Authors: Ellery Queen
The New Adventures of Ellery Queen
The Lamp of God
A Short Novel
If a story began: “Once upon a time in a house cowering in wilderness there lived an old and eremitical creature named Mayhew, a crazy man who had buried two wives and lived a life of death; and this house was known as âThe Black House'”âif a story began in this fashion, it would strike no one as especially remarkable. There are people like that who live in houses like that, and very often mysteries materialize like ectoplasm about their wild-eyed heads.
Now however disorderly Mr. Ellery Queen may be by habit, mentally he is an orderly person. His neckties and shoes may be strewn about his bedroom helter-skelter, but inside his skull hums a perfectly oiled machine, functioning as neatly and inexorably as the planetary system. So if there was a mystery about one Sylvester Mayhew, deceased, and his buried wives and gloomy dwelling, you may be sure the Queen brain would seize upon it and worry it and pick it apart and get it all laid out in neat and shiny rows. Rationality, that was it. No esoteric mumbo-jumbo could fool
fellow. Lord, no! His two feet were planted solidly on God's good earth, and one and one made twoâalwaysâand that's all there was to that.
Of course, Macbeth had said that stones have been known to move and trees to speak; but, pshaw! for these literary fancies. In this day and age, with its Cominforms, its wars of peace and its rocketry experiments? Nonsense! The truth is, Mr. Queen would have said, there is something about the harsh, cruel world we live in that's very rough on miracles. Miracles just don't happen any more, unless they are miracles of stupidity or miracles of national avarice. Everyone with a grain of intelligence knows that.
“Oh, yes,” Mr. Queen would have said; “there are yogis, voodoos, fakirs, shamans, and other tricksters from the effete East and primitive Africa, but nobody pays any attention to such pitiful monkeyshinesâI mean, nobody with sense. This is a reasonable world and everything that happens in it must have a reasonable explanation.”
You couldn't expect a sane person to believe, for example, that a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood, veritable human being could suddenly stoop, grab his shoelaces, and fly away. Or that a water-buffalo could change into a golden-haired little boy before your eyes. Or that a man dead one hundred and thirty-seven years could push aside his tombstone, step out of his grave, yawn, and then sing three verses of
Mademoiselle from ArmentiÃ¨res
. Or even, for that matter, that a stone could move or a tree speakâyea, though it were in the language of Atlantis or Mu.
The tale of Sylvester Mayhew's house is a strange tale. When what happened happened, proper minds tottered on their foundations and porcelain beliefs threatened to shiver into shards. Before the whole fantastic and incomprehensible business was done, God Himself came into it. Yes, God came into the story of Sylvester Mayhew's house, and that is what makes it quite the most remarkable adventure in which Mr. Ellery Queen, that lean and indefatigable agnostic, has ever become involved.
The early mysteries in the Mayhew case were trivialâmysteries merely because certain pertinent facts were lacking; pleasantly provocative mysteries, but scarcely savorous of the supernatural.
Ellery was sprawled on the hearthrug before the hissing fire that raw January morning, debating with himself whether it was more desirable to brave the slippery streets and biting wind on a trip to Centre Street in quest of amusement, or to remain where he was in idleness but comfort, when the telephone rang.
It was Thorne on the wire. Ellery, who never thought of Thorne without perforce visualizing a human monolithâa long-limbed, gray-thatched male figure with marbled cheeks and agate eyes, the whole man coated with a veneer of ebony, was rather startled. Thorne was excited; every crack and blur in his voice spoke eloquently of emotion. It was the first time, to Ellery's recollection, that Thorne had betrayed the least evidence of human feeling.
“What's the matter?” Ellery demanded. “Nothing's wrong with Ann, I hope?” Ann was Thorne's wife.
“No, no.” Thorne spoke hoarsely and rapidly, as if he had been running.
“Where the deuce have you been? I saw Ann only yesterday and she said she hadn't heard from you for almost a week. Of course, your wife's used to your preoccupation with those interminable legal affairs, but an absence of six daysâ”
“Listen to me, Queen, and don't hold me up. I must have your help. Can you meet me at Pier 54 in half an hour? That's North River.”
Thorne mumbled something that sounded absurdly like: “Thank God!” and hurried on: “Pack a bag. For a couple of days. And a revolver. Especially a revolver, Queen.”
“I see,” said Ellery, not seeing at all.
“I'm meeting the Cunarder
. Docking this morning. I'm with a man by the name of Reinach, Dr. Reinach. You're my colleague; get that? Act stern and omnipotent. Don't be friendly. Don't ask himâor meâquestions. And don't allow yourself to be pumped. Understood?”
“Understood,” said Ellery, “but not exactly clear. Anything else?”
“Call Ann for me. Give her my love and tell her I shan't be home for days yet, but that you're with me and that I'm all right. And ask her to telephone my office and explain matters to Crawford.”
“Do you mean to say that not even your partner knows what you've been doing?”
But Thorne had hung up.
Ellery replaced the receiver, frowning. It was stranger than strange. Thorne had always been a solid citizen, a successful attorney who led an impeccable private life and whose legal practice was dry and unexciting. To find old Thorne entangled in a web of mystery â¦
Ellery drew a happy breath, telephoned Mrs. Thorne, tried to sound reassuring, yelled for Djuna, hurled some clothes into a bag, loaded his .38 police revolver with a grimace, scribbled a note for Inspector Queen, dashed downstairs and jumped into the cab Djuna had summoned, and landed on Pier 54 with thirty seconds to spare.
There was something terribly wrong with Thorne, Ellery saw at once, even before he turned his attention to the vast fat man by the lawyer's side. Thorne was shrunken within his Scotch-plaid greatcoat like a pupa which had died prematurely in its cocoon. He had aged years in the few weeks since Ellery had last seen him. His ordinarily sleek cobalt cheeks were covered with a straggly stubble. Even his clothing looked tired and uncared-for. And there was a glitter of furtive relief in his bloodshot eyes as he pressed Ellery's hand that was, to one who knew Thorne's self-sufficiency and aplomb, almost pathetic.
But he merely remarked: “Oh, hello, there, Queen. We've a longer wait than we anticipated, I'm afraid. Want you to shake hands with Dr. Herbert Reinach. Doctor, this is Ellery Queen.”
“'D'you do,” said Ellery curtly, touching the man's immense gloved hand. If he was to be omnipotent, he thought, he might as well be rude, too.
“Surprise, Mr. Thorne?” said Dr. Reinach in the deepest voice Ellery had ever heard; it rumbled up from the caverns of his chest like the echo of thunder. His little purplish eyes were very, very cold.
“A pleasant one, I hope,” said Thorne.
Ellery snatched a glance at his friend's face as he cupped his hands about a cigarette, and he read approval there. If he had struck the right tone, he knew how to act thenceforth. He flipped the match away and turned abruptly to Thorne. Dr. Reinach was studying him in a half-puzzled, half-amused way.
“Held up in quarantine,” said Thorne. “Somebody's seriously ill aboard with some disease or other and there's been difficulty in clearing her passengers. It will take hours, I understand. Suppose we settle down in the waiting room for a bit.”
They found places in the crowded room, and Ellery set his bag between his feet and disposed himself so that he was in a position to catch every expression on his companions' faces. There was something in Thorne's repressed excitement, an even more piquing aura enveloping the fat doctor, that violently whipped his curiosity.
“Alice,” said Thorne in a casual tone, as if Ellery knew who Alice was, “is probably becoming impatient. But that's a family trait with the Mayhews, from the little I saw of old Sylvester. Eh, Doctor? It's trying, though, to come all the way from England only to be held up on the threshold.”
So they were to meet an Alice Mayhew, thought Ellery, arriving from England on the
. Good old Thorne! He almost chuckled aloud. “Sylvester” was obviously a senior Mayhew, some relative of Alice's.
Dr. Reinach fixed his little eyes on Ellery's bag and rumbled politely: “Are you going away somewhere, Mr. Queen?”
Then Reinach did not know Ellery was to accompany themâwherever they were bound for.
Thorne stirred in the depths of his greatcoat, rustling like a sack of desiccated bones. “Queen's coming back with me, Dr. Reinach.” There was something brittle and hostile in his voice.
The fat man blinked, his eyes buried beneath half-moons of damp flesh. “Really?” he said, and by contrast his bass voice was tender.
“Perhaps I should have explained,” said Thorne abruptly. “Queen is a colleague of mine, Doctor. This case has interested him.”
“Case?” said the fat man.
“Legally speaking. I really hadn't the heart to deny him the pleasure of helping meâahâprotect Alice Mayhew's interests. I trust you won't mind?”
This was a deadly game, Ellery became certain. Something important was at stake, and Thorne in his stubborn way was determined to defend it by force or guile.
Reinach's puffy lids dropped over his eyes as he folded his paws on his stomach. “Naturally, naturally not,” he said in a hearty tone. “Only too happy to have you, Mr. Queen. A little unexpected, perhaps, but delightful surprises are as essential to life as to poetry. Eh?” And he chuckled.
Samuel Johnson, thought Ellery, recognizing the source of the doctor's remark. The physical analogy struck him. There was iron beneath those layers of fat and a good brain under that dolichocephalic skull. The man sat there on the waiting-room bench like an octopus, lazy and inert and peculiarly indifferent to his surroundings. Indifferenceâthat was it, thought Ellery! The man was a colossal remoteness, as vague and darkling as a storm cloud on an empty horizon.