Death at the Excelsior and Others is a posthumously published compilation of short stories by Wodehouse, including: Death at the Excelsior, Misunderstood, The Best Sauce, Jeeves and the Chump Cyril, and others.
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Copyright © 2016 by P.G. Wodehouse
Published by Jovian Press
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DEATH AT THE EXCELSIOR
THE BEST SAUCE
JEEVES AND THE CHUMP CYRIL
JEEVES IN THE SPRINGTIME
THE TEST CASE
The room was the typical bedroom of the typical boarding-house, furnished, insofar as it could be said to be furnished at all, with a severe simplicity. It contained two beds, a pine chest of drawers, a strip of faded carpet, and a wash basin. But there was that on the floor which set this room apart from a thousand rooms of the same kind. Flat on his back, with his hands tightly clenched and one leg twisted oddly under him and with his teeth gleaming through his grey beard in a horrible grin, Captain John Gunner stared up at the ceiling with eyes that saw nothing.
Until a moment before, he had had the little room all to himself. But now two people were standing just inside the door, looking down at him. One was a large policeman, who twisted his helmet nervously in his hands. The other was a tall, gaunt old woman in a rusty black dress, who gazed with pale eyes at the dead man. Her face was quite expressionless.
The woman was Mrs. Pickett, owner of the Excelsior Boarding-House. The policeman’s name was Grogan. He was a genial giant, a terror to the riotous element of the waterfront, but obviously ill at ease in the presence of death. He drew in his breath, wiped his forehead, and whispered: “Look at his eyes, ma’am!”
Mrs. Pickett had not spoken a word since she had brought the policeman into the room, and she did not do so now. Constable Grogan looked at her quickly. He was afraid of Mother Pickett, as was everybody else along the waterfront. Her silence, her pale eyes, and the quiet decisiveness of her personality cowed even the tough old salts who patronized the Excelsior. She was a formidable influence in that little community of sailormen.
“That’s just how I found him,” said Mrs. Pickett. She did not speak loudly, but her voice made the policeman start.
He wiped his forehead again. “It might have been apoplexy,” he hazarded.
Mrs. Pickett said nothing. There was a sound of footsteps outside, and a young man entered, carrying a black bag.
“Good morning, Mrs. Pickett. I was told that—Good Lord!” The young doctor dropped to his knees beside the body and raised one of the arms. After a moment he lowered it gently to the floor, and shook his head in grim resignation.
“He’s been dead for hours,” he announced. “When did you find him?”
“Twenty minutes back,” replied the old woman. “I guess he died last night. He never would be called in the morning. Said he liked to sleep on. Well, he’s got his wish.”
“What did he die of, sir?” asked the policeman.
“It’s impossible to say without an examination,” the doctor answered. “It looks like a stroke, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t. It might be a coronary attack, but I happen to know his blood pressure was normal, and his heart sound. He called in to see me only a week ago, and I examined him thoroughly. But sometimes you can be deceived. The inquest will tell us.” He eyed the body almost resentfully. “I can’t understand it. The man had no right to drop dead like this. He was a tough old sailor who ought to have been good for another twenty years. If you want my honest opinion—though I can’t possibly be certain until after the inquest—I should say he had been poisoned.”
“How would he be poisoned?” asked Mrs. Pickett quietly.
“That’s more than I can tell you. There’s no glass about that he could have drunk it from. He might have got it in capsule form. But why should he have done it? He was always a pretty cheerful sort of old man, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, sir,” said the Constable. “He had the name of being a joker in these parts. Kind of sarcastic, they tell me, though he never tried it on me.”
“He must have died quite early last night,” said the doctor. He turned to Mrs. Pickett. “What’s become of Captain Muller? If he shares this room he ought to be able to tell us something about it.”
“Captain Muller spent the night with some friends at Portsmouth,” said
Mrs. Pickett. “He left right after supper, and hasn’t returned.”
The doctor stared thoughtfully about the room, frowning.
“I don’t like it. I can’t understand it. If this had happened in India I should have said the man had died from some form of snakebite. I was out there two years, and I’ve seen a hundred cases of it. The poor devils all looked just like this. But the thing’s ridiculous. How could a man be bitten by a snake in a Southampton waterfront boarding-house? Was the door locked when you found him, Mrs. Pickett?”
Mrs. Pickett nodded. “I opened it with my own key. I had been calling to him and he didn’t answer, so I guessed something was wrong.”
The Constable spoke: “You ain’t touched anything, ma’am? They’re always very particular about that. If the doctor’s right, and there’s been anything up, that’s the first thing they’ll ask.”
“Everything’s just as I found it.”
“What’s that on the floor beside him?” the doctor asked.
“Only his harmonica. He liked to play it of an evening in his room. I’ve had some complaints about it from some of the gentlemen, but I never saw any harm, so long as he didn’t play it too late.”
“Seems as if he was playing it when—it happened,” Constable Grogan said. “That don’t look much like suicide, sir.”
“I didn’t say it was suicide.”
Grogan whistled. “You don’t think——”
“I’m not thinking anything—until after the inquest. All I say is that it’s queer.”
Another aspect of the matter seemed to strike the policeman. “I guess this ain’t going to do the Excelsior any good, ma’am,” he said sympathetically.
Mrs. Pickett shrugged her shoulders.
“I suppose I had better go and notify the coroner,” said the doctor.
He went out, and after a momentary pause the policeman followed him. Constable Grogan was not greatly troubled with nerves, but he felt a decided desire to be somewhere where he could not see the dead man’s staring eyes.
Mrs. Pickett remained where she was, looking down at the still form on the floor. Her face was expressionless, but inwardly she was tormented and alarmed. It was the first time such a thing as this had happened at the Excelsior, and, as Constable Grogan had hinted, it was not likely to increase the attractiveness of the house in the eyes of possible boarders. It was not the threatened pecuniary loss which was troubling her. As far as money was concerned, she could have lived comfortably on her savings, for she was richer than most of her friends supposed. It was the blot on the escutcheon of the Excelsior—the stain on its reputation—which was tormenting her.
The Excelsior was her life. Starting many years before, beyond the memory of the oldest boarder, she had built up the model establishment, the fame of which had been carried to every corner of the world. Men spoke of it as a place where you were fed well, cleanly housed, and where petty robbery was unknown.
Such was the chorus of praise that it is not likely that much harm could come to the Excelsior from a single mysterious death but Mother Pickett was not consoling herself with such reflections.
She looked at the dead man with pale, grim eyes. Out in the hallway the doctor’s voice further increased her despair. He was talking to the police on the telephone, and she could distinctly hear his every word.
The offices of Mr. Paul Snyder’s Detective Agency in New Oxford Street had grown in the course of a dozen years from a single room to an impressive suite bright with polished wood, clicking typewriters, and other evidences of success. Where once Mr. Snyder had sat and waited for clients and attended to them himself, he now sat in his private office and directed eight assistants.
He had just accepted a case—a case that might be nothing at all or something exceedingly big. It was on the latter possibility that he had gambled. The fee offered was, judged by his present standards of prosperity, small. But the bizarre facts, coupled with something in the personality of the client, had won him over. He briskly touched the bell and requested that Mr. Oakes should be sent in to him.
Elliot Oakes was a young man who both amused and interested Mr. Snyder, for though he had only recently joined the staff, he made no secret of his intention of revolutionizing the methods of the agency. Mr. Snyder himself, in common with most of his assistants, relied for results on hard work and plenty of common sense. He had never been a detective of the showy type. Results had justified his methods, but he was perfectly aware that young Mr. Oakes looked on him as a dull old man who had been miraculously favored by luck.
Mr. Snyder had selected Oakes for the case in hand principally because it was one where inexperience could do no harm, and where the brilliant guesswork which Oakes preferred to call his inductive reasoning might achieve an unexpected success.
Another motive actuated Mr. Snyder in his choice. He had a strong suspicion that the conduct of this case was going to have the beneficial result of lowering Oakes’ self-esteem. If failure achieved this end, Mr. Snyder felt that failure, though it would not help the Agency, would not be an unmixed ill.
The door opened and Oakes entered tensely. He did everything tensely, partly from a natural nervous energy, and partly as a pose. He was a lean young man, with dark eyes and a thin-lipped mouth, and he looked quite as much like a typical detective as Mr. Snyder looked like a comfortable and prosperous stock broker.
“Sit down, Oakes,” said Mr. Snyder. “I’ve got a job for you.”
Oakes sank into a chair like a crouching leopard, and placed the tips of his fingers together. He nodded curtly. It was part of his pose to be keen and silent.
“I want you to go to this address"—Mr. Snyder handed him an envelope—"and look around. The address on that envelope is of a sailors’ boarding-house down in Southampton. You know the sort of place—retired sea captains and so on live there. All most respectable. In all its history nothing more sensational has ever happened than a case of suspected cheating at halfpenny nap. Well, a man had died there.”
“Murdered?” Oakes asked.
“I don’t know. That’s for you to find out. The coroner left it open. ‘Death by Misadventure’ was the verdict, and I don’t blame him. I don’t see how it could have been murder. The door was locked on the inside, so nobody could have got in.”
“The window was open, granted. But the room is on the second floor. Anyway, you may dismiss the window. I remember the old lady saying there was a bar across it, and that nobody could have squeezed through.”
Oakes’ eyes glistened. He was interested. “What was the cause of death?” he asked.
Mr. Snyder coughed. “Snake bite,” he said.
Oakes’ careful calm deserted him. He uttered a cry of astonishment.
“Why, that’s incredible!”
“It’s the literal truth. The medical examination proved that the fellow had been killed by snake poison—cobra, to be exact, which is found principally in India.”
“Just so. In a Southampton boarding-house, in a room with a locked door, this man was stung by a cobra. To add a little mystification to the limpid simplicity of the affair, when the door was opened there was no sign of any cobra. It couldn’t have got out through the door, because the door was locked. It couldn’t have got out of the window, because the window was too high up, and snakes can’t jump. And it couldn’t have gotten up the chimney, because there was no chimney. So there you have it.”
He looked at Oakes with a certain quiet satisfaction. It had come to his ears that Oakes had been heard to complain of the infantile nature and unworthiness of the last two cases to which he had been assigned. He had even said that he hoped some day to be given a problem which should be beyond the reasoning powers of a child of six. It seemed to Mr. Snyder that Oakes was about to get his wish.
“I should like further details,” said Oakes, a little breathlessly.
“You had better apply to Mrs. Pickett, who owns the boarding-house,” Mr. Snyder said. “It was she who put the case in my hands. She is convinced that it is murder. But, if we exclude ghosts, I don’t see how any third party could have taken a hand in the thing at all. However, she wanted a man from this agency, and was prepared to pay for him, so I promised her I would send one. It is not our policy to turn business away.”
He smiled wryly. “In pursuance of that policy I want you to go and put up at Mrs. Pickett’s boarding house and do your best to enhance the reputation of our agency. I would suggest that you pose as a ship’s chandler or something of that sort. You will have to be something maritime or they’ll be suspicious of you. And if your visit produces no other results, it will, at least, enable you to make the acquaintance of a very remarkable woman. I commend Mrs. Pickett to your notice. By the way, she says she will help you in your investigations.”
Oakes laughed shortly. The idea amused him.
“It’s a mistake to scoff at amateur assistance, my boy,” said Mr. Snyder in the benevolently paternal manner which had made a score of criminals refuse to believe him a detective until the moment when the handcuffs snapped on their wrists. “Crime investigation isn’t an exact science. Success or failure depends in a large measure on applied common sense, and the possession of a great deal of special information. Mrs. Pickett knows certain things which neither you nor I know, and it’s just possible that she may have some stray piece of information which will provide the key to the entire mystery.”
Oakes laughed again. “It is very kind of Mrs. Pickett,” he said, “but I prefer to trust to my own methods.” Oakes rose, his face purposeful. “I’d better be starting at once,” he said. “I’ll send you reports from time to time.”
“Good. The more detailed the better,” said Mr. Snyder genially. “I hope your visit to the Excelsior will be pleasant. And cultivate Mrs. Pickett. She’s worth while.”
The door closed, and Mr. Snyder lighted a fresh cigar. “Dashed young fool,” he murmured, as he turned his mind to other matters.
A day later Mr. Snyder sat in his office reading a typewritten report. It appeared to be of a humorous nature, for, as he read, chuckles escaped him. Finishing the last sheet he threw his head back and laughed heartily. The manuscript had not been intended by its author for a humorous effort. What Mr. Snyder had been reading was the first of Elliott Oakes’ reports from the Excelsior. It read as follows:
I am sorry to be unable to report any real progress. I have formed several theories which I will put forward later, but at present I cannot say that I am hopeful.
Directly I arrived here I sought out Mrs. Pickett, explained who I was, and requested her to furnish me with any further information which might be of service to me. She is a strange, silent woman, who impressed me as having very little intelligence. Your suggestion that I should avail myself of her assistance seems more curious than ever, now that I have seen her.
The whole affair seems to me at the moment of writing quite inexplicable. Assuming that this Captain Gunner was murdered, there appears to have been no motive for the crime whatsoever. I have made careful inquiries about him, and find that he was a man of fifty-five; had spent nearly forty years of his life at sea, the last dozen in command of his own ship; was of a somewhat overbearing disposition, though with a fund of rough humour; had travelled all over the world, and had been an inmate of the Excelsior for about ten months. He had a small annuity, and no other money at all, which disposes of money as the motive for the crime.
In my character of James Burton, a retired ship’s chandler, I have mixed with the other boarders, and have heard all they have to say about the affair. I gather that the deceased was by no means popular. He appears to have had a bitter tongue, and I have not met one man who seems to regret his death. On the other hand, I have heard nothing which would suggest that he had any active and violent enemies. He was simply the unpopular boarder—there is always one in every boarding-house—but nothing more.
I have seen a good deal of the man who shared his room—another sea captain, named Muller. He is a big, silent person, and it is not easy to get him to talk. As regards the death of Captain Gunner he can tell me nothing. It seems that on the night of the tragedy he was away at Portsmouth with some friends. All I have got from him is some information as to Captain Gunner’s habits, which leads nowhere. The dead man seldom drank, except at night when he would take some whisky. His head was not strong, and a little of the spirit was enough to make him semi-intoxicated, when he would be hilarious and often insulting. I gather that Muller found him a difficult roommate, but he is one of those placid persons who can put up with anything. He and Gunner were in the habit of playing draughts together every night in their room, and Gunner had a harmonica which he played frequently. Apparently, he was playing it very soon before he died, which is significant, as seeming to dispose of the idea of suicide.
As I say, I have one or two theories, but they are in a very nebulous state. The most plausible is that on one of his visits to India—I have ascertained that he made several voyages there—Captain Gunner may in some way have fallen foul of the natives. The fact that he certainly died of the poison of an Indian snake supports this theory. I am making inquiries as to the movements of several Indian sailors who were here in their ships at the time of the tragedy.
I have another theory. Does Mrs. Pickett know more about this affair than she appears to? I may be wrong in my estimate of her mental qualities. Her apparent stupidity may be cunning. But here again, the absence of motive brings me up against a dead wall. I must confess that at present I do not see my way clearly. However, I will write again shortly.
Mr. Snyder derived the utmost enjoyment from the report. He liked the substance of it, and above all, he was tickled by the bitter tone of frustration which characterized it. Oakes was baffled, and his knowledge of Oakes told him that the sensation of being baffled was gall and wormwood to that high-spirited young man. Whatever might be the result of this investigation, it would teach him the virtue of patience.
He wrote his assistant a short note:
Your report received. You certainly seem to have got the hard case which, I hear, you were pining for. Don’t build too much on plausible motives in a case of this sort. Fauntleroy, the London murderer, killed a woman for no other reason than that she had thick ankles. Many years ago, I myself was on a case where a man murdered an intimate friend because of a dispute about a bet. My experience is that five murderers out of ten act on the whim of the moment, without anything which, properly speaking, you could call a motive at all.
Yours very cordially,
P. S. I don’t think much of your Pickett theory. However, you’re
in charge. I wish you luck.
Young Mr. Oakes was not enjoying himself. For the first time in his life, the self-confidence which characterized all his actions seemed to be failing him. The change had taken place almost overnight. The fact that the case had the appearance of presenting the unusual had merely stimulated him at first. But then doubts had crept in and the problem had begun to appear insoluble.
True, he had only just taken it up, but something told him that, for all the progress he was likely to make, he might just as well have been working on it steadily for a month. He was completely baffled. And every moment which he spent in the Excelsior Boarding-House made it clearer to him that that infernal old woman with the pale eyes thought him an incompetent fool. It was that, more than anything, which made him acutely conscious of his lack of success. His nerves were being sorely troubled by the quiet scorn of Mrs. Pickett’s gaze. He began to think that perhaps he had been a shade too self-confident and abrupt in the short interview which he had had with her on his arrival.
As might have been expected, his first act, after his brief interview with Mrs. Pickett, was to examine the room where the tragedy had taken place. The body was gone, but otherwise nothing had been moved.
Oakes belonged to the magnifying-glass school of detection. The first thing he did on entering the room was to make a careful examination of the floor, the walls, the furniture, and the windowsill. He would have hotly denied the assertion that he did this because it looked well, but he would have been hard put to it to advance any other reason.
If he discovered anything, his discoveries were entirely negative, and served only to deepen the mystery of the case. As Mr. Snyder had said, there was no chimney, and nobody could have entered through the locked door.
There remained the window. It was small, and apprehensiveness, perhaps, of the possibility of burglars, had caused the proprietress to make it doubly secure with an iron bar. No human being could have squeezed his way through it.
It was late that night that he wrote and dispatched to headquarters the report which had amused Mr. Snyder.
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