Authors: Elizabeth Daly
Solanum Nigrum Linnaeus
N FRIDAY EVENING
, September the eighth, 1939, Mr. Henry Gamadge sat beside his open library window, doing several things at once. His left forefinger gently caressed a yellowed fragment of paper on which was scrawled a rusty signature; his eyes wandered from it to the big ailanthus tree outside the window, and his right hand conveyed spoonfuls of cantaloupe to his mouth. War news poured confidentially into his ear from a little radio beside him, turned low; a smell of freshly watered plants on the balcony, and of grass and shrubs in the yard beneath, came to him with the warm southerly breeze; which also brought him a murmur of subdued traffic, and the strains of
, played on a street organ. All his senses being occupied, Mr. Gamadge was (except for the war news) reasonably happy.
He was in his early thirties, but sometimes looked younger; his blunt-featured, rather colorless, amiable face being enlivened by intelligent gray eyes. He dressed well, but slouched in his chair and ambled in his walk; and he was apt when possible to efface himself in company. He did not object to his own society.
Having swallowed the last edible mouthful of cantaloupe, he screwed up his eyes once more over the brownish ink of the autograph beside his plate, and leaned back to glance as if for inspiration about his library. It looked very much as it had looked in 1873, when Gamadge's parents had furnished it, and when taste, though often excellent, tended to the grandiose and the somber. A worn Turkey carpet still lay on the floor, glassed rosewood bookcases towered almost to the molded ceiling, an ancestor in a brown coat and a tie-wig hung above the marble mantelpiece, solid furniture, chintz-covered, invited repose. On the low sill of the other window a big orange-tawny cat waved a dark-ringed tail.
The library was now also Gamadge's dining room. He had turned the whole first floor of the house (a relic among relics in the East 6o's of the city of New York) into business premises, where he followed the occupation of consulting expert on old or pseudo-old books, manuscripts and autographs. He himself had written a book, intended for the trade, which had caught the fancy of the lay public; and his occasional articles, published in magazines, not only terrorized the unrighteous, but had been known to cause even the righteous a good deal of uneasiness.
Some people said that his book was better than a detective story; only once, however, and that no longer before than the preceding summer, had he been inveigled by circumstances into the rÃ´le of practicing detective. The locale had been Maine, and his collaborator State Detective Mitchell, an elderly man of wooden-seeming personality whom he had liked very much.
He often thought of Mitchell; and as his eyes now rested on a little Japanese painting of blue waves dashing against a white rock, he thought of him again.
The telephone in the hall began to ring. It ceased, and Gamadge turned off the radio. An old colored man came in, carrying a coffee tray.
“Call for you, Mr. Gamadge,” he said. “No, you sit there and take your coffee. I told them to ring again in ten minutes.”
“I wish you wouldn't make these rules, Theodore. Did you bother to find out who it was, before you chopped them off?”
“Long distance. Now you don't need to jump out of your chair. They can call us up again. You get a private wire, like I ask you to, and you'll get all your calls, soon as they come.”
“I want them all now, soon as they come. They may be clients.”
“What about wrong numbers, wakin' us all up in the middle of the night? You mad enough then.”
The telephone rang madly. Theodore went out, and returned to say in a discontented tone: “It's police, and she won't cut them off.”
“Long distance. Maine.”
Gamadge arose, and lurched in his ungraceful but rapid fashion into the hall. A colorless voice greeted him over the wire:
“Sorry to interrupt your dinner, Mr. Gamadge. Mitchell talking.”
“Mitchell! I was just thinking of you. Where are you?”
“Magic name. Wish I was there myself.”
“I was going to suggest, why don't you come up for the weekend? It's the best time of year, now the summer folks have cleared out. You know how they get going by Labor Day.”
“Very nice of you, but are you crazy? It's too far for a weekend. Nobody goes up there for a weekend.”
“Easy as pie. You could take the ten o'clock tonight, and be here at seven thirty tomorrow morning. You could go back at ten P.M., Sunday, and be home Monday, early.”
“I know I could, but why exactly should I?”
“Too busy, are you?”
“Busy listening to the radio. Aren't you?”
“No time for radio. I suppose you didn't see in the papers that we've been having a little trouble up here.”
“Trouble? What kind of trouble?”
“Some children got hold of some poison berries. Deadly nightshade.”
“Wait a minute; I think I did see a short notice, yesterday. âFatal accident,' it said. Were they on a picnic?”
“It wasn't a picnic. We don't know how they got hold of the berries. One of the children was Albert Ormiston's youngest boy; they're up at Harper's Rocks. You know who Ormiston is?”
“Certainly. The black-and-white artist.”
“That's right. The little feller got over it, and he's all right again. Then there was the Bartram girl; Carroll Bartram was her father. Silk people, you know. She didn't get over it. We think perhaps one of the gypsy children had some of the berries, too, but they won't own to it.”
“Don't ask me why or why not, when it's gypsies; they never own to anything. Whatever he had, this little gypsy's getting along all right, too; he'll be as well as ever, pretty soon, they tell me. The little Beasley girlâfarm people, the Beasleys areâshe certainly had some of the berries; dropped some of 'em. We haven't found her. We think she must have wandered off and got in the marsh.”
“Good heavens, Mitchell!”
“Her cat's gone, too.”
“Tortoise-shell cat, used to follow her around.”
“Queer story. And I hate that
“You hate what?”
“The gypsy angle. There's something so exploded and fake-romantic about gypsies.”
“Nothing romantic about our gypsies, Mr. Gamadge.”
“What in the world has been going on up there? I didn't even know the stuff grew in this part of the world.”
“It does, though. Half the community is out grubbing up what they can find of it, which isn't much, and the other half is about ready to start pestering the gypsies. We have the makings of a panic on our hands.”
“Why are they putting it on the gypsies?”
“I'll tell you when you come up. I don't honestly know if they had a thing to do with it. Sheriff sends his regards, and hopes you'll see your way to making the trip.”
“I can't recommend the Pegram Houseâthat's where I'm staying; but there's a very good inn between Ford's Center and Oakport, on the main route. It keeps open late for the hunters. I could get you a room there.”
“Do you mean Burnsides?”
“Yes. Food's good.”
“Of course I know Burnsides. What I want to know is, why do you suggest my coming up?”
“We can't make out how those berries got around.”
“But you people have the facts, and you know the circumstances. What good should I be to you?”
“We thought you might catch something we missed. You could talk to the familiesâ”
“No, thanks! The last time I talked to the families, you know what happened. I haven't got over it yet.”
“This is different. Besides, it would be a personal favor to me; I'm shorthanded.”
“You remember that state trooper, young Trainor?”
“Very well. Nice young fellow.”
“He had to go and take a skid on his motorcycle that night, and get himself killed.”
“Tuesdayâthe night it all happened.”
Gamadge was silent for a moment or two. Then he said: “That's too bad.”
“A good many people think so. He was a popular young feller.”
The orange cat, trotting along the hall on some urgent private affair, stopped to rub himself against Gamadge's legs. Gamadge looked down at him thoughtfully.
“One of your race seems to be missing, old man,” he said. “Shall I go up there and try to find out what's happened to her? It
a her, I'm told, if it's a tortoise-shell.”
The orange cat wound silently in and out between Gamadge's feet. Mitchell asked, uneasily: “Who're you consulting, there?”
“My familiar. He doesn't seem to advise my taking the trip. Not a mew out of him.”
“That cat, eh? Well, you tell him this case is chock-full of cats; seven of 'em, so far. You tell himâ”
“What about it, Martin?” asked Gamadge.
The cat suddenly reared up and clawed Gamadge's trousers, mewing sharply. Gamadge gently shook him off, and spoke into the mouthpiece with crisp decision:
“He's changed his mind. I'll take the ten o'clock.”
“You will?” Mitchell was jubilant. “Then I'd better not keep you another minute. You probably want to do some hustling.”
“Wait a second. I'd like to knowâ”
“Tell you when I see you. Good-bye till tomorrow morning, seven thirty.”
Mitchell hung up. Gamadge replaced the receiver on its hook, frowning; thought for a minute, and then went back to the library. Theodore was clearing the round mahogany table, Martin at his heels; he had laid the autograph which Gamadge had been studying on a bookstand. Gamadge picked it up by the corners.
“Where's Harold?” he asked.
“Harold's in the kitchen, Mr. Gamadge, sir, cookin' up some mess, looks like glue. He say the labatory stove gone back on him. Athalie say he crowdin' her. Mr. Gamadge, this cat had his supper, five o'clock; you spoilin' him with all these snacks. He won't give us no peace now till he gets some cheese.”
“Ask Harold to come here, will you? And pack me a bag for the weekend; I have to go up to Maine. No evening clothes. Tweeds, and a sweater, and a raincoat. No golf things. Put in a bottle of Scotch; they have local option there, now, and you never know where it's going to strike. Did you save the evening paper?”
Theodore produced it, and Gamadge found a short paragraph on an inner page. “Nightshade Poisonings in Maine,” he read. “Community, Panic-Stricken, Seeks Plants.” The rest of the item mentioned the Ormistons, the Bartrams and the Beasleys, but said nothing about the little gypsy; explained that the Ormiston boy had recovered; and devoted a few lines to a short biographical sketch of Mr. Albert Ormiston.
A short, pale young man with a morose expression came into the room. He wore white duck trousers, a black shirt, black-and-white shoes, and a red tie; and his dark hair gleamed oilily. There was a legend current among Gamadge's friends that he had been found, and dragged in, by the cat Martin; as a matter of fact he had appeared at the area gate one morning, two years before, asking for a job. Theodore, who happened to be suffering from an attack of rheumatism, and who had been disappointed by the cleaning man, engaged him. At noon he was given a meal, after which he fell asleep, exhausted. Gamadge wandered into the kitchen soon after he awoke refreshed, looked him over, and proposed another less physically strenuous job for him; and the end of the day saw him installed in a hall bedroom on the top floor.
Gamadge and Theodore (with some assistance from Athalie the cook) had kept him moderately busy ever since. He had begun by offering the dim explanation that he was “off a boat”, and had at the same time given his name (Harold Bantz), and his age (seventeen). Gamadge judged from his manner of speech that he had been bred in greater New York, butâalways incurious except in the way of businessâhad asked no questions. He had developed into a promising if taciturn assistant, who attended the courses of instruction marked out for him, and paid for, by Gamadge, without enthusiasm or complaint; and he had no marked peculiarities besides his lamentable taste in dress, and his aversion from Athalie's magnificent cooking. He preferred to consume the strange foods that he craved from the counters of eating houses and lunch wagons. Gamadge said he had a future in science.
He now pointed to the autograph in Gamadge's fingers, and said gloomily: “The ink's O.K., and the paper's O.K.”
“Well, I want you to write to the client and tell him so. Tell him the thing's undoubtedly authentic, but I never saw another, and I can't prove anything without comparison. Tell him inquiries will run into money, more money than this will ever be worth, even duly authenticated.” Gamadge handed it over, and went on: “Have you seen anything in the papers about some nightshade poisonings in Maine?”