A Gentleman Called
A Mrs. Norris Mystery
By Dorothy Salisbury Davis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1958 Dorothy Salisbury Davis
All rights reserved.
MRS. NORRIS FASTENED THE last bit of sheeting around the legs of the last chair in the room to be covered, and then rechecked the whole of the hooded furniture for snugness. It was not that she expected wind—or for that matter, a windless occupancy—in the shuttered house. But neither would she have ruled out the possibility of the latter, especially in this room where the late General Jarvis had in his day stirred up so much fury.
The housekeeper gave a great sigh which, finally admitting the truth to herself at least, she acknowledged to have been sent after her late employer. There was many a man walking this earth of whom it could be said he was more dead than alive, but not many in their graves of whom you could say they were more alive than dead: the spirit was strong, however weak had been the flesh. She double-checked the locks on the windows and then went quickly from the room, clutching her skirts in her hand as though to be sure all of her got out at once and closed the door.
On the whole she was glad young Mr. Jarvis had decided to close the Nyack house for the winter. A Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park was not to be complained of by its housekeeper. True, she would miss the Hudson River which she often thought better company than some of the people she knew. But it was always cranky in November, the river, and rude as winter itself to all her acquaintance who didn't live near it. Mr. Tully, for example—her friend the detective, as she called him, not being able quite at her age to call him her beau, and having a deep aversion to the phrase "gentleman friend," as though she would have a male caller who was not a gentleman—Mr. Tully when he came at all this weather, would take up a stance before the fire the minute he gave up his topcoat, and turn himself round and round like a hare on a spit until it was time to go home.
Which but showed, she decided on further thought while she rolled up the hall rug, how little adaptability there was in the man. City born and city bred, he would not be transplanted at his age. She wondered then if her Master Jamie had taken into consideration Mr. Tully's attentions to her, in making his own change of winter residence.
Now here was a man—her Mister James—perceptive and considerate, and himself marvelously adaptable. He could oblige fortune and fame, or he could brook failure with the dignity of a royal pretender. He was in fact all things to at least one woman. Mrs. Norris had raised him the forty-odd years of his life.
Downstairs, she paused at the library door and asked if there was any way in which she could help him. He was packing his own books.
"Do you have the measurement of the shelves in town?"
She liked the way the words "in town" slipped from his tongue. It took out whatever sting there was for her in the change. She measured the largest of the books by the breadth of her own hand.
"They'll fit well enough, sir, but are you taking them all?"
"Those I need," he said.
She started from the room, but could not resist a further plea though she knew the cause lost as far as coming between him and his books was concerned. "Don't you have the law books at the office, Mr. James?"
"Yes," he said, continuing to pack law books.
She waited a moment at the door. "I left your father's den to the last and it's done now. I have only to gather up my own few bits and pieces."
"My God," said Jimmie, "if you feel that bad, we'd better stop for a drink."
"I don't feel that bad at all," Mrs. Norris said.
"Then you don't want a drink?"
"I didn't say that. I'll not be made out a hypocrite, Mr. James."
Jimmie rubbed his chin with a dirty thumb. Certainly not if it meant doing her out of a drink at the same time. "Will you bring in the makings, then, Mrs. Norris?"
"I will since you ask it."
When she returned with the tray, Jimmie said: "I don't suppose Jasper will take it at all hard, your moving into the city?" There was a bit of the tease in him his father had been.
"It's very difficult to tell," Mrs. Norris said. "Mr. Tully's a cool man for an Irishman."
"I'd never have known it hearing him speak your praises," Jimmie said slyly.
Mrs. Norris gave her shoulders a vigorous shrugging. "I was speaking of his blood, not his blather."
"Blather," Jimmie repeated, wiping his hands on the duster she gave him. "Isn't that an Irish word?"
"It is a Gaelic word, Master James, and there were Gaels in Scotland while Ireland was a circle of druids."
Jimmie laughed. "I wonder what your friend Tully would say to that."
"He would agree likely. Mr. Tully is not a contentious man when it comes to nationalities."
"True enough," said Jimmie, for he knew Jasper Tully well. That long, melancholy detective was chief investigator in the District Attorney's office, and had been through many administrations, including Jimmie's own a few years past. He poured Mrs. Norris her usual finger of Scotch whiskey straight and mixed himself one with soda. "Do you still call him Mister Tully to his face also?" he teased. "You've known him for quite a while now."
Mrs. Norris pulled an extra inch of height from her dumpy shape. "I don't approve the informality in the world today, Mr. James. It's made strangers of us all."
Jimmie thought about it and then nodded acquiescence. He gave her her glass and lifted his own. He was a long moment contemplating the toast that was to be given on this occasion. It might be said that he was abandoning the house in which he had been born. Abandoning it or escaping it and the man whose personality marked it more deeply than had his own.
"To father," he said at last. "May he rest in peace."
Mrs. Norris paused in the act of lifting the glass to her lips. "I'm not at all certain he would have said 'amen' to that, Master Jamie."
"Then, being his sole heir and executor, I shall say it for him," Jimmie said, and added in gentle irony: "Prithy peace, amen."
The late Ransom Jarvis, retired major general of the United States Army, had left an estate of three dollars and seventeen cents.
THE FOLLOWING MONDAY MORNING Jimmie commenced the pattern of what he expected to set as daily routine: the reading of The New York Times at breakfast, the walk to the Lexington Avenue subway, and the reading of the Herald Tribune on the ride downtown to the Wall Street office of Johnson, Wiggam and Jarvis.
All his life he had enjoyed the setting of patterns—almost as much as he enjoyed breaking them. He had served in many capacities for a man his age, most of which had at one time or other benefited by his having been trained in the Law. He wondered if, now that he was determined to confine himself to its practice, his novitiate to politics would benefit him. He thought it likely. He had been defeated recently as candidate for governor of the state. And never had he stood so well with the very senior and very proper members of the law firm.
An unsuccessful candidacy for high political office had certain things to recommend it, he mused. More to the respectable citizenry than, say, retirement from that high office. It might be implied, albeit the matter was insusceptible of proof, that the unsuccessful candidate had been above the making of deals. Impotence therein shone as virtue. Meanwhile it was patently obvious that no one fresh out of office had any right-of-way whatever in traffic with those who had succeeded him. But he was expected to run that way all the same, and was therefore damned twice for but one failure.
Shakespeare could have made a sonnet of that, Jimmie thought, and turned to the editorial page.
His secretary greeted him with too much cheer for a Monday morning. He expected bad news. With his mail she brought him word that Mr. Wiggam was waiting to see him on a matter of urgency.
"Urgency?" Jimmie repeated. It was a word rarely used in the office.
"He came to your office himself," the girl amended.
The placement of his office at the opposite end of the floor from the senior partners' was a source of irritation to Jimmie. "He likes to take long walks in the morning," he said. He was not long, however, in answering Wiggam's summoning.
Mr. Wiggam gave the first few seconds to a visual appraisal of the junior member of the firm. The wistful lingering of his eyes on Jimmie's midriff suggested one of two things: either he would have liked to see what there was of it encased in a vest and bound by a watch chain, or he was being nostalgic after his own lean-bellied days. Finally he inquired after Mrs. Norris. Still later he brought himself to the matter which, urgent or not, was obviously painful.
"Do you know the Adkins family?"
Jimmie furrowed his brow in thought.
"Weston, Connecticut. Particularly, have you heard of the son, Theodore Adkins?"
"Not to my recollection," Jimmie said.
"Very old family. Georgianna—the mother—has been a friend of my family for years." Wiggam drew a deep breath. "The boy—Teddy, that is—has got himself into something. A paternity action has been brought against him."
Small wonder Wiggam was pained. Johnson, Wiggam and Jarvis refused divorce cases. Jimmie thought it duly retributive that such a case as this be thrust upon them. But he pulled a long face.
"Teddy is a bachelor," Wiggam proceeded, "a condition which, I suppose, makes him susceptible to this sort of thing."
Jimmie, himself a bachelor, said: "Married men are even more susceptible, for which I suppose society should be grateful."
Wiggam cleared his throat. "I referred to the susceptibility to blackmail. And that's what it is, whether or not he's the father of this bastard." He seemed to take a great deal of satisfaction out of the specifics of language, Jimmie thought.
"He will contest the suit?" he asked.
"I should certainly expect him to," Wiggam said. "That is a matter to be worked out between him and counsel."
"I take it you have accepted the retainer?" Jimmie said, scoring every point now that he could for himself.
"I could not do anything else," Wiggam said sharply. "The man's mother and mine went to school together."
That gave Jimmie some pause. He had thought they were talking of someone young and hot-blooded. "How old is Teddy-boy?"
Mr. Wiggam winced. "Mid-fifties, I suppose."
Jimmie made a quick calculation of the age of a mother of a lad of fifty-five. Wiggam was not easily cowed. A dowager Lysistrata, by the sounds of it.
"Fine woman, his mother. You will want to meet her," Wiggam said brightly, confirming thereby Jimmie's worst premonitions.
"I doubt it," Jimmie said. "I assume from your confidence, sir, I am to take on the defense?"
"Johnson and I are convinced that without your active return to the firm, we could not have undertaken it, and Georgianna would never have understood our position."
"Does she understand her son's position?" Jimmie asked, intending the question to be taken as rhetorical.
"She is not an unworldly woman, Jim. You will have no trouble understanding one another."
Jimmie grinned. "I wondered which of my qualities recommended me to this assignment. My worldliness, is that it?"
Wiggam said it with a straight face: "Precisely. Your sensitivity to the areas of what I may call 'plunder,' the plunder by one man of another's privacy."
It was not a lecture Jimmie needed to attend. He had made copy for more than one gossip columnist in his career. The remarks, however, told him obliquely the extent of Mr. Wiggam's bias in the case, a bias natural enough to a man of his peculiar social consciousness.
"You would not allow the complainant any merit to her suit?"
"Certainly not," Wiggam said.
"Has she money?"
"I have no notion. I should think not or she could not expect to win out over respectability. Deprivation is her only plea, deprivation suing plenty. And she will, of course, insist upon a jury trial, praying that that prospect will force you into a settlement."
"Are you sure you're not her advocate, sir?"
Wiggam was not amused.
"When do I meet our client?" Jimmie said.
"This evening. I have suggested that he call on you at home tonight—or as soon as you can conveniently see him there. I consider it a matter too delicate for the office."
It was Jimmie's turn to be not amused. Such availability had not been in his scheme of things when he decided on a city residence for winter.
MRS. NORRIS HAD BEEN expecting Mr. Tully to dinner that evening; she had laid in an excellent steak for him only to have him phone in the late afternoon and offer the most mournful of regrets. A policeman's lot: murder for his dinner. She wished him a 'good appetite' that was neither tart nor sweet, taking herself a certain relish in the less sordid aspects of Mr. Tully's business. She suggested that he might stop by for a cup of tea if he were able to make it before midnight.
She turned then to the refinements of settling the new household, the arrangement of the silver in the butler's pantry. Mr. James was out to dinner. He expected a caller at nine o'clock and if he was not himself home then, Mrs. Norris had her instructions. At two minutes after nine the doorman phoned up to say that Mr. Adkins was in the elevator. Mrs. Norris washed her hands.
When she opened the door to him he was standing like something fresh out of a box, a bald, shining little man, scarcely taller than herself, his skin a scrubbed pink, his eyes almost a mad blue, they were so bright and lively. Whether he lingered those thirty seconds to appraise her or to be himself appraised, it would have been hard to say. No doubt of it, he liked to make an impression. And he had succeeded.
"Mr. Jarvis expects me, madam. I am Theodore Adkins."
Glimpsing in the mirror his passage down the hall after her, his balance seeming to settle in his heels with every step, Mrs. Norris was reminded of a penguin. A pleasant enough bird, she reasoned, if you didn't have to do its laundry.
"Mr. Jarvis will be home very soon, sir," she said, throwing open the library door. "He bade me set the fire in here for you and offer his apologies if he was delayed. Can I bring you something?"
Mr. Adkins drew a chair closer to the blazing fire and settled himself like a nesting bird before answering. He turned a cherubic face up into hers. "What would you suggest?"
"Brandy?" The burr native so many years before to her tongue turned up again at that instant, her having taken a slight pique at the man's leisure with her time as well as his own.
"By my soul, you're Scotch!" he cried.
"I am." Her antagonism vanished. She dearly loved being discovered for what she was.
The man made a lacework of fingers far too delicate for the stomach over which he entwined them. "When I was a boy I knew Highlands and Lowlands. I had a governess who finished off prayers with me every night with a verse you might find familiar:
'From ghouls and ghosties
And three legged hosties
And things that go bump in the night
The Lord deliver us ...'"
Mr. Adkins smiled ruefully and shook his head. "I don't know what it was that the Lord delivered me from in answer to her prayers, but do you know, I've taken an inordinate degree of pleasure ever since in things that go bump in the night?"
What a delightful man, Mrs. Norris thought. "You might like a glass of port, sir," she suggested. "I've heard Mr. James recommend it to the real connoisseurs."
"Will you have a glass with me?"
"No, sir, I will not," she said, and with genuine regret that a man of such obvious high station should show such low taste.
He popped to his feet and gave a deep bow. "Forgive the familiarity, dear lady. Something in the moment brought me back to the company of my own Miss Ramsey."
"I am a widow," Mrs. Norris said, her emphasis on the word making the distinction between herself and his own Miss Ramsey even stronger.
"Of a sea captain," Mr. Adkins cried.
"He was a man of the sea," she admitted in some awe of the inner sight the man must possess.
"And lost at sea, wasn't he?"
"Aye, sir, a long time ago."
"And you've been faithful to his memory all these years," he said with an awesome respect.
"He gave me no reason to forget him, poor boy," Mrs. Norris chimed, aware of growing lugubrious. The truth was that he had given her little reason to remember him either.
"Then he did leave you provided for," Mr. Adkins said.
Mrs. Norris lifted her chin. "Aye. With a sea bag to pack my duds in."
Mr. Adkins blinked his eyes at her in mute admiration. "I shall have the port, thank you." (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Gentleman Called by Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Copyright © 1958 Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.