like the Apollo Belvedere, or are you going to help me out of my coat? I nearly drowned coming up the steps, and now they throw a mental deficient at me. Not like that, you blasted half-wit! Didn’t your mother teach you how to take off a coat in the kennel where you grew up?”
You might suppose that the weather had put Sir Sigismond in an exceptionally foul temper, but in fact he was if anything more cheerful than usual. He was a brute of a man, tolerated in the Government of the day only because he was far more dangerous outside the Government than inside. I never met another cabinet minister who did not sincerely wish him dead, or worse.
Nor was that opinion confined to the Cabinet. “Would it not be an act of Christian charity,” the Archbishop asked when Sir Sigismond had retired upstairs to change, “to remove that man from the earthly domain, and allow the Lord of mercy to exercise whatever judgment upon his soul seemed proper?”
“Your lively sympathy with the serving classes does you credit,” I remarked.
“It is not sympathy with the butler—hang the butler—I have a deeply personal antipathy toward the man. I was up for the Canterbury job, you know. It was a foregone conclusion—a sure thing—except that Prattle, for reasons known only to himself, decided to bring up a silly incident with a young female fan, magnified out of all proportion of course. He is the reason why, instead of standing at the head of the Anglican Communion, I am only Archbishop of filthy rotten stinking York. I tell you, Reade, if I thought I could manage it, I’d murder that man without a second thought, in the absolute certainty that I was conferring a great boon upon the world.”
“The world,” came a voice from the library, “cares nothing for a boon; it cares only for a bang.”
A moment later the fantastical form of Elbert Ramshackle appeared in the library doorway. He was dressed in his usual pre-Raphaelite splendor, looking like something halfway between a court jester and a Portobello Road sausage vendor.
“You will pardon my intrusion, gentlemen,” Ramshackle continued. “I could not help overhearing your conversation. Conversation, I have always believed, is better overheard than underheard.”
“I see,” said the Archbishop, “that your reputation for wit is not a bit exaggerated, Mr. Ramshackle.”
“I am sure you meant to say, ‘not a whit,’” Ramshackle returned, and we all laughed helplessly for quite some time. “But wit,” he continued when we had sufficiently recovered, “is like a plum: it must be exercised daily, or it turns into a prune.”
“How does one exercise a plum?” the Archbishop asked.
“That is immaterial,” Ramshackle replied, “and your lordship knows that what is immaterial is spiritual; we have proved, therefore, that a prune is a spiritual plum.—But what I had meant to say, before I was borne away on the tide of my own cleverness, is that I share with you a personal antipathy toward Sir Sigismond Prattle. Antipathy is a rare tropical flower that must be carefully tended in a glasshouse to bloom, and Sir Sigismond has manured mine diligently. It was through his agency that, at the instigation of the tweed industry, I was prosecuted for gross eccentricity, merely because I choose to dress artistically. By good fortune, and by wearing an Elizabethan collar with a red velvet edge all the way round, I was able to convince the jury that I was not eccentric, but concentric. Sir Sigismond, however, has sworn not to rest until all men of aesthetic sensibilities are required to wear tweed, and has introduced a bill to that effect in the House of Commons. But for his bullying, it would be laughed out of Parliament; but Sir Sigismond is a master of bullying. I concur, therefore, in your judgment that the world would breathe a sigh of relief were he removed from it; and I should hardly hesitate, once granted the opportunity, to strike a blow for Beauty.”
“I say,” came a voice from the stairway, “has anyone seen that blighted devil Sigismond Prattle?”
We turned and beheld the descending figure of Sir Inigo Scotch-Terrier. The man’s brow beetled o’er his eyes with an expression very like wrath.
“Is something wrong, Sir Inigo?” I asked.
“Wrong?” He snorted indignantly as he reached the foot of the stairs. “Blasted fellow’s had something wrong with him ever since we were in school together. ‘Siggy Piggy’ we used to call him—nastiest bully in the history of St. Harry’s. Always up to some filthy prank or other. Bad enough in a schoolboy, but in a minister of Her Majesty’s Government—!”
“Why, what has he done?”
Sir Inigo hesitated a moment before explaining, “Blighter’s tied all my smalls in one big knot.”
I began to ask him, “How did you know it was—”
“Saw the blighter sneaking out of my room! He thinks he’s a man of infinite subtlety, but I didn’t survive the trackless wastes of Croydon without learning to keep both eyes peeled. A man’s got to know how to keep an eye on his undergarments—it’s one of the things that set the men apart from the boys in the exploring trade.”
“Have I heard correctement,” came a female voice from the top of the stairs, “zat Sir Sigismond Prattle makes part of zis—how does it say itself in English? En français, we say ‘week-end.’”
“We have borrowed the term from the French, Mme de Fronsac,” I said. “Yes, it is true that Sir Sigismond has already arrived for the week-end.”
“He is—how does it say itself?—en Français, ze word is ‘jerk.’ It was he who made ze agitation to have my traité banned on ze grounds of ze immoralité. But to speak of ze vegetables tuberous without ze details of ze pollination—parmauve! c’est impossible!”
“Are you talking about that blighter Prattle?” came a voice behind me. It was Dr. Ethelbert Washing-Machine, looking about as irked as irked can be. “He is a fungus under the toenail of British commerce. Do you know he has actually succeeded in requiring ‘hand wash only’ tags on all tweed fabrics? The Ministry of Tweed has some sort of vendetta, as our Italian allies would say, against my firm, and against me personally. The world will not be safe for me and my appliances while he lives. I am not a man of violence, but it is no secret that the man who removed him from the terrestrial sphere would be conferring a great favor upon the firm of Washing-Machine & Company.”
“Gosh darn it,” came a lilting American voice from the back hall, “if I’d known that Prattle guy was going to show up, I’d have given this party a miss, that’s for sure.” The beautiful and fascinating Miss Cecily Warble appeared before us. “He threw a tomato at me when I sang at Covent Garden—said my performance of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder wasn’t funny enough. Land sakes, if there was ever a son-of-a-gun I could just strangle, he’s the guy.”
“I was at that recital, Miss Warble,” said Sir Inigo. “I really did think it was one of your funniest performances ever.”
“Well, golly, mister, you’re real kind to say so,” Miss Warble responded. “But all I can say is, that Prattle guy better keep out of my way if he knows what’s good for him.”
“At least he didn’t throw a papaya at you,” said Professor Alfred Creak, appearing from the back parlor. “Fellow threw one at me when I introduced the mango at the Royal Society. ‘You like orange-fleshed tropical fruits?’ he shouted. ‘Here’s an orange-fleshed tropical fruit for you!’ Dashed impolite of him, if you ask me. Could have murdered the fellow right there.”
At that moment Lady Agrippina made her appearance. “My dear friends,” she said in a conciliatory tone, “please, let there be no unpleasantness to mar our little party. It is true that Sir Sigismond can be difficult at times; and it is true that he would never have been invited to my house if he had not been blackmailing me by threatening to reveal certain information, false of course, implicating me in the death of poor dear Humphrey; and it is true that the thought has occurred to me many times that it might be expedient for him to die some horrible death involving evisceration and dismemberment; but that is no reason why we cannot all be pleasant to one another, is it?”
At this moment Eames the butler appeared in the doorway of the dining-room. “Will you be requiring dinner, madam?” he asked in perfectly modulated tones.
“Oh, no, I suppose not, Eames,” Lady Agrippina replied. “So many of the guests were delayed by the weather and had to eat sausage-rolls at the station, poor dears. Put the dinner things away, and tell the cook to have cold meats ready for anyone who wants something later on.”
“Very good, madam,” Eames said, and he turned back into the dining-room. The short glance I took into that room made me regret that lost dinner exceedingly; for the table was set magnificently, and Lady Agrippina’s dinners were legendary. Eames always took great pride in making sure that everything came out just so. But it couldn’t be helped. As if to remind us how difficult the weather had been, the lightning flashed prodigiously, and a moment later there was a deafening clap of thunder.
“So,” came a voice from the top of the stairs—the abrasive voice of Sir Sigismond Prattle—“So, you all hate me, do you?” As the thunder’s echoes died away, he began to descend the stairs. “Well, I should like it known that the feeling is earnestly reciprocated. I hate all of you, collectively and individually. I hate every member of the human species. I hate horses and dogs as well. And stoats. The world is filled with things I hate; it is nothing more than a pageant of detestable things mounted for my personal annoyance.” By this time he had reached the bottom of the stairs, and somehow contrived to stand uncomfortably close to each one of us at once. “The man, or woman, who murdered me in cold blood would be doing me an inestimable favor by at once removing every source of annoyance from the field of my perception. But not one of you has the spine to do it. My single consolation, therefore, and the only reason I bothered to squeeze this invitation out of Lady Agrippina, is the knowledge that I can inflict a certain amount of misery on my fellow guests. It is the only thing I relish; it is the single ray of sunshine in my grey existence. I bid you all a very good evening, knowing that the mere knowledge of my presence in this house will interfere with your digestions and deprive you of sleep; and with that very satisfactory observation, I shall repair to the pantry for what will doubtless prove to be some unusually dismal cold meats.”
He marched smartly through the parting crowd of guests. We were left in silence for some time, until at last Elbert Ramshackle, long after Sir Sigismond had left the hall, thought of a suitably witty retort. “Same to you,” he said, and we all laughed and wished Sir Sigismond had been there to hear himself put in his place.
After that we all went our separate ways. I retired early, and I remember that the clock in the hall had just struck ten when I heard a knock at my door. I opened it to find the Archbishop, still dressed.
“I say, Ozro,” he said, “you wouldn’t happen to have seen my cane anywhere, would you? The blasted thing’s gone missing, and I can’t walk a step without it.”
“But you walked here,” I pointed out.
“Cor!—I mean, merciful heavens! So I did. Well, perhaps I don’t need it so much after all.”
From that time on I was not interrupted until just a little past midnight, when I suddenly heard a blood-chilling scream echoing through the house. I leaped out of bed and pulled on my robe, then dashed out into the hall, where several of my fellow guests had already assembled.
“He’s been murdered!” came the wailing voice of Lady Agrippina from the bottom of the stairs. “He’s been murdered!”
I dashed down the stairs, arriving at the bottom before anyone else, and found Lady Agrippina running out into the hall.
“He’s been murdered!” she repeated, still wailing.
I grabbed her by the arms. “Where?”
“Back there!—In the pantry!”
Leaving her to faint gracefully on the settle, I dashed back to the pantry, where I found a most appalling sight. There, in the middle of the floor, lay the bleeding corpse of Eames the butler.
At this point old Major D’Autard interrupted the narration. “But, I say, Reade, do you mean to tell us that it wasn’t Sir Sigismond Prattle who was murdered?”
“What—? Oh, good heavens, no. Of course not. Why would you think that? No, it was Eames the butler who had been killed, and in a particularly savage way: his head had been bashed in, and right next to the body, covered with blood, lay the Archbishop’s cane.”