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THE CHINESE JAR MYSTERY

 

by John Stephen Strange

 

CHAPTER I

 

BEHIND the black hawthorn jar stood a tradition of death. Before it came into the possession of the Gaunts, before the “curse of the Gaunts” had ever been heard of, the shadow of death had fallen across the jar. Thousands of sea miles away, on the other side of the globe, Chinese superstition had filled it, under the red wax seal, with the uneasy ghosts of the dead.

It stood on the ornate white marble mantel in the library of the old Gaunt house in Stone Haven. It had stood there since 1855 when the first Waterman Gaunt had retired from the sea and built the house. He had brought the black hawthorn with him from China, where, as captain of the Seabird, he had, during the hazardous ’forties, made a fortune in the opium trade.

It was a beautiful example of a porcelain now very rare and valuable, thirty inches high with a black ground on which was traced a delicate pattern of white hawthorn blossoms and pale green leaves. The mouth of the jar was closed with a flat porcelain stopper sealed with red wax. The wax had run down the sides in places, so that it looked a little as though the jar was sealed with clotted blood. The suggestion was not inappropriate.

It stood in its place of honour between the crystal candelabra for nearly eighty years, dusted by generations of suitably awe-stricken parlourmaids and cherished by generations of half-credulous, half-derisive Gaunts, until that horrible night in August when Susan Gaunt, in a passion of hysterical tears, dashed it from its pedestal to shatter in a thousand fragments on the hearth.

Afterwards, when the madness had abated and the memory of those three terrible days had softened, she regretted the destruction of the jar as an act of superstitious vandalism, and yet—

Looking back when the play was all over, when the last bloody scene had been spoken and the curtain had rung down, it is hard to say that any event would have fallen out differently if the supernatural explanation had, after all, been the true one, and the “curse of the Gaunts,” held in check for a while by the sinister seal on the black hawthorn jar, had, in fact, burst its restraining bonds to bring tragedy upon the second and third generation.

The roots of the story strike deep into the past, to the heyday of the American sailing ships in the ’forties and ’fifties, when the fast-sailing Yankee opium clippers, skippered by hard-bitten Yankee captains, raced from Calcutta to Woosung with a contraband cargo of chests filled with round balls of Benares or cakes of Patna opium.

It was a hazardous trade, involving not only the usual perils of wind and weather and Chinese pirates that faced those who plied the China Sea, but the danger of the government war junks, intent on suppressing the contraband traffic. But the trade was extremely profitable. The clippers commonly paid for themselves twice over on their maiden voyage, and huge fortunes were made in a few years for their owners and skippers, who were often part owners as well.

The first Waterman Gaunt, Susan’s grandfather, had made a fortune in this trade and retired at thirty-five, built his elegant house at Stone Haven, married, and settled down to be a pillar of the church and the very epitome of respectability.

It was a decided change for him. Known all over the seven seas as one of the ablest skippers afloat, holder of two records for the run from Calcutta to Canton, he was also notorious, even in a brutal age, for his brutality and his unscrupulous dealings. His retirement from the sea was not entirely voluntary. Even his owners, who had stood by him through ten years of lurid episodes, were forced to abandon him when he was tried, on his return from his last voyage in 1854, for the murder of an old seaman, a member of his crew, and acquitted only because two of the witnesses changed their testimony at the last minute either because of fear or because they had been bribed.

A picturesque character, and no less picturesque in his death than in his life.

Finding time heavy on his hands in Stone Haven, his house once built and his son, Waterman Gaunt II, about to be born, he amused himself with an affair with a pretty woman in another big house across the street, the wife of his brother, Captain Daniel Gaunt, then homeward-bound from San Francisco.

The story of Daniel’s unexpected return, his discovery of his wife’s infidelity and his brother’s perfidy, was the village scandal of the day. The rest of the story is only surmise, but it was accepted as gospel by Waterman Gaunt’s contemporaries, although never proven, and there is no reason to suppose that it strayed far from the facts.

The story goes that Daniel Gaunt slipped a pistol into the capacious pocket of his frock coat one foggy evening, stepped across the village street, walked round through the garden of the big house opposite, keeping to the gravelled path where footprints would not show, discovered his brother sitting at the wide teakwood desk in the library facing the black hawthorn jar on the mantel beyond, and quietly and expertly shot him in the back. Certainly, when the servants came running, they found his heavy body slumped forward on the desk, spilling blood on the scattered papers.

It was in those days of excitement and confusion that the legend of the “curse of the Gaunts” took shape and substance. It was recalled that misfortune always followed fortunes made in the opium trade. Daniel Gaunt, questioned half-heartedly by the police and cleared in a formal statement, produced for public inspection—whether with the idea of self-extenuation or in a spirit of sardonic humour—a letter written by his brother to himself and thenceforth carefully preserved in the family archives: a letter written a year or two before the event just narrated, soon after Waterman Gaunt’s enforced retirement.

“. . . I have brought back some excellent porcelains, among other things a very fine black hawthorn, presented to me by that rascally Louis Chen whom you will remember. He came aboard one day in Woosung with half a dozen clerks loaded down with silks and knick-knacks, among other things this black hawthorn—a beauty. I noticed that the top was sealed with red wax and I asked him about it. The villain had the impudence to say that he knew of the belief held by Yankee seamen that a curse followed a fortune made in the opium trade, but that I need never fear it. In accordance with a custom which had prevailed in his family for generations, he had caused the ghosts of my enemies to be sealed into this jar. As long as the seal remained unbroken, judgment for my sins could never reach me.

“I was minded to kick the rascal overboard for his impudence, but I’d had a good look at the jar, so I swallowed my anger and thanked him. I had every intention of breaking the seal to see what he really had put inside, for from the feel of the thing you could tell there was something, but with one thing and another and the bad voyage home, it was not done. And then those damned humanitarians in Boston jumped me when we docked and would have had my neck in good earnest in that wretched Shipley matter—a bad dog he was, and better dead—if some of the witnesses had not been open to a little argument. I’ll confess that since that episode I’ve had more respect for Louis Chen’s magic. I’ve given the jar the place of honour in my new house—very elegant—and I have left the seal alone. Perhaps some day my curiosity will get the best of me. Between you and me, I wonder, sometimes, whether Louis Chen counted on that. I don’t think it would break that old devil’s heart if the seal was broken and the ghosts got loose and finished me.”

Well, it was not the ghosts of Louis Chen that finished Waterman Gaunt. Or was it? Did there come a day when his curiosity could no longer be resisted? Did he break the seal and loose the curse? Who knows? One wonders whether the little Chinaman—friendly or malicious after all these years, who shall say?—would have been pleased or horrified at the trail of misfortune that followed his gift of the black hawthorn jar.

Susan Gaunt lay on the small of her back on the old horsehair sofa between the library windows, smoking nervously, and listening to the raised, angry voices in the next room. Carey was a fool to cross swords with their mother, she reflected grimly. Nothing ever came of it but a headache. She held the whip hand, and she had no scruples about using it. None of the Gaunts had any scruples: violent, wilful egoists—all of them. And her mother was a Gaunt by birth as well as marriage—a daughter of that Daniel Gaunt who, according to popular belief, had killed Susan’s grandfather. Susan flung to her feet and paced the length of the room and back, nervously. As for Carey pitting his weak bitterness against his mother’s anger—just because he wanted to go to France to travel. Surely he could wait a year—two years. But she knew that that was not really what he wanted. He was trying blindly, stupidly to save his soul alive—to get out from under his mother’s domination before it was too late. Un-accustomed tears of pity and rage stung Susan’s eyelids but she sniffed defiantly, readjusting her accustomed armour of light cynicism.

She heard the opening and closing of the other door which led from the study into the drawing-room. There was a momentary pause and then the door she had been watching was flung open and Carey came in.

Susan grinned at him.

“Been catching it, I take it,” she said lightly.

“She’s docked my allowance for the quarter.”

“What for?”

“Because I wouldn’t tell her why I went to New York.”

“Then she doesn’t know?”

“That I’d reserved a passage on the Belgravia? No.”

“That’s something.”

“What good does it do? I can’t use it.”

“She’d have docked you for a year if she’d known.”

Carey said nothing. After a moment, Susan’s attention, drawn by his silence, swung to his face. It was not a handsome face in spite of fine eyes and a well modelled, intelligent forehead, for the chin was weak and sloping and the mouth irresolute. Just now it was bloodless, the veins at the temples blue and knotted. Even Susan was startled.

“Don’t, Carey, you take it too hard.”

“I’m twenty-five, Sue.”

“Poor lad, I know it.”

“And last week was the first time I ever went anywhere without my mother knowing where I was going and why. It was worth a thousand.”

Susan giggled nervously.

“I’d have given that much just to see your face.”

“I said, ‘I’m going to New York—now.’ And mother said, ‘What for?’ And I said, ‘On private business.’ And just walked out and got in my car and left.” A faint look of satisfaction loosened the tension in his white face.

“So this quarter you don’t go anywhere and cadge your cigarettes from me,” said Susan lightly. She sat on the edge of the desk and laid her hand on her brother’s. “You can’t hate anyone like that, and live,” she said softly. “You must wear your hate with a difference—like me. You must lie and slip out the back door.”

“No!” cried Carey.

“Yes!” said Susan.

“I won’t be like Wat and Edgar—cadging for favours.”

“Nobody asked you,” said Susan scornfully, “to be like Wat and Edgar.”

“And I can’t submit, like Nancy.”

“No,” said Susan.

“What can I do, Sue?” The question was the cry of the weak to the strong and she heard it as such. She stroked his hand gently.

“Wait,” she whispered. “Meet fire with fire, and—wait. It can’t be long. Mother has an incurable illness.”

He stared at her in white-lipped horror. Susan reached for another cigarette. She lit it carefully and followed the smoke with thoughtful eyes.

“It’s a funny thing,” said Susan, “but I think—in my own odd fashion—I’m fonder of Mother than any of you, for the very reason that I admit to myself it would be swell for all of us if she just dropped dead one fine day. It sort of—clears the decks, so to speak. Once admit that and you’ve got perspective enough to see that she’s a damn fascinatin’ woman. Smart as hell, tenacious as the grave, and proud as Lucifer. Not one of us can hold a candle to her. She’s the sort of person it’s an honour to hate.”

“You don’t hate her.”

“I do. I hate her like poison because she’s ruined all our lives, or tried to. But it’s a healthy hatred because I admit it and I’m proud of it and I mean to beat her at her own game with any weapons I can. Now your hate keeps you meagre and thin, waters your blood and eats your liver.”

“I don’t hate her,” whispered Carey miserably.

“Liar! Ever since she said she’d stop your allowance if you went to Paris you’ve been sick with hatred. As for her darling eldest son, pride and prop of her declining years, the handsome repository of the Gaunt traditions, ever since she busted up his love’s young dream of a thirty-room cottage with Christine Hemingway, if Wat had had the guts of an oyster he’d have stuck a knife in her ribs. Edgar’s not the man to take anything but liquor very seriously, but he’s never got over the fight she put up to save him from Elvira.”

“I should think he’d look back on that with gratitude,” muttered Carey with a crooked smile.

Susan giggled.

“Maybe. But Mamma’s tactics were hardly of an endearing sort. Of course, Elvira chokes every time she thinks of her darling mother-in-law. We’re a unanimous family in that respect, if no other.”

“Nancy doesn’t hate Mother.”

Susan wrinkled her pretty brow perplexedly.

“Funny! I can’t think why. She’s really got more reason than any of us.”

Carey flung to his feet miserably.

“Why in heaven’s name did Father have to leave us this way? Why did he have to leave us all under Mother’s thumb? We were all of age. Even you, Susan, had been twenty-one for several months when he died. Why couldn’t he have left us independent? It’s unthinkable that he should have left everything in Mother’s hands, unconditionally.”

“That will was made twenty years ago, Carey.”

“I know it, but why didn’t he make another later? He must have known he was going to die, he’d been ill for months. I’ll never forgive him—never!”

Susan took up a pencil from the desk and turned it over and over in her fingers, staring at it.

“If he’d lived another twelve hours—he’d have left another will,” she said softly.

Carey stared at her. “What do you mean?”

“What I say. He outlined a new will to Mr. Avery after dinner the night he died. He was to sign it the next morning.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I went into the room when they were talking about it. I asked Mr. Avery afterwards and he said Father had never signed the will.”

She looked across at her brother with a strange, closed expression. Unconsciously they lowered their voices. “What were the terms of the will?”

“I don’t know,” said Susan wearily. “What does it matter, since it wasn’t signed? Anyway, Mr. Avery wouldn’t tell me.” Her eyes fell again to the pencil in her fingers. “Carey,” she said almost in a whisper, “has it ever crossed your mind to wonder why Father died just then—just particularly on that particular night?”

“What are you driving at?”

“Oh,” said Susan lightly but softly, and her scared eyes met her brother’s for a minute and then looked away. “I’m not suggesting that murder runs in families, but after all we’re a violent lot. Grandfather was murdered, and I’ve just wondered from time to time—strictly entre nous—whether by any chance Father was murdered, too.”

 

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