Philip, unnerved and horrified, scared at himself, at the eruption of his own rage, at the tarnishing of his honour, leapt across the slab across the entrance, and was running wild, plunging through the bracken, over the boundary-stone, down to the water-side and along it, as if flying from death, his hair lifting on the winds, his eyes agaze with suffering. By the time he reached the bridge he was quite breathless, but still at a mechanical trot he went on, over the bridge, up the steep of the village street, and the three or four boys and girls still playing at that hour out of doors gaped at the sight of the distracted man who rushed past them. On to the Greyhound on his left he went, and past it to the arcade on its south wall stretching down the alley, under which, all alone, stood Marjorie awaiting him: Marjorie, gloved and hatted, ready to go with him, wondering why he was late, her trunks already smuggled out of the hotel to the station by connivance of Hannah and her aunt.
By a sideward look down the alley Philip saw her. In her sudden distress it seemed to her that he had forgotten her. He seemed hardly to recognise her for a moment, his stare was so fixed and glassy. Nor did he stop. When she, in her awe and surprise, made a step to follow him, he stretched out his left hand backward at her to stop her with such as aspect of gloomy warning in his look as her heart likened to the gaze of lost mortals, nor ever forgot to her dying day. In spite of herself she was struck rigid by it, for that forbidding hand was as peremptory as a law of fate…
Having succeeded in reviving Authors In Depth with The Mysterious Wife (and its associated investigation into The Mysterious Author), next cab off the rank was the equally long-neglected Reading Roulette.
The last spin of the random number generator landed me upon a short work from 1907, Three Men And A Maid by Robert Fraser—except that “Robert Fraser” turned out to be a pseudonym concealing two unlikely collaborators. Louis Tracy was a one-time army officer who then went into journalism, and who began in the late 19th century to supplement his income by writing fiction. In fact, “supplement” is a bit of an understatement: Tracy was a prolific writer who turned out novels and serialised stories for the magazines at quite a ferocious clip. He specialised in crime and adventure stories, although his greatest success came with The Final War, a paranoid fantasy in which Great Britain is betrayed and attacked by an allied French-German force. Tracy’s work was always jingoistic to the point of xenophobia, and the novel is a perverse kind of wish-fulfilment fantasy, one equally convinced of Britain’s unassailable position as the greatest country in the world and of the innate treachery of “foreigners” (ad infinitum) who, though vicious, deceitful and homicidal, are also craven at heart and therefore easily defeated.
Another prolific writer of popular fiction around the dawn of the 20th century was M. P. Shiel, who specialised in science fiction and the supernatural, but was also known for crime fiction featuring various master-criminals. His most successful work was The Purple Cloud, an apocalyptic fantasy in which an explorer returns from the North Pole to discover that a cataclysmic disaster has left him the last man on earth. Shiel had high ambitions for his writing that sorely conflicted with his constant need for money, the latter driving him to turn out what he dismissively called “hack-work”, though it was usually entertaining. The failure of some of his more experimental work prompted him to form a writing partnership with Louis Tracy with whom, other than the pace of their commercial work, he had little if anything in common. The two had first collaborated, sort of, when Tracy fell ill during the serialisation of his novel, The American Emperor, and Shiel was brought in to write one the instalments. After that the two men co-authored several works under the pseudonyms “Gordon Holmes” and “Robert Fraser”.
Three Men And A Maid (published first in the US, then in the UK as Fennell’s Tower) does not begin too promisingly, it must be said. What we seem—stress, seem—to have on our hands at the outset is a rather over-turgid romance, with a beautiful village lass being pursued by three very different but equally determined – not to say obsessive – suitors.
The lass is Marjorie Neyland: she is only the daughter of a local inn-keeper, but her artistic ability and the sympathy of an aunt with an independent income sees her whisked away to London for a time to study. Marjorie is both beautiful and good-natured, and by the time she returns to her family she has acquired too a certain air of refinement. She has also learned to despise her family—or at least, she is accused of doing so by her older sister Hannah, who sees the effect of Marjorie upon the local gentleman, and conceives for her a deep and bitter hatred:
“She has only come here to upset the whole place,” said she, viciously stabbing a hole in the turf with her umbrella-tip. “She might have stayed where she was in London, studying her ‘Art’, and not been missed, I’m sure! But from the day she put her foot back in Hudston, everybody seems to have taken leave of their senses…”
“Did you ever happen to hear of a certain Helen of Troy?” asked James Courthope, fingering the end of his blonde beard.
“I’ve heard the name, I think,” answered the frowning Hannah. “Who was she?”
“A young lady with a classic nose, and no doubt a naughty little fire in the corner of her eye; and because of these a city was sacked, and many souls of heroes were sent down to you know where. It isn’t an unusual thing, but we don’t want it going on at Hudston…”
The first of the three men is Robert Courthope, the local squire: a hot-tempered, hard-living, hard-drinking individual oblivious to women until the day when he tries to trifle with the pretty inn-keeper’s daughter and in addition to being firmly repulsed receives a sharp lessen in respectful behaviour. Losing his heart in an instant to the unexpectedly ladylike Marjorie, the squire makes up his mind to marry her—and since, as squire, he holds the lease on the Greyhound Inn, the public house run by Marjorie’s father, it does not occur to him that there will be any obstacle to his plans.
The second man is James Courthope, the squire’s cousin and heir. Although he has been trifling with Hannah, even to the point of making vague promises of marriage, James too is smitten with Marjorie. The squire’s reckless way of life has damaged his health, though he is only a young man, and until now James has been serenely confident of inheriting all upon his cousin’s early death. However, Robert’s sudden passion for Marjorie poses an unexpected danger, and James determines that a marriage between them must be prevented at all cost. His sharp eyes have seen that a romance is developing between Marjorie and another visitor to the area, Philip Warren, the nephew of the local vicar. Confident that if the squire does not marry Marjorie he will not marry anyone, James concludes that a hasty marriage between Marjorie and Philip would best serve his purpose. He finds an eager collaborator in Hannah, to whom the thought of Marjorie becoming the lady of the manor is torment.
An odd mixture of the scholar and the athlete, Philip Warren has a passion for antiquities and is an expert on the history of his ancestors, the de Warrenes; he is also deeply superstitious about the signet ring he wears, an inheritance of the de Warrenes, which traditionally brings good fortune to the wearer, while its loss would mean disaster. The vagaries of Philip’s life have left him dependent upon his uncle, the aesthete Mr Isambard, whose profound pride of family is at odds with his calling. Philip knows very well how his uncle would react to the thought of his marriage to Marjorie, who despite her personal qualities is anything but a lady by birth, and realises he must devote some time to carving his own way in the world and earning enough to support a wife—even if it means being separated from Marjorie for a time.
As anticipated, Robert Courthope calls upon the Neylands to ask Marjorie to marry him—but Marjorie, forewarned, slips away and hides in the tangled garden behind the Greyhound. While there, she receives a message, carried by the “simple” boy Felix, to meet Philip Warren at an ancient, isolated structure known as Fennell’s Tower. Marjorie is puzzled and apprehensive, but finally decides to go. Sure enough, Philip is there—and by the time the two realise that neither of them sent for the other, the door of the structure, long wedged open, has been slammed shut and locked…
Even the sure knowledge that Marjorie is compromised and disgraced, that she will never be the wife of the squire, cannot hold Hannah entirely silent, despite James’ warning to let events play themselves out. The squire, already furious and humiliated by Marjorie’s evasion of his proposal, is driven nearly to madness when Hannah hints at her whereabouts—and who she is with:
The moon was moving wildly in and out among flying masses of cloud, lighting them here and there to the whiteness of lunatic countenances, so Robert Courthope could see the two prisoners. Little he dreamed that they were not there of their own free will, and, indeed, he might well be forgiven his unhappy error at that moment. They were standing on the roof, and the battlement coping hid them no higher than Marjorie’s waist. The clean, high-headed profile of Philip, bending over Marjorie, looked almost elfin in the moonshine, while Marjorie’s arms cast about Philip’s neck had, in the maddened eyes of the man beneath, a certain wildness of abandonment. He could see, but because he could not see nearly and clearly, the scene up there on the tower-top was touched for him with something of strangeness and glamour, which poisoned his jealousy with a drop of mere mortal gall. That same redness and shaking of the face with which he had lately glared at Hannah in the hotel overcame him now, and he glared at them in their heaven, until finally there gushed from his throat one loud, long bellow of uncouth laughter, which the storm and the moor flung far in echoes down the valley…
Marjorie and Philip are eventually released by a passing doctor on a house-call, but the damage has been done. Robert has dripped poison in the ears of Mr Isambard, who is every bit as disgusted about his nephew’s involvement with a woman of “that class” as Philip anticipated. His way of speaking of Marjorie prompts a quarrel that ends with Philip being turned out of the vicarage, almost literally penniless. When he later tries to explain to Marjorie why he cannot marry her immediately, as he wishes to do even regardless of his need to make reparation to her, she won’t hear a word of it, finally persuading him to live on what her Aunt Margaret can give and she earn with her painting until he can support them both. The two make plans to leave Hudston and marry in London, but circumstances intervene…
Having recognised Robert Courthope’s laugh, Philip believes it was he who locked the door to Fennell’s Tower. A furious confrontation between the two ends in an extraordinary proposition. Robert and Philip have often fenced together; now, Robert challenges to Philip to an old-fashioned duel, the loser – should he still be alive – to have nothing to do with Marjorie in any way for a period of five years. Goaded beyond endurance, Philip accepts. The two men agree to meet that evening at a nearby ruined church. Both write letters explaining the circumstances, in case of misadventure, while Robert makes a will leaving everything to Marjorie.
It is from the site of the duel that Philip flees, repulsing Marjorie as she waits to take the train with him to London, and vanishing from the eyes of men. The next morning the dead body of Robert Courthope is found in the ruined church. There is only one sword at the scene—and its point is buried deeply in the squire’s heart…
The death of Robert Courthope brings upon the scene Inspector Webster of Scotland Yard, and all of a sudden the narrative of Three Men And A Maid—to this point a straight-faced and rather purple-prosed romantic melodrama—suddenly takes on a new lease of life. The story itself suddenly transforms into a murder mystery with a courtroom scene climax (one of its two climaxes, anyway), in the process acquiring a welcome albeit somewhat mordant note of humour. Inspector Webster is quite an original, and I am disappointed to have to report that while Louis Tracy did write a few crime series with recurring characters, this seems to be the only appearance of the “plump, bullet-headed, bullet-eyed” police detective:
After bidding the local police disperse the villagers to bed by spreading the news that Philip Warren was under arrest, he went to the inn where he lodged, wrote several letters, posted them, built up a good fire, obtained a fresh supply of cigars, and locked the door of his sitting-room. Then he took from a drawer a rough map of Hudston, embracing Fennell’s Tower, Netherend Hill, Edenhurst Court, and Lancault. On the map he staged a number of small leaden figures, types of soldiers and army nurses which had served many purposes in their day. For these were Webster’s puppets when he tied to reconstruct a crime, and every little mannikin had been labelled with names famous in the annals of Scotland Yard…
“How many people knew that Warren was in Lancault, and how many that Courthope meant to meet him there?” asked Webster. “James knew, and Hannah, and Marjorie, and Bennett, and Archibald, the groom, and Felix, the idiot. Some knew only of the one man’s presence, others knew of both. James knew everything, because he rode like a madman to Nutworth to warn Bennett of Robert’s intention to make the will which would disinherit him. What did those two precious rascals plan? They could not be sure of Robert’s death, because accidents may happen, and an accident did happen in this case, whereby the better fencer was beaten… Obviously, the one man who, next to Warren, had a mortal interest in the fight was James. Come on, Jimmie! Hunt ball or no, you must have been peeping into Lancault at 9.15 pm…”
The involvement of Inspector Webster in the investigation of Courthope’s death has the further benefit of bringing out the best in Marjorie, until then rather too much given to tears and collapses, although understandably so. Although he is presumably there to find and arrest the missing Philip Warren, Marjorie gets a trustworthy sense from Webster, and carries to him her knowledge and discoveries. The suspicion that he is only humouring her puts Marjorie on her mettle, and a partnership of sorts develops between the two, which on Webster’s part becomes increasingly respectful and sympathetic. Marjorie believes passionately that whatever happened between Philip Warren and Robert Courthope, the squire’s death was not murder; while Webster has seen and heard enough during the inquest to convince him that there is far more to Courthope’s death than meets the eye.
Indeed, mystery begins to pile upon mystery—one being why the squire would have summoned Hannah Neyland to witness what turns out to be nothing more important than a document pertaining to a land sale; another, why (as James testifies) the squire told his cousin that he locked Philip and Marjorie in, when he clearly did not; and yet another the origin of the crumpled, bloodstained letter that Marjorie finds among Hannah’s things while looking for a handkerchief (and of which she gains possession only after a spirited and surprisingly physical cat-fight). And above all, of course, we have the question of why, since two swords were evidently taken to the scene, Phillip Warren (if it were he) would have carried away his opponent’s weapon while leaving his own, identifiable as his, in the dead man’s body…
“Proofs? Innocence?” asked the Inspector with a fine assumption of wonder. “Innocence of what?”
“Of murder at least? Doesn’t this thing prove that there was a duel?”
“If one man kills another in a duel, isn’t that murder? Not a very ugly murder, perhaps, but still murder in England. And why do you suppose that this letter and envelope constitute a proof that there was a duel? They don’t.”
“They do to me.”
“To you, no doubt. Others may be harder to convince. Suppose that Warren did assassinate the Squire, what was to prevent him, after the deed, from scribbling in pencil that there had been a duel, then enclosing it in an envelope out of the dead man’s pocket?”
“But what marvellous luck to find in the dead man’s pocket an envelope in his own writing!” said Marjorie, “and an envelope directed to, of all appropriate people, the County Coroner!”
“Queer, isn’t it?” said the Inspector, smiling.
Given the nature of Three Men And A Maid, it would be unfair to reveal too much about the true circumstances of Robert Courthope’s death; though more crimes than one must be solved before the matter is elucidated, and another, equally serious, averted.
A bonus for the reader offered by this short novel is its sense of the early 20th century. The fact that Hudston is “on the post-office telephone system” and may therefore be contacted directly by telegram is an important advantage at various points of Webster’s investigation. Meanwhile, in London at least, a young woman may live alone in a studio apartment and dine at a restaurant with a man without attracting notice or criticism; and while hansom cabs are still the most common form of public transport, more advanced institutions, such as expensive hotels and even Scotland Yard itself, are beginning to rely upon the “electric brougham”.
Speaking of Scotland Yard, one of the most interesting short passages in this novel gives us a glimpse into the dawn of forensic science:
As Philip had assured him most positively that the sword found in Robert’s body was his, Philip’s, it followed that this sword, discovered by Webster himself, on the third day after the murder, plunged up to the hilt in the clay of the river bank quite a hundred yards from Lancault Church, was the weapon which had fallen he lifeless hand of the unfortunate Squire.
The detective’s trained art had stopped him from withdrawing the rapier at once from its earthy sheath. He obtained a spade, and disinterred it, taking infinite pains to secure every particle of soil that adhered the steel. As a result, a report from the Government analyst was now in his pocket. The laboratory had revealed that the point of the blade and some few grains of earth bore chemical traces of the blood of a mammal. Beyond that the expert could not go, but Webster knew that he held in his hand the sword which had wounded Warren and snapped his ring.
All in all, then, Three Men And A Maid is an enjoyable read—though you need to be able to accept its more melodramatic aspects, like the duel and its consequences, and Philip’s belief in the fate associated with his ring, and its emphasis on the Philip-Marjorie romance. It is most successful as a mystery, being consistently entertaining and offering some surprises along the way—such as the revelation that, intelligent, imaginative and resourceful though he is, Inspector Webster is not quite infallible…
The second alternative was so staggering that he refused to permit it to take form in his brain. Nevertheless, as the homely phrase declares, he went hot and cold all over, a somewhat difficult and complex operation which, in the present instance, demanded the immediate swallowing of a tonic.
“By gad!” he said again, when he dared to think. But he managed to smile at the monster his imagination had created. He was vain of his professional skill. Not willingly would he admit that he had blundered…