"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Monday, May 17, 2021

Break of Dark by Robert Westall (1982)

I have not read any of Robert Westall's non-supernatural fiction, so my judgments are based solely on enjoying the collections Antique Dust (1989), Spectral Shadows (2016), The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral (1991), and now Break of Dark (1982).

At his best, Westall is a superb writer. A novel like The Wheatstone Pond (1993) is unmatched in richness in an era known for excellent and unique UK voices: Bernard Taylor and John Blackburn, among others. Westall has a real strength in conveying uncanny locations, whether urban or rural. "Yaxley's Cat" (1991), for instance, is a strong evocation of rural wrongness and hidden crime; Westall's sure hand at pace and structure makes it a pleasure for the reader to assemble his puzzle. That he does it in under a hundred pages is stunning.

First person narrators are another strength of Westall's craft. Jeff Morgan, the worldly, successful antique dealer of The Wheatstone Pond (1993), completely sane and cosmopolitan at the start, slowly finds himself degenerating into a half-maddened vigilante as the pond reveals its horrors. 

I would hesitate to term all the tales in Break of Dark (1982) supernatural stories. Weird, yes. Uncanny, definitely.

"Hitch-hiker" is one of the strangest and most entertaining. It suggests fey or faerie glamour: the seductive authority of (seemingly) easy money. Certainly it is a droll story of euphoria, then tears, flowing from answered prayers. In the last few pages Westall escalates from the frustration of granted wishes to true nightmare. 


"Blackham's Wimpey" is a refreshingly hardboiled story about a haunted Wellington bomber. It's initial crew cheered and revelled at the fiery death of a German night-fighter pilot they shot down; the new crew must live through the aftermath of that earlier mission, and of the ever-increasing consequences of wartime bloodlust. Westall's treatment of this material is free of pacifist deck-stacking of petty-bourgeois moralizers when they handle similar material.

Domestic melodrama enriches the supernatural elements in "Fred, Alice and Aunty Lou." It is a story of mind-over-matter and the power of suggestion. It is also a story of insidious menace. That it starts as a practical joke just makes it worse.

     They dined at Mission Control the day after Boxing Day. Angela spent a frantic first half-hour, Martini in hand, admiring and surreptitiously looking inside all Roger's three hundred Christmas cards. Certainly, she thought, the atmosphere seemed cordial enough. Peter couldn't have done anything too dreadful.

     'Your card was most unusual,' called Biddy, head round the kitchen door.

     Angela broke out in a cold sweat and slopped Martini down a swollen green-and-purple version of the Three Wise Men that made them look like week-old corpses. Biddy hurried across, wiping floury hands on her apron, and held up a positively huge Rembrandt card.

     'It was sweet of Peter; it must have cost the earth – we're thinking of having it framed after Christmas.'

     Even Roger beamed. Peter said:

     'Trying to educate the New Illiterate. It'll be some years before the mini-chip gets round to Rembrandt.'

     'Oh, yes, some years,' said Roger, almost jovially. Full of Christmas spirit. A happy moment, everybody smiling, like the cover of a glossy gift catalogue.

     Then Roger's smooth white brow creased in a frown. 'Not like the other thing,' he said. He took a deep gulp of Martini. 'Show them, Biddy.'

     Biddy searched carefully among the back ranks of cards for something small and hidden. 'I didn't like not to put it up at all. I mean, whoever they are, they meant well. And it is Christmas . . .' She fished it up and held it out to Angela.

     It was a horrid little card, a mean little card. The cheapest and nastiest little card Angela had ever seen. Holly, robins and bells, and even carol-singers, all crammed into a three-inch square, smudgily printed in viciously dull shades of black and green.

     'Look inside,' said Roger, with thin disgust in his voice. Angela looked. It said:

     From Fred, Alice and Aunty Lou

     'Well?' asked Angela.

     'We don't know any Fred, Alice or Aunty Lou,' said Biddy. 'And look what else they've written.'

     Angela looked.

     Ever so nice to see you at Blackpool this summer. Will call between Christmas and New Year.

     'We've never been to Blackpool in our lives,' screeched Roger. Well, it was nearly a screech anyway.

     'Perhaps it came to the wrong house,' said Angela. 'Perhaps it wasn't meant for you, and you opened it by mistake.'

     'I thought of that,' said Roger. 'No way. I looked through the dustbin till I found the envelope. It was addressed to us all right.'

     'It was right at the bottom of the bin. He was out there till after midnight, looking. By torchlight. I went to bed in the end and left him to it. Then he brings this stinking little envelope up to the bedroom and drops tea leaves all over the white bedspread. Acting like he'd found the crown jewels . . .'

     'Must have been good exercise for you, old man,' said Peter. 'Keep you in shape.'

     Angela silenced him with a look. But Roger did not even seem to have noticed the jibe. He blundered on.

     'But who are they? Who are they?'

     Peter took the card from Angela, and assumed a heavily judicious air.

     'Well, speaking as a non-computer, a mere scribbler, I would say they are definitely not our sort of people.'

     Roger flinched. Peter continued.

     'Definitely your workers, these. About fifty years old, I'd say; Fred and Alice, that is. I can almost see them. Fred in a cardigan, unbuttoned to let his paunch hang out. Shirt done up, but no tie. Balding, and so many wrinkles on his forehead, he could screw his hat on. Fond of his pint. Laughs at his own jokes. Alice . . . Alice is a bit more difficult. Tight-permed, blue-rinsed hair. Blue fly-away spectacles. Big handbag full of snaps of Darren and Tracy and the other grandchildren. As for Aunty Lou . . . thick, grey, lisle stockings and a smell . . .'

     Angela could have screamed. That was exactly as she had seen them too. Was Peter a magician? Or was she just used to living with him, knowing the way his mind worked? He was certainly having a terrible effect on Roger; Roger had turned quite green around the gills. But why; why was he reacting so strongly? Then she had a vision. Roger and Biddy with their parties between Christmas and New Year, almost perpetual parties . . . bosses, colleagues – smart parties. And then a ring on the bell and . . . in walk Fred, Alice and Aunty Lou. Instant disaster.

     Only it wasn't going to happen. Because Fred, Alice and Aunty Lou were inside her own husband's head. This was the second card he'd sent. She opened her mouth to spill the beans. Then she looked at Peter. And he firmly shook his head at her, with a look that froze up her mouth.

     'If they come near here,' said Roger desperately, 'I'll call the police.'

     'Oh, darling, you can't,' wailed Biddy. 'It's Christmas . . .'

     She didn't tackle him about it until they were drinking their Horlicks. He was sitting in the bedroom chair, wearing a large-checked dressing gown that he must have had since he was fourteen; both the tassels of the cord had unravelled, and one elbow was paling into a hole. She had twice bought him nice new dressing gowns; he had never worn either. But he looked reassuringly harmless in this one; still a fourteen-year-old, wearing a false beard for a joke. Or like an amiable dancing bear.

     She decided on the casual approach. 'That Christmas card. What a scream. Roger's face! I could have died. How did you fake the writing?'

     It had been a mean, crabbed script, totally unlike Peter's wild, generous hand.

     He looked at her; she couldn't read the expression in his eyes.

     'I didn't fake any writing.'

     'You got someone to write it for you. Go on, admit it. That was the second card you sent them.'

     He took a deep swig of Horlicks, and stroked the brindled cat on his knee. The brindle pushed her cheek against his face enthusiastically; all the cats adored him; queued up, had fights to sit on his knee.

     He looked at her. 'Drop it, Angel. It's got nothing to do with you.'

     She still felt absolutely safe with him, because she knew he loved her. But it suddenly struck her that he did not love everybody. That perhaps not everybody was as safe as she was . . .

     The second card came in the middle of January. From Blackpool. It said:

     Just having a few days winter break. Weather is quite bracing. Wish you were here. Will call soon.


         Fred, Alice and Aunty Lou

     The front was a picture of Blackpool Prom., with a row of hotels. One window of one of the hotels was marked with an X in blue biro.

     'You could check on that,' suggested Peter.

     'I did,' said Roger. 'I phoned. They were registered. Mr and Mrs F. Brown. And a Mrs Louise Brown, booked into an adjoining room. I drove up there – and I wish I hadn't. I saw the register; the hotel staff thought I was barmy. It was the same handwriting – I took a photocopy for the police. The address they gave was 26 Brannen Street, Flamborough.'

     'And?' asked Peter.

     'The whole of Brannen Street is derelict – empty. They're demolishing it next week to build a factory for the Japs.'

     'Didn't you make enquiries?'

     'No one to ask.'

     'Get any description from the hotel staff?'

     'It was one of those cheap, pensioner block-bookings. They couldn't remember a thing.'

     'So you wished you hadn't gone,' Peter said gently.

     'Oh, that's not why I wished I hadn't gone,' replied Roger grimly. 'On the way home down the motorway, a bloody juggernaut crossed the central reservation and came straight at me. I shouldn't be alive. The Jag's a write-off.'

     There was a long pause, then, before Biddy asked Peter how the latest book was going.

     Angela and Biddy were sitting in the kitchen of Mission Control having coffee. It dawned on Angela after half an hour that, every so often, Biddy was giving a surreptitious sniff.

     'Got a cold coming?' asked Angela sympathetically. Biddy did look rather under the weather.

     'No, why?' asked Biddy with a manufactured burst of brightness.

     'You keep sniffing.'

     'There seems to be a smell,' said Biddy. 'Can you smell anything?'

     Angela sniffed in turn. The idea of any smell in Mission Control was almost sacrilege. There were things for dealing with smoke and fumes (in their little white containers like knights' helmets), not just in the kitchen and loo, but in every room. Angela had noticed that since her marriage, Biddy too had gone completely odourless, like water with the faintest hint of pine. Now, in the deodorized bleakness of Mission Control, there was a faint odour, obvious as a distant lighthouse at sea on a dark night.

     'Yes, I can smell something,' said Angela.

     'I've changed all the air-fresheners twice this week,' said Biddy fretfully. 'But they don't seem to be working. I couldn't get Roger to bed until two o'clock this morning. He kept wandering round and round, snatching open doors and looking under cushions over and over again, like a mad thing. Threatening to call the police.'

     'Why, for heaven's sake?'

     Biddy shrugged despairingly. 'That smell you can smell – what's it a smell of?'

     Angela drew in deeply through her finely-flaring nostrils. Finally she said, 'An old lady. Mints and . . . and . . .'

     Biddy nodded grimly.

     'But surely you've had old people here?' The Jungle saw a fair number of elderly relatives from time to time, including Peter's father, who smoked a pipe that smelled like the corporation incinerator.

     'Never a one,' said Biddy. 'We go to them – when we have to – twice a year. I miss my gran a lot. Roger can't stand old people.'

     'Oh.' Angela sniffed again. She was rather proud of her sense of smell. She got up and moved around the room.

     'Not you as well,' protested Biddy, weakly. But Angela was hot on the scent, keen as a schoolgirl with a new game.

     'It seems to be coming more from the lounge.' 


Pity the privileged life of a vicar. Until he crosses paths with an uncanny mystery. "St Austin Friars'' is parish horror, the young vicar slowly uncovering something unimaginable. 

     The meal was good, though a little strange and spicy. So was the wine. The daughter – no, the granddaughter – whose name was Celicia, moved about serving it as silently as a cat on the thick, red carpet. The rest of the time, from the side, she watched Martin as he talked. Or rather, listened.

     Mr Drogo talked. In between eating with the most exquisite manners, he talked about Muncaster; he talked about St Austin's, right back to the time of the Augustinian canons. He talked with the authority of a historian. Martin was fascinated, the way he showed one thing growing out of another. He made it sound as if he'd lived right through it. Martin stopped trembling eventually. But if he listened to the grandfather, he secretly watched the girl. The girl watched him, too, a slight smile playing about the corners of her mouth.

     'About that phone call.' Martin's voice, almost a shout, broke through the smooth flow of Mr Drogo's talk. 'Was I meant to come and tell you?'

     'Yes, you were meant to come and tell me.' Mr Drogo pulled a grape from a bunch that lay on a dish near him and popped it into his mouth with evident enjoyment.

     'But . . . why?'

     'I am going to die – on March 26th.' He helped himself, unhurriedly, to another grape.

     'Oh, I see. The doctor's told you. I'm so sorry.' Then reality broke in like a blizzard. 'But . . . but he can't have told you the exact date!'

     'I chose the date.' Mr Drogo extracted a grape pip from the back of his excellent teeth, with the delicacy of a cat. He looked as healthy as any man Martin had ever seen.

     'But what—'

     'Do you know how old I am?' asked Mr Drogo. He might have been asking the right time. 'I am one hundred and ninety-two years old, on March 26th. I thought that made it rather neat.'

     Martin stared wildly at the girl, as if assessing how much help she would be against this madman.

     'And I am eighty-four next birthday,' said the girl. She smiled, showing all her perfect white teeth. Martin noticed that the canines were slightly, very slightly, longer than usual. But not more than many people's were . . .

     Martin leapt to his feet, knocking over his chair behind him with a thud. 'I came here in good faith,' he cried. 'I didn't come here to be made a fool of!'

     'We are not making a fool of you. Have you got your birth certificate, my dear?'

     The girl disappeared into the hall, returning moments later with the certificate in her hand. She passed it across to Martin. Even now, in his rage and fear, her perfume was soothing . . . Hands trembling again, he unfolded the paper roughly, tearing it along one fold. It was old and frail and yellow.

     Celicia Margaret Drogo. Born July 8th, 1887, To William Canzo Drogo and Margaret Drogo, formerly Betyl.

     'Do you want to see her parents' marriage certificate?' asked Mr Drogo gently. 'I want your mind to be absolutely satisfied.'

     'I'd like my coat,' shouted Martin, only half hoping he would be given it.

     'As you wish,' said Mr Drogo. 'But,' he added, 'it would be easier for you if you went with my granddaughter now. She could make everything perfectly clear to you. She helped Canon Maitland to see things clearly. We gave Canon Maitland a very contented life for many years. He was almost one of us.'

     'Get lost!' shouted Martin, most regrettably. 'All I want from you is my coat!'

     They did not try to stop him. Celicia came with him, but only to help him on with his coat. Her fingers were still gentle, pleading, on the nape of his neck. Then he was outside and running for the car. He drove out of the drive like a lunatic, narrowly avoiding a collision with a Rover that hooted at him angrily until it turned a corner. He made himself pull up, then, and sit still till he had calmed down. Then he drove home shakily and painfully slowly. Sheila was just standing on the doorstep, pulling on her gloves before going to the pictures; she had a distaste for being in the rectory on her own at night and went to watch whatever film was on, however stupid.

"Sergeant Nice '' recounts events whose cause and source can only be unknowable, redolent of the Fortean. The sergeant of the title is pushed to extremes of action when he confirms the weird experiences effecting holiday-makers at the local beach.

     At five o'clock the next afternoon, young Thomas shouted and waved from his shop when Sergeant Nice was still the other side of Front Street. He was positively jumping up and down, like a chimpanzee before a tea party, causing passing holiday-makers to give him odd looks and his shop a wide berth.

     He seized Sergeant Nice by his neatly starched shirt. The sergeant removed the sweaty hands with some distaste.

     'C'mon, c'mon – I've got my projector set up in the back room – it's incredible – incredible. You won't believe it!'

     From the look on Mrs Thomas's face, the chimp act had been going on for some time, and she obviously laid all the blame at the sergeant's door. Ignoring her ominous silence, Thomas bustled the sergeant into the back room, which was so dark that the sergeant walked straight into the projector, almost sending it crashing to the floor, and practically had to grope and crawl to a seat.

     'All set!' yodelled Thomas. 'All set? Columbia Pictures present . . . the greatest mystery of all time . . . fit to stand with the sea drama of the Mary Celeste . . .'

     The projector began to whirr. A perfectly focused picture of the clocktower bloomed on the screen, after the flashed sequence of numbers. It really couldn't have been clearer. There were the motorbikes; there were the bikers. The scene brightened momentarily, before the electronic exposure meter adjusted. A bright white glow coming from the right, lighting up the right-hand side of the bikers' faces.

     'That's the street light exploding,' said young Thomas, needlessly.

     The bikers' faces turned towards the light; looks of glee appeared on them. The bikers as a man ran off to the right and out of the picture. Other passers-by remained, motionless, looking at the invisible shower of sparks that lit up their faces. Nobody looking anywhere near the horse trough. Except the camera . . . Now for it! Now for a picture of the thief, good enough to give to every policeman in Oldcastle.

     Nobody. Nobody. Nobody went near the horse trough.

     The light from the right faded. The bikers began to drift back towards their bikes. One looked into the trough, saw his helmet was missing, began to gesticulate . . .

     The reel of film ran out and the screen went blank, then dark.

     'Run it through again,' said Sergeant Nice, letting out a long-held breath.

     'I didn't spot it the first time either,' said young Thomas, smugly.

     This time the sergeant watched the piled helmets in the horse trough. Their bulbous, shiny tops were quite visible over the rim. He ignored the departing figures of the bikers, kept his eyes so fixed on the helmets that he did not even blink.

     'Stop!' said the sergeant. 'Run it back a bit. Now on again. Good God, I don't believe it! Run it through again.'

     They ran it through ten times in all, while the sergeant chain-smoked four of the five cigarettes he allowed himself a day. Finally he said, and he was glad the room was in darkness,

     'The helmets don't just vanish . . . they sink. Through the bottom of the trough . . .'

     'Yeah,' said Thomas, breathily. 'They just sink. Did you see one of them suddenly roll clear of the rest?'


     'I've got it all worked out,' said Thomas, triumphantly. 'I've had time to think about it. That horse trough's a fake; it's got a false bottom. Did you know, there's an old manhole cover under there? I worked it out from the pattern of cobbles in the road. What a way to nick things! Everybody puts their bags in that trough. Distract people's attention, work the trap door and, bingo, you've got a new Japanese camera. Crafty sods, lurking down a manhole cover.'

     'Let's go and have a look,' said Sergeant Nice, heavily. He knew there was something wrong with the whole theory.

     They walked across and stared down into the sunlit depths of the horse trough. A woman was sitting on the far edge of the trough, with her bag inside, among the crisp bags and lolly-sticks. Sergeant Nice asked her to move it and herself; and for once he wasn't nice about it. He cleaned out the litter thoughtfully, as if he were recovering the Crown Jewels.

     There was no crack or slit anywhere in the horse trough. Like most of its kind, it had been carved from one massive block of limestone. Sergeant Nice went over every inch of its surface, scraping away with his massive, many-bladed Swiss pocket-knife.


     'That's mad!' exploded Thomas. 'There's got to be a trap door. We'll have to look from underneath – down the sewer.' People began to stare at him curiously. Sergeant Nice hauled him away by brute force, just in time.


17 May 2021

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

"Alfandega 49A" by Edward Lucas White

"Alfandega 49A" by Edward Lucas White (1866-1934) is my favorite story from his 1927 collection Lukundoo and Other Stories.

White's narrative voice here is assured, and the plot unfolds with effortless authority. The coincidence at the heart of the story doesn't thwart the reader's suspension of disbelief. Instead, it intensifies the strange atmosphere of helplessness in the face of the uncanny.


11 May 2021





     THE ALDERS was the last place on earth where anyone would have expected to encounter an atmosphere of tragedy and gloom. The very air of the farm seemed charged with the essence of cheerfulness and friendliness. There appeared to be diffused about the homestead some subtle influence promoting sociability and cordiality.

     Perhaps it was merely that the Hibbards had miraculous luck in attracting only the right kind of boarders; possibly, they possessed an almost superhuman intuition which enabled them to avoid accepting any applicant likely to be uncongenial to the others, to themselves or to the place; maybe it was merely the personal effect of the Hibbards and of their welcome which seemed, in some magical fashion, to make all newcomers as much at home as if they had lived at the Alders from childhood. Certainly all their boarders were mutually congenial.

     Never was summer-boarding-house so free from cliques, coteries, jealousies, enmities, bickerings and squabbles. The children played all day long apparently, but never seemed noisy or quarrelsome. The old ladies knitted or crocheted, teetering everlastingly in their rocking-chairs on the veranda, beaming at each other and at the landscape. The almost daily games of cards gave rise to scarcely any disputes. The folks at the Alders were very unlike an accidental gathering of summer boarders and much more resembled an unusually large and harmonious family.

     This, I suppose, was due to the Hibbards' positive genius for managing a boarding-house and to their genial disposition. Naturally, from their temperament, they enjoyed it, they showed that they enjoyed it and they made everybody feel that they enjoyed it, so that each boarder felt like an invited guest.

     The girls never seemed to have anything to do except to make everybody have a good time. Yet they had a great deal to do. In the heydey of the Alders the four girls divided their duties systematically.

     Susie, the eldest, and the head of the house, rose early, oversaw the getting of the breakfast, and superintended everything. After dinner she always took a long rest and nap. Then, after supper, she stayed up until the last boarder had come indoors and said goodnight, chiefly occupying herself with seeing to it that all together were enjoying themselves, and each separately. She did it very well too. It was a sight to see her, the moment she was free from presiding at the supper table, appear out on the lawn or on the piazza, or in the parlor, according to the weather. She was tall, plump and handsome, held herself erect and had the art of making herself look well in very inexpensive dresses, mostly of her own devising. She was always smiling, her light brown hair haloing her face, her blue eyes shining. As she came she swept one comprehensive glance over her guests, unerringly picked out that one, man or woman, lad or girl, child or baby, which seemed enjoying life least, made for that particular individual and wholeheartedly devoted herself to affording enjoyment. She could afford it, too. She was jolly and had an infectious gaiety that was irresistible. She talked well. She was a fair pianist and a really splendid singer. She played, if need be, and sang, too, indefatigably. Never did a party of boarders have a more conscientious, more solicitous or more tactful hostess.

     Mattie, who was taller and stouter than Susie, with brown eyes looking out of a face generally expressionless, but sometimes lit by a sympathetic smile, habitually slept late and was abed early. But she bore valiantly the brunt of the long middle of the summer days, took upon herself all that pertained to personal dealings with the servants, engaged them, dismissed them if unsatisfactory, controlled them when restive or cajoled them if dissatisfied, oversaw the getting of the dinner and supper, and made the desserts and ices. Among the boarders her chief activity was the foreseeing of incipient coolnesses and the tactful dissipation of any small cloud on the social atmosphere. It was chiefly due to her that no germ of antipathy ever developed, at the Alders, into dislike, that no seed of aversion, ever, in that atmosphere, ripened into enmity. She did her part so cleverly that few of the boarders realized that she ever did anything at all, or suspected that she had any social influence.

     The two younger sisters superintended the sweeping, dusting, bed-making, lamp-cleaning and all the other details contributing to the comfort of the boarders outside of the dining-room. Also Anna made the always abundant and miraculously appetizing cakes in great variety.

     The Alders was always full to its capacity, which meant thirty in the house and any number of boys up to nine in one of the out-buildings, a one-story stone cottage which had once been part of the slave quarters. In it were two double-beds, three canvas cots and at least seven boys; increased to eleven, sometimes, by casual transient guests of the boy boarders.

     The three boys of the family lived out there in summer with the boarders and visitors and kept them in a perpetual good humor.

     The Hibbards had learnt this not by precept, but by example. They had grown up to it with their growth. For Susle had been a small girl, Buck a small boy and the rest little children when their widowed mother had begun to take boarders. They had learned much of her art, unconsciously and without knowing that they were learning it.

     She was dead and gone before I first knew the Alders. But her spirit still informed the life of the place. She must have been a real lady, every fiber and breath of her, and she must have been a level-headed, practical woman. They quoted some of her aphorisms.

     'You cannot make money on twenty-one really good meals a week when you only charge six dollars board,' she was reputed to have said. 'See that everything is eatable and every meal abundant and give them fried chicken and ice-cream, all they can eat, on Sundays and Thursdays, and they'll always be enthusiastic about the table.'

     'People can have a good time only in their own way. Find out what they like to do and encourage them to do it, if it is not wrong. That is the only way to please anybody.'

     'Either don't take boarders at all or make them feel as welcome as cousins.'

     'Leave out what you can't afford altogether. People never miss what no one has and no one can see. But never skimp anything you have. It is economy to offer everyone a third helping of everything.'

     'Season the food with good nature.'

     'Be easy-going about everything.'

     They were easy-going about everything. I've seen Susie tired to death, but gaily hiding it under an exterior of spontaneous vivacity, come back into the big parlor at eleven o'clock Saturday night with two handfuls of cornmeal to scatter on the floor to make it more slippery for dancing. And she did it graciously. They all did such things, and did them instinctively.

     They had the faculty of foreseeing when any amusement was palling on the participants and of starting something else before the boarders had time to find out that they were getting tired of what they were doing. They could always lead their guests into anything they began. On Sunday nights Susie sat at the piano and the rest stood around her and they all sang hymns in which all the singers on the farm invariably joined. Two or three nights a week they gathered similarly and sang college songs or popular tunes. Nearly every weekday evening they danced and of course the guests danced too. Then there was Jack Palton, who foraged among Uncle Hibbard's guitars, found one with four strings left, tuned it like a banjo, and accompanied himself and a bevy of girls in singing glees. Mostly the boarders were too lazy to play tennis and most of the Hibbards were too easy-going to see that the court was kept in order, but nobody missed it. If they played tennis they suited themselves to the court as it was.

     The Alders was an easy-going place, full of merriment, of gaiety, of diversion, of singing and dancing, of love-making and flirtations.

     Especially of flirtations.

     That was where the three boys came in strong.

     Inevitably the boarders at the Alders were mostly women and young women. Before they were half grown the three boys learned to act as beaux for little girls, misses, hoydens, old-maids and grass-widows. They had learned how without knowing it, without knowing it they made an art of it. They did their best, quite spontaneously, to see to it that every unmated feminine creature at the Alders had a good time.

     Incidentally they had a good time, for attractive girls were always present in abundance.

     The result was as good as a comedy to watch.

     Whenever a pretty girl, without a gallant in attendance, came to the Alders, she was promptly annexed by the second brother, who had been christened Ernest Paca Hibbard and was always known, spoken of and addressed as 'Pake.'

     Pake was neither tall nor short. He was broad and thick. Also he was fat, not too fat, but pleasantly fat. He had a bullet head, a short neck and a round ruddy face. Withal he was good looking. He affected bright hat-bands on his new stylish straw hats; bright effective neck-ties, tan shoes, white duck trousers and blue coats. He looked attractive, felt attractive and was attractive. Nearly every newcomer liked Pake and, if he liked her, she was within three days spoken of as 'Pake's girl.'

     He was a born flirt, could have flirted if he had been walking in his sleep, and he flirted well. Few girls could resist the charm of his frank and ingenuous overtures or the sparkle of his brown eyes.

     Then after Pake had annexed the girl, Buck would look her over. He was in no hurry. He was tall, heavily built though spare, had a good-natured countenance, in which blue eyes looked out of a tanned face, and wore clothes which neither he nor anyone else ever noticed.

     If Buck liked a girl well enough he took her away from Pake. Nobody could ever describe or specify how he did it; but he did it. Buck's advances threw Pake completely into the shade.

     Buck was the head of the family, ran the farm, gave orders to the tenant-farmer, directed the selection of the calf that was to be slaughtered every two weeks and of the two lambs killed each week, talked fascinatingly of pigs and crops, had to ask no one but himself when he wanted a horse hitched up to take a girl out driving, and was generally jovial and delightful.

     The girls he liked always liked him better than Pake. He had more conversation and never bored anybody.

     Then after Pake had transferred his attentions to some newcomer and Buck and his girl were together during all Buck's leisure as naturally as cup and saucer, Rex would look her over deliberately. He was even less in a hurry than Buck.

     Rex was slight and silent, with a melancholy air and melting yellow-brown eyes. He was, to the few girls he fancied, altogether irresistible. Therein lay his fault. Rex took flirtation too seriously. It was likely to slip into love making, which is not sound boarding-house ethics.

     But Rex never caused any trouble or got into any trouble. If things looked serious to the gossips or the family, they never felt serious to Rex or the girl.

     Such was the Alders in its prime, which lasted some few years, during which I was a resident there, first in the 'Club,' as the boys called their white-washed stone cottage, later in the house itself. I was happy those four summers, and became almost an honorary member of the family. The honorary members of the Hibbard family were numerous. The Alders had entertained nearly two hundred individual boarders a year for fifteen years. At least one in ten of them felt like an honorary member of the family. Many of those who came there for a second summer were treated as honorary members of the family, and I had spent four summers at the Alders.

     So I was treated quite as an honorary member of the family and enjoyed it.

     The family, in fact, was the best feature of life at the Alders. Seldom could one encounter seven brothers and sisters so loving to each other, so devoted. They had no motto, but they behaved as if their motto were 'all for one, one for all.' A pleasant feature of each day was the sight of their habitual morning gathering, all to themselves, on the small side porch. There they would sit for half an hour or more, holding a sort of family council on the problems of that day. They were a most united family, solicitous about each other, perpetually interested in each other's welfare.




     The Alders changed like everything else. Susie married and lived in Baltimore, Anna married and lived in Washington. Pake went to Pittsburgh. Rex married a widow with two children and settled in Chicago. Buck was away from home a good deal. Mattie married a man who did not make the family feel enthusiastic. The Alders continued full of boarders, all in the care of Leslie, the youngest sister, whom I had last seen as a shy girl.

     For I had not visited the Alders for a dozen years, and in that time had scarcely seen any of the family except Pake, jolly old Pake, a prosperous bachelor, as much of a flirt as ever, even more of a flirt than in his youth; a short, florid, jovial man, young-looking and handsome, who made love to every new girl he met as naturally as he breathed.

     Then, one afternoon early in July, I encountered Rex on the platform of a railroad station, just as we were about to take trains leaving in opposite directions. He glowed over conditions at the Alders, averred that Leslie ran the place as well as ever all four sisters together had, that it was always full, that it was as delightful as ever.

     Within a week I encountered Susie and her two tall girls in the waiting room of Union Station. They were off to the Alders for the summer and Susie invited me up over any Sunday I chose.

     As with Rex, so also the time I had with Susie was too short for me to ask a tenth of the questions I wanted to ask or for her to tell me a tenth of what she had to tell.

     The first Saturday I could get off early I ran up to the Alders. Buck met me at Jonesville station, a little more bronzed than I had last seen him, otherwise the same youthful-looking giant.

     The house, of course, was the same tile-roofed brick house, big and plain, neat under a new coat of bright lemon-yellow paint. The barns were the same weathered gray, unpainted, ramshackle barns I remembered, not a bit more decayed nor less dilapidated than a dozen years before. The grove behind the barn was unaltered, not a tree gone as far as I could judge, and all its big oaks, tulip-poplars and hickories rustling delightfully. The outbuildings near the house were as of old and the brook, just as of yore, not fifty feet from the front porch, rippled across the lawn between its rows of alders. The ailanthus trees west of the house and the locust tree by the well seemed exactly as formerly. They were so big they did not show their growth. But the catalpa by the bridge over the brook had taken on a new lease of life and was flourishing, whereas the lombardy poplars across the brook were gone. The chief change was in the maples. In my time they had been young trees, with trunks too slender to support a hammock rope without bending when anyone sat in the hammock. Now they were large trees, shading the entire front yard from the brook to the porch with an almost continuous canopy of green.

     The place was full of boarders and their children, though the family themselves took up a larger part of the house than of old. Susie was there with her two girls, Anna with her two manly boys and Rex and his wife and his two step-children. Leslie had grown into an entirely adequate housekeeper and hostess and presided admirably. As of yore, the homestead tinkled with banjo music and rang with laughter.

     Mattie, of course, was not at the house, as she and her husband lived a quarter of a mile down the road on the farm that had been Aunt Cynthia's. Everything and everybody was as I expected except that I missed Pake.

     'Where's Pake?' I queried.

     'Pake!' Susie exclaimed. 'Didn't you know Pake was in Rio de Janeiro?'

     'No!' I answered; 'why, I saw Pake on Washington's birthday and he said nothing about going abroad.'

     'He went in March,' Susie rejoined; 'late in March, I think. He likes it down there.'

     Somebody interrupted and we did not mention Pake again until after supper. Then we were all out on the long front porch, grouped about Susie. Buck and Tom Brundige and I, scattered among the ladies, had our cigars drawing well. Rex, as always, was smoking one cigarette after another. A V. M. I. cadet, a crony of one of Anna's boys, was seated on one rail of the rustic bridge over the brook, twanging a banjo at three girls who sat on the other rail facing him. In the lulls of our talk and of the banjo, the chuckle of the brook over its pebbles emphasized the silence, into which broke the undertones of a pair of lovers, swinging in a hammock off to the right. The stars twinkled through the tree-tops, the cigar ends glowed red in the darkness, which was cloven by shafts of lamplight from the windows and mitigated afar to the left where, over the long black outline of the Blue Ridge a paling sky prophesied moonrise.

     Somebody had been expecting a letter and had been disappointed and was mourning over it.

     'I don't understand about letters from Pake,' Susie remarked. 'Sometimes we don't get any letters for weeks, and then we get two or three, all at once. When we compare dates and postmarks we find that he writes every Wednesday and Saturday and mails the letters the very day they are written. How do you explain that, Billy?'

     'I suppose,' I said, 'that the letters come different ways, perhaps some by Lisbon, some by London, others perhaps other ways. That might explain it. What do you think, Tom?'

     'I fancy,' said Brundige, 'that you are probably right.'

     'I had a letter from Pake to-day,' Susie went on. 'I had not heard from him for a month. He says he don't like his business quarters. He has an expensive office and he says it is dark and hot and stuffy and he is going to change just as soon as he can find something to suit him. He says he is looking round. But he says he is most comfortably located otherwise. He is boarding, as he expresses it, 'up on Santa Teresa'; what does that mean, Billy?'

     'Big, long hill,' I replied. 'Four hundred feet high. Splendid view over the city and harbor. Fine air all night. Lots of places to board up there, and all good. How's that now, Tom?'

     'All correct,' Brundige corroborated me.

     'I should think,' Rex put in, 'that Pake would get into trouble down there.'

     'What sort of trouble?' Anna demanded. 'Pake never gets into trouble anywhere. What sort of trouble do you mean?'

     Rex lit another cigarette.

     'Oh,' he said, 'I meant that down there those Dago Portuguese won't stand any nonsense. They're a revengeful lot, by what I hear. Pake might cut somebody out with a girl and get a knife stuck in him.'

     'You're teasing!' cried Anna, indignantly. 'You're always up to some teasing! You ought to be ashamed of yourself.'

     And Susle rebuked him:

     'You oughtn't to suggest such awful things, Rex.'

     'But I wasn't suggesting anything awful,' Rex persisted, 'and I wasn't teasing. I only meant Pake would be likely to cause some heartburnings down there. Pake's bound to be the same old Pake. He can't change all of a sudden. He's certain to have half a dozen girls thinking they have him on a string before he was there a week. Before he was there a month he had more than one girl on a string. Somebody's bound to be jealous. Those Dagoes are a hot-blooded lot.'

     'Pooh!' Buck cut in, 'Pake don't know enough Portuguese to flirt with any natives and all the Americans and English down there will understand flirting.'

     'What's the matter with some Dago being in love with an English girl or an American girl?' Rex persevered; 'Pake might cut one out with a girl that speaks English.'

     I saw that both Susie, who was naturally nervous, and Anna, who had been inseparable from Pake all through their childhood, were wrought up. I tried to intervene.

     'Nonsense,' I said, 'Pake might cut out any number of gallants and never get into any trouble. Rio is as peaceable as Baltimore. To begin with, he can't flirt with any Brazilian girls, for no Brazilian girl is ever permitted to talk to a young man. Anybody going along the streets can see the fashionable Brazilians making love according to their custom. Toward sunset, when the heat is less fierce, the girls, all dressed up, lean out of the windows of the second floor drawing rooms. Their lovers stand on the other side of the street and look at them. A young man will stand that way two hours or more every afternoon for a year before he asks her father for a girl. That's the fashion. How is it now, Tom?'

     'Same way now.' Brundige corroborated me. 'Lots of flirtation among the foreign set, though. But no danger of daggers or revenge. Rio is as peaceable as Washington. I never heard of any case of revenge or of jealousy leading to bloodshed. Never heard of a supposed case, except once.'

     His tone told us all there was a story coming. He was sitting next to Susie and we all hitched our chairs nearer.

     'What was that, Tom?' Buck asked.

     The women all looked towards Brundige. Rex lit another cigarette. The rest of us lit fresh cigars.

     'It was a fellow named Orodoff Guimaraes,' Brundige began. 'Guimaraes, in Portuguese, is like Smith in English, only more so. It seems as if half the Fluminenses, as they call the people of Rio, are named Guimaraes. This Orodoff Guimaraes was a cousin and namesake of a wealthy and respected wine-merchant and rather traded on the relationship and identity of the name. He was one of those dandies who swarm in all South American cities, young men with little or no income, a great sense of their own importance, a taste for expensive pleasures, a love of ease and comfort, ungovernable passions, and an insane devotion to the latest fashion in clothes.

     'Most of such idlers have no income and are too proud to have any business. This Orodoff Guimaraes was better off in both respects. He inherited a small property in real estate, and he made some money in life insurance. He had a desk in a third floor office in a building he owned, 49A Rua de Alfandega, one of the principal business streets of the old down-town part of Rio. He rented the first and second floors of the building at good rentals, and he rented desk-room on the third floor; all the back office and all the front office except his own small desk.

     'He used to spend the most of his mornings at that desk, idling. He sometimes had business that took him out, sometimes he pretended he had. But mostly he just sat at his desk, reading papers, smoking cigarettes or doing nothing at all. It was a pleasant place to do nothing in, a big room, nearly thirty feet wide, more than thirty feet long, with a high ceiling and three tall French windows down to the floor, all three always open. They faced south, so that they needed no awnings and they let in no glare and plenty of breeze. The office was light, but not too light, cool and airy, an ideal loafing place.

     'When he was not loafing in his office Guimaraes was always making love to some girl or going through the motions of making love. No girl would have him, for no girl's father would let her marry him; he was not well enough off to marry, though he managed to dress well as a bachelor. So girl after girl whom he made love to married some one else, or got engaged to some one else. Three of them got engaged, but never got married. Their bridegrooms died before the wedding day.

     'In each case Guimaraes made friends with his rival, got quite chummy with him, and induced him to rent a desk in his office. In each case the rival was killed by falling out of one of the French windows of the office, forty odd feet to the pavement of the Rue de Alfandega. In each case it was an accident. In each case Orodoff Guimaraes was out of his office when the accident happened. But while no one could say a word against Guimaraes, after the third accident no Fluminense who had been exposed in any way to Orodoff Guimaraes' real or apparent rivalry for any girl could be induced to rent desk room in his office. The deaths could not be imputed to him, but the coincidence of the rivalry, the friendship, the renting of a desk and the fall from the window, in three different cases, was more than even the slow-thinking fashionable Fluminenses could stand. It got on their nerves. If he hadn't committed three murders out of revenge, it seemed as if he had. Of course, he couldn't have hypnotized the victims when he was half a mile away and made them throw themselves out of the window or caused them to walk out of the window, but somehow everybody felt as if that was just about what he had done.

     'And each case was spooky, too. In each case the victim's desk was close to one of the windows; in each case Orodoff Guimaraes was out, but there were two other men, renters of desk-room, at desks further back in the office; in each case the other men, seated at their desks twenty feet and more away, had been talking across the room to the victim; in each case the other men, different men each time, had turned round to look at something on their desks, had heard no sound, no movement, no cry, but when they looked round again found themselves alone in the room, and, going to the window, saw the victim crushed on the pavement below.'

     He stopped.

     'Why don't they have a railing or a balustrade across the open window?' Rex inquired.

     'Custom.' Brundige rejoined. 'Custom rules everything down there; custom rules everything all over South America. In Rio all upstairs offices have French windows down to the floor. It's a hot climate and no window has a rail or even a bar across it. To have unobstructed windows is the custom.'

     'Fool custom!' said Buck.

     Just then Leslie came out and joined us. She had been attending to her household duties, or giving orders about breakfast, or entertaining a boarder or something like that.

     After she was settled next Rex she said:

     'I had a letter from Pake this morning. He says there are some fine girls down there in Rio. Says he has had no end of fun with them. He must have been in a good humor when he wrote that letter. It's a long letter and very funny. He tells how he pretended to make love to a girl, just to annoy a fool of a dude who was always making eyes at her, how at first the dude was mad, how he saw the joke and behaved real sensibly. Pake says they got to be real good friends. He tells it all very well. I'll read it to you to-morrow.'

     Leslie was bubbling with merriment, as unconscious as possible and very girlish. But about the rest of us the atmosphere seemed to tingle. I could feel, as it were, the spiritual tension. Buck asked, thickly:

     'Did he tell you the fellow's name?'

     'No,' said Leslie cheerfully. 'He never mentioned his name. But he says they are real good friends.'

     Just then the banjo party on the little bridge stood up. We heard cheerful greetings and recognized Mattie's voice. She had strolled over on foot, her home being a very short distance down the road.

     She came up on the porch, a big, solid matronly young woman. I caught a glimpse of her plump face as the lamplight through the open doorway struck on her, her brown eyes smiling merrily.

     Buck sat down on the porch floor, his feet on the steps, his back against a pillar. Mattie took his chair. She also took charge and control of the conversation.

     'Alf drove to Hagerstown right after supper,' she said. 'He ought to be back soon. I told him I was coming over here and he'll come right here when he comes out.'

     This was in answer to my query.

     'I had a letter from Pake this morning,' she went on. 'He says he's got a new office that suits him perfectly. He says he didn't need as much room as he had, so he's taken desk room only in the office of a friend of his, some kind of Brazilian name, I couldn't spell and can't pronounce it. He says it's a dandy place on the third floor, big, high room, plenty of floor space to move about in and nice fellows at the other desks. It's bright and cool and airy, three big French windows open down to the floor.'

     Then, quite suddenly, as she paused, I felt the Alders enveloped in an atmosphere of tragedy and gloom. The Hibbards excelled in self-control; not one of them uttered a sound. There was a long silence. I could hear the ripple of the brook. The first rays of the late moon, just clearing the top of the Blue Ridge, struck through the maples.

     Anna spoke first:

     'Have you that letter with you, Mattie?'

     'Yes,' Mattie replied cheerfully. 'I brought it along'

     'Give it to me,' Anna said; 'Billy and I will try to make out that name.'

     'Billy can do it, I'll bet,' spoke Mattie brightly.

     Anna, the letter in her hand, stood up.

     'Come on, Billy,' she said.

     I went.

     I was surprised at her asking me instead of Brundige. I had never been intimate with Anna. Susie I had known well and Mattie better, but Leslie, in the old days, had merely smiled and seldom spoken, so that I could not tell whether she liked me or not, while Anna had seemed to avoid me.

     I should have expected her to call Brundige, for Tom had been in Rio longer than I, and much more recently.

     She stood by the refrigerator in the back hall by the side door and leaned against it, her brown hair almost golden against the lamp that stood on the refrigerator.

     'I daren't look at the letter,' she said. 'You read it, Billy.'

     I found the name and it was Orodoff Guimaraes. Also, at the end of the letter he told Mattie to write to him at his office address, Rua de Alfandega, 49A.

     'Come!' said Anna, in a fierce whisper.

     I followed her through the side door and out into the tepid windless moonlight.

     She made for the barn.

     The atmosphere of gloom and tragedy deepened about us. The moonlight seemed weird and ghastly, the shadows of the trees grim and menacing, the silence like that of a graveyard.

     Anna leaned against the barnyard gate.

     'Could I send a cablegram to Rio de Janeiro for thirty dollars?' she queried.

     'A long one for less,' I said. 'When I was down there the rates were sixty-five cents a word. That's many years ago. The rates can't be over half that now. You could cable a letter for thirty dollars.'

     'I have three ten-dollar bills,' she said. 'Barton gave them to me for emergencies just before I left Washington.'

     'I have more than that in my pocket,' I said. 'Between us we are sure to have more than enough.'

     'Do you suppose,' she asked, 'that I could send a cable from Jonesville this late Saturday night?'

     'We might try,' I said.

     'If we can't,' she pressed me, 'will you drive into Hagerstown with me?'

     'Yes,' I promised.

     'Oh,' she said, 'I can't bear it. I can see him lying dead on those cruel paving stones. I can't bear it.'

     I remembered that, just as Rex and Leslie had been inseparable all through their childhood, so Anna and Pake had been comrades from the cradle on. I said nothing.

     'Can you hitch up without the lantern?' she demanded.

     'Has the stable been altered?' I asked.

     'Not a bit,' she said.

     In fact my hand in the dark found in the same places what might have been the same hickory harness-pegs and on them what seemed like the same old sets of harness.

     'Which stall?' I asked.

     'Laddie's old stall,' she directed me; 'call her Nell.'

     I harnessed the mare and led her out to the carriage shed. Anna climbed into the buggy. I opened the gate into the grove and closed it after she had driven through. At the far end of the grove I got out of the buggy again and let down the bars. After I had put them up and was at last in the buggy she handed the reins to me.

     'Nell can trot,' she said.

     Nell trotted, the snaky black shadows lay inky dark across the road. We tore past Grotto station. We neared Jonesville. I had no sense of ineptitude or futility in what we were trying to do. I did not feel I was on a wild goose chase. I did not feel absurd. I took our errand most seriously. We were on our way to warn Pake against the devilish machinations of a fiend who had contrived and compassed three ingenious murders. We were racing against time to warn him before it was too late. I was wrought up to the highest pitch of excitement over the gravity and urgency of our mission.

     We found the telegraph operator still awake. We persuaded him to do as we asked. Anna wrote and I amended till we agreed on:

     'Change your office immediately. Do not enter it again on any account. Get another office at once. Act instantly; this is a matter of life and death. Explanations by letter.


      When the cablegram was sent off we drove homeward, at Nell's natural pace, which was not slow.

     We felt only partly relieved.

     A dozen times Anna sighed:

     'I hope we were in time; oh, I hope we were in time!'

     The atmosphere of gloom and tragedy pursued us as we returned, enveloped the Alders when again we were seated on the porch.

     Hardly were we seated when Mattie's husband came. I had heard he had been consumptive, but had recovered completely. He looked to me like a dying man; haggard, gray-cheeked, sunken-eyed, trembling. He greeted people like a sleep-walker.

     As soon as greetings were over he said:

     'Buck, I want to talk business to you a moment.'

     Buck stood up. He had the Hibbard faculty of intuition and unexpectedness. I was used to both, of old. But I was very much astonished when he pinched me as he passed and indicated that I was to come, too.

     In the back hall by the refrigerator Alf looked up at Buck like a hunted animal at bay.

     'My God, Buck,' he said. 'How'll we ever break it to the girls?'

     'Break what?' Buck queried, his voice dry and thin.

     'There was a cablegram for you at Hagerstown,' Alf replied. 'Beesore had sense enough not to telephone it out here. He saw me and gave it to me. Pake's dead.'

     'Let's look at the cablegram,' Buck said thickly.

     He looked, holding it closely to the kerosene lamp on the refrigerator.

     Then he handed it to me.

     I read:

     'E. P. Hibbard Instantly killed by a fall from a


     'G. SWANWICK.'