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The Ghosts' High Noon
By John Dickson Carr
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1969 John Dickson Carr
All rights reserved.
The train left Washington at 10:45 P.M. Starting at Manhattan, it was the New York-Atlanta-New Orleans Limited, number 37, the most luxurious train on a southerly run. When it pulled out of Union Station at Washington, that Monday night in October of the year 1912, Jim Blake had just swung aboard.
And this chronicle must begin with the reason for his journey.
Half-past nine of the same morning—Monday, October 14th—had found Jim Blake finishing breakfast in his bachelor apartment on the south side of Gramercy Park in New York, with stout Mrs. McCool standing by to tidy up afterwards. A little over middle height, lean, and not ill-looking in a strongly Anglo-Saxon way, Jim at thirty-five might be accounted a very fortunate man. He had just poured another cup of coffee and lighted his first cigarette when the telephone rang.
The call came from Colonel Harvey at Harper's. Ebullient Colonel George Harvey, president of the stately old publishing house in Franklin Square, was also the very active editor of Harper's Weekly, with his name spread across its cover every Saturday. And George Harvey had many talents. He charmed authors; he hypnotized the press; he had steered the firm through a bad financial crisis at the turn of the century. But nowadays not everybody trusted his judgment; he had been spending so heavily on publicity that the directors were alarmed.
Colonel Harvey's voice, impressive if a trifle strident, rang heartily over the wire. Today he had chosen to be avuncular.
"Morning, Jim, boy! Didn't get you out of bed, did I?"
"No, not at all. If there's something on your mind, Colonel Harvey ..."
"There is, my lad. Despite your new-found prosperity and freedom from ancient shackles, are you still game to take on a special assignment for the Weekly?"
"With pleasure, if it interests me. What's the assignment?"
"A supplementary question," said Colonel Harvey. "How well do you know New Orleans?"
"Hardly at all."
The telephone refused to believe this.
"Oh, come on! You were at college in the South, and yet you're not familiar with New Orleans?"
"It's just one of those things. Richmond and Charleston I know well, and Atlanta pretty well. Years ago, as an undergraduate, I was in New Orleans once to visit a classmate named Leo Shepley, and had a high old time in my unregenerate days. But that's about all. Having been abroad for so long ..."
"Jim, a good newspaperman can land on his feet anywhere. This story that needs your particular touch: I'm betting you'll jump at it."
"You haven't told me what it is."
"And I don't think I will, on the phone."
"Is it as secret as all that?"
"It's not secret at all. Can you manage to come down here and see me this morning?"
"Yes, of course. In about an hour?"
"Good! I haven't looked up trains yet, but you may have to move fast. Better pack a bag ahead of time, just in case."
"Expect me by ten-thirty or even earlier, Colonel Harvey. The bag shall be packed and waiting. 'Bye, Colonel." Jim hung up the receiver and turned. "Mrs. McCool ..."
"Your bag's a'ready packed, sor," announced Mrs. McCool, emerging from the bedroom with a small suitcase in her hand. "I knew ye'd be nayding ut as soon as I heard 'twas Colonel Harvey. Colonel Harvey!" Her voice grew lyrical. "A grand name, wid bugles in ut! And whin would the gintleman 'a' been a colonel, now? In the Spanish War, maybe, like Colonel Roosevelt?"
"Well, no. He was once appointed military aide to a former governor of New Jersey. In the sense you mean, he's no more a real colonel than the first Cornelius Vanderbilt was a real commodore. But he came by the title honestly, as such things go; he still uses it."
"Good luck to him, sor, and to you too! Dhen it's off to New Orleans you'll be?"
"Yes, very probably. Thanks for packing the bag, Mrs. McCool."
"No thanks nayded; it's me pleasure. But New Orleans, now!" Mrs. McCool brooded darkly. "Yon's a place o' sin and wickedness, I've heard tell."
"It's a civilized city, Mrs. McCool. And a broadminded one, too."
"Broadminded, is it? If ye mane booze and women, which is what ye do mane, say so plain and shame the divil! Not that I'd call ye loose or immoral, worse dhan what most men are: though in London, be all accounts, you were more took wid a couple o' freezin' Englishwomen dhan befits a Yankee gintleman o' Scotch descent."
His partiality to Albion's daughters Jim could not deny. But for verbal accuracy he was something of a purist.
"Scots descent, Mrs. McCool," he corrected rather sharply. "Scotch comes out of a bottle."
"Sure 'tis enough o'dhat ye've had, I'll be bound, though you're no soak ayther!" Again her tone changed. "Oh, bedad, who am I to criticize me betters? Now galong widja to Colonel Harvey, and to New Orleans too if it must be! 'Tis damn few Englishwomen will be tempting you dhere, glory be!"
Taking his hat, the suitcase, and a morning paper at whose headlines he had scarcely glanced, Jim tramped downstairs and out into a winelike autumn day, brisk but not at all chilly, with tattered trees inside the railings of the square. He crossed the street to his bank, the Gramercy Park branch of the Atlas Title & Trust Co., and drew out more than enough cash to see him through.
Then, pondering ...
On his return to America a year ago, with The Count of Monte Carlo piling up royalties, he had bought a fifty-horsepower Peerless and learned to drive it. Now he wished he had waited. The 1912 Cadillac featured an automatic electric starting-device (no more need to wrench at a crank, if this worked), and electric lamps instead of cumbersome acetylene gas.
Still, the Peerless was a first-rate car. For an instant Jim toyed with the notion of driving it to Franklin Square this morning, though only for an instant.
New York had changed during his absence abroad; but then, as you so constantly heard, this city was always changing. The new Pennsylvania Station had been open for two years. The stone lions of a new Public Library haughtily faced Fifth Avenue. They had almost finished the new Goliath of the Woolworth Building, soaring sixty floors above Broadway between Barclay Street and Park Place.
But the problem of tangled traffic, a horse-drawn parade now complicated by far-from-silent automobiles, changed only for the worse. Much though he enjoyed motoring, Jim Blake seldom drove in town except when on his way out of it or returning. Since most cars still had the steering-wheel on the right-hand side, it was no easy matter to judge oncoming traffic in a crowded street.
At least motor-cabs had become plentiful. Crossing Gramercy Park again, Jim hailed one outside the club next door to his own address. As the cab chugged west to Fourth Avenue, then south past Union Square for the long run down Broadway, he settled back and unfolded his morning paper.
"This job for the Weekly! ..." he said to himself.
Harper's Weekly, subtitled 'A Journal of Civilization,' had been a potent political force ever since the cartoons of the late Thomas Nast did so much to break Boss Tweed in the eighteen-seventies. Whatever assignment Colonel Harvey had in mind, Jim fervently hoped it had no concern with politics.
And yet you couldn't escape politics wherever you turned. As election day drew nearer, every newspaper shook to the uproar of a three-cornered fight for the Presidency of the United States in which the Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft, was challenged both by Governor Wilson for the Democrats and by rambunctious Theodore Roosevelt for the Progressive or Bull Moose party he had created when the Republican bosses refused to nominate him at Chicago. Mr. Wilson said Roosevelt was a megalomaniac, Mr. Roosevelt said Wilson looked and talked like an apothecary's clerk, and both of them made remarks anything but flattering to Mr. Taft.
They were still at it; today Colonel Roosevelt would make a speech in Milwaukee. But even T.R., that perennial headline-grabber and God's gift to cartoonists, had been almost pushed off page one. War exploded in the Balkans, with Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro united to march against Turkey. A European conflagration must at all costs be averted.
Here in New York, over the week-end, there had been a conference of Democratic bigwigs at the Hotel Astor. The liner Mauretania would sail this afternoon for Southampton and Cherbourg, bearing ...
Oh, never mind!
At shortly past ten o'clock Jim's cab set him down at the House of Harper. Plagued by disastrous fires since the firm's founding almost a century ago, the brothers Harper of the middle eighteen-fifties had determined on an edifice which should be as nearly as possible fireproof. And they had succeeded. There it stood, outwardly little changed but for smoke-grime, rearing five stories of brick and stone and iron in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Telling the cab-driver to wait, Jim strode through the main entrance, under Benjamin Franklin's statue over the doorway, and up a massive staircase, twelve feet wide, to what they still called the first or counting-room floor.
It always seemed darkish here, despite boasted tall windows. On the right, at the telephone switchboard, sat amiable Miss Polly Wrench, with her starched shirtwaist and her high-piled hair, to clock junior employees in and out.
"Good morning, Mr. Blake! How are you?"
"Never better, Polly. How's yourself?"
"A little sad, I'm afraid; no real reason." Then Polly grew slightly kittenish. "And who is it this morning, o most valued author? Mr. Alden, or ... no, sorry! It must be Colonel Harvey, isn't it?"
"Being on the switchboard, Polly, you know it is. May I leave this suitcase while I go on upstairs?"
"Yes, of course you may! Just put it down there. I'll look after it."
Even the inside of the old premises, Jim reflected, could have changed little beyond certain necessary concessions to the present. Electric light, yes. Telephones, yes. Modern printing machinery, for the secondary building across the courtyard behind this one, obviously yes. But no elevator; never an elevator! That would have been too easy.
On each floor above the street, in good repair still, a covered bridge led to the round brick tower in the courtyard. Inside that tower rose the famous spiral staircase, of wrought iron to last forever, which had known the tread of so many writers and artists. And Colonel Harvey was only one flight up. Jim Blake, in excellent physical condition, took the stairs at a run.
Venerable old Henry M. Alden, editor of Harper's Monthly Magazine, had his office on the same floor as Colonel Harvey. But whereas Mr. Alden's lair was little more than a dusty, paper-crammed cubicle with one window, the president and general editor occupied quarters of spaciousness and luxury near splendor.
Above shoulder-high bookcases or panels of carved mahogany, above walls smooth with some material that glistened like gold-tinted burlap, a frieze of paintings by Harper artists ran all the way round the office. Against one wall hung a large framed photograph of J. P. Morgan, who had been more than generous with loans when they were needed.
George Brinton McClellan Harvey, that self-made man from Vermont, sat behind his flat-topped desk with a cigar upthrust in one corner of his mouth and his right hand pressing flat the open pages of a railway guide. Large shell-rimmed spectacles, no less than his eternal cigar and rather flamboyant clothes, made him a figure easy to identify. Though the dark hair might be sprinkled with gray, his vitality had abated not one ounce. With the courtliest of gestures he motioned Jim to a chair.
"In case I misunderstood you," he began in a tone less courtly, "or misjudged the effect a little success so often has, let's get one thing quite straight." The next words were fired at his visitor. "You're not too proud to cover ordinary news as you used to do?"
"No, naturally I'm not too proud! Why should I be?"
Colonel Harvey took the cigar out of his mouth and drew himself up.
"It's well to remember," he announced, "that I began as a newspaperman, too. I've come a fairly long way, it may be stated without immodesty, since I won my first job on a small-town sheet at three dollars a week. But that's not the point. Let's consider someone else."
Here Colonel Harvey cleared his throat.
"Mr. James Blake," he continued, addressing the photograph of J. P. Morgan as though Jim were not there at all. "Scion of a good old family much respected in Westchester County since their forebears trekked north from Virginia at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Because one of those Virginia forebears helped to found the College of William and Mary in 1693, it's a family tradition that the eldest son in each generation shall attend our second oldest institution of learning. The present James Blake, an only child, graduated class of 1900. Being an admirer of Richard Harding Davis, who first popularized the newspaperman as a romantic figure ..."
"Mr. Davis himself was something of a romantic figure," Jim pointed out. "He still is, though he must be almost fifty."
"Dick's the same age as I am," rapped Colonel Harvey. "He was managing editor of the Weekly from '90 to '94, and neither of us is quite ready for the boneyard just yet. But we'll return to James Blake. Being an admirer of Dick Davis, and having family influence behind him, he landed a job as cub reporter on the New York Banner.
"Let's be fair to the fellow. He had a knack of writing vivid news stories, and the nose or the luck to find news on his own, though with a regrettable taste for crime reporting when left to his own choice. And he did pretty well. In '04 he was made theBanner 's London correspondent, a post he filled for the next seven years.
"In 1911 he wrote a novel, The Count of Monte Carlo, allegedly based on real-life intrigue and spying—crime again, please notice!—under the surface of European diplomacy. To everybody's surprise, including my own, The Count of Monte Carlo became a runaway best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. Today Jim Blake plies his trade only as 'our special correspondent.' He can afford to be choosy."
"Forgive me, Colonel, but who's being choosy? You said you had a job for me, and here I am."
"Then listen carefully, Jim. In the second congressional district of Louisiana ..."
"So we're back to politics, are we? It's a political assignment you've got in mind?"
"Yes, of course it is. At a time like this, what else did you expect? Have you been following 'Comment' in the Weekly?"
"I have, Colonel. And it's good, rousing stuff. But the Weekly has concentrated on taking potshots at Teddy Roosevelt. Even apart from all the cartoons inside, at least four times this year he's been caricatured on the cover as something between a circus clown and Benedict Arnold. The editorial notes usually end in a kind of refrain: 'Down with the demagogue! Smash the third term! Save the republic!' You seem to have Teddy Roosevelt on the brain."
"He's got himself on the brain, hasn't he? 'Vox populi, vox mei': that's Teddy."
"And you've stopped booming Governor Wilson; it's been many a long month since you last cheered for Governor Wilson. Nothing's gone wrong between you two, has it? There's a rumor ..."
"It's more than a rumor; it's ancient history." Colonel Harvey inhaled smoke deeply. "I asked Brother Wilson straight out whether he thought my support was hurting him. He said he believed it was. In the popular mind, it would seem, the House of Harper is associated with the House of Morgan. That's all right for New York or the East generally, he claimed, but it's rank poison to the chawbacons west of the Mississippi.
"They say I got mad and went sour on Brother Wilson, which is a lie. I was a little hurt, that's all. When practically single-handed I made that man governor of New Jersey, I've got a right to feel a little hurt. He might have been more tactful with his friends.
"But make no mistake, my lad. I'm still supporting T. Woodrow, though I don't make so much noise about it; I'm with him all the way to November 5th. He'll win; he deserves to win; and, anyway, this year the Democrats could win with anybody except Brother Bryan. Now are you ready to listen to my proposition?"
"I'm all attention."
Colonel Harvey crushed out his cigar in an ashtray. He rose up, bustled across the office, then bustled back to his chair and stared hard at his guest through the big spectacles.
Excerpted from The Ghosts' High Noon by John Dickson Carr. Copyright © 1969 John Dickson Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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