DEATH AT THE EXCELSIOR
DEATH AT THE EXCELSIOR
P. G. WODEHOUSE
The room was the typical bedroom of the typical boarding-house
furnished insofar as it could be said to be furnished at all with a
severe simplicity. It contained two beds a pine chest of drawers a
strip of faded carpet and a wash basin. But there was that on the
floor which set this room apart from a thousand rooms of the same kind.
Flat on his back with his hands tightly clenched and one leg twisted
oddly under him and with his teeth gleaming through his grey beard in a
horrible grin Captain John Gunner stared up at the ceiling with eyes
that saw nothing.
Until a moment before he had had the little room all to himself. But
now two people were standing just inside the door looking down at him.
One was a large policeman who twisted his helmet nervously in his
hands. The other was a tall gaunt old woman in a rusty black dress
who gazed with pale eyes at the dead man. Her face was quite
The woman was Mrs. Pickett owner of the Excelsior Boarding-House. The
policeman's name was Grogan. He was a genial giant a terror to the
riotous element of the waterfront but obviously ill at ease in the
presence of death. He drew in his breath wiped his forehead and
whispered: "Look at his eyes ma'am!"
Mrs. Pickett had not spoken a word since she had brought the policeman
into the room and she did not do so now. Constable Grogan looked at
her quickly. He was afraid of Mother Pickett as was everybody else
along the waterfront. Her silence her pale eyes and the quiet
decisiveness of her personality cowed even the tough old salts who
patronized the Excelsior. She was a formidable influence in that little
community of sailormen.
"That's just how I found him" said Mrs. Pickett. She did not speak
loudly but her voice made the policeman start.
He wiped his forehead again. "It might have been apoplexy" he
Mrs. Pickett said nothing. There was a sound of footsteps outside and
a young man entered carrying a black bag.
"Good morning Mrs. Pickett. I was told that--Good Lord!" The young
doctor dropped to his knees beside the body and raised one of the arms.
After a moment he lowered it gently to the floor and shook his head in
"He's been dead for hours" he announced. "When did you find him?"
"Twenty minutes back" replied the old woman. "I guess he died last
night. He never would be called in the morning. Said he liked to sleep
on. Well he's got his wish."
"What did he die of sir?" asked the policeman.
"It's impossible to say without an examination" the doctor answered.
"It looks like a stroke but I'm pretty sure it isn't. It might be a
coronary attack but I happen to know his blood pressure was normal
and his heart sound. He called in to see me only a week ago and I
examined him thoroughly. But sometimes you can be deceived. The inquest
will tell us." He eyed the body almost resentfully. "I can't understand
it. The man had no right to drop dead like this. He was a tough old
sailor who ought to have been good for another twenty years. If you
want my honest opinion--though I can't possibly be certain until after
the inquest--I should say he had been poisoned."
"How would he be poisoned?" asked Mrs. Pickett quietly.
"That's more than I can tell you. There's no glass about that he could
have drunk it from. He might have got it in capsule form. But why
should he have done it? He was always a pretty cheerful sort of old
man wasn't he?"
"Yes sir" said the Constable. "He had the name of being a joker in
these parts. Kind of sarcastic they tell me though he never tried it
"He must have died quite early last night" said the doctor. He turned
to Mrs. Pickett. "What's become of Captain Muller? If he shares this
room he ought to be able to tell us something about it."
"Captain Muller spent the night with some friends at Portsmouth" said
Mrs. Pickett. "He left right after supper and hasn't returned."
The doctor stared thoughtfully about the room frowning.
"I don't like it. I can't understand it. If this had happened in India
I should have said the man had died from some form of snakebite. I was
out there two years and I've seen a hundred cases of it. The poor
devils all looked just like this. But the thing's ridiculous. How could
a man be bitten by a snake in a Southampton waterfront boarding-house?
Was the door locked when you found him Mrs. Pickett?"
Mrs. Pickett nodded. "I opened it with my own key. I had been calling
to him and he didn't answer so I guessed something was wrong."
The Constable spoke: "You ain't touched anything ma'am? They're always
very particular about that. If the doctor's right and there's been
anything up that's the first thing they'll ask."
"Everything's just as I found it."
"What's that on the floor beside him?" the doctor asked.
"Only his harmonica. He liked to play it of an evening in his room.
I've had some complaints about it from some of the gentlemen but I
never saw any harm so long as he didn't play it too late."
"Seems as if he was playing it when--it happened" Constable Grogan
said. "That don't look much like suicide sir."
"I didn't say it was suicide."
Grogan whistled. "You don't think----"
"I'm not thinking anything--until after the inquest. All I say is that
Another aspect of the matter seemed to strike the policeman. "I guess
this ain't going to do the Excelsior any good ma'am" he said
Mrs. Pickett shrugged her shoulders.
"I suppose I had better go and notify the coroner" said the doctor.
He went out and after a momentary pause the policeman followed him.
Constable Grogan was not greatly troubled with nerves but he felt a
decided desire to be somewhere where he could not see the dead man's
Mrs. Pickett remained where she was looking down at the still form on
the floor. Her face was expressionless but inwardly she was tormented
and alarmed. It was the first time such a thing as this had happened at
the Excelsior and as Constable Grogan had hinted it was not likely
to increase the attractiveness of the house in the eyes of possible
boarders. It was not the threatened pecuniary loss which was troubling
her. As far as money was concerned she could have lived comfortably on
her savings for she was richer than most of her friends supposed. It
was the blot on the escutcheon of the Excelsior--the stain on its
reputation--which was tormenting her.
The Excelsior was her life. Starting many years before beyond the
memory of the oldest boarder she had built up the model establishment
the fame of which had been carried to every corner of the world. Men
spoke of it as a place where you were fed well cleanly housed and
where petty robbery was unknown.
Such was the chorus of praise that it is not likely that much harm
could come to the Excelsior from a single mysterious death but Mother
Pickett was not consoling herself with such reflections.
She looked at the dead man with pale grim eyes. Out in the hallway the
doctor's voice further increased her despair. He was talking to the
police on the telephone and she could distinctly hear his every word.
The offices of Mr. Paul Snyder's Detective Agency in New Oxford Street
had grown in the course of a dozen years from a single room to an
impressive suite bright with polished wood clicking typewriters and
other evidences of success. Where once Mr. Snyder had sat and waited
for clients and attended to them himself he now sat in his private
office and directed eight assistants.
He had just accepted a case--a case that might be nothing at all or
something exceedingly big. It was on the latter possibility that he had
gambled. The fee offered was judged by his present standards of
prosperity small. But the bizarre facts coupled with something in the
personality of the client had won him over. He briskly touched the
bell and requested that Mr. Oakes should be sent in to him.
Elliot Oakes was a young man who both amused and interested Mr. Snyder
for though he had only recently joined the staff he made no secret of
his intention of revolutionizing the methods of the agency. Mr. Snyder
himself in common with most of his assistants relied for results on
hard work and plenty of common sense. He had never been a detective of
the showy type. Results had justified his methods but he was perfectly
aware that young Mr. Oakes looked on him as a dull old man who had been
miraculously favored by luck.
Mr. Snyder had selected Oakes for the case in hand principally because
it was one where inexperience could do no harm and where the brilliant
guesswork which Oakes preferred to call his inductive reasoning might
achieve an unexpected success.
Another motive actuated Mr. Snyder in his choice. He had a strong
suspicion that the conduct of this case was going to have the
beneficial result of lowering Oakes' self-esteem. If failure achieved
this end Mr. Snyder felt that failure though it would not help the
Agency would not be an unmixed ill.
The door opened and Oakes entered tensely. He did everything tensely
partly from a natural nervous energy and partly as a pose. He was a
lean young man with dark eyes and a thin-lipped mouth and he looked
quite as much like a typical detective as Mr. Snyder looked like a
comfortable and prosperous stock broker.
"Sit down Oakes" said Mr. Snyder. "I've got a job for you."
Oakes sank into a chair like a crouching leopard and placed the tips
of his fingers together. He nodded curtly. It was part of his pose to
be keen and silent.
"I want you to go to this address"--Mr. Snyder handed him an
envelope--"and look around. The address on that envelope is of a
sailors' boarding-house down in Southampton. You know the sort of
place--retired sea captains and so on live there. All most respectable.
In all its history nothing more sensational has ever happened than a
case of suspected cheating at halfpenny nap. Well a man had died
"Murdered?" Oakes asked.
"I don't know. That's for you to find out. The coroner left it open.
'Death by Misadventure' was the verdict and I don't blame him. I don't
see how it could have been murder. The door was locked on the inside
so nobody could have got in."
"The window was open granted. But the room is on the second floor.
Anyway you may dismiss the window. I remember the old lady saying
there was a bar across it and that nobody could have squeezed
Oakes' eyes glistened. He was interested. "What was the cause of
death?" he asked.
Mr. Snyder coughed. "Snake bite" he said.
Oakes' careful calm deserted him. He uttered a cry of astonishment.
"Why that's incredible!"
"It's the literal truth. The medical examination proved that the fellow
had been killed by snake poison--cobra to be exact which is found
principally in India."
"Just so. In a Southampton boarding-house in a room with a locked
door this man was stung by a cobra. To add a little mystification to
the limpid simplicity of the affair when the door was opened there was
no sign of any cobra. It couldn't have got out through the door
because the door was locked. It couldn't have got out of the window
because the window was too high up and snakes can't jump. And it
couldn't have gotten up the chimney because there was no chimney. So
there you have it."
He looked at Oakes with a certain quiet satisfaction. It had come to
his ears that Oakes had been heard to complain of the infantile nature
and unworthiness of the last two cases to which he had been assigned.
He had even said that he hoped some day to be given a problem which
should be beyond the reasoning powers of a child of six. It seemed to
Mr. Snyder that Oakes was about to get his wish.
"I should like further details" said Oakes a little breathlessly.
"You had better apply to Mrs. Pickett who owns the boarding-house"
Mr. Snyder said. "It was she who put the case in my hands. She is
convinced that it is murder. But if we exclude ghosts I don't see how
any third party could have taken a hand in the thing at all. However
she wanted a man from this agency and was prepared to pay for him so
I promised her I would send one. It is not our policy to turn business
He smiled wryly. "In pursuance of that policy I want you to go and put
up at Mrs. Pickett's boarding house and do your best to enhance the
reputation of our agency. I would suggest that you pose as a ship's
chandler or something of that sort. You will have to be something
maritime or they'll be suspicious of you. And if your visit produces no
other results it will at least enable you to make the acquaintance
of a very remarkable woman. I commend Mrs. Pickett to your notice. By
the way she says she will help you in your investigations."
Oakes laughed shortly. The idea amused him.
"It's a mistake to scoff at amateur assistance my boy" said Mr.
Snyder in the benevolently paternal manner which had made a score of
criminals refuse to believe him a detective until the moment when the
handcuffs snapped on their wrists. "Crime investigation isn't an exact
science. Success or failure depends in a large measure on applied
common sense and the possession of a great deal of special
information. Mrs. Pickett knows certain things which neither you nor I
know and it's just possible that she may have some stray piece of
information which will provide the key to the entire mystery."
Oakes laughed again. "It is very kind of Mrs. Pickett" he said "but I
prefer to trust to my own methods." Oakes rose his face purposeful.
"I'd better be starting at once" he said. "I'll send you reports from
time to time."
"Good. The more detailed the better" said Mr. Snyder genially. "I hope
your visit to the Excelsior will be pleasant. And cultivate Mrs.
Pickett. She's worth while."
The door closed and Mr. Snyder lighted a fresh cigar. "Dashed young
fool" he murmured as he turned his mind to other matters.
A day later Mr. Snyder sat in his office reading a typewritten report.
It appeared to be of a humorous nature for as he read chuckles
escaped him. Finishing the last sheet he threw his head back and
laughed heartily. The manuscript had not been intended by its author
for a humorous effort. What Mr. Snyder had been reading was the first
of Elliott Oakes' reports from the Excelsior. It read as follows:
I am sorry to be unable to report any real progress. I have
formed several theories which I will put forward later but at
present I cannot say that I am hopeful.
Directly I arrived here I sought out Mrs. Pickett explained
who I was and requested her to furnish me with any further
information which might be of service to me. She is a strange
silent woman who impressed me as having very little
intelligence. Your suggestion that I should avail myself of
her assistance seems more curious than ever now that I have
The whole affair seems to me at the moment of writing quite
inexplicable. Assuming that this Captain Gunner was murdered
there appears to have been no motive for the crime whatsoever.
I have made careful inquiries about him and find that he was
a man of fifty-five; had spent nearly forty years of his life
at sea the last dozen in command of his own ship; was of a
somewhat overbearing disposition though with a fund of rough
humour; had travelled all over the world and had been an inmate
of the Excelsior for about ten months. He had a small annuity
and no other money at all which disposes of money as the motive
for the crime.
In my character of James Burton a retired ship's chandler I have
mixed with the other boarders and have heard all they have to say
about the affair. I gather that the deceased was by no means
popular. He appears to have had a bitter tongue and I have not
met one man who seems to regret his death. On the other hand I
have heard nothing which would suggest that he had any active and
violent enemies. He was simply the unpopular boarder--there is
always one in every boarding-house--but nothing more.
I have seen a good deal of the man who shared his room--another
sea captain named Muller. He is a big silent person and it is
not easy to get him to talk. As regards the death of Captain Gunner
he can tell me nothing. It seems that on the night of the tragedy
he was away at Portsmouth with some friends. All I have got from
him is some information as to Captain Gunner's habits which leads
nowhere. The dead man seldom drank except at night when he would
take some whisky. His head was not strong and a little of the
spirit was enough to make him semi-intoxicated when he would be
hilarious and often insulting. I gather that Muller found him a
difficult roommate but he is one of those placid persons who can
put up with anything. He and Gunner were in the habit of playing
draughts together every night in their room and Gunner had a
harmonica which he played frequently. Apparently he was playing
it very soon before he died which is significant as seeming to
dispose of the idea of suicide.
As I say I have one or two theories but they are in a very
nebulous state. The most plausible is that on one of his visits
to India--I have ascertained that he made several voyages
there--Captain Gunner may in some way have fallen foul of
the natives. The fact that he certainly died of the poison of an
Indian snake supports this theory. I am making inquiries as to
the movements of several Indian sailors who were here in
their ships at the time of the tragedy.
I have another theory. Does Mrs. Pickett know more about
this affair than she appears to? I may be wrong in my estimate
of her mental qualities. Her apparent stupidity may be
cunning. But here again the absence of motive brings me up
against a dead wall. I must confess that at present I do not see
my way clearly. However I will write again shortly.
Mr. Snyder derived the utmost enjoyment from the report. He liked the
substance of it and above all he was tickled by the bitter tone of
frustration which characterized it. Oakes was baffled and his knowledge
of Oakes told him that the sensation of being baffled was gall and
wormwood to that high-spirited young man. Whatever might be the result
of this investigation it would teach him the virtue of patience.
He wrote his assistant a short note:
Your report received. You certainly seem to have got the hard
case which I hear you were pining for. Don't build too much
on plausible motives in a case of this sort. Fauntleroy the
London murderer killed a woman for no other reason than that
she had thick ankles. Many years ago I myself was on a case
where a man murdered an intimate friend because of a dispute
about a bet. My experience is that five murderers out of ten
act on the whim of the moment without anything which properly
speaking you could call a motive at all.
Yours very cordially
P. S. I don't think much of your Pickett theory. However you're
in charge. I wish you luck.
Young Mr. Oakes was not enjoying himself. For the first time in his
life the self-confidence which characterized all his actions seemed to