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Stuart Palmer (1905–1968) was an American author of mysteries. Born in Baraboo, Wisconsin, Palmer worked a number of odd jobs—including apple picking, journalism, and copywriting—before publishing his first novel, the crime drama Ace of Jades, in 1931. It was with his second novel, however, that he established his writing career: The Penguin Pool Murder introduced Hildegarde Withers, a schoolmarm who, on a field trip to the New York Aquarium, discovers a dead body in the pool. Withers was an immensely popular character, and went on to star in thirteen more novels, including Miss Withers Regrets (1947) and Nipped in the Bud (1951). A master of intricate plotting, Palmer found success writing for Hollywood, where several of his books, including The Penguin Pool Murder, were filmed by RKO Pictures Inc.
But here is the shore of the one ocean, And here THE HEAVY FUTURE hangs like a cloud. —ROBINSON JEFFERS
My Uncle Joel died the other day.
As a usual thing the manner of a man's exodus from this world is of no more importance than the falling of an autumn leaf, yet there is something memorable about murder.
Though the Man in the Street has a way of forgetting overnight the very names of yesterday's hero, president and premier, after long, long years he is more than likely to remember why it was that Miss Lizzie Borden said she went to the haymow, the exact and most unhappy hiding place which Dr John White Webster chose for the remains of his friend Dr George Parkman, and the reasons why Mr George Joseph Smith explained that his mother was a bus horse and his father a cab driver.
Time fades most colors, but the emerald hue of the Green Bicycle, the scarlet of Maria Marten's Red Barn, and the blue of Landru's beard are today bright as ever. So may it be with the memory of my late uncle, Joel Martin Cameron.
As I drove south along the brown California coast that wild afternoon in December I felt in my bones a faint chill hardly to be explained by the darkening sky and the whipping wind which had wakened the leaden gray anger of the father of oceans. The mist was gradually turning into rain....
It is always easy afterward to remember having had premonitions pointing directly to any tragedy. I am not pretending to any mystic foreknowledge of the murder of my uncle. I simply knew in my bones that something was going to happen.
As a matter of fact, I thought that it had happened when I caught a glimpse of the two girls wildly waving their arms. They were standing on the highway directly in front of the car. I presume that there was really plenty of room, but I slammed on my brakes and skidded to a stop.
I suppose that I vented an exclamation of some sort, but the girls did not say anything for a moment. I thought that they studied me with a particularly cool and interested speculation. Then the taller one waggled her thumb.
The other one came closer. She was a baby no more than nineteen, with wide, frightened eyes, a cute turned-up nose and black curls with which the wind had been playing. She spoke softly, as if she were frightened or else out of breath. "Please!" she cried. "My sister and I—it's nearly dark—we had a ride on a truck past Laguna, but the man had to turn off the highway—"
"How about the ride?" repeated the taller girl, getting back to the point. She was thin and blonde, with the kind of blue eyes that are usually called "nice" and a wide, tired mouth. Something impelled me to open the door of the car, although usually I remain adamant in the face of the most wheedlesome hitchhiker.
As the two girls began to scramble into the seat next to me, tucking their scanty overnight bags underfoot, I heard the sound of a powerful klaxon behind on the highway. A sporty but ancient roadster, seemingly driven straight out of the advertisements in a very out-of- date copy of Town and Country, rolled past. Behind the wheel I caught a glimpse of a gay, almost faunlike grin above a wispy gray beard. The driver, blast him, was leering at me. Then the car was out of sight ahead.
I knew what it must look like—picking up girls along the roadside. The tall one plunked down beside me. She was smiling, whether at me or the man in the other car I could not say.
Nettled, I told them that they were welcome to ride but that I myself was turning inland only a mile or so farther on.
I confess that I felt mildly excited. At forty, with most of one's waking hours spent in the corners of very musty libraries, a man is grateful for the proximity of one pretty girl, let alone two. I could smell them plainly above the scent of burning grease and rubber which always arises from my faithful but ramshackle Buick. They smelled of wet hair and wet silk and scented soap.
Shifting gears is a proceeding which usually takes all of my attention and effort. After it was over I saw that the tall blonde was staring at me curiously, as if somehow I had aroused her interest.
"So are we!" she announced cryptically.
"So are you what?" was all I could say.
"So are we turning inland," she explained patiently. "A mile or so farther along, if that's the road to Cameron Heights."
I nearly stopped the car. "Not going to Prospice, by any chance?"
"Yes, Cousin Alan," she told me, a little wickedly.
I stared at them again. "But you're not Camerons, you two?"
The dark little girl giggled. "Of course not! We're Elys!" Then it started to come back to me. My mind obligingly retraced the long years, back to the only other time I had swung around this corner off the coast highway beneath the faded sign (it had been bright then) which heralded "Cameron Heights—the California Wonder Town—2 miles."
We bounced along a rutted macadam road as I nodded to myself. That was the year my Uncle Joel and Aunt Hester kept open house for Christmas, to show off Prospice. It was a housewarming that ended only a few weeks before Aunt Hester's death. Out of the maze of memories—for it had been fifteen years since that Christmas party—came the ghost of a gawky girl with incredibly red elbows, a sullen, miserable towhead stuck midway between childhood and womanhood.
"Of course!" I caroled fatuously, staring at the blonde. "You're Dorothy, and you had gold wires on your teeth, and you danced under the Christmas tree...."
"Danced a Highland fling, under parental pressure," Dorothy said. "So that's all dear Cousin Alan remembers of my golden childhood! There I was, a budding rose standing with reluctant feet—"
"Roses haven't feet, silly!" giggled her sister.
"Where the brook and river meet," Dorothy finished doggedly. "And the only thing that made an impression was those tormenting wires!"
The road began to wind up a desolate hill, but my attention was chiefly inside the car. I peered past Dorothy. "And this, of course, must be little sister—the one with the pretty curls who sang 'Silent Night.'"
Dorothy laughed bitterly. "Little sister Mildred, that's right. But of course you couldn't remember that her nose usually needed wiping and that she burst into tears if anyone said 'Boo!' to her. You couldn't remember that she sang 'Holy Night' in three keys."
"Dor'thy, I did not!" Mildred cut in weakly. We seemed to have exhausted that topic. The road swung toward a hillside covered with mist-soaked, dismal cactus.
Dorothy and Mildred were telling how well they remembered me. "And ever since then," the little dark girl went on, "we've been getting such reports of your fame! I'm just crazy over your books."
"Oh?" I said, pleased. "Which did you like better, "Traditional Evidences of Existence of Atlantis or A Contrast between American and Egyptian Aboriginal Pyramidal Remains?"
Mildred hesitated. "There—there's really no comparison, is there?" Dorothy put in.
We came over the crest of the first hill and entered the shadow of a row of tattered eucalyptus trees. The fog was beginning to break now as we pushed farther away from the sea.
Then all of a sudden we came into the open, with the wind in our faces. Ahead of us was a slowly rising plateau of perhaps a mile across. It was marked into neat checkerboard squares by the streets of Cameron Heights, rising tier on tier. Prospice, my uncle's Dream House, lorded over it all at the summit of the farther slope.
"Oh!" cried Dorothy, putting her hand on my arm. Even without that signal I believe that I would have halted the car. It was steaming rather badly after the long climb up the hill, but we had other things to think of. Some degree of shock is, I believe, the usual reaction of anyone looking upon Prospice for the first or even the second time. Indeed, a famous European architect on a pleasure tour is supposed to have broken into a cold sweat upon viewing it without warning.
On my only other visit I had come with a cheerful, hopeful bus load of relatives—most of them, alas, passed on to their reward in the intervening decade and a half. But on that day both branches of the family were mixed in together, more than a little intoxicated. They were all alight with the hope, being only human, of somehow sharing in the wealth which everyone agreed had "fallen into the lap" of my Uncle Joel. Actually it had been not into his lap, but into some vacant lots in Venice owned by Aunt Hester, that the black oil had come puddling.
Even fifteen years ago Prospice had been a bit of a shock. Tonight, seen in the gray twilight under a sky filled with scudding, harried clouds, the entire scene was one more fit for Hallowe'en than for Christmas Eve.
There was no cheer in the nearness of the empty pavements of Cameron Heights, for Cameron Heights was a ghost city. Complete with sidewalks, street names and lights, even with four or five unhappy tile-roofed houses, my uncle's subdivision had all the cheery charm of Stonehenge, Pompeii, or the more vacant floors of the Empire State Building.
The houses—what few there were!—leered through black and broken windowpanes, for to the eternal disappointment of my Uncle Joel nobody had ever come a hundred miles into nowhere to bask in the continued fogs which sweep in from the Pacific to keep that ghostly subdivision chill and damp for ten months of the year.
Street signs hung, bravely announcing "Banky Avenue," "Pickford Terrace," "Marsh Place" and "Naldi Lane." My uncle and aunt had been motion-picture fans in those days. Pickford Terrace ended in a black gulley where some winter flood had swept down from the hills to cut off one of the stucco bungalows, leaving "Kosy Kottage" wrecked and aslant on an impermanent-looking island.
We saw all this dimly as we rode on again over the broken, crazy pavements, for though street lamps stood on every corner of Cameron Heights, no current had ever flowed. Boys with air-rifles evidently accounted for a good many of the white globes. Here and there sidewalks still showed through mazes of encroaching devil grass and cactus clumps.
Tumbleweed rolled merrily along the pavements, a dozen wide avenues which led up to the terraced flower gardens at the top of the hill, leading at last to the great Moorish mosque of rose and lavender which my Uncle Joel and Aunt Hester had designed for themselves in the first flush of their first oil-got million. It was their Dream House, and in that great pastry of a house there were, as I had often been told, just thirty-five rooms. Now a pale light glimmered in one small window.
I felt the girl beside me shiver a little as we drew close to Prospice, and her sister spoke breathlessly—"Dor'thy, I think I want to go home."
I knew how she must feel. Coming back to Prospice this way, after so many years had passed and so many people who had talked and laughed and quarreled together on that other Christmas had been laid carefully away underground, was apt to awaken old memories.
"I'd like to go home, too," Dorothy agreed. "Back to Seattle and the rental library, darling. But it's too far to walk."
If they both felt that way, I asked them, then why had they come? Perhaps I was worrying a little over what I would say if these two surprising young women demanded that I drive them back up the coast two thousand miles. "You must have known," I said tritely, "that things wouldn't be the same."
"Oh, that!" Dorothy said. "No, we didn't come for family festivities. We're not looking for the Yule log and the holly and the mistletoe that you kissed me under, Cousin Alan. If you hear anybody singing about Good King Wenceslaus, it won't be us. We're here on business!"
"Dor'thy!" warned Mildred quickly.
"Never mind, so is Cousin Alan," Dorothy continued sweetly. "We and the rest of the Camerons and Elys are out to get ours, even if we have to railroad an old man into an insane asylum to do it."
I said I supposed that they were referring to the telegram, a bothersome square of yellow paper which had been burning a hole in my pocket ever since it arrived a few weeks before. "We all got the same one, then?"
"Uh huh," Dorothy said, with a peculiar look at me. "Short and sweet. 'Suggest we all accept Uncle Joel's Xmas invitation this year Stop Excellent chance to decide about his sanity.' Message filed in Los Angeles December fifth, and signed 'Gilbert Ely,'" she rattled on. "It would take a message like that to bring the Cameron heirs together."
"Dor'thy always puts things the worst way!" Mildred breathed. We were leaving the stillborn city behind us, heading up the long drive toward the looming dark dome of Prospice.
"That's nonsense," Dorothy corrected. "It's a simple matter of dollars and cents. On Uncle Joel's death, the income from Aunt Hester's trust fund will revert from him to us. Even split six or seven ways it ought to be rather juicy. And of course Uncle Joel adjudged insane would be as good as Uncle Joel dead."
"Why, Dor'thy!" gasped Mildred.
"It wouldn't be quite as easy as all that," I told them. "I, too, was a little surprised by the telegram, but I don't place much stock in it. We all know that Uncle Joel is a crabbed old man, but after all his only evidence of insanity has been overoptimism in California real estate, and he's hardly unique in that."
"He sent us blank checks for Christmas last year," Mildred said.
"See there!" I pointed out. "He knew that you two were orphans in the storm, and thought you might need a little help."
"Yes," Dorothy cut in. "The checks weren't signed."
There was nothing much to reply to that, and I turned my attention to the car.
We had come at last into the very shadow of the vast plaster wedding cake which my aunt and uncle had named "Prospice" for a reason which escapes me, though it may have had something to do with Mr Browning's poem. We went up past the terraced gardens, forlorn now and choked with leaves and dead plants, and then the drive forked. One way led to the high, narrow garage which perched almost on the edge of the cliff, like a slice cut from the wedding cake of the house. My uncle was generally supposed to have a domestic staff of some kind—though it was little enough contact the family had had with Joel Cameron these many years—and I decided to let the servant put away the car. I drove into the vaulted arch of the portico, and turned off the motor.
For a second the silence surged around us like a solid thing, and then all hell let loose somewhere in the darkness.
It might have been the howl of a dog, and yet never before had the voice of a moon-struck tike set the hair tingling along the back of my neck.
"The Baskerville family has moved into the neighborhood," said Dorothy. "Hound and all."
Mildred looked amazed. "Why, Dor'thy! I don't believe there's a house within miles of here."
Dorothy told her to skip it. "Rousing welcome we get," she said.
I struck the horn button twice, but nothing happened. Finally we got out of the car, leaving our baggage where it was, and went up the stone steps toward the door. No light came through the massive portal set with stained-glass panels which my Uncle Joel had chosen to brighten up his front entrance. I pressed on a bell. "Wonder what this servant looks like?" I said to the girls.
"Cast in his eye, and a hump, probably," Dorothy hazarded, shivering a little. "I can just see him passing the wassail bowl. This is going to be a white Christmas, boys and girls— scared white!"
Just then the ghostly hound of the Baskervilles let go again behind us in the thickening darkness. It sounded closer.
"It's chasing us!" Mildred whispered. I cast the eye of the flashlight in a sweeping curve of the darkness and for a second I thought I saw the light reflected in two ghastly green eyes.
I knocked heavily on the door, having no taste for lingering where the echoes of that last uncanny wail were still ringing. Then I kicked at the door savagely. It seemed very solid. "I suppose it's locked?" Dorothy said softly. I tried the knob and felt very foolish as the door swung inward. We hurried through and slammed it behind us.
The great entrance hall of Prospice was empty as a drum and as black as the inside of a tar barrel with the exception of the yellow pencil of light cast by my flash. We stumbled over a small trunk and some suitcases near the door, but there was no sign of any living thing.
"Hello!" I shouted, and my voice came quavering back in muffled and distorted echoes. With a girl clinging to either arm I peered down an imposing expanse of foyer which curved away into corridors and staircases and doors at every conceivable angle. The general motif was, I suppose, Monterey—Grand Rapids. "Looks as if the architect's mother was frightened by a Spaniard!" Dorothy said later.
The final note of cheerlessness within that shadow-haunted house was struck by having every piece of furniture concealed beneath a white sheet, giving a somewhat weird effect in the light of my flash lamp. We pressed the light switches, but without result—and there were no lamps or candles within sight.
We were absolutely alone. There was just light enough from the flash so that, when I tilted it a bit, I could get a look at my companions. I realized at once that I had not done little Mildred justice. The resemblance between the sisters was less than one would expect, and the beauty which ought to be divided up evenly seemed to have been given over lock, stock and barrel to the little girl with the curves and the curly black hair.
Excerpted from Omit Flowers by Stuart Palmer. Copyright © 1937 Stuart Palmer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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