Miss Vesper Holly has uncommon strength of character and a weakness for well-stocked libraries. She is fond of chamber music and a devotee of the opera, but ambivalent on the subject of houseplants. She is also customarily punctual, so the reader may appreciate my surprise when she failed to join me at the hour she had promised to appear.
I was first inclined to fault my timepiece, although the watch, a creation of esteemed Philadelphia watchmaker John Menzies, had never before been unreliable. But a thorough examination of the casing and works, followed by checking its hour against that displayed by the clocks in the sitting room, corridor and main lobby of our hotel, forced me to conclude that Mr. Menzies and his craftsmanship were not to blame.
Vesper was late.
“I shouldn’t worry yourself, dear Brinnie,” soothed my wife, when I burst in upon her to announce the dreadful news. “The child has obviously found some diversion that kept her later than planned. She will join you soon enough, you’ll see.”
My dear wife Mary’s gentle nature makes her inclined to believe the best of everyone, and gives her little appreciation of the dangers inherent to travelling. Why, in the span of just two years my journeys with Vesper had carried us into the middle of rebellions, political intrigue and, on one memorable occasion, the eruption of a volcano. We had even suffered a dastardly attempt on our lives by means of exploding sausages.
Mary had been with us on that last adventure, but when I tried to gently remind her of the event, she dismissed it with a brisk wave of her hand.
“You can’t look for brigands around every corner, Brinnie. It’s true that perhaps she has enjoyed more excitement than is usual for a girl of her age, but we are not in some foreign nation with dubious rules of law and morality. We are safely housed in a most respectable hotel in our very own Philadelphia, and as soon as that unfortunate business with the drains is settled we will be home once more. In the meantime, do try to relax. Vesper is not enmeshed in political intrigue, she was invited to a musicale. What harm could she possibly suffer at such an innocent event?”
I vividly recalled the last musicale I had attended. I had been in the company of Vesper’s late father and my dear friend, Dr. Benjamin Rittenhouse Holly. The event had been hosted at the embassy of San Theodoros, an obscure Latin American nation on the brink of revolution.
In San Theodoros they have a grand tradition of revolution, which they revive as often as they perceive a need. While this must keep up the fighting blood of the locals it has a frankly disastrous effect on international politics, and was the reason why the musicale, rather than following the intended program, dissolved into a feverish shouting match between the ambassadors of three different nations and ended shortly thereafter in fisticuffs.
Holly, never one to shy away from a fight, immediately plunged into the fray and obliged me to wade in after him. I’d meant only to pull him from the skirmish but a French diplomat decided I was a threat and undertook to strike me on the nose. I reacted badly, and I’m afraid in the end it was Holly who pulled me out of the fight, got us both into a cab and spent the ride home praising my part in the event, much to my embarrassment.
“What harm indeed,” I said faintly. When Mary asked why I’d suddenly gone pale, I assured her, with imperfect accuracy but absolute desire to spare her worry, that it was a passing memory only, and nothing relevant to the matter at hand.
“In any event you must stop fretting quite so much,” Mary decided. “Vesper is more than capable of getting herself to a small social occasion and back again. Really, Brinnie, there is something of the mother hen about you.”
I did not take umbrage at this remark, being too closely occupied with remembering every event Vesper, and Vesper’s father before her, had been unable to reach and return from without complication. Between them they had caused me to attend upwards of thirty social functions at which no reasonable person would have expected to encounter anarchists, assassins, brigands or—as had been the case at one particularly memorable garden party—spider monkeys.
I did not dare imagine what disruptions they could have effected had they ever acted in concert.
“Dear angel,” I said to Mary, “I do not wish to alarm you unduly, but I think it would be best if we summoned the police. This may be our own Philadelphia, but even Philadelphia is not immune to the whims of insurrectionists and other political dissidents. If I may rely upon Vesper to do anything even more consistently than she keeps her appointments, it is to become enmeshed in whatever local rebellion is brewing.”
“Really, Brinnie!” Mary did not bother to conceal her shock or disapproval. “The way you speak of her, sometimes. Of course if you are genuinely concerned you must get in touch with law enforcement, but I really feel you are acting out of proportion to the situation.”
I disagreed. My disagreement carried me down to the lobby, where I drafted a most emphatic missive addressed to the officer in charge of the nearest station house. In it I asked that every available service of the police department be laid at my disposal in the retrieval of my ward, who had, I explained, left to attend a musicale, but may by now have gone chasing after brigands bound for who knew what quarter.
With Vesper, this was not so much flight of fancy as it was a pressing and legitimate concern.
I put this letter in the hand of a bright-looking boy loitering on the steps of the hotel and promised him a handsome fee if he returned within the hour in company of the police. This errand accomplished, I returned to the room to inform Mary of my intent to venture out and look for Vesper myself. Mary, I thought, could wait at the hotel to receive the constabulary and direct their search appropriately. To my great surprise when I opened the door to our room I found Vesper seated across from Mary, the pair engaged in cheery conversation.
“Dear girl!” I cried. “You are safe!”
“Yes, I’m—all right, Brinnie, thank you for the hug, it’s good to see you, too. Yes I’m safe, but you look all done in.”
I sank onto the sofa beside Mary, and confessed that Vesper’s late return had awoken in me a measure of concern.
“I’m sorry about that,” said Vesper. “I don’t like to be late. I’d probably have made it back on time, only it was a busier afternoon than I expected.”
Had the musicale, Mary wondered, been overattended?
“I couldn’t say for sure,” said Vesper, “because less than two bars into the first piece, somebody up in the gallery took a shot at a local politician. Broke the whole party up in less than a minute.”
Assassination attempts, I pointed out, tended to have a dampening effect on most festivities.
“I suppose that’s so,” Vesper allowed. “In any event, I was just heading up to the stage to see if the musicians were all right when three fellows in black came running down the back stairs. One of them had a little pistol in his hand. I figured he must have fired the shot. He's the one who grabbed the harpist.”
“The harpist?” echoed Mary.
“The fiends!” I cried. “Did they succeed in spiriting the harpist away?”
“They might have done,” said Vesper, “only there was a fern in a big brass pot by my elbow. I heaved that at the fellow who had hold of her, and caught him just over the ear. He went down like a pin. Before his friends figured out what had happened, I got her out the side door and down the alley.”
Vesper’s quick thinking, I remarked, had certainly prevented an already sinister event from ending in even greater tragedy. The harpist quite possibly owed her virtue and perhaps even her life to Vesper.
“I can see why you’d think so,” said Vesper. “But when we reached the street, she started trying to pull free and go back inside. When I asked her why, she said that had been her brother back there, trying to get her away.”
You may imagine the effect this revelation had on Mary and myself. I marveled at the bizarre family dynamic which would encourage a brother in the apparent abduction of his own sister, and hazarded the guess that perhaps theirs had been an unhappy homelife, which unfortunate beginning had warped the young man’s understanding of the appropriate means of interacting with his sibling.
“Not exactly,” said Vesper. “I mean, I gather it’s been a pretty unhappy home lately, but not the way you think. I guess there was a lot of money, and when their parents died it all went to Eleanor and Bernard in trust. Their uncle was appointed as guardian. He sent Bernard away to college but kept Eleanor at home.”
This double tragedy, I suggested, the loss of his parents and, in effect, the loss of his sister, had conspired to unbalance the mind of the luckless Bernard. What a sorry comedown for a young man of learning and promise, to be so tragically deranged by grief. No doubt his mental state was responsible for his unusual behavior, the efforts to wrest his sister away from her triumphant performance.
“No,” said Vesper, “it’s not like that, either. Bernard had a nice time at college, made all sorts of friends and wrote letters home to tell Ellie about everything. But he noticed some of her letters coming back to him were a little odd. Some of the phrasing didn’t read like he’d expect, and he got worried. He wrote to ask her outright if anything was wrong, and that’s when the letters stopped coming.
“Bernard decided she must be in some awful trouble, so he went back over all the letters she’d sent before, trying to see if he could work out what might be wrong. That’s how he tumbled to the code.”
“Code?” I repeated.
“Yes, she’d come up with a system. Every time she mentioned a mutual friend, the next few words were part of the sequence. He soon got the main idea: their uncle was siphoning off the family fortune. Ellie thought she and Bernard weren’t too safe because of course eventually this would come out in the open, unless something awful were to happen to them before they came of age and their uncle could inherit.”
“The cad!” I gasped. “To abuse his position of trust and exploit the innocence of these children is unconscionable!”
“Yes, Bernard had about the same reaction,” Vesper agreed. “He sent a letter back using Ellie’s code. At first glance he was just saying sorry if he’d upset her, but really he was telling her the day and hour he’d set to stage a rescue. That was today, when she was meant to perform at the musicale.”
“I must say I find it great testament to Eleanor’s powers of narration,” Mary remarked, “that she was able to communicate so much information to you all while struggling to return to the stage to help her fallen brother.”
“Oh, she didn’t tell me then,” said Vesper. “All this came out after I went back in with her to get Bernard. His friends, if you can call them that, spooked and left him there. He was alone when we found him, still out cold. Ellie propped him up at the front door while I hailed a cab. We got him bundled inside just before the police showed up.”
“Dear girl,” I said, “you have doubtless done a noble thing in aiding this luckless pair, but nevertheless, think of the risk you took! As far as the police knew, Bernard was the man who had attempted the life of the politician.”
“As far as they know, he still is,” Vesper corrected. “We really need to get that whole mess straightened out, but I thought the most important thing was to get them somewhere safe.”
I agreed that the police station was perhaps not the wisest choice, given Bernard’s apparent role in the attempt on the life of a Philadelphia public servant. Still, perhaps the local YMCA or a discreet hotel tucked off the main road and away from prying eyes could serve as a suitable refuge. Certainly, I concluded, these two orphans could not be cast adrift to fend for themselves.
“Of course not,” said Vesper. “That’s why I brought them here.”
Bernard and Eleanor Miller were a charming young pair, dark-haired and bright-eyed, with rather more self-possession than is customary in persons their age. He was remarkably well put-together for a young man who had just attempted the life of a local politician in order to rescue his sister. But then, I suppose that is the effect of our American institutions of higher learning, to foster a great versatility of ability and social function in our youth.
His sister looked rather more overcome by the situation than he. She wore an afternoon gown suited to a performance at the harp, but ill-suited to fleeing a malevolent guardian. She was also inclined to twist fretfully at the trim of her costume, her gaze darting repeatedly to her brother as if to assure herself that he was still there.
Vesper introduced them with all basic social courtesy, and they responded to the introduction in kind. In any ordinary situation I would have been delighted to make their acquaintance, but given the circumstances the reader will understand why my greeting was somewhat strained. If the Millers noticed anything amiss in my tone, they were too well brought up to remark on it.
“Miss Holly has been very kind,” said Bernard, “for the most part.” And he put his hand up to touch the large goose egg above his ear.
“Sorry about the fern,” said Vesper, “but it really did look bad for you at the time.”
“I understand,” Bernard said graciously. Mary, inspecting his injury, clucked her tongue.
“I’ll see if the maid can bring us something cold to put on that. Perhaps it will reduce the swelling.” She excused herself to perform this errand of mercy, leaving us alone with the Miller siblings.
“I’ve already told Brinnie about your uncle,” Vesper assured them. “Don’t worry, we won’t let him drag you off. I know he doesn’t look it, but Brinnie’s a tiger.”
Brother and sister both gazed at me with solemn respect, and I grew warm under the dual scrutiny.
“This fugitive business is all very well for now,” I said, “but dear girl, what do you imagine is to be done for them in the long run?”
“There’ll probably have to be lawyers,” said Vesper. “I’ll leave that part to you, Brinnie. You’re better with lawyers than I am.”
This was not false modesty, but established fact.
“Our family lawyer could help,” suggested Eleanor. “He was Mother and Father’s lawyer for years, and they trusted him implicitly.”
“They also trusted your uncle,” said Vesper, “and look how that turned out.”
A shadow crossed Eleanor’s face at the mention of her uncle’s perfidy. Such desolation would have been a moving sight on any face, but on that of one so young, who should have been alive with all the delights her life had to offer, I found it particularly affecting.
“Fear not,” I encouraged her, “he cannot hope to reach you here. You are safe in the bosom of the Stafford-Grant Hotel! As a bastion of respectable hostelry, it is without peer.”
“As a bastion of respectable personhood,” said Bernard, “our uncle may be said to be without peer. At least on the surface. A doorman in brass buttons will offer little deterrent to a man such as he, and I do not imagine the police will give him much pause either. That’s why I shot at him.”
The significance of this statement did not immediately penetrate. Once it had, the reader may imagine my shock.
“The local politician whom Vesper mentioned, the one at whom you shot—you mean to say he is your uncle?”
“Yes,” cried Eleanor, “and he is a dreadful man, utterly corrupt—but then, I suppose it’s to be expected of any successful politician in our city.” She shook her head in worldly regret. “I’ve had the opportunity to overhear many things in the past year. He has any number of connections, awful people who will back him if anything suspicious were to happen to us.” She turned the full force of her distress on her doting brother. “I wish we had done it some other way. This was too great a risk!”
“I could hardly walk up to the front door with hat in hand,” Bernard pointed out. “He’d never have let you leave if I'd asked him nicely.”
“No, but what folly to shoot at him! Now he can say you’ve lost your mind and have you locked away. If that happens we’ll never be free.”
“Nobody’s locking you up,” Vesper said firmly, “and maybe the shooting was a little over the top, but at least it got you both away from him. That’s a start. Now the main thing is to keep you that way.”
“He’ll follow us,” Eleanor predicted. Vesper shrugged.
“Eventually, yes. But surprise is on our side. He didn’t expect you to escape, and it’s unlikely he could have figured out where you went, so we should have at least a few hours—”
How she would have concluded this bracing speech we would never know, for at that moment my dear Mary returned with a cold compress and unwelcome news.
“I am afraid,” she said, “that a Mr. John Andersen has presented himself in the lobby, in company with the Philadelphia police, and is demanding the return of his abducted wards.”
“Hmm,” said Vesper. “That puts a little pressure on.”
At learning the uncle they had only just escaped had tracked them down in a matter of hours, the Millers were, understandably, distressed. Bernard leaped to his feet with the air of one debating between fight or flight, and Eleanor, though she did not move, grew markedly paler and pressed both palms to her mouth. Even I will confess to a measure of alarm, and my dear Mary did not look entirely at ease. Vesper alone seemed unshaken, and crossed to the window to look down at the street.
“That’s an awful lot of policemen,” she reflected. “I wonder how he got them together on such short notice.”
“I think,” said Mary, “they may have come in answer to a different summons.”
Belatedly, the truth of the situation struck me. “My letter!” I cried. “They are here in response to the letter I dispatched when I feared the worst had befallen Vesper.”
“You sent for the police?” Vesper considered this revelation. “Well, that might be helpful. If we can get everybody calmed down long enough to realize you're the person who first sent for them, it might make them less inclined to think of us as a party of assassins. For now though, we’d better barricade that door. I don’t expect they intend on knocking nicely.”
On this point Vesper was unfortunately correct. We had barely got a few small pieces of furniture in place when the door crashed in and knocked our rudimentary barricade to the ground.
“I call that bad manners,” Vesper remarked. Before I could advise against it, she caught up an aspidistra in a large pot by the corner and flung it at the head of the first individual to enter the room.
Fortunately her aim went wild, or else we may have had even more explanations and apologies to make to the Philadelphia police force than were already inevitable. The officer in question stared in shock at the dent the pot had made in the wall to his left, then turned the full force of his reproach on Vesper.
“Now, see here—!” he began. Vesper shook her head.
“I see plenty, thanks. I need you to see here. Is John Andersen here with you?”
“Mr. Andersen?” the officer asked, his suspicion still evident. “Yes, he’s in the corridor. I don’t plan to fetch him in here to have plants thrown at his head, though. He’s come to retrieve his wards, a brother and sister. Mr. Andersen is deeply concerned for their safety; apparently the young man suffers from some deficiency of the mental processes.”
“Bosh,” said Vesper. “The deficiency is on the other side. Mr. Andersen’s trying to get control of their money, and he’s using you to do it.”
“Actually,” said the officer mildly, “I am personally here at the request of a Mr. Brinton Garrett, who claims his ward has also disappeared.”
“That’s all right,” said Vesper. “I’ve reappeared. Haven’t I, Brinnie?”
I had taken up a defensive position near the door, which posture made it difficult to address the officer with my customary civility. Nevertheless, I politely informed him that yes, I had made the summons, and in my relief over Vesper’s return and my concern for the safety of her new friends I had forgotten to cancel my request for police assistance.
“Hm,” said the officer. He cast a doubtful look toward the sofa, where Bernard and Eleanor sat together, the very image of persecuted innocence. My dear Mary hovered over them, her normally gentle countenance resembling that of a lioness with cubs to defend. I could not fault the lawman’s hesitation to discharge what he clearly believed to be his duty, for even I found Mary’s expression unnerving.
“Perhaps,” said the officer, “it would be best to allow Mr. Andersen to present his side of the story. Maybe among us we can reach an agreement as to what is the best solution for all involved.”
“Doubtful,” muttered Vesper, but she made no move to stop the policeman from opening the hotel door and beckoning at people who stood in the corridor beyond. We were shortly joined by three more policemen and a gentleman of middle age, a portly man respectably dressed and in every way the kind of person you might pass on the street without a second glance. I supposed this to be Mr. John Andersen, the persecutor of our guests, and his address of them bore this out.
“Bernard!” he cried. “Dear Eleanor, truly, I am so glad to know you are well.”
The Millers met this display of subterfuge, which anyone might have been pardoned for mistaking as genuine, with silence. His was rather more stone-faced than hers; she was inclined to tremble a little, and who could fault her? The uncertainty of her fate and that of her brother while they were in the custody of this corrupt public official must have strained her to her very limit.
“They’re better now than they were two hours ago,” Vesper put in. “No thanks to you.”
Andersen turned to her with an expression of polite bewilderment.
“My apologies, but I believe you have the advantage of me. I don’t think we have met.”
“We did,” said Vesper, “sort of. I don’t expect you to remember, it was only for a minute, and there was a lot of hubbub in the conservatory even before the shots cleared everyone out.”
“Ah!” said Andersen, with the expression of one who has just placed an elusive name. “Then you were present at the musicale when my poor nephew’s unfortunate malady asserted itself? I am grateful to know you have not suffered for your misadventure, though I deeply regret whatever terror you may have suffered when he abducted you.”
“When I’ve been abducted,” said Vesper, “I’ll let you know.”
“She was not abducted, Uncle,” Bernard put in, looking thunderous. “And now that Eleanor and I are safely beyond your reach, neither are we any longer in danger from you.”
Andersen affected an expression of deep confusion at this speech. He made a gesture of appeal to the policemen, as if he expected they would be able to explain what he did not understand.
“You see?” he said. “The delusions have taken hold of him most aggressively. I worry that he may even have influenced his sister to believe these lies. Of course, a restful period for each of them, safely out of company of each other, will almost certainly restore the balance of their minds.”
“It also sounds just the ticket for shuffling them quietly out of the way while you do as you like with whatever money’s left to their names,” Vesper put in.
Andersen’s surprise appeared more genuine. I do not think he’d expected such a staunch defense from a young woman his wards had met only that day. But then, there are very few who can anticipate Vesper.
After a moment’s rapid, careful consideration, he addressed me. “My nephew, I fear, has also corrupted your young charge. I am sure it is nothing beyond the ability of modern medicine to repair, but a period of quiet rest may first be in order.”
I thought a period of quiet rest sounded sublime, but did not confide as much to Andersen. Vesper, for her part, is seldom partial to prolonged quiet under the best circumstances, and having it recommended to me on her behalf was nothing even close. She did not appreciate his presumption.
“What’s in order,” she said, “is an accounting of your business practices over the past year. The handling of the Millers’ inheritance for a start, but the handling of a few other things as well. I don’t suppose you’ve kicked any business in the general direction of the Gas Trust, have you?”
Andersen gaped openly. It’s true that our great city has lately come under the unfortunate influence of certain corrupt individuals, and the Gas Trust is the centre of their graft machine, but these are usually not the sort of topics broached or even fully understood by young women of Vesper’s age. Vesper, taking little notice of what is usual for girls of her age, did not seem to register his astonishment.
“I don’t think we had better use your family lawyers,” she continued, as if the matter had been all but settled. “I can offer the services of mine, if that will speed things along and keep everyone honest. Kenge and Carboy shouldn’t buck at handling something like this for me, especially if they think helping Bernard and Eleanor gain control of their money might mean a trusteeship for them.”
For all that I am better at handling lawyers, Vesper has a remarkable acuity for how they operate. I ventured to add my support to hers, assuring all present that Kenge and Carboy were a thoroughly reputable firm and could be relied upon to handle this delicate matter with due discretion.
Andersen scoffed at this, and looked around for others to scoff with him. I think it was his greatest shock of the day to realize that nobody did. Indeed, the first policeman who had joined us, the one who’d narrowly missed having his brains knocked out by Vesper’s aspidistra, looked positively intrigued by my proposal.
“Perhaps,” he said thoughtfully, “there’s something in that.”
“You cannot possibly be serious!” Andersen sputtered.
“Can’t I, Mr. Andersen?” asked that stalwart officer of the law. His moustaches quivered with indignation. “Oh can’t I just!”
“But surely,” said Vesper, with an expression strongly reminiscent of her cat Moggie, who presently had the run of the Strafford estate, “if you’ve been honest in your dealings, you won’t have anything to hide.”
“Surely he won’t,” agreed the policeman, pleased to have his direction so clearly laid out. “Very well, I think the most fitting thing to do is notify my captain of this development and escort the lot of you down to the station. There statements may be taken, and this firm of lawyers can be contacted to sort things out.”
The proposition of going to the station was not, perhaps, the quiet afternoon I had hoped for, but I could see under the circumstances it was the best that I could expect. With any luck at all, Kenge and Carboy could have the whole matter settled before the dinner hour. I soothed Mary with the assurance that this was the only way, and of course as law-abiding citizens, we would go along with the police and sort the matter out. Mary agreed, however unhappily, that this was the suitable course of action.
Andersen was not so amenable.
“This is preposterous,” he said stiffly, “and I will not stand for it. My nephew, I understand, may need to be charged for his attempt on my life, though I hope you will account for his unbalanced mental state when hearing whatever wild stories he may tell. However, my niece is a gently-reared young lady, and I will not have her subjected to the sort of riffraff who frequent such establishments. I will take her home with me. When my personal physician deems her fit to withstand the rigors of questioning, you may call on us there. Come along, Eleanor.”
He stepped forward, hand outstretched, to reach for his niece. Bernard at once leaped up and blocked his uncle’s path. The four policemen stirred uneasily.
“You’ll come with us to the station,” said Bernard, “you’ll answer their questions, and you’ll answer for your theft of what our parents left us. If they think of any other questions they want to ask you in the process, I daresay you’ll have to answer those, too.”
Vesper, following this exchange with every appearance of enjoyment, grinned. “Hope you don’t have any little secrets you don’t want coming out.”
I blame myself for not anticipating what happened next. Goodness knows I’ve seen this sort of behavior in dozens of different species, our own included. Andersen looked around for some semblance of support, some hope of acquittal, and, seeing none, perceived himself trapped. So in the manner of the cornered rat, he fought back: the fiend reached into his waistcoat and produced a pistol, which he leveled at Bernard.
The effect this gesture had on the room was as you may expect. The policemen at once fanned out around him, shouting for him to hand the weapon over. Eleanor shrieked and leaped to her feet, attempting to pull her brother from his position in front of it. Bernard, for his part, continued to shield her, and Mary prudently took a small step to the side to ensure she could keep a watch over proceedings without risking her health.
Vesper picked up the aspidistra.
“Eleanor,” said Andersen, in a much different tone, “come along.”
Eleanor, wide eyed, shook her head.
“Eleanor,” Andersen repeated sternly, “your refusal does you no credit. If you insist on cowering back there, I will be forced to shoot your brother and take you along by force. That will hardly be pleasant for any of us.”
Something less fearful and more furious lit Eleanor Miller’s face. I think whatever she was about to say would have been deeply, gratifyingly uncharacteristic of her, had Vesper not picked that moment to fling the aspidistra with all her might at Andersen’s gun hand. It stuck him with a crack, he howled and the pistol went flying. So did Bernard, who caught the pot flush in the midsection and was bowled backward, over the edge of the sofa.
“Right,” said Vesper, “that takes care of him.”
But she misjudged the resolve of a corrupt Philadelphia politician. Deprived though he was of his gun, Andersen made a desperate grab for the last weapon that remained to him: his niece. That was when my own dear Mary took a part, seizing the small spider plant behind the couch, raising it high and bringing it down with a crash over Andersen’s skull.
That did, indeed, take care of him. He toppled to the floor without so much as a whisper, and Eleanor, newly liberated, at once ran into the welcoming embrace of my wife to be soothed.
All this action was a little much for the Philadelphia police force. They continued to shout and bluster with no real purpose in mind that I could see. What finally got them settled in the end was Vesper’s judicious application of funds from her purse, and the promise that we would present ourselves at the station to give as many statements as they liked at some later time.
John Andersen, Vesper added, they could take with them.
After the departure of Philadelphia’s finest, and Andersen, the reader may think we had retired to our quarters and recuperated from the excitements of the day. Indeed, this would have been my suggestion, and I was about to voice it when we finally noticed what, in the commotion, we had failed to observe: Bernard’s violent encounter with the aspidistra had knocked him into a hurricane lamp on a side table. The fire and oil within had combined to do what those forces do best, when left to their own devices.
“Brinnie,” said Vesper, “the room is on fire.”
At once we seized whatever dampening object was closest and undertook to beat the fire out, but our frantic efforts to extinguish the flames availed us nothing. We had been too long oblivious of their presence, and by the time we endeavored to stem their progress, we were outmatched.
“It’s no use,” I cried, “we must rouse the management and the guests, and leave this place at once. Who would have dreamed that such destruction could be wrought by one aspidistra?”
“Yes, I'm starting to think houseplants don’t get half the credit they deserve.” Vesper hefted the abused aspidistra and settled it on her hip. “Well, come on everyone. No sense standing here while the place burns down around us.”
And we agreed there was not.
The remnant of our time in the building is scarcely worth remarking on, lasting as it did no more than the few minutes it took to rouse the hotel and head for the nearest exit. On the walkway across the street we gathered with the other luckless guests to witness the tragic immolation of the Stafford-Grant hotel. Even the combined auspices of the Philadelphia fire brigade were unequal to the task of saving the building, and those noble workers had to content themselves with knowing they had at least saved neighboring buildings from meeting a similar fate.
After the worst of the blaze had been brought under control, Bernard and Eleanor made their excuses, thanking us most effusively and affectingly for the assistance we had rendered. They promised to travel directly to the offices of Kenge and Carboy and mention Vesper’s name, as instructed.
“They’ll fix you up,” Vesper promised. “Call me if they don’t.”
After another round of farewells, Bernard and Eleanor departed, leaving Vesper, Mary, the aspidistra and myself standing on the walkway in front of the smoldering shell of the once-great Stafford-Grant Hotel.
“Whatever will we do now?” Mary wondered. “I am certainly grateful to have escaped unharmed, but we must face the fact that we’ve no place to go.”
The answer, I decided, was to book rooms in another hotel, where we would retreat to recover from the stresses of our day and await the reparation of the drains at Vesper’s Strafford mansion.
“Or,” said Vesper, “we could go abroad.”
“Abroad?” I cried. “Dear girl, we have just thwarted the scheming of an unscrupulous guardian, gifted two orphans with an enviably happy resolution to their plight, and bribed four officers of the Philadelphia police force in the discharge of their duty! I do not think any of us are equal to the task of travel at this time.”
“I didn’t mean anything strenuous,” Vesper assured me. “Just a nice little trip on a boat and a quiet stay in a place with an agreeable climate.”
“That sounds most relaxing, I must say,” Mary remarked. “Don’t you think, Brinnie?”
I said, cautiously, that certainly a quiet sea journey and a measure of retirement in a peaceful location sounded restful, especially after such a day as we had shared. Still, Vesper’s idea of a restful time and mine have been known to diverge in the past, and so I thought it prudent to ask:
“Where exactly did you think we should go?”
“Oh, anywhere,” Vesper shrugged. “I mean, we needn’t even go all that far. Cape May is nice this time of year, or there’s Nantucket, too.”
I felt immeasurably relieved at the naming of these respectable resort communities, and went so far as to say I thought the plan had a great deal to recommend it.
“Or,” said Vesper, her tone thoughtful, “there’s one little place Father was always on about. I have a kind of hankering to see it for myself.”
Still buoyed by the respectability of her previous suggestions, I assured her that any locale in the vein of those she had already mentioned would suit us admirably. If she so desired, I could begin to make arrangements that very afternoon. What place was it she had in mind?
“A little country in Latin America,” said Vesper. “Pretty, in its way. You might know it Brinnie, I think you and Father were at the embassy one time. It’s called San Theodoros.”
“Something wrong, Brinnie? You’ve gone white as a sheet.”
It was, I said, nothing that need trouble her. But perhaps, I added, all things considered, a sea voyage at this time was unwise, and we might be better suited to the quieter, closer environs of Cape May.
“Perhaps,” said Vesper. Her tone was markedly non-committal. “Anyway, we’ll see.”
It was not the promise I had hoped for, but it would have to do.