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The Dead Letter

The Dead Letter

by Seeley Regester

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A love triangle turns deadly in the first full-length detective novel by an American author

Published a decade prior to Anna Katharine Green’s The Leavenworth Case (1878), The Dead Letter concerns the murder of Henry Moreland, whose body is found just a few steps from the home of John Argyll, Esq. Moreland was engaged to Argyll&rsquo


A love triangle turns deadly in the first full-length detective novel by an American author

Published a decade prior to Anna Katharine Green’s The Leavenworth Case (1878), The Dead Letter concerns the murder of Henry Moreland, whose body is found just a few steps from the home of John Argyll, Esq. Moreland was engaged to Argyll’s daughter, Eleanor, and suspicion soon falls upon the lawyer’s protégé, Richard Redfield. Desperate to clear his name, Redfield seeks the help of Mr. Burton, a famous New York City detective—but the case has more twists and turns than either of the two men could possibly imagine.
Set against the political turmoil of the Reconstruction Era, The Dead Letter is a fascinating historical document, a pioneering work of genre fiction, and a mystery with a cleverly satisfying conclusion.
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The Dead Letter

By Seeley Regester


Copyright © 2015 MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-4264-1



I paused suddenly in my work. Over a year's experience in the Dead Letter office had given a mechanical rapidity to my movements in opening, noting and classifying the contents of the bundles before me; and, so far from there being any thing exciting to the curiosity, or interesting to the mind, in the employment, it was of the most monotonous character.

Young ladies whose love letters have gone astray, evil men whose plans have been confided in writing to their confederates, may feel but little apprehension of the prying eyes of the Department; nothing attracts it but objects of material value — sentiment is below par; it gives attention only to such tangible interests as are represented by bank-bills, gold-pieces, checks, jewelry, miniatures, et cetera. Occasionally a grave clerk smiles sardonically at the ridiculous character of some of the articles which come to light; sometimes, perhaps, looks thoughtfully at a withered rosebud, or bunch of pressed violets, a homely little pincushion, or a book-mark, wishing it had reached its proper destination. I can not answer for other employees, who may not have even this amount of heart and imagination to invest in the dull business of a Government office; but when I was in the Department I was guilty, at intervals, of such folly — yet I passed for the coldest, most cynical man of them all.

The letter which I held in my paralyzed fingers when they so abruptly ceased their dexterous movements, was contained in a closely-sealed envelope, yellowed by time, and directed in a peculiar hand to "John Owen, Peekskill, New York," and the date on the stamp was "October 18th, 1857" — making the letter two years old. I know not what magnetism passed from it, putting me, as the spiritualists say, en rapport with it; I had not yet cut the lappet; and the only thing I could fix upon as the cause of my attraction was, that at the date indicated on the envelope, I had been a resident of Blankville, twenty miles from Peekskill — and something about that date!

Yet this was no excuse for my agitation; I was not of an inquisitive disposition; nor did "John Owen" belong to the circle of my acquaintance. I sat there with such a strange expression upon my face, that one of my fellows, remarking my mood, exclaimed jestingly:

"What is it, Redfield? A check for a hundred thousand?"

"I am sure I don't know; I haven't opened it," I answered, at random; and with this I cut the wrapper, impelled by some strongly-defined, irresistible influence to read the time-stained sheet inclosed. It ran in this wise:

"Dear Sir — It's too bad to disappoint you. Could not execute your order, as everybody concerned will discover. What a charming day! — good for taking a picture. That old friend I introduced you to won't tell tales, and you had not better bother yourself to visit him. The next time you find yourself in his arms, don't feel in his left-hand pocket for the broken tooth-pick which I lent him. He is welcome to it. If you're at the place of payment, I shan't be there, not having fulfilled the order, and having given up my emigration project, much against my will; so, govern yourself accordingly. Sorry your prospects are so poor, and believe me, with the greatest possible esteem,

"Your disappointed Negotiator."

To explain why this brief epistle, neither lucid nor interesting in itself, should affect me as it did, I must go back to the time at which it was written.



It was late in the afternoon of a cloudy, windy autumn day, that I left the office of John Argyll, Esq., in his company, to take tea and spend the evening in his family. I was a law-student in the office, and was favored with more than ordinary kindness by him, on account of a friendship that had existed between him and my deceased father. When young men, they had started out in life together, in equal circumstances; one had died early, just as fortune began to smile; the other lived to continue in well-earned prosperity. Mr. Argyll had never ceased to take an interest in the orphan son of his friend. He had aided my mother in giving me a collegiate education, and had taken me into his office to complete my law studies. Although I did not board at his house, I was almost like a member of the family. There was always a place for me at his table, with liberty to come and go when I pleased. This being Saturday, I was expected to go home with him, and stay over Sunday if I liked.

We quickened our steps as a few large drops were sprinkled over us out of the darkening clouds.

"It will be a rainy night," said Mr. Argyll.

"It may clear away yet," I said, looking toward a rift in the west, through which the declining sun was pouring a silver stream. He shook his head doubtfully, and we hurried up the steps into the house, to escape the threatened drenching.

Entering the parlors, we found no one but James, a nephew of Mr. Argyll, a young man of about my own age, lounging upon a sofa.

"Where are the girls?" "They haven't descended from the heavenly regions yet, uncle."

"Dressing themselves to death, I expect — it's Saturday evening, I remember," smiled the indulgent father, passing on into the library.

I sat down by the west window, and looked out at the coming storm. I did not like James Argyll much, nor he me; so that, as much as we were thrown together, our intercourse continued constrained. On this occasion, however, he seemed in excellent spirits, persisting in talking on all kinds of indifferent subjects despite of my brief replies. I was wondering when Eleanor would make her appearance.

At last she came. I heard her silk dress rustle down the stairs, and my eyes were upon her when she entered the room. She was dressed with unusual care, and her face wore a brilliant, expectant smile. The smile was for neither of us. Perhaps James thought of it; I am sure I did, with secret suffering — with a sharp pang which I was ashamed of, and fought inwardly to conquer.

She spoke pleasantly to both of us, but with a preoccupied air not flattering to our vanity. Too restless to sit, she paced up and down the length of the parlors, seeming to radiate light as she walked, like some superb jewel — so lustrous was her countenance and so fine her costume. Little smiles would sparkle about her lips, little trills of song break forth, as if she were unconscious of observers. She had a right to be glad; she appeared to exult in her own beauty and happiness.

Presently she came to the window, and as she stood by my side, a burst of glory streamed through the fast-closing clouds, enveloping her in a golden atmosphere, tinting her black hair with purple, flushing her clear cheeks and the pearls about her throat. The fragrance of the rose she wore on her breast mingled with the light; for a moment I was thrilled and overpowered; but the dark-blue eyes were not looking on me — they were regarding the weather.

"How provoking that it should rain to-night," she said, and as the slight cloud of vexation swept over her face, the blackness of night closed over the gleam of sunset, so suddenly that we could hardly discern each other.

"The rain will not keep Moreland away," I answered.

"Of course not — but I don't want him to get wet walking up from the depot; and Billy has put up the carriage in view of the storm."

At that moment a wild gust of wind smote the house so that it shook, and the rain came down with a roar that was deafening. Eleanor rung for lights.

"Tell cook to be sure and have chocolate for supper — and cream for the peaches," she said to the servant who came in to light the gas.

The girl smiled; she knew, in common with her mistress, who it was preferred chocolate and liked cream with peaches; the love of a woman, however sublime in some of its qualities, never fails in the tender domestic instincts which delight in promoting the comfort and personal tastes of its object.

"We need not have troubled ourselves to wear our new dresses," pouted Mary, the younger sister, who had followed Eleanor down stairs "there will be nobody here to-night."

Both James and myself objected to being dubbed nobody. The willful young beauty said all the gay things she pleased, telling us she certainly should not have worn her blue silks, nor puffed her hair for us —

"— Nor for Henry Moreland either — he never looks at me after the first minute. Engaged people are so stupid! I wish he and Eleanor would make an end of it. If I'm ever going to be bridesmaid, I want to be —"

"And a clear field afterward, Miss Molly," jested her cousin. "Come! play that new polka for me."

"You couldn't hear it if I did. The rain is playing a polka this evening, and the wind is dancing to it."

He laughed loudly — more loudly than the idle fancy warranted. "Let us see if we can not make more noise than the storm," he said, going to the piano and thumping out the most thunderous piece that he could recall. I was not a musician, but it seemed to me there were more discords than the law of harmony allowed; and Mary put her hands over her ears, and ran away to the end of the room.

For the next half-hour the rain came down in wide sheets, flapping against the windows, as the wind blew it hither and thither. James continued at the piano, and Eleanor moved restlessly about, stealing glances, now and then, at her tiny watch.

All at once there occurred one of those pauses which precede the fresh outbreaking of a storm; as if startled by the sudden lull, James Argyll paused in his playing; just then the shrill whistle of the locomotive pierced the silence with more than usual power, as the evening train swept around the curve of the hill not a quarter of a mile away, and rushed on into the depot in the lower part of the village.

There is something unearthly in the scream of the "steam-eagle," especially when heard at night. He seems like a sentient thing, with a will of his own, unbending and irresistible; and his cry is threatening and defiant. This night it rose upon the storm prolonged and doleful.

I know not how it sounded to the others, but to me, whose imagination was already wrought upon by the tempest and by the presence of the woman I hopelessly loved, it came with an effect perfectly overwhelming; it filled the air, even the perfumed, lighted air of the parlor, full of a dismal wail. It threatened — I know not what. It warned against some strange, unseen disaster. Then it sunk into a hopeless cry, so full of mortal anguish, that I involuntarily put my fingers to my ears. Perhaps James felt something of the same thing, for he started from the piano-stool, walked twice or thrice across the floor, then flung himself again upon the sofa, and for a long time sat with his eyes shaded, neither speaking nor stirring.

Eleanor, with maiden artifice, took up a book, and composed herself to pretend to read; she would not have her lover to know that she had been so restless while awaiting his coming. Only Mary fluttered about like a humming-bird, diving into the sweets of things, the music, the flowers, whatever had honey in it; and teasing me in the intervals.

I have said that I loved Eleanor. I did, secretly, in silence and regret, against my judgment and will, and because I could not help it. I was quite certain that James loved her also, and I felt sorry for him; sympathy was taught me by my own sufferings, though I had never felt attracted toward his character. He seemed to me to be rather sullen in temper, as well as selfish; and then again I reproached myself for uncharitableness; it might have been his circumstances which rendered him morose — he was dependent upon his uncle — and his unhappiness which made him appear unamiable.

I loved, without a particle of hope. Eleanor was engaged to a young gentleman in every way worthy of her: of fine demeanor, high social position, and unblemished moral character. As much as her many admirers may have envied Henry Moreland, they could not dislike him. To see the young couple together was to feel that theirs would be one of those "matches made in heaven" — in age, character, worldly circumstances, beauty and cultivation, there was a rare correspondence.

Mr. Moreland was engaged with his father in a banking business in the city of New York. They owned a summer villa in Blankville, and it had been during his week of summer idleness here that he had made the acquaintance of Eleanor Argyll.

At this season of the year his business kept him in the city; but he was in the habit of coming out every Saturday afternoon and spending Sabbath at the house of Mr. Argyll, the marriage which was to terminate a betrothal of nearly two years being now not very far away. On her nineteenth birthday, which came in December, Eleanor was to be married.

Another half-hour passed away and the expected guest did not arrive. He usually reached the house in fifteen minutes after the arrival of the train; I could see that his betrothed was playing nervously with her watch-chain, though she kept her eyes fixed upon her book.

"Come, let us have tea; I am hungry," said Mr. Argyll, coming out of the library. "I had a long ride after dinner. No use waiting, Eleanor — he won't be here to-night" — he pinched her cheek to express his sympathy for her disappointment — "a little shower didn't use to keep beaux away when I was a boy."

"A little rain, papa! I never heard such a torrent before; besides, it was not the storm, of course, for he would have already taken the cars before it commenced."

"To be sure! to be sure! defend your sweetheart, Ella — that's right! But it may have been raining down there half the day — the storm comes from that direction. James, are you asleep?"

"I'll soon see," cried Mary, pulling away the hand from her cousin's face — "why, James, what is the matter?"

Her question caused us all to look at him; his face was of an ashy paleness; his eyes burning like coals of fire.

"Nothing is the matter! I've been half asleep," he answered, laughing, and springing to his feet. "Molly, shall I have the honor?" — she took his offered arm, and we went in to tea.

The sight of the well-ordered table, at the head of which Eleanor presided, the silver, the lights, the odor of the chocolate overpowering the fainter fragrance of the tea, was enough to banish thoughts of the tempest raging without, saving just enough consciousness of it to enhance the enjoyment of the luxury within.

Even Eleanor could not be cold to the warmth and comfort of the hour; the tears, which at first she could hardly keep out of her proud blue eyes, went back to their sources; she made an effort to be gay, and succeeded in being very charming. I think she still hoped he had been delayed at the village; and that there would be a note for her at the post-office, explaining his absence.

For once, the usually kind, considerate girl was selfish. Severe as was the storm, she insisted upon sending a servant to the office; she could not be kept in suspense until Monday.

She would hardly believe his statement, upon his return, that the mail had been changed, and there was really no message whatever.

We went back to the parlor and passed a merry evening.

A touch of chagrin, a fear that we should suspect how deeply she was disappointed, caused Eleanor to appear in unusually high spirits. She sung whatever I asked of her; she played some delicious music; she parried the wit of others with keener and brighter repartee; the roses bloomed on her cheeks, the stars rose in her eyes. It was not an altogether happy excitement; I knew that pride and loneliness were at the bottom of it; but it made her brilliantly beautiful. I wondered what Moreland would feel to see her so lovely — I almost regretted that he was not there.

James, too, was in an exultant mood.

It was late when we retired. I was in a state of mental activity which kept me awake for hours after. I never heard it rain as it did that night — the water seemed to come down in solid masses — and, occasionally, the wind shook the strong mansion as if it were a child. I could not sleep. There was something awful in the storm. If I had had a touch of superstition about me, I should have said that spirits were abroad.


Excerpted from The Dead Letter by Seeley Regester. Copyright © 2015 MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Seeley Regester (1831–1885) was the pseudonym of Metta Victoria Fuller Victor, one of the most popular and prolific authors of mid-nineteenth-century America. She published more than one hundred novels in a wide variety of genres, including romance, Westerns, temperance novels, and children’s literature. She is best remembered for The Dead Letter (1867), the first full-length work of crime fiction by an American author. Her abolitionist dime novel, Maum Guinea, and Her Plantation “Children” (1861), was praised by Abraham Lincoln.

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