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THE MYSTERY OF

THE FIDDLING CRACKSMAN


CHAPTER I

 

WHAT THE NEWSPAPERS SAID!

 

Billy Hemple, dozing in his big comfortable over-stuffed chair after his long wearisome trip back to Chicago from New York, opened his eyes with a start and sat stiffly erect, his nerves tingling with the shock of his sudden awakening. Had anyone told that practical and matter-of-fact young man whose unusual satirical book Mr. Monte Zenda of Graustark was very shortly to be published, exactly why he had been so rudely awakened and what was to eventuate from the cause of that awakening, he would have been more bewildered than he was the day that the New York publishers, Macrae, Macrae and Macrae, Incorporated, had telegraphed him their enthusiastic acceptance of his curious piece of literary work.

His eyes, roving sleepily about the expensively furnished room with its handsome mahogany four-poster bed (he had received $500 cash “advance” on Mr. Monte Zenda of Graustark!), its colorful Oriental rug, the tall capacious chiffonier, came to rest on the face of the large modernistic grandfather’s chime clock ticking away in the corner. Eight o’clock in the evening! No—one-half minute after 8. He leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes again. Strange that the melodious sound of that clock merely striking eight times should have awakened him so abruptly. Strange that—

He dropped off again, for of a sudden he seemed to see himself standing outside a tall golden fence with an ornate gate guarded by a benign old gentleman with a long white beard resembling certain comic representations of St. Peter, and three inmates, back of the golden fence, armed with spiked clubs, seemed to be waiting for him to enter that gate. And staring closer at the three inmates, and a bit fearfully, it must be admitted, he saw that they were no other than Alexandre Dumas, Anthony Hope, and the late George Barr McCutcheon. And it seemed to him that he heard Dumas saying to——

He sat straight up again, this time fully awake. The long harsh jangle of the telephone bell on the nearby table was shattering the stillness of the room. Twice it was repeated. With a bound he was out of the over-stuffed chair and over to the instrument. He raised the receiver.

“Hello!” he called.

“Billy—oh, Billy!—is it you?” The soft girlish tones that emanated from the receiver held in them a haunting note of dread, of deep fear. “This—this is Laral. And oh—I’m so glad I got you at last! I called three times tonight, Billy. Once five minutes ago, and twice—at intervals of a half hour before that.”

“What’s—what’s wrong, darlin’?” asked the man apprehensively. “Your voice sounds as though you were scared to death.”

“I am, Billy. Though it’s nothing threatening me right at this immediate moment—so don’t get upset about it. It—but when did you get in?”

“A half hour ago. Haven’t even unpacked my bag yet. I was going to call you up but I was so all in from lack of sleep that I fell asleep in my chair. You see my publishers, Macrae, Ditto, and Likewise, finally decided that my book would be more subtle—yes, I know I haven’t even told you yet what it’s about—but I will—well, they decided that it would be more subtle if narrated in the third person form instead of the first person. And so since they want to slap it on press inside of ten days, I’ve been sitting in a hotel room there on Broadway with a coffee percolator, changing tenses, pluperfects, points of view and whatnot for three days and nights, and having to retype the whole 80,000 words because nobody alive could read my revisions. But let that pass. What’s wrong? Nothing really much, is there?”

“Yes, Billy, there is. Very much so—at least so I fear. It’s—it’s about something that’s been in the Morning Compendium for the last three days running. I didn’t happen to see this morning’s Compendium till towards evening—and since you’ve been out of Chicago, you naturally haven’t seen any of them. And——”

“But see here, Laral, hon’—how did you ever happen to read the Compendium—or any other paper? I—I thought you were embarked on that great psychological experiment that you never have explained yet—cutting yourself off from all newspapers for 6 months. And——”

“That’s all over,” she said briefly. “The Great Psychological Experiment—as you liked to call it—is over. And it worked most successfully! And I’m ready to tell you now exactly why I performed it—and what it was all about. But to get back to cases, Billy. I’m—I’m afraid some sort of danger threatens me—or us—way out here in the weeds—as you term it. I—I don’t know. But Father is out of town on another trip, and I’m all alone. Alone, that is, except for old ’Liza who——”

“Who,” he endeavored to put in facetiously, “with her deafness and her rheumatic joints and her attic room is about as much company and protection as a toy dog against a pack of Russian wolves. But pardon me, darlin’, for being so rude as to interrupt; and tell me—tell me what I can do? And exactly what’s on your mind?”

“What’s on my mind, Billy? Well—just those strange news stories—one each morning—and—” She stopped again, obviously frightened at something she alone knew about. “Billy, dear, I—I know you’re all worn out—or you never would have fallen asleep in that chair of yours—but—but I wonder if you couldn’t run out here tonight? I—I’m all unstrung. And I want advice. Your advice. Can you come?”

Billy Hemple glanced at the grandfather’s clock again. To go meant to leave that comfortable-looking room, embark on a long, tedious, rattling ride on the Elevated Road clear out to Ravenswood, the northwestern limits of the city, and get back by midnight. But, on the other hand, there was something in the girl’s tone of voice that indicated lurking evil of some sort. He decided to ask no questions and made up his mind in an instant.

“Yes, Laral. I’ll come. And I’ll start at once. I may not reach there until around 10—if that’s agreeable—but I’ll be there, sure. You’ve often heard me speak of my friend, Peter Schultz? Yes? Well, Peter writes me that he’s just hung out his shingle on Montrose Avenue and Ridgeway—which would be, if I’m not mistaken, one block south and one block west of your place. I’ve got a note here that he sent me just before I hurtled for New York, asking me to step in just as soon as I was out in that part of the city. Fact of the matter is he owes me a little money—I loaned him a hundred dollars out of that five hundred advance I got on my book—and I may as well kill two birds with one stone. Will 10 o’clock or so be all right, darlin’?”

“Yes,” the girl replied, with a sigh of relief that was audible even in the receiver. “And thank you for coming so far, Billy, when you’re so tired. But—but conditions are just awfully peculiar. I’ll be waiting for you.”

He said good-by, and hung up. For a moment he stood with the telephone instrument in his hand, puzzling over the girl’s strange words. Just what did she mean by “something in the Morning Compendium for the past three mornings running”? He shook his head. It was too bewildering.

As though actuated by a sudden impulse, he went to the door of his room, opened it, and stepped down the hall a short distance. There he rapped on another door. A stout woman with red hair answered the knock.

“Good evening, Mrs. Summers. I’m back home again from New York. And I’m wondering if you happen to have the Compendium for this morning, yesterday morning, and the morning before? I—”

“Certainly.” She stepped over to a stack of folded newspapers lying on an old-fashioned desk and withdrew the two top copies. To them she added one that lay on her bed. She brought them to the doorway. “There you are, Mr. Hemple. Glad to see you back again. You’re looking rather tired, though.”

“I am.” He took the papers. “Thank you. I’ll return them in the morning, Mrs. Summers, and also square up my room rent for the coming week.”

He returned to his own room, and, closing the door, wheeled the over-stuffed chair over under the ceiling light. Then he dropped down into the chair, and, discarding temporarily the two issues of most recent date, commenced to skim hurriedly over the contents of the third.

He turned several pages, glancing up and down each column without gaining any inkling of what the girl had referred to. But suddenly his eyes stopped, riveted by a tiny, inconspicuous paragraph near the bottom of one of the columns—a “filler,” nothing more. It read: 

NEARLY NABS SNEAKTHIEF

 

John Craig, a traveling man residing at 5550 Greenwood Avenue, reported to the Hyde Park police last evening an attempt to plunder his apartment during the absence of his family at a summer resort and his own absence on a Western trip for his firm.

Mr. Craig, returning late at night from the Chicago and Northwestern Depot, found a rear window of the apartment open, which window led onto the individual back porch of the flat, and was utilized in former years as an ingress for ice before electrical refrigeration was installed in the building. The marks of a jimmy were on the sill of the window. Nothing in the apartment was missing, however. Mr. Craig reports that just after entering the downstairs vestibule door of the apartment building, he passed a man on the dark inner stairway who hurried suspiciously past him. The man, according to Craig, carried under his arm what appeared to be a violin incased in a black silk violin bag.

Upon finding that his apartment had been opened, Craig made immediate inquiries of all the other five tenants in the six-flat building, and found that none of them had had any visitors that evening tallying, at least in the matter of luggage, with the suspicious-looking individual seen going out. In fact, none had had any visitors who had just departed.

The Hyde Park police are of the opinion that the sneak-thief is one of the many itinerant street musicians that begin to infest the rear courtways or back yards of this district at the opening of the summer season.

 

Hemple looked up from the brief news article with a puzzled frown on his face. “That’s undoubtedly part of what Laral referred to,” he commented to himself. “And yet I fail to see where—” He stopped short in his ruminations and unfolded the Compendium of the morning before. Again he skimmed over every column. Again his gaze came to rest sharply on a brief paragraph of exceedingly small-face type tucked away on an inner page at the bottom of a long article by some naval expert giving an analysis of Japan’s naval strength. The contents of this piece of news stated curtly:

 

LABORER CHARGES LIQUOR INTERESTS WITH BURGLARIZING HOME!

 

John Craig, a steel-mill laborer living at 9033 Burley Avenue, in reporting to the South Chicago police last evening that the window of his cottage was jimmied open while he was working with a gang on an out-of-town structural job at the Illinois Steel Company’s new plant at Salouze, Indiana, charged the “liquor interests” with having engineered the burglary! Craig is a widower with no children, and declares he has nothing worth stealing. He states that, because of his activities as President of the Laboring Men’s Temperance League, and the great threat it creates against the “liquor interests,” the latter desire to obtain photographic evidence of private drinking on his part. The police pointed out to him that some native of Steeltown seeking the presence of whisky undoubtedly pried open his window, but that it was someone with a huge thirst—and not the “liquor interests.” Craig, however, left the station house unconvinced.

 

Again Hemple raised his gaze from the newspaper. “No need of searching any further,” he said to himself. “That’s exhibit Number 2, all right. And what in the devil will exhibit Number 3 consist of? Well—we’ll soon see. And I wonder, too, why——”

He broke off and reaching down into the copious velvet-lined magazine rack affixed to the base of his chair, drew forth the big Chicago telephone directory which greeted his fingers. Riffling over its pages he stared—though a bit blankly—at a certain section. Then, putting the book back, and with fingers that trembled just a trifle from doubt and curiosity, he unfolded the Morning Compendium of that day s date. He did not have far to look this time. For on the first inner right-hand page he found it—staring out at him with three separate headlines. Which, one after the other, announced:

 

ERRATIC BURGLAR PREFERS TO FIDDLE

RATHER THAN CRACK SAFES!

 

   POLICE INSTITUTE ROUND-UP OF ESCAPED

LUNATICS IN BELIEF HE IS CRAZY

 

CARRIES NO TOOLS OTHER THAN A VIOLIN

 

And with this introduction, Billy Hemple devoured the article word by word. It ran:

 

The details of a burglary attempt made at 2 o’clock this morning on the home of John Craig, of 1350 North State Parkway, were rendered to the East Chicago Avenue police early today by Amos Strong, a butler and houseman employed by the millionaire. Mr. Craig, who has been continuously in business on LaSalle Street for thirty years, was out of town on a trip, and his family are touring the Canadian Rockies.

According to Strong’s statement he was all alone in his quarters in the basement of his house. And had been there the entire evening. The phone had rung several times during the evening, he says, but he purposely did not answer it because he was endeavoring to avoid holding an argument with a friend over a personal matter between them concerning a loan. It is supposed that these rings were rings of inquiry on the part of someone seeking to ascertain that the mansion was unoccupied for the night. The last ring, Strong says, occurred at about 1:30 a.m. He then fell asleep and was awakened at about 2 by what appeared to be the sound of violin notes somewhere in the vicinity. He listened for a few minutes, and then, taking a candle, proceeded silently in bare feet upstairs to the first floor of the mansion.

There he perceived in short order that the violin notes comprised music, and that the music in turn was coming from the direction of the library, a generously sized room which opens into the main entrance hall, but the door of which was now closed. Blowing out his candle, and creeping to the door, he peered through the keyhole, and saw a man whose whole head was masked in a black bag, with holes for the eyes, standing in a circle of light made by an electric bull’s-eye lantern whose rays shone directly on the Craig safe, and playing away on a violin as though he were a performer at a concert.

Quite fascinated by the unusual sight, Strong watched until the intruder came to the end of the piece he was playing—a doleful, dirge-like, heavily moving foreign sort of composition which the butler, familiar to some extent with music, never remembers having heard—and to see the burglar cease the use of his instrument entirely, and stand silent, the violin in one hand, the bow in the other. In fact, Strong says, the head shrouded in the black bag shook critically from side to side, and the wearer of the bag uttered some sort of angry ejaculation, which was so muffled by the bag as well as by the closed library door between the two men that it was unintelligible to the watching butler. Waiting no longer, however, Strong hurried into the front parlor of the mansion, threw open the window, and shouted an alarm at the top of his voice, repeating his shout over and over again.

Officer Dennis Mulhaney, who has traveled North State Parkway—or Aristocracy Row, as it is called—on foot for ten years, supplementing the regular squad-car service which takes in the whole region from North Dearborn Parkway—or Boarding-house Row—towards the west, clear to Lake Shore Drive—or Millionaires’ Row—to the east, heard the shouts from a point a block to the south. The loud clamor set up by the butler, however, evidently also carried through the house, for the intruder lost no time in leaping from the first-floor library window to the ground; and, by the time Officer Mulhaney reached the grounds of No. 1350, the library was empty.

The method of entrance into the mansion was indicated by the presence of a set of jimmy marks on a window leading into the first-floor entrance hall of the house from a small covered passageway running out onto Schiller Street. This window not only faced upon an almost closed courtway, but a basement window whose ornamental ironwork grating came four feet or so above ground provided a perfect elevation on which a man could stand, and, holding to the upper sill with one hand, operate his jimmy with the other.

The only real clew left behind was a black silk bag of a shape indicating that it was used to keep a violin in. Strong asserts emphatically that in his protracted gaze through the keyhole he saw absolutely no sign of a burglar kit or any tools, and his story is fully borne out by the fact that there are no marks whatsoever, much less even fingerprints, or even the impression of rubber-glove tips, on the face or dials of the safe.

The East Chicago Avenue police are of the opinion that if Strong was not the victim of his own excitement, then the thief is a dangerous lunatic of some sort, rather than a professional cracksman. They have communicated with the superintendents of the Elgin, Dunning, and Kankakee State hospitals in order to learn whether any patients are reported missing from there in the past few weeks.

 

That was the end of the unusual news story. Twice Billy Hemple read it through; then tossed the sheets on the floor. He sat, pondering, and his face, though troubled at something, carried a look of assured knowledge that could only be carried on the face of an author whose book burlesqued all drama and melodrama, from the Nickel Detective Magazine up to Monte Cristo itself.

“Crazy as a bedbug, that fiddling housebreaker, all right,” he said, nodding. “That is, if it wasn’t all a wild dream in the brain of a scared butler. Mad as a March Hare, that night-prowling catgut scraper, for there isn’t an explanation this side of Sam Hill to account for a bird playing tunes to a safe.” The author of Mr. Monte Zenda of Graustark paused. “But no wonder Laral’s agitated and unstrung. Three burglarizations of homes of persons named John Craig. Three! And all of the John Craigs, in the bargain, minus any middle initial. And her father—a fourth John Craig—and likewise minus a middle initial—out of town! If she’s been reading the papers, I’m thinking she’s got a right to have the jitters. And I’d say that——”

He stopped abruptly as the grandfather’s clock chimed the hour of 8:30. Then, without any further delay, he seized his hat and left the house.

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