The Casebook of Rupert Swann
It was a cold and windy Monday morning early in February. Not for the first time, Rupert Swann had been obliged to change his plan for spending a day. With no case on hand, he had intended to have a leisurely time, featuring some piano practice, a walk around the Leeds city centre, a late lunch, a session studying mathematics, an evening meal at his favourite restaurant and an hour or two at his club. He was occupied with the first of these pastimes, wrestling with a Chopin polonaise, when he was interrupted by the housekeeper, who brought an unexpected visitor to his rooms.
The caller was a tall, gaunt woman, very well dressed and with an erect, stately carriage. Swann guessed that she was probably in her middle forties. In a cultured voice, she apologised profusely for not having made an appointment, but said that circumstances had not permitted her do so. Swann was gallant in his dealings with women and he put her at ease by assuring her that he understood. He asked her to remove her topcoat and gloves, join him by the fire and explain what had brought her to him.
“I am in a quandary, Mr Swann,” she said. “My name is Carrington. I have called concerning my husband and am doing this without his permission or knowledge, but I think you will understand when you have heard what I have to say.”
“Very well, Mrs Carrington, please take your time. I can see that you are very disturbed.”
“Oh, is it so obvious?”
“I think so. You are clearly a lady of considerable self-possession, yet there is a tone in your voice indicating that you are being tried in some way. What you tell me will be confidential between the two of us unless you wish it to be otherwise.”
“Thank you for the assurance. My husband and I have been married for many years and as you may imagine, I am sensitive to his moods, not that he normally has any unusual ones. I sensed a short time ago that something was troubling him and it is still doing so. When I touched upon this, he made light of it, no doubt trying to avoid upsetting me. Nevertheless I knew, and I have now discovered what has caused his unease.”
“What is it?”
“It is this.” She opened a handbag, produced an envelope and handed it to Swann. There is a letter inside. Please read it.”
Swann looked at envelope, addressed to M. Carrington and posted in the United States on the 3rd of January. He extracted the single sheet of paper and read:
I guess you thought you’d seen and heard the last of me. Well, you haven’t. It took a while for me to trace you, but I did it. Now it’s time to settle accounts. You should know that nobody crosses me and gets away with it. You owe me and the rest of us the $32,000 you stole, and I’m charging you another $5,000 as interest and $3,000 for my expenses in finding you. That comes to $40,000.
Don’t try to run. I sent two of the boys over and they’re watching you day and night, but you won’t spot them. And you can’t go to the police, can you? I mean, if you do, you’ll have to tell them what you did and I guess you’re not going to confess to that.
I’ll be along soon and will let you know when I aim to call on you. Just make sure you have all the money and maybe you’ll get out of this with a whole skin, although I’m not making any promises about that. Be seeing you. J.A.
Swann took the letter over to his front window and held it up to the light, then he put it back into the envelope, which he handed back to his visitor. “It is American paper, all right,” he said. “It has a watermark that isn’t used anywhere else.”
“I never doubted that, Mr Swann, nor do I question that it is the cause of my husband’s discomfiture. He has been in his present state since the day that message arrived, but he is very protective and I suppose that accounts for his unwillingness to discuss the matter.”
“And you cannot throw any light on it?”
Mrs Carrington shook her head. “No. We don’t know anyone in the United States. My husband is totally immersed in his business. I imagine you know Walker’s, the gentlemen’s outfitters on Boar Lane.”
Swann nodded. “Yes. A very nice place it is, too. I have patronised it several times. Do you own it?”
“My husband does. He had some inherited money and did not need to go to work but he wanted to give himself something to do that he found interesting, so he bought the shop when Mr Walker retired. In order to preserve the goodwill element, the original name was retained.”
“Has Mr Carrington any other business or financial interests?”
“Apart from watching over his investments, I do not know of any, and I cannot believe there is some matter I am unaware of, especially not one that might relate to this letter.”
“And you say he does not know you have read it?”
“That is correct. As he is usually the first to look at the post, I knew nothing of the letter. However, in view of his behaviour, I could no longer remain inactive, so I took the liberty of going into his study, where I found the envelope. Of course, I must replace it before he comes home this evening. He is a man of rigid habits, always extremely punctual, leaving the house at twenty minutes to eight in the morning and returning here at six in the evening. He goes and comes back by cab and has his lunch brought into the shop.”
Swann nodded. “I see. And is there nobody in whom you can confide your concern?”
“No. We live a somewhat secluded life and outside of my husband’s business contacts neither us has much to do with anyone.”
“What about family?”
“Our parents on both sides have been dead for some time. I never had any siblings and my husband had only one, a younger brother. The two were similar in appearance but had different attitudes to life. Michael emigrated to Australia six years ago and settled in Melbourne. We heard from him only once after he left.”
“Are you satisfied there is nothing else you can tell me that might help?”
“Yes. I realise that I have not offered you very much, Mr Swann, but for what it is worth, I do hope you will take the case and perhaps think of something we can do. I am very worried about this. I have a little money of my own, so I believe I can pay whatever your charges may be.”
“Please don’t trouble yourself about my fee. That will not be a problem. The question is whether or not I can suggest anything to alleviate your concern. I cannot do so immediately but you have given me something to think about and I shall certainly help you if I can. Now, I have your address from the letter. Is there any reason why I should not contact you by telegram or messenger while your husband is not at home, if I find that necessary?”
“No. You are welcome to do so. We did think of getting a telephone, but there are not many people connected to the service, so it seemed pointless to take the step.”
“I had the same idea a while ago and discarded it for the same reason. There was also that matter of the dispute between the National Telephone Company and Leeds Electric Tramways. You may recall that the telephone people argued in court that the trams were interfering with reception, as both organisations used the Thompson-Houston method of distributing current. I heard that the verdict favoured the tram company, so felt that my decision to postpone acquisition of a telephone was justified. But I must not babble and I won’t keep you any longer. If anything occurs to exacerbate your fear, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me again.”
“Thank you. Simply talking with you has given me some relief.” With that, the lady stood, put on her coat and gloves and left.
Shortly after Mrs Carrington’s departure, Swann was struck by a thought that caused him to go to the telegraph office and send a cablegram. He then put the problem to the back of his mind. It did not remain there for long. The morning following their conversation, he had just finished breakfast when he received a telegram. Opening it, he read: Urgent I see you again at once. Will call noon. Please see me. Carrington.
She arrived punctually at midday, clearly agitated, thanked Swann for seeing her at such short notice and handed him an envelope. “Since the letter I showed you yesterday arrived, I have been making sure that I look at the post before my husband does, though I do not disturb anything addressed to him. This came by the first delivery today. Mark said nothing to me and after he left for work, I took it from his study.”
Swann opened the envelope, took out the single sheet of paper it contained and read:
Hello again, Carrington,
Well, I’m in England now and I’ll be on my way to your place pretty soon. The boys are still watching you, so don’t try any tricks. It’s Sunday now and you’d better have that money ready by seven-thirty Thursday evening. That’s when we’ll be calling on you. Like I said before, if you play this right, I might just let you off the hook. J.A.
Rubbing his chin, Swann handed both letter and envelope back to the now distraught woman. “I’m not yet sure what to make of this,” he said, “but I am struck by the fact that the letter was posted in Southampton so recently. Some precautionary steps seem to be indicated. If you are returning to your house now, I think I should go with you and take a look at the locality.”
Mrs Carrington confirmed that she intended to go back to her home, so Swann escorted her across the road to the cab rank, from where the pair took a Hansom for the four-mile journey to the suburb of Seacroft. When they arrived, Swann asked the driver to wait, then he accompanied the lady to her front door, took his leave of her and spent a few minutes walking around the neighbourhood.
The Carrington residence was a detached one, built of red brick in the Georgian style and much like the two flanking it. The garden was bordered front, left and right by a dense privet hedge, four feet high, broken only by an iron gate which opened to a path that led to the door then divided to run completely around the house. The property directly opposite the Carrington one was almost a replica of it in structure and garden layout.
Having seen enough, Swann boarded the Hansom and returned to his rooms. Shortly after reaching them, he received a reply to the cablegram he had sent after Mrs Carrington had left him at the end of her first visit. The message caused his eyebrows to rise and impelled him to send another cable, this time to a different destination. That done, he occupied himself with the piano practice and mathematical studies he had interrupted the previous day.
Just as he was finishing breakfast on the Wednesday, Swann received a reply to his second wire. What it contained prompted him to walk to the telegraph office and send a message to Mrs Carrington, informing her that he intended to call on her at three that afternoon unless she responded that she would not be available. He then took his usual daily walk, consumed a pint of beer and a meat pie at Whitelock’s, the oldest public house in the city and his usual lunchtime haunt He arrived back at his lodgings shortly before two o’clock, smoked a pipe for a few minutes then, as there was no answer from Mrs Carrington, he crossed the road to the cab rank and took a Hansom to her home.
The lady was controlling herself with great difficulty, the edge to her voice even more pronounced than when she had visited Swann earlier. She led the way to the sitting room and motioned him to take one of the two chairs by the hearth, occupying the other herself. With no time to waste, Swann asked whether she had taxed her husband about the two letters.
“Not yet,” she replied, “but I cannot tolerate any more of this. There is a limit to the extent to which I will allow him to shield me from whatever is happening, if indeed that is what he is doing. Come what may, I intend to confront him when he comes home this evening.”
“I think you should. Unless I am much mistaken, there is serious potential danger to your husband and perhaps to you.”
“Mr Swann, if you know anything more than I do, I wish you would tell me what it is.”
“Calm yourself, Mrs Carrington. I am not entirely certain about what is likely to occur, but I am taking steps to deal with any contingency. The second letter expressed the writer’s intention to call on you at seven-thirty tomorrow evening. It is extremely important that the two of you be in situ here at least an hour before that time. I will join you then and we shall see what happens. Please rest assured that the measures I have in mind will protect you from harm.”
“Hearing those words is a great relief to me. I am not given to displays of emotion or to getting involved in domestic arguments, but perhaps it would be better if I had not let matters go as far as they have done.”
“Don’t distress yourself any further. Do what you must do this evening and I promise that I shall be with you tomorrow in time for us to face what I believe is a real threat, although I shall see that it is not put into practice.”
After leaving the Carrington house, Swann spent two hours making the arrangements he felt necessary. He then returned to his piano practice, followed by an evening meal at Powolny’s restaurant and two hours at his club, where he played a long game of billiards, losing to a wily old fellow he had never managed to beat. Back in his rooms, he smoked his last pipe of the day and went to bed at midnight.
Other than the Carrington case, no professional matter had arisen during the week, so Swann spent much of Thursday studying calculus. At five in the evening, he emerged from his lodgings, checked that the plans he had laid were ready for execution, then took a cab to the Carrington residence. He arrived there at six-fifteen and was admitted by the lady, who ushered him into the sitting room and introduced him to her husband.
Carrington was a tall man of medium build, with a full head of hair, black apart from traces of grey at the temples. He confirmed immediately that his wife had been right in thinking that he had concealed the two threatening letters from her, adding sheepishly that he should have known better but had thought and hoped that the whole episode was a prank.
Swann shook his head. “I don’t think this a joking matter, Mr Carrington. Perhaps as a single man I should not be offering advice on marital affairs, but you would have done better had you confided in your wife. I think that her independent action will prove fortunate for both of you. I am convinced that an hour from now there will be developments which might have proved very serious if I had not been consulted.”
“But what is the meaning of this, Mr Swann? If you know, please tell us.”
“All in good time, sir. You must allow me a little dramatic licence here. Let us be patient and await what comes. I will go into the details later. In the meantime, I think we might soothe ourselves with a warm drink, if you would be so kind.”