Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, November 1, 2022


     "The Secret of Emu Plain" by L. T. Meade & Robert Eustace (first appeared in Casssell's Magagine, December 1898; reprinted in The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes Two, edited by Alan K. Russell, 1979)

From my earliest youth the weird, the mysterious had an irresistible fascination for me.  Having private means, I resolved to follow my unique inclinations, and I am now well known to all my friends as a professional exposer of ghosts, and one who can clear away the mysteries of most haunted houses...To explain, by the application of science, phenomena attributed to spiritual agencies has been the work of my life.  I propose in these pages to relate the histories of certai queer events, enveloped at first in mystery, and  apparently dark with portent, but, nevertheless, when grappled with in the true spirit of science, capable of explanation.

The above is from the introduction to Meade and Eustace's A Master of Mysteries (1898), a collection of six stories from Cassell's Family Magazine featuring John Bell, "ghost exposer."  Over the course of these six stories we learn that there was one case that baffled Bell, one case that he could not explain.  Cassell's (having dropped the "Family" from its title in the interim) printed the the story of the case the year after the book came out.

Emu Plain is a desolate, arid stretch of land of some forty square miles in the Barcoo District of Queensland.  At the center of the plain rises the great Emu Rock, a three hundred foot tall, smooth limestone crag; there is no physical way to climb the rock.  Over its plateaued peak contantly soar many crows and hawks.  The natives avoid Emu Plain, declaring it is haunted by a fearsome creature known as the Bunyip.

At one end of Emu Plain is the station of Bell's old friend Jim MacDonald, whose niece, Rosamund Dale, is about to be married to Frank Goodwin, whose station was just thirty miles away, across Emu Plain.  Bell, fulfilling an old promise to Rosamund, has arrived MacDonald's station for the wedding, which was scheduled for the next day.   Goodwin, who had set off earlier that day for MacDonald's had not arrived and Rosamund was getting worried.   MacDonald then rode across emu Plain to see what had held up the groom-to-be; he returned, aving found no trace of the young man.  That evening the local ranger showed up, bearing news that Goodwin's riderless horse had been found at the edge of Emu Plain with no sign of Goodwin.  A small party, including Bell and MacDonald, set off to investigate, aided by the one-eyed native Billy who was the best tracker in the area.

Like all the natives, Billy is afraid of the Bunyip but he does manage to trace Goodwin partway through Emu Plain.  According to the tracks, to other horses met up with Goodwin, then at the foot of Emu Rock, there was a scuffle, then the two horses rode away, leaving no sign of Goodwin.  Who were these men, and what had happened to Goodwin?  Search party after search party went out and after two weeks, no trace of the missing man was found.  A year before, a wandering englishman had disappeared in a similar manner, with signs of a scuffle at the very same location at the foot of Emu Rock.  Men had disappeared from there in previous years also.

Business eventually called Bell away from the area, although he promised to return soon.  While at a neighboring ranch and awaiting the coach that would come in several hours time to take him to Brisbane, Bell decided to have one last look at the mysterious site.  Borroing a horse, he headed out once again to Emu Rock, where he looked around for half an hour.  The he spotted a small object falling from the sky.  It was a human finger bone, evident;y dropped by one of the overhead crows.

As sometimes happens in that area, a sudden sirocco arose and Bell prostrated himself on the ground to protect himself from the fast-moving sandstorm.  The sand began to cover him, and then...Bell passed out face down on the florr of Emu Plain.

He awoke, still dazed, to find himself face up in an indentation at the top of Emu Rock.  Next to him was the body of Frank Goodwin.  How had he got up there?  And how did Goodwin get up there?  On every side of the Rock was a three hundred foot sheer precipice with neither handhold or foothold.  Suddenly there was a movement from under the dead man's body and a massive brown snake slithered into sight.  The snake, some sort of viper, readied itself to attack Bell, who felt that his only choices was death by snake or death by jumping off Emu Rock to escape the serpent.  Slowly and carefully, Bell took off his belt and wrapped around a largish stone, creating an improvised sling.  The snake and Bell both struck at the same time.  The stone, wielded with all of Bell's force, broke the snake's back and Bell then used the stone to smash its head in.  He tossed the snake's body off the Rock to the Plain below.  Then he threw Goodwin's body off the rock, hoping that someone would eventually find it.

Trapped, with no way off the rock except by jumping, and facing a slow death from starvation and thirst, Bell waited.   With his strength almost gone, a rope suddenly appeared and a voice called for him to pull on the rope.  He did, and managed to secured the end of the rope to a solid area of the rock before he passed out.

Bell awoke weeks later after the fever had left him.  It turned out that Rosamund had had a "premonition" that Bell was stranded on the rock and insisted on going out there with her uncle and Billy.  They managed to fire a cord to the top of th rock by means of a "rocket gun" and Billy climbed up and brought Bell back down.  But what had happened?  How did Bell and the dead Goodwin get to the top of the unclimbable precipice?  Who where the two mysterious horsemen?  And how did that gigantic serpent manage to survive up there?

I have unearthed more than one ghost in my day, but the great Bunyip of Emu Plain has baffled my ingenuity.  He has won in the fight, and I bow my head in silence, owning that he, in his unfathomable mystery, is stronger than I.

But wait, there's more!

John Bell may not know the secret of Emu Rock, but Mrs. Meade claimed that she did.  And Cassell's took that opportunity for a competition.  The top ten readers who could come closest to solving the mystery would win One Guinea each.  No person could enter more than one solution of the story and entries had to be under 300 words,  Entries must have been received by February 15th, 1899, and the winners -- along with Mrs. Meade's solution -- would be announced in the April issue of the magazine.

Three hundred eighty-six readers responded, with answers arriving from every country in Europe, and from the "Far West of the United States," as well as from the West Indies, Canada, India, and Australia.  The solutions ranged from the laughably impossible to the mildly implausible.  Four readers came pretty close to Mrs. Meade's solution (which, in itself, was mildly implausible), but one had to be disqualified because it came from a regular contributor to Cassell's.  The winning entries (in case you were curious) were from, alphabetically:  AGNES CLANCHY, MISS CROSLAND, W. R. FOSTER, SAM. H. GOOD, E. T. JONES, THE REV, J. MIREHOUSE, MINNIE ROBERTSON, THOS. V. STATON, W. H. TWOMBLEY,  and DORA M. WATTS.  I hope they each spent their one guinea wisely.

"L. T. Meade" (Elizabeth Thmasina Meade Smith, 1844-1914) was a prolific writer of girls'' stories, having published at least 150 books in that category.  As per Wikipedia, "she also wrote 'sentimental' and 'sensational' stories, religious stories, historical novels, adventures, romances, and mysteries" for a total of at least 280 volumes.  In the mystery field, she collaborated with Dr. Clifford Halifax, Robert Eustace, and her daughter's father-in-law, Sir Robert Kennaway Douglas.  Wikipedia lists 65 mysteries, with and without collaborators.  Her most memorable books in the field were The Ponsonby Diamonds:  Stories from the Dairy of a Doctor (1894), Stories from the Diary of a Doctor:  Second Series (1896), A Master of Mysteries (1898), The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings  (1899), and The Sorceress of the Strand (1902).

"Robert Eustace"  (Eustace Robert Barton, 1854-1943) who often provided the medical and scientific background for his collaborators, who included Meade, Edgar Jepson, and Dorothy L. Sayers;  He gave Sayers  the main plot idea as well as medical and scientific details for The Documents in the Case (1930).


  1. Thanks for the interesting lowdown on "Robert Eustace." And "L.T. Meade." My ignorance of the writers of that era is appalling!