The Affair of the Ashen Tycoon
No sooner had winter gasped its final breath, blowing a cruel wind that chilled London to her stony bones, than with all the suddenness of a cobra strike, the frigid wave passed and the city basked in the eager glare of a nascent spring. It was delightfully warm, a smooth breeze drifting in through billowing curtains and darting playfully across our rooms on Butcher Street that afternoon.
Spring was upon us, and while the rest of London was hard at work, Price and I partook of our normal routine of relaxation, casual innuendo and narcotics. I sat ensconced in the deep burgundy leather of my favored chair, eyes half closed, sucking peacefully and periodically on an ornate pipe, savoring its smoldering cargo of tea and scaffa root; by one hand, the early edition Saturn draped languidly on the thick arm of my chair. Winston Price glided about the room in his lush, shimmering dressing gown, muttering under his breath in a quick, quiet hiss. Every few minutes, the man would stop in mid-glide, whirl towards me and bark a series of words in close succession. I, in turn, would echo with my own series of words, and we continued in this manner for some time. We were not communicating, nor musing, nor exchanging witticisms; rather, Price had once again conscripted me as his sparring partner for a game of wits I called Twilly.
“Fig nut, merchant, vial!” Price snapped after a long, hiss-riddled pause.
“Food, pipe, horse!” I cried enthusiastically.
“Gemini, tumble, grating, plough!”
“Food, horse, robbery!”
I sank deeper into my seat, confident that Price would appreciate the elegance of my triplet; for I certainly had no grasp of the meaning of our utterances. The detective had never explained the rules nor the aim of Twilly; he had never declared an end to a game, nor a winner, nor loser. Indeed, he had never explicitly characterized this activity as a game of any sort. Twilly, I should add, was named by myself, Price having neither spoken nor heard this name. In hindsight, there existed a none too insignificant possibility that the activity in which we were engaged was not a game of wits at all; a possibility with which I was shortly to be rudely acquainted.
“Ah, Miss Bay,” Price crooned.
“Bay, horse, food!” I bellowed with a momentary delight. This satisfaction evaporated like a flash-boiled spittoon when I glanced around to see our stout landlady, Miss Bay, standing stiffly in the doorway, gazing blandly from under a bulky hat. I did wish Price would announce when Twilly stopped and greeting visitors began! I hastened to add, “Greetings Miss Bay. My apologies.”
As I said this, Miss Bay – as immune to my reparations as to my gaffe – stepped aside and a tall, bony man slipped through the door. His worn black topcoat, weathered hat and general stoop suggested a man of advanced age, though his physical appearance was that of a homely younger gentleman. His cheeks lay sallow and pale but smooth as a child’s; but it was his hands, above all, that betrayed his age. Price settled softly to the ground with nary a rustle, having found over time that hovering several inches above the floor tended to unsettle his would-be clientele.
“I am the Consulting Detective, Winston Price,” he began smoothly. He gestured towards me as he continued. “My companion, Mister Franklin Slims, helpmate and sounding board for all matters upon which I train my powers. Please,” he went on, offering the visitor a chair, “sit.”
The thin man perched uneasily on the edge of an armchair, adjusting his cuffs, as our landlady nodded at nothing in particular and departed, closing the door softly in her wake. The visitor’s tall hat sat on one knee as he began to speak. His voice was high-pitched, faltering and odd; he did not so much talk as rather intone a continual nasal whine, from which periodically emerged some semblance of words. “Mister ahhh-Price, very ahh-good of you to ahhh-entertain my visit. I come with a case, ahhh-a problem, a dilemma of the greatest ahhhh-magnitude. It concerns my ahhh-father.”
To spare the reader the special acoustic torture endured by Price and myself over the ensuing hour, I shall endeavor to paraphrase the young man’s story.
The sallow gentleman bleating incessantly in our quarters was in fact none other than Ebenezer Mellensohn, eldest son of Jean Rho Mellensohn and heir to that family’s vast fortune.
Jean Rho Mellensohn was the only son of a Norwegian shipbuilder who emigrated to Britain in 18—. As a man of three and twenty, he took employment with a tobacconist, and by the age of twenty-nine, through fortuitous inheritance and serendipity, had risen to managing a small chain of stores of which he was then the sole proprietor. Battling his way through the tough ripples of London’s tastes and fancies, he married in 18— at the age of forty seven. He had amassed a significant fortune, retaining a controlling interest in his giant tobacco importer Rho Limited. For all this, he remained a secretive, quiet and reclusive man. His Norwegian upbringing had left him with a modest command of English and a challenging accent, and in his later years he withdrew from communication, first from English, and later from speech entirely. A self-styled mute, Jean Rho had not spoken a word since his fifty-fourth year, now twenty years past.
His marriage had yielded three sons, all of whom were now in their twenties, and his wife had since died. The family residence – a palatial affair near Buckfordtwomblestropshire – was still under Jean Rho’s command, though he did little now but sit in a dark study, curtains drawn, facing away from the door and immediately expelling anyone who dared enter with a brisk wave of his hand. Delivered to him by dumbwaiter, food returned seemingly untouched. Nonetheless, Jean Rho prepared the financial statements of the company every month on time; these arrived, with the untouched food, on the dumbwaiter. His sons had little to do save for approving the figures, which always seemed fair and correct.
Such had been the situation at Buckfordtwomblestropshire for nearly fifteen years, two of the boys never having spoken with their father and the eldest with only a faint memory of his voice. The children had been home-schooled, taught by a Norwegian nanny with a speech impediment (which I was quite confident even I could have deduced, given the awful drawl of Ebenezer’s speech). The reason for the young man’s visit was chilling indeed. In recent months, old Jean Rho had begun preparing financial statements for Rho Tobacco that were clearly misguided and often impossible, allocating large sums of money to hidden interests and transferring holdings to individuals with whom neither Ebenezer nor the company accountants were in any way familiar. Fearing his father’s wrath, Ebenezer delayed approaching him and quietly corrected the finances as best he could, but once this past month’s statements had passed across his desk, Ebenezer resolved to confront his father. The meeting had not gone well. Just as Ebenezer burst into his father’s quarters he was immediately, sternly banished by an even more violent wave of the old man’s hand than usual. So it was that Ebenezer had come to Price.
“I had ahhh-hoped that you might be ahhh-able to ahhh-deduce my father’s motives from outside his ahhh-chambers,” Ebenezer concluded.
Price drew deeply on his slim pipe, puffing tea and scaffa, blowing a hot breath of savory fumes above his head. “Indeed, young Mellensohn. Would it not, however, be easier for myself or Slims simply to enter your father’s chambers and confront him personally?”
“Oh indeed ahhh-not Mister Price, that won’t do at all! My father is ahhhh-old and rather frail, sir and I would greatly like to avoid the ahhh-rudest of shocks that would ahhh-accompany unexpected ahhh-visitors.”
“Very well, very well. Indeed, I expect to pierce your father’s veil of secrecy by tomorrow, half four, without once setting foot in the good man’s study!”
Mellensohn’s face twisted in slow shock. “But sir – how?”
“Fear not, my son, for the Lamb of God has marked thee for redemption,” Price intoned heartily, leaping to his feet and waving his smoldering pipe for effect. “Agnus Dei, your protector and savior. You need know no fear, child, for I shall cure thee of fear and rid thee of hate! For I and none other, am the only begotten son of our Lord God in Heaven!”
As Mellensohn sat aghast, I gestured to him calmingly, indicating that this pronouncement of Price’s was entirely normal and should in all good conscience be ignored. Ebenezer’s horror did not lessen, but instead grew to include me. Thankfully, Price’s utterance was atypically restrained, and ended rather quickly. As Price sat, content, Ebenezer shook his head sharply and addressed the detective once more.
“Regarding your ahhh-fee, mister Price, I hoped five hundred would ahhh-suffice to get the investigation underway.”
My helping of surprise had clearly arrived, and that coy serving wench, ‘fate’, was hardly guilty of restraint – a shocked grimace crawled over my face like a swarm of anxious beetles as I imbibed the stuff of this offer through my quivering aural canal. Five hundred pounds! A virtual fortune!
“Décadent, my good boy, purely décadent,” Price said. “Five hundred will start us out quite well.”
Ebenezer nodded and rose, thankfully robbed for the time being of the will to speak. I sprang up, opened the door, and showed the young man to his carriage. Returning to our flat, I was met with the semi-surprising display of Price sprawled on the floor, rolling in a mass of tea leaves which had clearly been emptied from a colossal vase in which we kept our smoking stash. The distinguished detective had lost all semblance of decorum and was thrashing about in the mess, evidently trying to submerge himself in tea on the floor of our rooms. In my best estimation, the man sought utter saturation of the essence of tea and the narcotic scaffa root, an exposure so high that simple ingestion by smoking was no longer sufficient. It is only fair to report to the reader that this behavior was, sadly, far from unusual in our residence; though normally, Price rolled nude.
“Steeping?” I asked, closing the door gently and folding my arms across my chest.
“Steeping,” he replied, wide eyed, through a mouthful of finely ground leaves.
The following day was brisk and heavily overcast. The initial burst of welcome spring warmth had evaporated, leaving in its wake the mild, slightly chill air of the no-man’s land of middle March. Price and I were lounging in a comfortable compartment on the train to Buckfordtwomblestropshire, playing once again at Twilly amid the rattle, rumble and groan of the railroad. Price was engaged in writing something in his copy of this morning’s Saturn, while snapping his Twilly contributions every so often. I replied in my normal style.
“Genealogy… Transportation… Ivory Coast,” came Price’s triplet.
“Food, horse, pipe!” My trusty rebuttal. Seemingly, this series always gave the detective pause; so much so, in fact, that I had begun using these words with some regularity to trump Price’s parries.
After a pause: “Cabbage.”
“Food, horse, pipe!”
A longer pause this time, during which I read the headlines on the front page of the Saturn, which was visible so long as Price continued writing on the back. This week the Great Sarcophagus of Hebi and Mummy of Da were to be put on display at the Grand Hall of Antiquity. If I had understood the words ‘sarcophagus’ or ‘mummy’, this headline might have carried more than a passing interest -- for I fancied myself something of an Egyptologist at the time.
“Delinquent. Sedimentary. A propos.” Price spoke more rhythmically now, as though reciting from a page.
I was just about to volley with ‘Food, horse, pipe’ when the compartment door opened and an elderly lady poked in. “Oh, excuse me,” she began, “are you gentlemen busy?”
“No, come in, my good madam,” Price replied kindly. “I am engaged at a crossword as has lately become my habit, but please excuse my companion, who is experiencing recurring uncontrolled utterances.”
Twilly. He might at least have used its proper name.
Stepping out onto the platform at Buckfordtwomblestropshire, Price took a deep breath of the moist air and twirled his cane. We set off to find a cab to the Mellensohn estate. “I thought we weren’t supposed to visit Jean Rho, Price,” I managed.
“Of course, Slims. Not to worry, there’s no chance of Jean Rho speaking with us or anyone, of that I can fully assure you!” No words expected from mute tycoon. Price’s much-lauded powers of deduction did seem, at times, at least somewhat overrated.
“But Price, we promised Ebenezer that we wouldn’t disturb old Jean Rho,” I implored. “We don’t want to scare the poor man stiff,” fearing less Price’s stern rebuttal than loss of the rich monetary harvest this case could yield.
Price laughed, a rich, undulating rush of baritone rolling forth from his heaving belly. “My good Slims,” he chided, “old Jean Rho has been very stiff for a very long time. I need only one more critical piece of information to solve this entire mystery, and by the end of the day, I shall have it.”
Price hailed a hansom and we clambered in. “Driver, Mellensohn Estates,” he directed, settling into his seat with the Saturn crossword once again.
The estate loomed large and imposing on the tallest hill in Buckfordtwomblestropshire, Pleasant Knoll. Through the streaked window of the cab I caught my first glimpse of the mansion: first spires, then squat towers peering above the foliage in the distance. Finally, we rounded a bend and the whole house swung into view. Thick, old stone shot up from firm soil, leaded recessed windows peppering the ordered clutter of the house’s stolid façade.
“Good heavens Price, what an estate!” I cried, taking in the sheer magnitude of the house on Pleasant Knoll. The cab rolled up to the gate, where a watchman stood, stocky, grinning and tottering from side to side. The man looked familiar to me, though I found myself unable to place his visage. Price paid the cabbie and we climbed out. I felt dewy gravel crunch and grind beneath my feet, and looked down to see Price floating three inches above ground. The watchman opened the gate with a leery grin.
“Welcome Mister Price, the family is expecting you.” The iron gate creaked and moaned as the grizzled, stubble-chinned man swung it ajar. “Right this way, up the path.” I followed Price through the gate, when suddenly the watchman grabbed my arm. “Slims!” he exclaimed. “Franklin Slims, of Derby-on-Haughton and the Strand!”
I smiled broadly in sudden recognition. “Hannibal, my good man! How the devil have you been! What’s it been since our days in Derby? Six years?”
“Aye, six to be sure, Slims!” I embraced my old friend Hannibal, a former panhandler and partner in crime from my begging days. He continued. “What’s this, all respectable? Working with the famous Winston Price?” he teased. “And what of your family?”
“Ah, devil may care!” I bellowed. “Left ‘em at a cattle show, steeped in filth and drenched in the blood of a leprous bull!” We both laughed. Hannibal had abandoned the remnants of his family somewhat earlier, leaving his wife and two daughters to fend for themselves in an alley off the Strand. At this point I turned to the detective, who was observing our exchange with a bemused detachment. “Here, Price, I should catch up with Hannibal! Mind if I chat a bit, join you later?”
“Certainly, Slims,” Price said, whirling contentedly and starting up the path. “I shall interview each member of the family and gather the remaining evidence to cement the case. The controversy shall be resolved directly.”
“Fine, fine,” I shouted after him, hardly hearing the detective. “Here, Hannibal, tell me how you came to work for the infamous Jean Rho Mellensohn?”
“Ah, t’was a simple thing really,” my friend began, locking the gate as we turned to stroll about the grounds. “Came by way of rail through Buckfordtwomblestropshire one summer, seeking fortune and fame and all, and pulled on Ebenezer at the station.”
“Pulled his purse,” I added, cheekily.
“Aye, of course! I made the pull I did, pulled the guv, but his brother catches me at it, gives them goods right back to Ebenezer. Crikey, soon as I know it, he’s hired me as his watchman, going on about how it takes one to know one and all that. Quite the gig, I say. Never met the old stooge meself, mind.”
“And what of this controversy?” Price had mentioned some hullabaloo involving the senior Mellensohn on several occasions these past twelve hours, though always in such a manner as led me to believe I should already be well acquainted with the situation. As such, I had not seen fit to inquire about it, and generally nodded along in what I hoped was a knowing and intelligent manner. This chance meeting with Hannibal seemed the perfect opportunity to learn the basics of the scandal that now threatened to topple the house of Mellensohn and leave the dark, sweaty imprint of a grand family’s tumble from privilege on the muslin tableau of history.
“Aye, the controver-say. Dunno what that means, Slims,” he grumbled, “but shiver me lamb chops I hear it said enough. I’ll tell ye the problems here though.”
I nodded invitingly.
“Well, I s’pose you’ve heard the old bag’s been messing wif his Frances papers.”
“Finances,” I interjected.
“Right, right. Well, the codge is out to lily, right gone he is! Gave me triple pay last fortnight, on me mother’s honor!”
“Your mother’s honor expired the day I met her, Hannibal!” I barked, and we both roared momentarily with laughter. My friend, recognizing the evident truth of this pronouncement, wasted no breath on rebuttal.
“Well, ain’t no one gone in his quarters without being banished wif a wave of the ’and, not even the oldest boy, Ebenezer – a right squirmy worm that one is.” He checked over his shoulder as nervousness swam across his eyes. “And what’s more,” he went on, voice lowered, “word is, all manner o’ strange letters ‘ave been sent to wives, mistresses, even the dowager Princess of Norway, by the senile old badger!”
“Wha--?” I started at this news. Riotous! Attention les femmes! Jean Rho Mellensohn, the autocratic mute tycoon, was on the prowl for a new bride! The humor was palpable, though I could certainly see how this might cause a stir in society circles across Europe. “He actually wrote the wives of… what? Lords?”
“Aye,” Hannibal said dismissively, “ladies, duchesses, dames. He’s crafted love letters to some of the most impossible women, on my mother’s honor! But no more of that, come, let’s take a walk.”
Here followed a most delightful afternoon. Hannibal and I strolled and chatted for some time, snacked on sweet bagels and Natly berries, played three matches of cribbage (for a wedge of delectable chèvre my friend had in his possession), and carved our names with quick-blades into an old boot we found lying on the grounds. After a relaxing and congenial afternoon, we were about to strip to our cotton sammies for a splash in the Mellensohn pond when I caught a glimpse of Price floating literally thirty feet above ground, hovering and peering in a third floor window of the estate.
From my vantage, I could see the detective brandishing a sizeable crucifix in his left hand and sprinkling what seemed to be his own spittle on the window in front of him with the fingers of his right. Though I could not make out the stuff of his indubitably blasphemous utterance, Price looked to be speaking. Unacquainted as I was with the specifics of the case, this development nonetheless seemed sure to be catalytic in some respect -- either bringing the mystery to a close, or more in line with my fears, terminating our contract directly. Either way, I elected to postpone my dip with Hannibal and proceed at once to meet Price.
As I crested the stout hill that bordered the Mellensohn pond to the north and looked up to the estate, I came upon a motley circle: Ebenezer, hunched dourly beside two scruffy and sullen black-clad youths (who, by homology to the eldest, I reckoned to be the younger Mellensohn brothers), the Norwegian nanny, and a sundry array of servants, maids and groundskeepers who all evidently had accompanied Price during his recent investigations. In the middle stood the detective, arms outstretched, crucifix now dangling harmlessly around his neck. His head was tilted fully back, as though the man were basking in the muted sunshine that struggled to shimmy through the veil of featureless cloud above, or more probably, awaiting another wholly imagined command from his ‘Father’ in Heaven. Drawing closer, I noticed a slim, hirsute strand of twine extending from his clenched left fist, following it with my eyes to the same third-floor window the detective had recently been examining, where it disappeared from view. This seemed hardly more perplexing than anything else I routinely witnessed in Price’s company, and as such I dismissed it.
“Ah, just in time, Slims! I have solved the final piece of the mystery, and the affair of the great, the stoic, the positively wooden Jean Rho –” here he paused, and yanked fearsomely on the twine, “is over!”
The window overhead burst open with a crack and a human form came tumbling out, crashing to the ground inches from where I stood. The crowd let out a united gasp of horror, which quickly gave way to whimpers of amazement from the women and stunned silence from the Mellensohn boys. Their father, it seemed, was made entirely of ash wood.
“I present to you Jean Rho Mellensohn,” Price began in a deep tone, “the Ashen Tycoon of Buckfordtwomblestropshire.”
I turned in disbelief to the detective. “Brilliant, Price,” I started, though truth be told I had very little idea how this fit in with what few details I knew of the case. “What’s the meaning of it?”
“The meaning of it, my good Slims, is simple indeed. The great, the prosperous Jean Rho Mellensohn died at age sixty eight, nearly a decade ago. This likeness in sturdy ash-wood was crafted by the man himself during his sixth decade, and set up in his study with this twine connected on the distal end to a simple pulley and rack on the entrance door, and proximally, to the mannequin’s right hand. Shrouded in darkness, the dummy sat in peace until some unfortunate soul entered the room, only to be sent off with a quick, rude jolt from his hand, thus.” Here, Price tugged the twine sharply and the dummy’s forearm rose from the grass. I noticed Ebenezer wince, conditioned to respond to this cold gesture from his inanimate father.
“Incredible,” I repeated. “But what of the letters, the love letters to all the noble, married ladies?” Ebenezer stared immediately at the ground and turned quite red, clearly troubled by this rumor but evidently so accustomed to hearing it spoken that he no longer saw fit to interject. “And the finances? Where did the real Jean Rho go, Price?”
“My dear Slims, so noble a helpmate, yet well nigh equally thick-skulled as our wooden friend here,” chided my portly friend good-naturedly. “Jean Rho planned his escape from his life of public success for seventeen months, all the while crafting letters of offer to various ladies around Britain and the Continent. When one such offer was accepted, Mellensohn installed his ashen likeness and turned tail to live out the remaining years of his life in comfortable anonymity in the countryside of West Bassex. The documents I found this afternoon clearly showed this.” He paused to look between the faces in the small crowd, and was met with nods of approval and agreement before continuing. “And there can be little doubt that Mellensohn senior was stationed in Bassex county.”
Here, one of Ebenezer’s brothers came alive and spoke, in an eerie aping of his elder sibling’s speech.
“Yes sir, an amazing series of deductions! Quite brilliant!” Ebenezer glared at the boy, who hung his head briskly.
“Furthermore,” Price went on, voice rising as he began waving his arms emphatically, “the only person not fooled by Jean Rho was … you!”
He pointed sharply at the old Nanny, who glared back in her Continental brand of defiance.
“Yes, I knew of it,” she snapped. “It was all he wanted, to be free again!”
“A quiet life with a noble lady,” Price mused, “and to be rid forever of the awful harvest his loins had produced – the hellish, languid spawn he so cruelly brought into this world!” I glanced at the Mellensohn boys. Price’s characterization, while harsh, seemed fair. “And of course,” Price went on, clearly in the closing throes of his argument, “the falsified records were produced by none other than Stefan Dalbouthe and vetted by the groundskeeper’s deaf daughter. After my discovery not twenty minutes ago in the servants’ quarters, I doubt any of you would deny that!” His gaze met only grimly nodding faces. “So I believe the mystery is solved, dear friends. And rightly so,” he continued, his voice at once louder and pedagogical, “for I shall grind away the troubles of the earth as rye in a mill until my father, the Lord God, arrives to judge you all to salvation or to the hellfire of damnation, as the case may be!”
The crucifix shimmered in the muted light.
The spectators were clearly satisfied with Price’s conclusions, leaving me reassured as to their validity. I thus felt fully ratified in my absence and entertaining afternoon with Hannibal, confident that I had just witnessed everything of true import to the case, and was now able to see clearly the cold mesh of scheming and deceit that Price had divined from the onset. As Price later explained, the letters tainting the Mellensohn family name were far from current. Jean Rho had crafted them nearly two decades earlier; only through some magnificent error (the disclosure of which likely occurred either during my cribbage matches, or quite possibly the boot-etching session) had they been sent to their once-intended recipients.
Following Price’s discovery of the wooden patriarch, control of Rho Tobacco finances passed to Ebenezer, who took better care than the meddling, unscrupulous Turk, the alleged mastermind behind Rho’s fiscal decay of late (whom I later learned, was collared by Price while I was enjoying my newly won chèvre).
As often proves to be the case, I had been able once again to enjoy the best of both worlds – engaging in pleasant, soothing diversions of significant leisurely merit while Price carried on with his investigations, and arriving in the nick of time to receive the final pronouncement, the grand revelation, the solution to the case. I am sure you will agree, noble reader, that those trifling details of the investigation not driven home by Winston Price’s fine concluding disclosure are best left to the imagination.
After bidding farewell to Hannibal and stowing the left forearm of the dummy (which I had elected to keep as a souvenir) in my satchel, I set off with Price by cab to the train station, savoring the weighty jingle of hard-earned pay in my pockets. Solving a challenging puzzle remained the detective’s drug of choice, and as we made our way home he was in fine spirits, a thin smile dancing across his lips as he settled into his seat. My companion was chuffed but outwardly calm as he began a fresh crossword, and soon I was an eager and grateful participant in game of Twilly that lasted the entire trip back to Butcher Street before spanning a double sachet of tea blend and scaffa.