Fifty Candles - Earl Derr Biggers - ebook

Fifty Candles ebook

Earl Derr Biggers



Just as in Biggers’ first Charlie Chan mystery, „The House Without a Key,” that romantic link between the Hawaii of a different era and the city of San Francisco is explored and holds the key to the mystery. Henry Drew has cheated young Winthrop out of a partnership in a Hunan mine. Other shady deeds abound in the past of this rich and outwardly respectable old man. Despite his antagonism to Drew, Winthrop accepts the old man’s invitation to a birthday dinner, mainly to be near the young woman he loves, companion to Mrs. Drew. Unfortunately Winthrop finds old Drew dead in a pool of blood by the dining room table, and he himself is the likeliest suspect. Or could the murderer be Dr. Parker, illicit admirer of Mrs. Drew? And why are there Fifty Candles on the birthday cake, when old Drew was pushing seventy?

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From the records of the district court at Honolulu for the year 1898 you may, if you have patience, unearth the dim beginnings of this story of the fifty candles. It is a story that stretches over twenty years, all the way from that bare Honolulu courtroom to a night of fog and violence in San Francisco. Many months after the night of the tule-fog, I happened into the Hawaiian capital and took down from a library shelf a big legal-looking book, bound in bright yellow leather the color of a Filipino houseboy’s shoes on his Saturday night in town. I found what I was looking for under the heading: “In the Matter of Chang See.”

The Chinese, we are told, are masters of indirection, of saying one thing and meaning another, of arriving at their goal by way of a devious, irrelevant maze. Our legal system must have been invented and perfected by Chinamen–but is this lèse majesté or contempt of court or something? Beyond question the decision of the learned court in the matter of Chang See, as set down in the big yellow book, is obscured and befuddled by a mass of unspeakably dreary words. See 21 Cyc., 317 Church Habeas Corpus, 2d Ed., Sec. 169. By all means consult Kelley v. Johnson, 31 U. S. (6 Pet.) 622, 631-32. And many more of the same sort.

Here and there, however, you will happen on phrases that mean something to the layman; that indicate, behind the barrier of legal verbiage, the presence of a flesh-and-blood human fighting for his freedom–for his very life. Piece these phrases together and you may be able to reconstruct the scene in the courtroom that day in 1898, when a lean impassive Chinaman of thirty stood alone against the great American nation. In other words, Chang See v. U. S.

I say he stood alone, though he was, of course, represented by counsel. “Harry Childs for the Petitioner,” says the big yellow book. Poor Harry Childs–his mind was already beginning to go. It had been keen enough when he came to the islands, but the hot sun and the cool drinks–well, he was a little hazy that day in court. He died long ago–just shriveled up and died of an overdose of the Paradise of the Pacific–so it can hardly injure his professional standing to intimate that he was of little aid to his client, Chang See.

Chang See was petitioning the United States for a writ of habeas corpus and his freedom from the custody of the inspector of immigration at the port of Honolulu. He had arrived at the port from China some two months previously, bringing with him a birth certificate recently obtained and forwarded to him by friends in Honolulu. This certificate asserted that Chang See had been born in Honolulu of Chinese parents–that he had first seen the light on a December day thirty years before in a house out near Queen Emma’s yard, on the beach at Waikiki. When he was four years old his parents had taken him back with them to their native village of Sun Chin, in China.

If the certificate spoke the truth, then Chang See must be regarded as an American citizen and freely admitted to Honolulu with no wearisome chatter about the Chinese Exclusion Act. But the inspector at the port had been made wary by long service. He admitted that the certificate was undoubtedly founded on fact. But, he contended, how was he to know that this tall, wise-looking Chinaman was the little boy Chang See who had once played about the beach at Waikiki?

Thus challenged, the petitioner brought in witnesses to prove his identity. He brought twelve of them in all–shuffling old men, ancient dames with black silk trousers and tiny feet, younger sports prominent in the night life of Hotel Street. Some of them were reputed to have known him as a baby out near Queen Emma’s yard; others had been the companions of the days of his youth in the village of Sun Chin.

Chang See’s witnesses had begun their testimony before the inspector confidently enough. Then under the inspector’s stony stare they had weakened. They had become confused, contradictory. Even the man who had obtained the birth certificate gave as the name of Chang See’s father an entirely new and unheard-of appellation. In a word, the petitioner’s friends one and all deserted him. Something seemed to have happened to them.

And something had happened to them. That something was the vivid remembrance of a little old lady with a thin face and cruel eyes, who was at the moment sitting in Peking, the virtual ruler of all China. Chang See had been lately active in fields that did not appeal to the dowager empress. He had been one of the group of brilliant reformers who had come so near winning the young emperor to their way of thinking, until that day in September when the empress had put down her foot, with its six-inch Manchu sole. She had made the emperor practically a prisoner in the palace and had announced that those who wished to change the existing order in China would please see her first. And if she saw them first–

She didn’t see many of them. They fled for their lives, Chang See among them. His witnesses knew this. They knew that the little old lady was sitting waiting in the midst of her web at Peking–waiting and hoping for the return of Chang See. They knew that the dear old thing had virtually promised to have a man ready with a basket to catch Chang See’s head as it fell. Overcome with fear for themselves, for their people at home, they became foggy of mind, uncertain of names and dates. And Chang See’s case smashed on the rock of their indifference.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the inspector of immigration was not convinced of the petitioner’s identity. Following the usual formula, Harry Childs appealed the case to Washington.

The officials there, with unexpected promptness, agreed with the inspector, and Chang See was driven to his last resort. He besought the district court in Honolulu for a writ; and on a certain morning in December, ‘98–as a matter of fact it must have been Chang See’s birthday, provided he was Chang See–he stood awaiting the decision of the judge.

I can picture that scene in court for you, partly from the records, partly from the story of one who was there and remembers. Judge Smith was presiding; “H. Smith,” he has it in the yellow book, with the modesty required of judges by custom. He was a big, blond, cool-looking man with a rather peevish manner not uncommon among whites in a tropic country. He sat idly thumbing the pages of his decision. There were a good many of them, he noticed. The languid hour of noon was approaching, and through his mind flashed a vision of his lanai , close by the white breakers at Waikiki. An armchair and magazines just in from the mainland awaited him there; also bottles, glasses, and ice, all of which were capable of being brought into delightful touch with one another.

H. Smith took a sip from a glass at his elbow–indubitably water–and began to read. He had, he said, studied with great diligence the petition submitted by counsel, which, he added with a disapproving glance at Harry Childs, was unnecessarily long and involved. The petitioner, as he understood it, based his application for a right to land on the assertion that he was Chang See, born of Chinese parents in Honolulu thirty years before, in a house near Queen Emma’s yard at Waikiki. If the assertion were true, if the petitioner were Chang See, then as an American citizen he must be granted all he sought. But was this petitioner Chang See? The matter was clouded by grave doubts. Pass over the fact that he had waited more than twenty-nine years before asking for his birth certificate. Pass over as well the fact that the man who had obtained the certificate had later, by his testimony, appeared uncertain of the name of Chang See’s father. Turn to the testimony of the petitioner’s other witnesses.

He analyzed that testimony. He tore it to shreds. All at once he was reminded of the case in re Wang Chi-tung, 3 U. S. District Court, Hawaii 601-610. He was reminded of other anecdotes of a like nature. His voice droned on and on. The clerk of court fumbled sleepily at his watch fob and scowled at Chang See, the petitioner. All this time wasted!

H. Smith grew more genial when he came to the final page of his decision. After all, it had not taken so long as he expected. Summing it all up, quoting a few more authorities, he admitted at last that he shared the doubts of the inspector and the officials at Washington. He therefore, he added quite pleasantly, remanded the petitioner into the custody of the Inspector of Immigration for deportation to China.

The petitioner was a student who understood many languages, and he needed no interpreter to translate for him the words of the judge. He heard them, however, without so much as the flicker of an eyelash. We know now that he was Chang See. There was no justice in the world for him that day; but no one could have read his despair in his face. Harry Childs, on the other hand, was not a nerveless Oriental. His tobacco heart ablaze with anger, the lawyer leaped to his feet and did a most unprofessional thing.

“With all due respect to the dignity of this court,” he cried, “I wish to advise Your Honor that you have sentenced this man to his death. Owing to his activities for reform in China, there is a price on his head there today. I wish to add–I wish to say–” He faltered under the angry glare bent upon him by H. Smith. “I wish to repeat and emphasize–you have sentenced this man to his death!”

Harry Childs had never been in high favor in that court, and if looks could kill he would then and there have preceded his client into eternity. Outwardly, however, the judicial calm was unruffled.

“The matter brought up by the learned counsel,” said the judge–and legal verbiage sometimes lends itself admirably to sarcasm–“is not one involved in the petition as presented. I need hardly add that I regard it as a matter with which this court has no concern. The court is adjourned.”

Chang See stood waiting not far from the judge’s bench. Into his eyes had come an expression of amused contempt which might have annoyed the learned judge had he seen it. But H. Smith was already on his way to the cottage at Waikiki. He waited, did the Chinaman, until the inspector came for him, and they started down the aisle together. It was only a narrow path between the benches, but it was the beginning of the road that must lead Chang See back to China and a most unpleasant death. Yet he set out on it with his head held high and with a firm brave step.

Did Chang See tread that path to its logical and bitter end? Did he come in time to the edge of the web in the center of which the dowager empress, spiderlike, sat waiting? The story, as has been said, stretches over twenty years, and the succeeding chapters may seem, at first glance, irrelevant. But before we finish we shall be able to put together the pieces of our Chinese puzzle and know the end of the path that led at first between two rows of benches in a Honolulu court.


Twenty years later, toward the close of 1918, I stepped from the gangplank of a China boat and for the first time in my life set foot in San Francisco. If you have always thought of San Francisco as the bonny merry city, the gay light-hearted city, I advise you not to enter it first when it is wrapped in the gloom of fog. You will suffer a sad disappointment, such as I knew on landing that dark December afternoon.

Heaven knows I ought to have been a happy man that day, fog or no fog, for I was coming back to my own land after four dreary years in China. Birds should have been singing, as the Chinese say, is the topmost branches of my heart; I should have walked with a brisk, elated tread. Instead I crossed the dimly lighted pier shed, where yellow lamps burned wanly overhead, with lagging step, dragging my battered old bags after me. The injustice of the world lay heavy on my heart. For I was young, and I had been unfairly treated. Four years earlier, just graduated from the engineering department of a big technical institution in the East, I had set sail from Vancouver to take charge of a mine in China for Henry Drew. In Shanghai I met the old San Francisco millionaire , a little yellow-faced man with snapping black eyes and long thin hands that must have begun, even in the cradle, to reach and seize and hold.

The mine, he told me frankly, was little better than a joke so far. Its future was up to me. I would encounter many obstacles–inadequate pumping machinery, bribe-hunting officials, superstitious workmen fearful of disturbing the earth dragon as our shaft sank deeper. If I could conquer in spite of everything, accomplish a miracle, and make the mine pay, then in addition to my salary I was to receive a third interest in the property. I suppose he really meant it at the time. He said it more than once. I was very young, with boundless faith. I did not get that part of it in writing.

Through four awful years I labored for Henry Drew down there in Yunnan, the province of the cloudy south. One by one the obstacles gave way and copper began to come from the mine. Now and then ugly disquieting rumors as to the sense of honor of old Drew drifted to me, but I put them resolutely out of my thoughts.

I might seem guilty of boasting if I went into details regarding the results of my work. It is enough to say that I succeeded. Again I met Henry Drew in Shanghai, and he told me he was proud of me. I ventured to remind him of his promise of an interest in the property. He said I must be dreaming. He recalled no such promise. I was appalled. Could such things be? Angrily and at length I told him what I thought of him. He listened in silence.

“I’ll accept it,” he said when I paused for breath.

“Accept what?” I asked.

“Your resignation.”

He got it, along with further comments on his character. I went back to my hotel to take up the difficult task of securing accommodations on a homebound boat.

All liners were crowded to suffocation in those days, but I finally managed to get a November sailing. I was informed that I, along with another male passenger, would be put into the cabin of the ship’s doctor. Rumor had told me that old Henry Drew was sailing on the same boat, but I was hardly prepared, when I went on board and entered my stateroom, to find him bending over an open bag. Fate in playful mood had selected him as the third member of our party.

He was more upset than I and made a strenuous effort to be assigned to some other room. But with all his money he could not manage it, and we set out on our homeward journey together. I would see him when I came in late at night, lying there in his berth with the light from the deck outside on his yellow face, his eyes closed–but wide awake. I think he was afraid of me. He had reason to be.

Anyhow, I was rid of his slimy presence now, there in that dim pier shed. It was one thing to be thankful for. And already the memory of what he had done to me was fading–for I had suffered a later and deeper wound. In the midst of the trouble with Drew, I had met the most wonderful girl in the world, and only a moment before, on the deck of the China boat, I had said good-bye to her forever.

I left the pier shed and stepped to the sidewalk outside. The air was heavy and wet with fog, the walk damp and slippery; water dripped down from telegraph wires overhead. I saw the blurred lights of the city, heard its ceaseless grumble, the clang of street-cars, the clatter of wheels on cobblestones. Weird mysterious figures slipped by me; strange faces peered into mine and were gone. This was the Embarcadero, the old Barbary Coast famed round the world. Somewhere there, lost in the fog, were its dance-halls, where rovers of the broad Pacific had, in the vanished past, made merry after a sodden fashion. I stood, straining to see.

“Want a taxi, mister?” asked a dim figure at my side.

“If you can find one,” I answered. “Things seem a bit thick.”

“It’s the tule-fog,” he told me. “Drifts down every year about this time from the tule-fields between here and Sacramento. Never knew one to stick around so late in the day before. Yes, sir–this is sure unusual.”

In reply to my query he told me that the tule was a sort of bulrush. And little Moses amid his bulrushes could have felt no more lost than I did at that moment.

“See what you can dig up,” I ordered.

“You just wait here,” he said. “It’ll take time. Don’t go away.”

Again I stood alone amid the strange shadow-shapes that came and went. Somewhere, behind that fog-curtain, the business of the town went on as usual. I made a neat pile of my luggage close to a telegraph pole and sat down to wait. My mind went back to the deck of the boat I had left, to Mary Will Tellfair, that wonderful girl.

And she was wonderful–in courage and in charm. I had met her three weeks before in Shanghai; and it was her dark hour, as it was mine. For Mary Will had come five thousand miles to marry Jack Paige, her sweetheart from a sleepy southern town. She had not seen him for six years, but there had been many letters, and life at home was dull. Then, too, she had been very fond of him once, I judge. So there had been parties, and jokes, and tears, and Mary Will had sailed for Shanghai and her wedding.

It has happened to other girls, no doubt. Young Paige met her boat. He was very drunk, and there was in his face evidence of a fall to depths unspeakable. Poor Mary Will saw at the first frightened look that the boy she had known and loved was gone forever. Many of the other girls–helpless, without money, alone–marry the men and make the best of it. Not Mary Will. Helpless, without money, alone, she was still brave enough to hold her head high and refuse.

Henry Drew had heard of her plight and, whatever his motive, had done a kind act for once. He engaged Mary, Will as companion for his wife, and on the boat coming over the girl and Mrs. Drew had occupied a cabin with a frail little missionary woman. For husbands and wives were ruthlessly torn apart, that each stateroom might have its full quota of three. As I sat there with the fog dripping down upon me I pictured again our good-bye on the deck, where we had been lined up to await the port doctor and be frisked, as a frivolous ship’s officer put it, for symptoms of yellow fever. By chance–more or less–I was waiting beside Mary Will.

“Too bad you can’t see the harbor,” said Mary Will. “Only six weeks ago I sailed away, and the sun was on it. It’s beautiful. But this silly old fog–”

“Never mind the fog,” I told her. “Please listen to me. What are you going to do? Where are you going? Home?”

“Home!” A bitter look came into her clear blue eyes. “I can’t go home.”

“Why not?”

“Don’t you understand? There were showers–showers for the bride-to-be. And I kissed everybody good-bye and hurried away to be married. Can I go back husbandless?”

“You don’t have to. I told you last night–”

“I know. In the moonlight, with the band on the boat deck playing a waltz. You said you loved me–”

“And I do.”

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