I was racing down to the Eastern Shore of Maryland at breakneck speed to help my friend, Charles Jameson.
We were college buddies--Johns Hopkins, Class of '23--but I hadn't seen much of him in the fourteen intervening years. I knew he had become a professor of classics at the University of Maryland at College Park--the author of any number of immensely learned notes on textual problems in Juvenal and the like--but there was something about him that always disturbed me.
In short, Jameson was what one would call a "sad sack." He cultivated pessimism and a kind of brooding misanthropy as if it were a badge of honor. Being around him actually made you more cheerful--the "there but for the grace of God go I" idea. Many of his college friends felt he was just putting on an act, or that he had read too much of Swift and Byron and found it amusing to dwell on the futility of all effort, the kind of thing that Schopenhauer had summed up in the plangent utterance, "Human life must be some kind of mistake."
But I sensed that there was something more in Charles's low spirits than a callow reflection of fashionable philosophers. He had hinted of things in his past, or his family's past, that had permanently colored his perception of himself and of the world around him. No one could keep up a mere pretense of depression so faithfully or unremittingly.
And now he was in trouble. In short, he was in jail on a suspicion of murder.
It was not surprising to me that the case involved his family. The wild story he blurted out on the 'phone while locked up in the Chestertown police station was little short of fantastic--something to do with a bizarre contest or riddle that had to be solved at his ancestral home, Sarsfield Manor, well outside that centuried town. His incoherence was enough to persuade me that something serious was afoot, for Charles was ordinarily as cynically phlegmatic as the Sphinx.
The short version of the story was that he had gathered at Sarsfield Manor with a number of his other relatives; that his aunt Judith had been killed; and that he was found with his hand gripping an antique dagger that had been buried in her back.
It did not look good for him. His vehement denial of guilt seemed heartfelt, but I was not about to let an old friendship impel me to pervert justice, if he were indeed the culprit. But the case, from what little I knew so far, presented so many oddities that I felt obliged to pursue it. Where it would lead, I had no idea.
As I entered Maryland from the north, crossing from New Jersey to Pennsylvania north of Philadelphia, I had to resist the unconscious tendency to continue down to Baltimore, where I had spent several of the most rewarding and stimulating years of my life. I myself was not a little callow in those years as a wide-eyed student of philosophy, and couldn't then have imagined that my future career lay as a hardened private investigator. I wanted to look up Henry Mencken, holding forth as he had done for decades from his house on Hollins Street, but suspected that our political differences would dynamite any attempt at cordiality. I was a supporter of FDR, he an increasingly cantankerous opponent, writing screed after screed in an American Mercury that was already in the process of declining from an iconoclastic nose-thumber of the booboisie to a haven of cranky right-wingers.
We would, however, have seen eye-to-eye on one matter. Mencken had bravely spoken out against a lynching that had occurred on the Eastern Shore six years before, something that shocked him and other Marylanders who felt that, in spite of their residence below the Mason-Dixon line, the vicious paranoia of Southern white trash was inconceivable in their blandly wholesome state. It had happened in Salisbury, and some of the details were chillingly gruesome--such as the fact that someone had cut off several toes of the wretched Negro and taken them away as souvenirs.
It was hard to imagine incidents of that sort occurring as I skirted the northern shore of the Chesapeake and headed down to Chestertown, an exquisite colonial village on the north bank of the Chester River and home to the venerable Washington College. It was as if a little corner of England had been uprooted and planted in the New World, where it blended with smiling farms and pleasant country roads to create a flawless picture of civilized placidity. As I entered the town I saw in the distance the imposing brick facade of Sarsfield Manor, which similarly boasted a history stretching to pre-Revolutionary days and was a testament to the wealth and taste of its builders, the four brothers Sarsfield.
During our college days Charles Jameson had once taken me to the village of Chestertown, but had perversely refused to show me the manor or lead me anywhere near it. I had taken offense, suggesting gruffly that there was no need for his pseudo-aristocratic family to look down their noses on a commoner; he had apologized profusely, stating that a certain adolescent trauma had made him regard the place as a kind of nexus of spiritual evil. How that baleful characterization could have harmonized with the stolid Georgian brick of Sarsfield Manor puzzled me at the time; in the years since then, I have learned not to judge books, houses, or people by their covers.
The Chestertown jail was not difficult to find, and the rotund police chief, Frank Powers, was not inclined to make a fuss about my seeing Jameson, even though I had no legal standing to do so. Of course, Charles had hired a lawyer, but, as he presently told me, it was painfully evident that that veteran jurist was inclined to think the worst of his client and to do little but hope to save Charles's hide in the manner of Clarence Darrow's prestidigitation in the Leopold and Loeb case thirteen years before. It was for this reason, indeed, that Charles had frantically called me: the case presented such a number of anomalies that only a seasoned private investigator could, in his perhaps excessively optimistic judgment, plunge to the bottom of it.
I greeted Charles warily. He was sitting disconsolately in his cell, hardly aware that the police chief had allowed me entrance into the cell block. When I called out to him, he jumped up in alarm--almost in horror--before relaxing in relief. Through the bars he extended a hand, looking at me with a kind of harried desperation, as if I were some kind of personal savior.
"Joe . . . God, I can't tell you how glad I am to see you!"
As I shook his hand, I couldn't help thinking that this was presumably the same hand that had gripped a dagger that had killed his aunt.
He noticed my hesitation and dubiety, and after a brief shake withdrew the hand as if it were polluted. For a time we stared at each other without uttering. Then:
"Joe, I'm in a bit of a jam . . . ."
"I can see that," I said, trying to drain my voice of any suspicion of sarcasm.
"You have to believe I didn't do it," he said breathlessly, peering into my eyes as beads of sweat appeared on his brow. "I know what they say . . . I know my cousin saw me holding that weapon in Judith's back . . . but that was afterwards!" I didn't understand what that meant. "She was lying there dead, and I was only trying to help. . . . What possible reason could I have for killing her?--I hardly even knew her! They'll tell you it was because I wanted the money--the money from John Kenneth Sarsfield's will--that Judith had solved the riddle and that I was trying to shut her up . . . but it's all--"
I interrupted him sharply: "Charles, slow down. I can't follow you. You need to tell me the story from the beginning. What brought you and others of your family to Sarsfield Manor? I know you hated the place. Who is John Kenneth Sarsfield, and what's the business about his will? What's the riddle you were trying to solve?"
Charles looked at me with an unutterable weariness that almost sent him to the floor of his cheerless cell. Passing a hand over his face, both to rub away the sweat and, it seemed, to brace himself for the long account he knew he would have to tell, he sat down heavily on his narrow bed and urged me to seat myself in a chair nearby.
For a time he did nothing but stare into his hands. At last he began his tale. And this is what he said...