Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, August 23, 2019


"The Death Chair" by L. T. Meade & Robert Eustace (from The Strand Magazine, July 1899)

Elizabeth Thomasina Meade (1844-1914) was best known as a prolific and popular author of more than 300 books, about half of which were stories for girls.  The L. T. in her writing name stood for Lillie Thomas.  She was also the founding editor of the girls' magazine Atlanta, a successor to Every Girl's Magazine; she edited the magazine for all but five years of its existence, with the quality of the magazine falling sharply after her departure.  Meade was also a strong supporter of the feminist movement and her stories and her magazine proved to be a good conduit for her views.

Devotees of mystery fiction, however, know her as the author and co-author of a number of seminal works in the detective genre:  Stories from the Diary of a Doctor (three volumes), A Master of Mysteries, The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings, and The Sorceress of the Strand.  Wikipedia lists 66 volumes of her mysteries, although (because of the vagarities of Wikipedia) I cannot vouch how many of this number are true mysteries.  At least eleven of her mystery books were co-written with Robert Eustace, about whom little is known.  Eustace, whose real name was Robert Eustace Barton, was evidently a terrible writer but a good plotter and, as a medical doctor, was a good source of medical and scientific background. In addition to collaborating with Meade he also worked with Edgar Jepson (The Tea-Life) and with Drothy L. Sayers (The Documents in the Case)

"The Death Chair" was the first of six stories about The Sanctuary Club that were published in The Strand Magazine in the last half of 1899 and were published in book form the following year.  (It is erronously reported in The Enclopedia of Science Fiction that this series was written by Meade and Clifford Halifax, another of Meade's frequent co-authors, rather than with Eustace.)  The Strand's policy was not to print serials, but it often published series of stories linked by a specific character in this manner before they achieved book publication; such was the case with Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series, Arthur Morrison's Martin Hewitt series, Agatha Christie's The Labours of Hercules (only eleven of the twelve "labours," however; the last would have to wait for book publication), and others.

The Sanctuary Club was an inprobably creation, suited far more to fiction than reality.  It was created by Paul Cato and his friend Henry Chetwynd, both doctors.  A large inheritance (very large) came to Cato when he was forty and allowed him to make a dream of his reality.  He built a large (very large) mansion on sprawling acreage and he and Chetwynd started The Sanctuary Club, open to all of both sexes who would afford the fifty-pound entry fee and the annual subscription of ten pounds; in addition, every member of the club must be a "victim of disease in one of its many forms.  The primary object of the club was to cure malacies that were in any way curable without sending to patients out of England."  (None of this take a rest in the mountains, or at sea, or in the quiet woods, or in a dry climate.  If necessary, the Club had the resources to create such climates on their own.)   The Club's resources also provided the latest in medical research.  Those with minor maladies could come in for consultation; those with more serious maladies were residents of the Club.  By the end of the first year of the club, there were nearly three hundred resident.  I did mention the place was large (very large), didn't I?

"The Death Chair" is concerned with three patients, none of them residents.  Lady Helen Trevor, is beautiful, rich, popular, and loved by her husband.  She suffers from "an extraordinary kind of nervousness. which, without ever approaching the borderland of the insane, cause her sleepless nights and days of apprehension and misery."  (In other words, she most probably had some form of anxiety.)  She happens to own the Catalini Casket, a unique jewel-encrusted box that had been in her husband's family, which he gace to her with the promise that she would never part with it.  
The box is coveted by Senor Don Santos, a Club member who lived in a large mansion near Wimbleton.  Don Santos' medical issues are not revealed, however, he is prone of bursts of anger and Chetwynd -- who does not like or trust the man -- feels he is suffering from incipient anxiety.  The third patient is John Ingram, a poor man whose Club membership was paid by Chetwynd, who had teken a great liking to the young man.  Ingram suffers from "paroxysms of neauralgic anxiety" and is not the smartest kid on the block, but he is personable and is devoted to his mother.  Ingrim's biggest wish is to be rich enough to have his mother live with him so he could give her the best care possible.  One day, the three wre in a intense discussion about the Catalini Casket.  A few days later all three left the Club, citing its praises and vowing to return again.

Later that year, Ingrim burst into Cato's consultation room so excited with news that he must tell someone.  Since his mentor Chetwynd was away that someone was Cato.  Ingrim said that had earned 350 pounds in one day, acting as an agent and that he felt sure he would be getting more commissions.  He could now afford to care for his mother properly.  As to what or whom he was an agent for, Ingrim wouldn't say.  Joyful at his good luck, Ingrim left.

Shrtly after, Chetwynd returned and Cato informed him of Ingram's visit.  Chetwynd fears that Don Santos is involved in the affair.  "Senor Don Santos was far too friendly with Ingram when the were both here.  I distrust the man throughly.  The is no doubt that on some points he is insane -- he is also unscryupulous, and to attain his ends would stop at nothing," Chetwynd said.

The next morning Ingram was found dead, his battered body lyng some three hudred yards from Don Santos' mansion.  The ground around the body was completely undisturbed with no sign of anyone else being present.  The damage done to Ingrim was so extensive that it could not have been dome by a human, although it was difficult to imagine what kind of beast would do this.   One theory was that he had fallen off a hot air balloon, but this idea was soon abandoned.  Chetwynd is convinced that Don Santos is involved in the young man's death.  Afraid that Chetwynd might do something rash, Cato gives Don Santos a visit.

Don Santos admits the Ingram was acting as his agent.  A rare pearl necklace was being auctioned off at Christie's, and Santo told Ingram to spend up to 7000 pounds to obtain it.  He had telegramed Don Santos the day before that he had got the necklace and would deliver it that evening.  According to Don Santos, Ingram never appeared.  The necklace had not been found on Ingram's body, giving officials theft as a motive for the murder.  Who killed Ingram and how, and what happened to the necklace remained mysteries.

About half a year later, Cato is approached by Ingram's mother.  She is convinced Don Santos murdered her son.  She also said that Ingram borrowed the 7000 pounds to make the bid, knowing that he would ber reimbursed by Don Santos but, not having the necklace, Don Santos refused to pay Ingram's debt.  It remained to Ingram's mother to pay off the debt using all of her resources.  She now lives on a very small stipend.  She told Cato that she knew her son had made it to Don Santos' mansion because she had dreamt it -- a very vivid dream of the two of them on Don Santos' second floor veranda.  Cato agrees to go to Don Santos to see if such a veranda exists to plead the old woman's case for the 7000 pounds.

The veranda on the second floor did exist.  How did Mrs. Ingrim know that? 

In any event we learn that Lady Helen has agreed to "sell" the Catalini Casket to Don Santos.  It seems her brother had racked up a 5000-pound debt that had to be paid off.  Lady Helen's husband refused to give her the money and so she turned to Don Santos.  Don Santos agreed to give her the money in exchange for the casket, which he would hold as collateral until Lady Helen could repay him.  Don Santos is convinced that Lady Helen will never repay the loan and that he will permanent custody of the casket.  Cato agrees to being the middleman in this exchange.  He brings the casket to Don Santos and expects to leave with a check of 5000 pounds, not realizing what Don Santos' true intentions were.

Of course his intentions were murder, but how?  And can Cato save himself and solve the mystery of Ingram's death?  Of course he can.  There are five more episodes to come in the series.

A somewhat complicated story with a somewhat fantastic solution, but one that remains as readable today as it did 120 years ago.

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