The Agony Column - Earl Derr Biggers - ebook

The Agony Column ebook

Earl Derr Biggers

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Opis

Geoffrey West falls in love at first sight with a girl in a hotel breakfasting with her father. They’re all Americans, but the scene is London on the eve of the Great War. Both Geoffrey and his ladylove Marian are reading the personals (The Agony Column) of the Daily Mail. Later that day he has an idea to place an ad to catch her attention, and vows to send her a letter each day for a week to win her heart. Each letter becomes more interesting than the previous because West finds himself entangled in a murder mystery with new twists each day. To say more about what transpires would spoil the fun. The lightness of the story contrasts interestingly with the grim mood of England as Germany mobilizes.

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Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER I

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 Carlton. 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 me.”

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 conquered:

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 introduction.

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 defiant tones.

“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 of water.

“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 more–’”

“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–yes.”

She began to read. Presently her cheeks flushed and she put the paper down.

“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 together?

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.

CHAPTER II

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 Carlton deigned no reply.

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 rustling curtains.

“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 that!

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 came–

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 world.

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 would suggest–”

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 a touch.

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 hall 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 be sublet.

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 not cordial.

“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 good friends.”

“Indeed!” said the captain.

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