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THE COLOSSAL ERROR OF CAPTAIN KIDD
It was to all intents and purposes a sickening blunder. Criminals have made mistakes before, usually as a result of haste or carelessness or mental myopia, and nearly always to their own disservice; ultimately finding themselves, at the very least, contemplating their errors through steel bars and along a dismal vista of years. But this was a mistake for the books.
The whimsically named Captain Kidd did not number among his few virtues, it appeared, the quality of brilliance. He was an unbelievable mountain of a man; and in return for conferring upon him the gift of physical exaggeration it was assumed that his moody creator had penalized him with a paucity of brains. It seemed clear enough at the beginning that the blunder had been Captain Kidd's, a development of his pure stupidity.
The pity of it was that this was one criminal mistake which seemed to work no hardship upon the rascal responsible for it, and still less apparently upon the mysterious person for whom this immense and dull creature was pulling the strings. All its consequences, as was evident, were massed upon the head of its victim.
Now, why fate in the incredible person of Captain Kidd should have chosen poor David Kummer for the sacrifice, every one agreed when it occurred (including Mr. Ellery Queen), was one of those cosmic problems the answer to which is swathed in veils. They could only nod in silent despair at his sister Stella's hysterical requiem: "But David was always such a quiet boy! I remember ... Once a Gypsy woman read his palm in our town when we were children. And she said that he had a 'dark destiny.' Oh, David!"
But this is a long hard tale, and how Mr. Ellery Queen became involved in it is another. Certainly, as a laboratory microscopist peering at the phenomena curiosa of the human mind, he had cause in the end to feel grateful for Captain Kidd's grotesque mistake. For when the light came, as it did after those wild and astonishing days, he saw with etching clarity how essential to his solution the gigantic seaman's error really was. In a sense, the whole fabric of Ellery's thinking came to depend upon it. And yet, in the beginning, it merely muddled things.
The blunder would never have occurred, in all probability, had it not been for David Kummer's dislike of crowds, on the one hand—it was a personal distaste rather than a pathological dread—and his affection for Rosa, his niece, on the other. Both were characteristic of him. Kummer had never cared for people; they either bored or irritated him. And yet, a social anchorite, he was admired and even liked.
At this time he was in his late thirties, a tall strong well-preserved man. He was irrevocably set in his ways and almost as self-sufficient as Walter Godfrey, his famous brother-in-law. For most of the year Kummer maintained a bachelor's eyrie in Murray Hill; in the summer he resided on Spanish Cape with the Godfreys. His brother-in-law, a bitter cynic, often suspected that it was not so much the proximity of his sister and niece that drew Kummer to the Cape as the peculiar grandeur of the place itself—a rather unfair suspicion. But the two did have something in common: both were solitary, quiet, and in their own way somehow magnificent.
Occasionally Kummer tramped off in boots and disappeared for a week's shooting somewhere, or sailed one of the Godfrey sloops or the big launch along the coast. He had long since mastered the intricacies of the nine-hole golf-course which lay on the western hemisphere of Spanish Cape; he rarely played, calling golf "an old man's game." He might be induced to play a few sets of tennis if the competition were keen enough; but generally his sports were those which permitted solitary enjoyment. Naturally, he possessed an independent income. And he wrote a little, chiefly on outdoor subjects.
He was not a romantic; life had taught him certain hard lessons, he liked to say, and he believed firmly in the realities. A man primarily of action, he was constantly "facing the facts." His life was not complicated by the sex-problem; except for his sister Stella and her daughter Rosa, women meant less than nothing to him. It was whispered in Mrs. Godfrey's circle that he had had an unfortunate love-affair in his early twenties; none of the Godfreys ever discussed it and he, of course, was perennially silent.
So much for David Kummer, the victim, the tall dark athletic man who was hauled by Captain Kidd into oblivion.
Rosa Godfrey was a Kummer, with the slashing black brows of the clan, the strong straight nose, level eyes, and slim tough body; side by side, she and her mother might have been sisters, and Kummer an older brother of both. Intellectually she was serene, like her uncle; she had nothing of Stella's nervous agility or social restlessness or essential shallowness of mind. And there was nothing, of course, between Rosa and her tall uncle—nothing in the malicious sense. Their affection respected the tie of blood; both of them would have been outraged by any other suggestion; besides, their ages were almost twenty years apart. Yet it was not to her mother that Rosa crept when she was in trouble, nor to her father, who pottered quietly about by himself and asked no greater boon than that he be let alone; but to Kummer. It had been that way since her pigtail days. Any other father but Walter Godfrey would have resented this usurpation of his emotional rights; but Walter Godfrey was as much an enigma to his family as to the blatting lambs from whose shearing he had amassed his heavy fortune.
The house was full of people; at least it seemed full of people to Kummer. His sister Stella's penchant for the socializing influences had resulted, as he remarked grimly to his silent brother-in-law on Saturday afternoon, in a particularly slimy group of guests.
The season was drawing to a close; its passing had brought an irritating visitation of nondescripts. Marco, of course, had been there, suavely indifferent to black looks from the male relations of his hostess, for many weeks; trust Marco for that. He had been one of Stella Godfrey's less happy inspirations, as her husband grunted on one rare occasion. Handsome John Marco ... who had not a male friend in the world, was not a man to stand upon the little ceremonies; once invited, he hung on—as Kummer said, "with the bland persistence of a crab-louse." Marco had quite spoiled the better part of the summer even for Walter Godfrey, who normally trotted about his rock-gardens in dirty ancient overalls frankly oblivious to the creatures brought into his house by his wife. The others spoiled what was left of the season: Laura Constable, "fat, frenetic, and forty," as Rosa characterized her with a giggle; the Munns, husband and wife, of whom it was patent that nothing civilized could be said; and blond Earle Cort, an unhappy young man who haunted Spanish Cape on weekends, languishing after Rosa. They were not many, but—with the possible exception of Cort, whom he rather contemptuously liked—to Kummer they constituted a veritable battalion.
It was after a late dinner Saturday night that the big man drew Rosa from the cool patio into the still warm gardens sloping down from the huge Spanish house. In the flagged inner court Stella conversed with her guests; while Cort, entangled in Mrs. Munn's arch web, could only hurl a furiously yearning glance after uncle and niece. It was already dusk, and Marco's really extraordinary profile was silhouetted against the sky as he perched gracefully on the arm of Mrs. Constable's chair, presumably posing for the benefit of all the females within range. But he was always posing, so there was nothing remarkable in that. The chatter in the court, dominated by Marco, was shrill and empty; utterly without distinction, like the cackling of fowl.
Kummer sighed with relief as they strolled down the stone steps. "God, what a crew! I tell you, Rosa, that blessed mother of yours is becoming a problem. With the bugs she brings here, she's becoming positively a menace to decent society. I don't know how Walter stands it. Those howling baboons!" Then he chuckled and took her arm. "My dear, you look very charming tonight."
Rosa was dressed in something white and cool and billowy that swept to the stone. "Thank you, sir. It's really very simple," she said with a grin. "A combination of organdie and the black art of Miss Whitaker. You're the most naïve creature, David—and also the most anti-social. But you do notice. More," she added, the grin fading, "than most people."
Kummer lit a bulldog pipe and puffed thankfully, looking at the pink-flecked sky. "Most people?"
Rosa bit her lip, and they reached the bottom of the stairs. With tacit accord they turned toward the beach terrace, deserted at this hour and quite out of sight and hearing of the house above. It was a small cosy place, beautiful in the dusk; there were colored flags underfoot, and white beams formed an open roof overhead. Steps led down to the terrace from the walk, and steps led down from the terrace to the half-moon of beach below. Rosa seated herself rather petulantly in a basketwork chair under a large gay beach umbrella and folded her hands to stare with pursed lips out over the small beach and the waves lapping the sand in the Cove. Through the narrow mouth of the Cove white-bellied sails could be made out, far off, on the swelling blue expanse.
Kummer watched her quietly, smoking his pipe. "What's troubling you, Skeezicks?"
She started. "Troubling me? Troubling me? Why, whatever makes you think—"
"You act," chuckled Kummer, "just about as expertly as you swim, Rosa. I'm afraid you don't shine in either department. If it's that young Hamlet of yours, Earle—"
She sniffed. "Earle! As if he could. Trouble me, I mean. I can't imagine why mother's given him the freedom of the house. She must be going off her mind. Having him around ... I don't want him. We'd definitely settled all that, you know, David. Oh, I—I suppose I was silly about him once, that time we were engaged—"
"Which time was that?" asked Kummer gravely. "Oh, yes! The eighth, I believe. The first seven times, I suppose, you two were merely playing house. My dear child, you're still the merest infant emotionally—"
"Thanks, grandpa!" she jeered.
"—as is your sullen young swain. I believe strongly in the mating of emotional likes. For the—er—good of the stock. You could do worse than Cort, you know, Rosa, for all his Weltschmerz."
"I'd like to know where! And I'm not an infant. And he—he's intolerable. Imagine a grown man licking the pumps of that overdressed, underdone, half-baked imitation of a cheap little ex-chorus girl ..."
"True to type," sighed Kummer. "The feline strain. The best of you are none too good. Skeezicks, my child, be reasonable. If there was any licking done, Mrs. Munn's pretty tongue did it, not Earle's, I'm sure. He looked after you a moment ago like a sick calf. Come, come, Rosa, you're covering up."
"I don't know what you mean," said Rosa, staring out at the sea. It lay below them no longer blue, but purple. The pink flecks in the sky had died to the accompaniment of musical breakers.
"I believe you do," murmured Kummer. "I believe you're on the thin edge of doing something utterly mad, Rosa darling. I assure you it's mad. If the man were any one but Marco I should mind my own business. But under the circumstances ..."
"Marco?" she faltered, not very convincingly.
Kummer's cynical blue eyes smiled a little. Even in the gathering murk she saw the smile, and lowered her own blue eyes. "I think I warned you, my dear, once before But I didn't think it would come to this—"
"Rosa." His reproachful tone made her blush a little.
"I—I thought," said Rosa in a muffled voice, "that Mr.—Mr. Marco's paid considerably more attention to—well, to Mrs. Munn, and to Mrs. Constable, and—yes, to mother, too!—than to me, David."
"That," said the big man grimly, "is something else again. At the moment we're discussing a younger, although perhaps not sillier, woman." His eyes narrowed as he bent over her. "Skeezicks, I tell you the man's impossible, a worthless adventurer. No visible source of income. A smelly reputation, from what I heard; I've gone to some trouble to look the fellow up. Oh, I grant you his physical charms—"
"Thank you. Didn't you know, David darling," said Rosa with a sort of breathless malice, "that physically he resembles you a good deal? Perhaps it's a sexual compensation of some sort—"
"Rosa! Don't be obscene. It's scarcely a joking matter to me. Your mother and you are the only women in this universe I care a rap about. I tell you—"
She rose suddenly, still looking at the sea. "Oh, David, I don't want to discuss him!" Her lips trembled.
"But you do, honey." He put his pipe on the table and gripped her shoulders, turning her about so that her blue eyes were very close to his. "I've seen it coming for a long time. If you do what you intend to do—"
"How do you know what I intend to do?" she asked in a low voice.
"I can guess. Knowing Marco's filthy kind ..."
She grasped his arm. "But, David, I haven't really promised him—"
"You haven't? From the gloating look in his eye I gathered a different impression. I tell you I've heard that the man's a—"
She dropped her hand violently. "It's nonsense what you've heard! John's so good-looking all the men dislike him. Naturally, there would be women in the life of such a handsome man ... David, please! I shan't listen to another word."
He released her shoulders, looked quietly at her for a moment, and then turned aside, picked up his pipe, knocked out the ashes, and dropped the brier into his pocket. "Since you've my own stubbornness," he murmured, "I've no right to complain, I suppose. You've quite made up your mind, Rosa?"
Then they both fell silent and turned toward the terrace stairs, moving a little closer together. Some one was coming down the upper path toward the terrace.
It was the oddest thing. They could hear heavy steps in the gravel, crunching sounds which held a note of clumsy stealth. Like a giant tiptoeing on broken glass, inhumanly oblivious to pain.
It was almost dark now. Kummer suddenly looked at his wrist-watch. It was thirteen minutes past eight.
Rosa felt her skin crawl and she shivered, quite without knowing why. She shrank back against her uncle, staring into the depths of the shadowy path above them.
"What's the matter?" asked Kummer coolly. "Rosa, you're trembling."
"I don't know. I wish we could—I wonder who it is."
"Probably Jorum making one of his eternal rounds. Sit down, darling. I'm sorry if I've made you nerv—"
From such small beginnings are large endings made. It seemed, too, an ending inspired by coincidence. Kummer was clad in spotless whites; a big man, brunette both as to hair and complexion, clean-shaven, not ill-looking ... And it was growing dark very fast, the kind of thick black night peculiar to moonless country and seaside.
An inky shape loomed at the head of the terrace stairs It was monumental and yet composed of shadows. It moved, fluidly. And then it froze still and seemed to search their faces.
A hoarse bass voice said: "Quiet. Both of ye. You're covered," and they saw something small in what might have been a hand.
Kummer said coldly: "Who in hell are you?"
"Never mind who I am." The immense paw never wavered. Rosa was very still, and she could feel the tension of Kummer's body beside her. She groped for his hand in the darkness and pressed it, warningly, pleadingly. His fingers closed over hers with a warm electric strength and she sighed noiselessly, reassured. "Now come on up here," continued the bass voice, "an' make it snappy an' make it quiet."
"Is that really," demanded Rosa, surprised at the steadiness of her voice, "a revolver you're pointing at us?"
"Come on, Rosa," said Kummer softly, and he shifted his hand to grip her bare arm. They marched across the intervening flags and began to mount the stairs. The formless shadow retreated a little before them. Rosa felt like giggling, now that the intangible fear had materialized. It was all so perfectly silly! And on Spanish Cape, of all places. Probably, now that she came to think of it, it was all an inane joke of some one's. No doubt Earle's! It would be just like him, the—the—
Excerpted from The Spanish Cape Mystery by Ellery Queen. Copyright © 1935 Ellery Queen. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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