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RIDDLE OF THE TRAVELLING SKULL

 

CHAPTER I

 

A CHINAMAN HE CATCH HIMSE’F A LIGHT!

 

I knew full well, when the Chinaman stopped me in the street that night and coolly asked me for a light for his cigarette, that a light for his cigarette was the last thing in the world he really wanted! I knew, in short, that he was up to something! For Chinamen, even in Chicago, that strange London of the West where most anything can happen, do not stop white men on the street and ask for lights—even though the said Chinamen are garbed in American apparel—as this particular one was when I first had dealings—of a sort—with him.

And it was for that reason, when I turned in response to an impudent tap on my shoulder and the curt request: “Match, please,” issued in a guttural rasping voice which I was to know much later was no more the speaker’s natural voice than a bullfrog’s croak was a nightingale’s song, and found at my elbow an individual whose face, partially illumined by the street light at the corner, showed the unmistakable squat features of an Oriental, that I watched him with feelings that were a mixture of irritation and curiosity both. But the moment that the match from the box of such that I handed him, had flared up, I caught sight of a long, livid scar traversing one of his cheeks from his ear to the corner of his mouth. And I knew him then to be no other than the fellow, of some 28 or 29 years of age as I made him out to be, who had been seated seven or eight seats back of me on the northbound Broadway car, and who had stared more or less fixedly in my direction during the entire ride. Evidently then, he had dismounted from the car directly behind me, and, with soft shoes that made not a sound, had followed me up to the very steps of the Essex, where I lived.

For a bare second he drew on his cigarette, handing me back the box with his free hand. Then he raised his lighted match a few inches, looking me over quickly—and thoroughly—from head to foot. Which done, he tossed the splinter of wood away, at the same time bowing slightly in acknowledgment of the favor. And, with a parting glance at the lighted transom which showed the tall ornate gilt numerals “1515” marking the number, on North Dearborn Parkway, of the Essex, he passed on.

Slowly I ascended the tall brownstone steps, pondering over his peculiar actions. At the top, I transferred my black overnight bag to my left hand, and presently opened the front hall door. No one was there—thank the Lord—to greet the returning traveller—home from the far Philippines. I might have come from no further than Gary, Indiana—for all the commotion my return was occasioning. Which suited me quite perfectly. Within a fraction of a minute I was seated in my chintz-trimmed room on the second floor—good old cheerful old cozy old comfortable old American room!—Oho, confound her!—my landlady has dared to shift my chiffonier, in my absence, over to the other wall—I’ll move that back tomorrow, if it’s the last thing I ever do—but there I was, anyway, seated in my room, and, strangely still thinking of that impudent Chinaman—still seeing in my mind’s eye that utterly immobile yellow countenance—with the scar on the right cheek.

What the devil, I wondered, did he mean by his presumptuous actions? Was he the house-servant of someone who had moved into this neighborhood during my 7 weeks’ absence on pure business in the Far East? Was he really minus any matches? Yet, why had he stared at me so queerly on the Broadway car?

He irritated me, strangely. And in the hope of getting a line on the source of his abnormal interest in me, I began to review the events—such as they were—which followed my exit from the big new Union Passenger Station at Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue. For it must be remembered that at the time I knew quite nothing, naturally, concerning Milo Payne, the mysterious Cockney-talking Englishman with the checkered long-beaked Sherlockholmsian cap; nor of the latter’s “Barr-Bag” which was as like my own bag as one Milwaukee wiener-wurst is like another; nor of Legga, the Human Spider, with her four legs and her six arms; nor of Ichabod Chang, ex-convict, and son of Dong Chang; nor of the elusive poetess, Abigail Sprigge; nor of the Great Simon, with his 2163 pearl buttons; nor of—in short, I then knew quite nothing about anything or anybody involved in the affair of which I had now become a part, unless perchance it were my Nemesis, Sophie Kratzenschneiderwümpel—or Suing Sophie!

Thus, my review of those events. The events comprising my arrival in Chicago.

I had been clear across the Pacific Ocean for my employer, Roger Pelton, the wholesale candy manufacturer, whose home up just north of Lincoln Park, at 303 Diversey Parkway, saw me more than frequently—considering that I was engaged to his only daughter Doris Pelton! My mission in the Isles had been successful—for I had tied up old Eustaquia Revariantos, the only native planter in Luzon—in fact, in all the Philippines—and incidentally the most wrinkled old baboon I had ever surveyed with my two eyes outside of a zoo—the only planter in the Isles, as I started to say, who knew the ins-and-outs of the cultivation of the rare Julu berry: and he had put his name on the dotted line to sell us all his julu berries for 10 years to come. Now we had an organic color basis for not only the most marvelously hued purple jelly beans that ever were munched by a king—but for purple-colored confections of all kinds, and a dye moreover that was acceptable as a pure food product by the American Bureau of Standards! But what was most important was that we had practically a strangle-hold on a new and weird and engaging candy flavor that caused every tongue over which it trickled to hang out for more, more, more! Thus my trip to the Isles. Thus my trip back from the Isles. Except, of course, that on the back-trip there had been Sophie Kratzenschneiderwümpel! Though, to be sure, it had been farewell, Sophie, at San Francisco! Or at least I so felt and believed. And then, in due course, I had gotten into Chicago—from San Francisco—and just a night sooner than I had notified anybody I would be in, by virtue of taking a train directly after disembarking from my boat, instead of working off my sea legs for 24 hours in a San Francisco hotel as I had wired various persons I would do. That is, to be sure, I had notified one person I would be in—had wired him, later in fact, from the train at Salt Lake City, that person being John Barr, my closest friend and companion—and incidentally the owner and patentee of “Barr-Bag,” which article proved subsequently to be at the bottom of this strange Chinaman business. And so, unknowing then of the simple explanation which lay back of that fellow’s interest in me, I kept on following up events in my mind to try and illumine matters for my benighted intelligence. On reaching the city—that was at 7 in the evening, of course—I had walked towards State Street from the big depot on the lake front, with the intention of calling Doris up by telephone from some drug store and drinking in the cadences of her voice, but only to find, however, that the only cadences I was to enjoy this evening was the Pelton butler’s frigid announcement on the wire that both she and her father had gone to a dinner party on the North Shore and would not be back till after midnight; and also to discover, as I raked my pockets for the nickel with which I called, that the total wealth on my person, as I struck the city I called “home,” consisted of one letter of credit—and exactly 35 cents in change; with the result that I had dismissed certain ideas about taking a taxicab home, and had climbed aboard a more modest equipage—a Broadway car going north on State at Randolph Street.

And then—let’s see—the car was pretty full, and I had taken the only vacant seat I could then find—one by the side of a portly looking gentleman of about 55, in the garb of a clergyman. On account of the lack of space, I had placed my black overnight bag under the seat. Exactly beneath myself, to be precise. In due course nearly everybody piled off the car—that was at Ohio Street—to be sure, the big Medinah Temple one block east—some big Masonic doings there tonight, of course!—leaving the car less than a quarter full of people. I had stayed right where I was, however. And shortly after, I began to be conscious, every time I casually glanced around, of a pair of eyes looking forward up the car at me—a pair of eyes belonging to a Chinaman who sat several seats in my rear.

But how was that now? First, he was up in front of me—then, a short while later, he was equally far in back of me—oh sure, that was it—the motorman had burned out his controller-box near the Holy Name Cathedral, and had had to turn his juggernaut entirely about by way of the switch-tracks at Chicago Avenue and then proceed north by the use of what had formerly been the rear controller-box. Only, thanks to all of us passengers turning about, also, it had become the front controller-box. Nothing out of the way there—and it accounted for nothing at all.

Except for the way in which that Chinaman with the scar jumped from the front of the car to the back of it without even getting up. Except—that is—getting up long enough, as we all did, so that that German conductor could swing all the pivoted seat-backs to the opposite sides of the seats.

So that was that. And thus I’d ridden north. More or less lost in my thoughts and the realization that Chicago was not an iota different than the night I’d gone to the Philippines. And then I’d heard the German conductor call out “Burton Place.” And I had jerked my overnight bag out from under the seat—from under myself, to be exact—and had made a hasty exit from the car, walking eastward in the direction of North Dearborn Parkway. I had turned there, and finally reached the steps of the Essex, that dignified old mansion-like rooming-house which spelled H‑O‑M‑E for me. And then it was that I had felt that tap on my shoulder and had turned to discover, a second later, that my street-car Chinaman was at my side.

It was certainly odd! Had he deliberately followed me? Outside of my $15 Bulova watch, I never wear jewelry. There was nothing about my general appearance which might have indicated that holding me up would produce anything of value to anyone. In fact, all I carried was that black bag, and it resembled exactly what it was and what John Barr, its manufacturer, intended it to be: a mighty convenient and efficient handbag for travellers—and not a case such as diamond salesmen might carry.

It lay on the chintz-covered bed where I had tossed it immediately upon entering the room. It suggested, in fact, the desirability of a clean collar—considering that no less than 1,000 men had jammed into that washroom, to change collars, in the Pullman coming in. But nevertheless I looked first in my chiffonier drawer. No collar! No clean collar, that is. But 14 soiled ones. All carefully and neatly stacked. For 7 long weeks. What a homecoming for a world traveller! Fourteen soiled collars—neatly stacked.

But never mind. My bag had practically everything in it I or anyone else could need, except perhaps an elephant’s monocle, or a clay tablet from Babylonia. So I crossed the floor and put my key into its lock. And turned the key. Except that—it would not turn. And twisted it—except that it would not twist. Impatiently, I jerked at it. Strange! ’Twas the brand-new bag, all right, that I had bought myself in ’Frisco on my arrival, bawling aloud its merits so that everyone in that particular store might know that my friend John Barr made bags—and good ones, too!

I took it up and looked at it. And though it was brand-new—I suddenly became conscious that there were all kinds of curious nuances in newness! And that I had the wrong new bag! Now I began to see some strange connection with the matter of that Broadway car’s reversing its direction. If—for instance—that clerical-looking gentleman who had sat by my side, reading his prayer book, had also had a “Barr-Bag” underneath his seat—underneath his portly self, in fact—then when the car reversed its direction—and we all stepped out of our seats a moment, and the backs of the seats were all flopped across—then—no, by Gosh, it wouldn’t make a particle of difference! For he’d resumed his same seat next the window—and I mine on the aisle. And we would each have still been sitting right over our own bag.

But staring at the telephone on the wall, from which I had cut off the incoming service when I had left for the Philippines, but which naturally still had its outgoing service so that the phone company would not lose some errant possible nickel, I decided to solve the matter of that bag once and for all. And stepping to the instrument I dropped in a nickel and dialed it for the operator. “Give me the Diversey car barns of the Chicago Surface Lines,” I told the girl. “I have no directory here.”

In a second I had them—or at least a foreman in them.

“When Car No. 1515,” I told him, and added: “I happen to remember it because it’s the same number as my house number—comes in, will you have its conductor call—”

“1515? Up for repairs. Burned-out controller-box. Schmidt,” he called out, “yer wanted at the phone.”

And in a second I had the yellow-mustached conductor of that Broadway car—which I had ridden home.

“This is a passenger,” I told him, “on your Broadway car No. 1515 tonight, Mr.— Schmidt, is it? Do you remember when the front controller-box burned out—and we backed up on Chicago Avenue to reverse?”

“Yah. Shure I do!”

“And we headed north, the motorman finally using the other controller-box? Well, do you remember when you routed what few passengers were on the car, out of their seats, seat by seat, and switched the seat-backs over?”

“Yah. Shure I do.”

“Well—for some dam’ fool reason, Schmidt, I got somebody else’s bag!”

“You dit? But you shouldn’t! You zee, ven I flopped dot zeat-back ofer, unt you unt dot odder chentleman vot vass sid next you, vass climb back in—I see two bags unter dot zeat. Dot iss, ven I vass go to flop dot next zeat-back ofer, see? De vun now behint you bod’. Unt I know dot you two don’t zee dot your bags iss now ge-shifted, mid dot car uf ours now going der odder vay—so I chust stoop down, unt shift dem two bags—mofe each aboud‑d, zee, each vun in de odder’s blace.”

“Why—you unmitigated idiot,” I told him, “changing our direction of travel, and flopping the seat-back over—didn’t change our bags. Confound it, we each continued to sit over our own respective bag—regardless of what direction we were facing? But now, thanks to your geometry, or logic, or whatever you call it, that man and I have each got the other one’s bag!”

I could literally hear him scratching his head on the other end of the wire.

“Vell,” he said, unconvinced, “I can’t zee it! De vay id looks to me, now, if effer’putty durns arount—unt all de zeat-backs dey go across—den—”

“Oh—applesauce!” I said. And hung up. And realized then that I should have had myself transferred to the lost-and-found department of the Surface Lines and reported the matter.

I went back to the bag grumpily, and hefted it on the palm of my hand. A little bit lighter it was, I could see now—just a little bit, than my own.

And then I thought of the old bunch of suitcase keys laid away somewhere in the bottom drawer of my chiffonier. In a jiffy I had the drawer open. And amongst a lot of trash, I found them. Then I commenced trying them on the bag, one by one. The fifth key turned in the lock as slick as the proverbial whistle. I pulled the jaws of the bag apart. And peering in, gave a start of amazement.

For looking up at me was a human skull. A grinning, leering skull. That, and nothing else!

 

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