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The Puzzle of the Silver Persian
A Hildegarde Withers Mystery
By Stuart Palmer
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1934 The Rue Morgue Press
All rights reserved.
It all began with Tobermory, who was trying with tooth and nail to tear his way through the traveling case of imitation leather in which he had remained prisoner for an eternity or so. Tobermory was a cat who walked by himself, but all places were not alike to him. From time to time he thrust a wicked gray paw through his tiny window and uttered a soft and eerie wail.
Tobermory's unhappiness was increasing in direct ratio to the growing swing of the vessel. The broad-beamed little passenger freighter American Diplomat had long since shown her stern to the verdigris'd fat lady who stands for Liberty in New York Bay, and now was beginning to wallow in the high Atlantic swells which came rolling in past Ambrose Lightship.
The door of stateroom 50 finally opened, and someone began to bustle among the luggage. Tobermory knew that it was not his mistress, the Honorable Emily, for she smelled less of starch and more of lavender and heather. He yowled in appeal, and heard the latch of his case snap open.
"Nice pussy!" offered Mrs. Snoaks dubiously. Tobermory came striding from prison, lashing his magnificent tail and looking like the diminutive ghost of a long-haired Siberian tiger. The silver hairs of his ruff and back stood out warningly, and Mrs. Snoaks called on her Maker to witness that she had never seen so much cat at any one time in her life.
Tobermory surveyed his surroundings without enthusiasm, and then instantly made up his mind. Only one exit offered itself—a round and inviting window above the divan. Tobermory sprang for it. As his saber claws caught the porthole, a capful of salt spray slapped him full across the whiskers. His amber eyes widened as he saw that there was nothing beneath him but ocean—an infinity of restless, alien ocean. Tobermory changed his mind.
He was already halfway out of the porthole, and it was rather late to change his course.
Only at the loss of his dignity and by dint of much scrambling did Tobermory save all nine of his precious lives. Otherwise this tale might have had a very different ending, or perhaps none at all.
Ruffled but unabashed, the big cat lingered long enough to regain his self-respect by spitting silently and nastily at the whole Atlantic Ocean, and then cast his long silver-gray body downwards in an effortless leap to the pillow of the opposite berth. There he at once began to lick the dust of Manhattan from his padded paws, staring balefully at Mrs. Snoaks the while.
That personage hastily completed her unpacking of the Honorable Emily Pendavid's clothes, uneasy in the unwavering stare of those implacable amber eyes. She hung the last tweed suit on its hanger, tucked the last suit of woollen underwear in a drawer, and went out shaking her head.
Halfway down the passage she met the immaculate blue-clad figure of Peter Noel, the handsome bar steward. He seemed to have more uniforms than the Old Man himself, did this gentleman of parts, though naturally he wore somewhat less of gold braid than Captain Everett.
Mrs. Snoaks plucked at the crisp blue sleeve. "Mark my words!" she began. "Do you happen to know what day this is?"
"Thirteenth of September," Noel told her. "So what?"
"Exactly! And a Friday. That gray hairy ghost of a cat in Number 50, he knows. Tried to jump ashore, first off I let him out. And when cats leave a sinking ship—"
"Rats," Noel corrected her calmly. "Rats, not cats." He disengaged his arm and continued aft. Peter Noel was completely free from the superstitious beliefs which even in this enlightened day hold sway over the minds of those who go down to the sea in ships.
Still smiling a little at the stewardess, he came to the end of the passage, which opened directly into the small social hall of the cabin-class ship. Ahead and to the left hung a worn brown curtain bearing the legend "Smoking Room." Behind that curtain had gathered a few passengers, for he could hear their impatient voices.
Directly on his left was a narrow door bearing an imposing red seal stamped with the eagle of the U.S. Customs. Peter Noel leisurely broke the seal and stepped into his pantry. He did not hurry himself, although the American Diplomat had dropped her pilot and was now officially on the high seas.
Only a single rolltop partition above the counter separated him from the people in the smoking room. Noel sat casually down on his stool, drinking in the stale odors of the windowless pantry perfumed with orange peel and drops of spilled cordial and the rich aroma which rises from a loosely corked bottle of Bacardi. Noel liked the heaviness—he was seaman enough to distrust fresh air in any form.
He helped himself to a fat corona from the showcase and lit it. Then he puffed contentedly, polishing his finger nails on his palm. Here he was king—until he opened the barrier and became a flunkey again. The tall black bottles in the rack behind him jingled with the roll of the ship, as if readying themselves for action, but Peter Noel still took his time.
Someone was tapping impatiently upon the outside of the partition, and he heard a loud tenor voice intoning: " those who stood before the Tavern shouted, 'Open then the door !'"
"Bloody fool!" said Peter Noel. But all the same he moved to unhook the partition and raised it. He knew as soon as he looked across the counter that this was going to be a dull trip. There was a sailing list of fifty-odd, not bad for the beginning of the winter season. Yet only seven of them were thirsty enough to hurry through their dinners and join in the sacred rite of opening the bar!
"Well!" said the young man who had been tapping. "After all these years! Make mine a double rye." He was a wide and high young man, with brown curly hair, a big mouth and jaw, and a red necktie. There was a twinkle in his eye. "What'll you have, everybody? The first round's on me."
"No rye," Noel told him.
The tenor was busily urging the various little groups to come forward and join him in Rotarian jollity. The easiest persuaded were a young couple who—Noel instantly decided—were New Yorkers by their dress, and married by their attitude. They looked smart and a bit tired and feverish and anxious to be amused. "Well, Mr. and Mrs. Hammond?"
The girl's blue eyes were older than her young, smooth face. "Cointreau," she said pleasantly. Tom Hammond took a brown pipe from the wide mouth beneath his little mustache and said he could do with a cognac.
In the farthest corner two girls were giggling and striking matches for each other's cigarettes. "What's yours, Miss Fraser? And what'll your friend have?" The young man with the tenor voice was one of those passengers who spend their first few hours on board learning the names of everyone else, and the last few hours writing down addresses.
"Thank you so much," drawled Rosemary Fraser in a too cultured voice. "Nothing for either of us."
Everyone stared. Tom Hammond nudged his wife. "Loulu, they're smoking cigars!"
Loulu Hammond shook her head. "They're showing off," she informed him. "Puerto Rican brown-paper cigarettes." She turned her casual glance back toward the bar again, but not before she had noticed every detail worth noticing about Rosemary Fraser.
She had seen a girl of twenty or thereabouts, dark-haired and pale, wearing a softly lovely coat of squirrel that reached to her slim ankles. Around her throat was a scarf of midnight blue. The face was oval, with big gray eyes and a high-bridged nose, and escaped beauty only because of the babyish, overripe mouth.
"Not a beauty," Loulu decided, "though Tom will think so. But she's got something "
The other girl was just that—another girl. Her face was tanned almost as dark as her brown-paper cigarette, and she was perhaps five years older than her companion, whom she resembled in a colorless way. She wore a dark blue worsted suit and looked dependable. Like Rosemary, she seemed to have a secret amusement of her own.
The tenor was undiscouraged. He approached a couple who were sitting on the lounge, engrossed in old copies of Punch. The woman was monocled, fortyish, and very tweedy. Her companion was young, palely masculine, and he wore a pink shirt and brown plusfours with tassels on them.
"Don't mind," accepted the Honorable Emily, a bit stiffly. "I'd like—" She was about to order a whisky and soda until she remembered that all Americans are rotten with money. "A champagne cocktail," she finished. Then she nudged the young man beside her. "Nephew!"
"Oh—quite," said Leslie Reverson. "MindifIdo." He smiled a very pleasant smile. "Gin-andit." It was his largest contribution to the conversation that evening.
The drinks were placed on the counter by Noel. "Where's my double rye?" complained the tenor.
"No rye," said Noel clearly. "I've got Scotch, and I've got Irish, and I've got Bourbon. But no rye."
The tenor ordered a gin fizz in a tone which proclaimed that his faith was gone and wrote "Andy Todd" across the bill in staggering script. Then they all drank, in a silence broken by small talk from the Hammonds. Even that died away when the tanned girl put down her dark cigarette and approached the bar.
"Two crême de menthes," she ordered. She wrote "Candida Noring" on the bill, and carried the drinks carefully back to her corner.
Peter Noel strangled a cough behind his counter. "Well!" gasped Andy Todd loudly.
Loulu Hammond was pointing at his glass. "You're spilling gin fizz on your trousers," she said softly. So he was.
Tom Hammond saved the situation by buying another drink for Todd and a fresh cognac for himself. Then he sat down and let the larger young man tell him the story of his life. Boiled down, it amounted to this—working his way through the University of Washington at Seattle, with time enough for crew and track and Phi Beta Kappa. Now he was going for a higher degree via a Rhodes scholarship. "And I'm going to have some fun out of this trip, too," Todd was insisting. "I've had my nose to the grindstone long enough."
Rosemary Fraser, across the room, whispered something to her companion, and both girls laughed. Loulu Hammond guessed that the Fraser girl had suggested that Todd's nose could stand a bit more grinding from an artistic point of view.
Rosemary and Miss Noring were standing up, the former pulling the collar of her squirrel coat around her ears. "How frightfully chilly it is in here," she said as she went out.
"She'd be warm enough if she were wearing something underneath that coat besides a suit of lounging pajamas," Loulu Hammond said to herself. She had caught a glimpse of crimson silk trousers beneath the squirrel coat.
"High hat, eh?" said Andy Todd indignantly to the bar steward. But Peter Noel did not answer. He was staring after the two who had gone and straightening his tie.
The two girls came out into the main social hall. It was a wide, low room well aft in the ship, and furnished with a bad piano, a good gramophone, ten bridge tables, and two easy chairs. Along one wall were five old ladies at five writing desks, scratching away with pens that were no doubt honorably retired from the post offices of America. Each rose from time to time to drop a fresh sheaf of stamped fat envelopes in the near-by letter box, though it would not be opened until the ship reached London.
A few bridge tables were in use, and half a dozen children were chasing each other and screaming merrily. One fat-faced youth of seven or eight was quietly whittling at the leg of the piano, his tongue protruding in the intensity of his labor.
"How horribly dull," said Rosemary Fraser. "Candy, why didn't we wait for the Bremen?"
Candida Noring agreed. "Not a man on the boat, my dear. That cute English boy is under age, and Hammond is married "
"Not too married, if I know the look in his eye," said Rosemary. She looked back toward the smoking room. "No, I wouldn't go so far as to say that there isn't a single solitary man on the boat worth developing "
"You surely don't mean Cecil Rhodes' gift to Oxford?"
"Him!" said Rosemary. "Too, too sick-making." She headed for the door. "Let's take a turn or two of the deck and then go down and fight over who has to take the upper berth."
Two hours later Rosemary thumped her pillow. "He has the strangest eyes!" she decided aloud.
Candida Noring put down her book and leaned over the edge of the top berth. "Who, in heaven's name?"
"You wouldn't have noticed," said Rosemary comfortably, and opened her fountain pen. From beneath her pillow she took a leather-bound book, unlocked it with a tiny golden key, and pressed her cheek against the smooth creamy pages with their faint blue rule.
At the head of the first page she wrote "Friday, September Thirteenth," then was thoughtful for a long while and finally began: "There's a man on board, diary, and when he looks at me "
At the moment when Rosemary was filling the creamy pages with her round script, back in the tiny smoking room Tom Hammond was having his fifth cognac. The others had gone, and the bar steward was leaning on his counter and talking swiftly and agreeably.
"You said just now that you are with a manufacturing chemist," Noel began after lighting himself a cigar. "You know, I had a bit of that thrown at me when I was with the Chilean navy—in '27 and '28. There was only one cruiser, with three-inch guns that were falling to pieces and full of bird's nests besides. It was up to me and four greaser rear admirals to concoct a powder weak enough to fire salutes with and still not blow the guns to bits. We were just getting there when the government overturned and some new rear admirals took charge. I got the sack and some of the new greasers got blown sky-high " He looked happy when Hammond asked a question.
"Me? I was a rear admiral too. We were all rear admirals on board except for two captains and a cook. Gold epaulettes and a hundred Mex dollars a month. Great run while it lasted."
Hammond looked a little envious. "You've been around."
"Sure!" Noel grinned. "This is just marking time for me, this job. I'm pulling strings to get into the Chinese flying corps in Manchuria—"
There was a knock on the pantry door. The stewardess, Mrs. Snoaks, stood outside.
"Two more gin and bitters for the fussy couple in 44," she ordered. "Colonel Wright says please will you use Booths instead of Gordon's like you did last time?"
"The Colonel will drink what I mix," said Peter Noel viciously. He rattled with his rack of bottles. "Now, when I was with the White Russians, in their Secret Service—"
But Tom Hammond was departing. "See you tomorrow," he called back. The social hall was empty now. He took a turn or two of the boat deck, found the wind so high that his pipe became overheated in a moment, and he knocked it out. Then he went back below and followed the corridor to C cabin. It was the best on the ship, with a real bath, four portholes, and a genuine double bed. Two berth settees lined the wall, and on one of them was a tumble of bedclothes from which protruded a small fist, threatening even in relaxation. Tom Hammond walked softly, so as not to call down on himself the Vesuvius of trouble which was condensed in his eight-year-old son.
Loulu Hammond, propped against pillows in the big bed, smiled at him. "If you wake Gerald you may have the joy of beating him. He did twenty dollars' worth of damage to the ship's piano tonight."
"It was your idea, bringing him," Tom said. He slipped into a silk dressing gown. "For myself, I'd rather travel with a goat. The twenty can come out of your allowance, for you should have been watching him."
"I was too busy watching you with your eyes glued on the little snip in the squirrel coat," said Loulu. "Spend a pleasant evening?"
"She didn't come back to the bar," Tom said quickly. "But I saw her just now, stretched out in the gayest pair of red pajamas "
"What?" Loulu sat up straight in bed.
"Through the porthole, when I took a turn around the promenade deck," he went on. "The curtain was blowing."
Tom Hammond was ready for bed. Loulu put down the New Yorker she had been reading—it was her Bible whenever she was out of the city—and her husband reached for the light switch.
Tom drew back his hand as if something had snapped at him. Gerald Hammond raised his rumpled, triumphant head from the blankets and shouted in a soprano voice that penetrated half the ship: "Daddy saw red pajamas! Daddy saw red pajamas!" He took a fresh breath. "Daddy saw—"
Excerpted from The Puzzle of the Silver Persian by Stuart Palmer. Copyright © 1934 The Rue Morgue Press. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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