by Edith Maxwell
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
Who wouldn’t be smitten with Adam Osgood?
My young assistant, Eva Stillwell, stood in her shirtwaist and skirt behind the counter of the Amesbury Post Office where I, Bertie Winslow, serve as Postmistress. I watched as Eva handed Adam his stamps, her eyes aglow. President Grover Cleveland also watched from his portrait on the wall. Dark-haired Adam returned Eva’s light-eyed gaze with a smile like a sunny idyll. Even their names were a match made in Eden.
I doubted this dalliance would come right in the end, though. Eva’s family belonged to the Religious Society of Friends. Adam’s was Episcopalian. Eva’s father worked at Osgood Carriage Manufacturers. Adam’s father owned the factory. Still, Adam was a gentle young man. He had an open, kind manner about him, and he adored Eva.
“Eva,” I said without harshness. “You’ve customers waiting.” Two gentlemen and a young lady formed a line at Eva’s window in air that smelled comfortingly of ink, polished wood, and mucilage.
“I’m sorry, Miss Winslow,” she answered softly.
While I sat at my desk and managed the administration of the postal system, Eva was my sole office employee. She sold stamps, calculated postage due on packages, and did every other task for our bustling town’s postal service, save making the twice-daily delivery rounds to businesses and residences. For that I had a crew of hardy men who ventured forth even in snow, sleet, and blazing heat.
Adam leaned over and whispered to Eva, bringing a blush up to the roots of her auburn hair. I’d known curly haired Adam since he was a boy. I’d known Eva almost as long through my midwife friend Rose Carroll, also a Quaker, and I was fond of both young people.
Adam touched his bowler and turned to go. He hadn’t made it to the outer door when the tall young lady in line touched his arm. About Adam’s age, she sported a pink and black ensemble with the new slim silhouette.
“Oh, Mr. Osgood.” A fancy hat in the latest fashion, trimmed with feathers to match her dress, sat at a gravity-defying angle.
“Miss Hamilton.” Adam tipped his hat and took a step toward the door.
This was Lily Hamilton, the middle daughter of the town’s most prosperous mill owner, if I wasn’t mistaken.
“Do stay and keep me company, will you?” She batted dark lashes. “I’m so unaccustomed to be out and about doing business.”
Adam smiled politely to Lily and nodded. “How’ve you been faring?”
“I just returned from finishing school in Switzerland, where I won several prizes for my equestrian abilities. Don’t I recall you have a fondness for horses, yourself?”
I glanced at Eva in her somber green dress, free of lace or flounce. Even the buttons were plain, covered in the fabric of the dress. The cut of the garment more or less matched Lily’s, but without any of the fancy touches. While Eva handed a parcel to the next customer in line, her troubled glance flitted to Adam and Lily.
“Why, yes, I do.” Adam let out a breath and checked his pocket watch. “Dear me, look at the time. If you’ll excuse me, Miss Hamilton, I have an appointment.”
“Do come riding with me, Mr. Osgood. I want to get to know you better.” She regarded him with cocked head.
Adam touched his hat and hurried out. Lily was the next customer at the counter.
“I’m waiting for a package. For Miss Lily Hamilton.” Lily didn’t meet Eva’s gaze nor say, “If you please.”
“Please wait.” Eva turned away and searched the bins at the back of the office, one by one. On her way back to the counter, she glanced at me. “I can’t locate it,” she whispered.
I shrugged. “Likely still in the post.”
“I’m sorry. Thy parcel hasn’t yet arrived,” Eva told Lily.
“Are you sure? Look again, girl.” Lily waved her hand.
“Thy parcel hasn’t yet arrived.” Eva stood tall. “Thee may ask again tomorrow.”
“What are you, one of those Quakers?” Lily scoffed. “With your thees and thys.” She turned to go, muttering, “Lunatics are everywhere these days.”
Rose and I strolled up to the five-story red brick Opera House that evening, its slate roof slanting down to meet tile work depicting the dramatic arts. I’d invited Rose to attend a performance of Strindberg’s play, Miss Julie, which he’d written just the year before.
Rose, fifteen years my junior and a committed friend, wore her best cloak over her best deep red dress, all without other adornment, of course. I’d indulged in a new hat for the occasion, since hair ornamentation was my great weakness.
“Isn’t it splendid?” I glanced up at my taller friend as we gained entrance to the foyer. Glass chandeliers sparkled with gas flames, and rich velvet hangings decorated the walls. A cluster of young people stood near the double doors that opened onto the theater itself. I spied a clutch of youthful dandies, including Adam and Tobias Clark, talking with Lily Hamilton and several other young ladies in their evening finery. Eva was not among them.
As we approached, Lily attached herself to Adam’s arm and gazed up at him. A wan smile overtook his face, matched by a furrowed brow. When we passed by, he cleared his throat and detached himself. Lily’s nostrils flared as she glared at us.
“Good evening, Miss Carroll, Miss Winslow.” Now Adam’s smile was genuine, the beam of light I was accustomed to seeing in his open face.
“Hello, Adam. How is thee?” Rose asked.
“I’m well, thank you. I look forward to tonight’s entertainment.” He took a step away from the group.
“As do we,” I said, handing our tickets to the gentleman at the door.
“A pleasure to see you both.” Adam bowed.
We started to follow the usher to our seats. At the sound of raised voices, I halted and glanced back. Rose turned, too. Silhouetted by the bright lights in the foyer, I saw Tobias Clark grasp Adam by the collar.
“How dare you consort with my Lily?” the fellow shouted. “She is betrothed to me.”
“I…I did nothing, Tobias,” Adam protested. He held up both hands.
Lily pushed her way between them. “Tobias, drop your silly notion of betrothal. Our parents thought it would be amusing if we married, but that was arranged before I went away to school. Everything’s different now.”
Even from several yards distant, I could see the fury on Tobias’s face. He turned and stalked away.
I clattered down Main Street two days later at nearly five in the morning on my horse, Grover. On the summer solstice I liked to take in the sunrise from the river’s vista, early though it may be. I soon reached the wide Merrimack and dismounted near the Morrill coal wharf, inhaling the fresh scent of flowing water. An eagle snagged a wriggling fish in its powerful talons and beat strong wings to land on a high branch.
I was tying Grover’s reins to a hitching post when a woman approached on a safety bicycle, cloak flying behind her, bonnet hanging by its strings down her back.
“Rose Carroll, is that you?” I waved.
“It is I.” When she drew close, she came to a stop, setting one foot on the ground, dark smudges under her eyes. A bulging satchel hung from a handlebar. “And what business has thee down here so early in the morning?”
She nodded. “Yes, a healthy baby girl, praise God. But the mother labored since yesterday noon. I’ll watch the sunrise with thee, then I’m off for my bed. The older Hamilton daughter is due to deliver any day, now, as well. My practice is almost busier than I can handle.”
She leaned her metal steed against a post. We picked our way through low brush down to the shore. The air was mild but promised heat by midday. I spied a large log that would make a perfect viewing bench.
“Let’s sit there.” I pointed.
Rose’s gaze followed mine, but her eyes widened. She brought a hand to her mouth. “Oh, no.” She hurried ahead and made her way around the other side of the log. She gestured urgently for me to follow before kneeling almost out of sight. Had she seen something with her height that I could not? I followed her, then stopped short.
Adam Osgood, arms sprawled wide, eyes on eternity, lay with the waters of the Merrimack lapping his feet and legs. He was no longer of this world.
Rose gazed up at me. “Poor Adam.” Her mouth turned down and her eyes filled.
“Poor Adam, indeed. How in tarnation did he die, and land here, too?” I frowned, and squatted next to him. I felt his jacket, his shirt. “All his clothes are wet, not only his trousers. Do you think he died by drowning?”
She leaned over him. She pushed wide his eyelids and peered at his eyes, then gently stroked both lids closed. After she sniffed at his nose and mouth, she lifted his head and examined the back.
“I see no wound. His skin doesn’t appear to have been immersed in the water for long. There’s no blood nor any bullet holes. But I detect a scent about his mouth that I find curious. Come and smell.” She sat back on her heels.
“Must I? I’m not drawn to smelling a dead man, even Adam.” I shuddered.
“Well, it’s the odor of laudanum.”
“Opium in brandy.”
“Exactly,” Rose nodded. “Although the concoction is properly used to lessen pain, sometimes unhappy wives in higher society take it to avoid the tedium of their lives.”
“I wonder why a healthy, content young man would be indulging in such a thing. It surprises me greatly.” I stared at him, then looked at Rose. “Think I’d better ride for the police, for your Detective Donovan?” Rose had worked with the able detective on more than one case in the past, and I had assisted her once, myself. In her midwifery practice, she heard secrets from women with child and in travail, women who lived in the richest mansions to the poorest tenements. Secrets that sometimes helped put criminals behind bars.
“Yes. His death could’ve been accidental.” Rose stroked Adam’s brow. “But it might have been murder.”
I rode back to the water, having extracted a promise from Detective Donovan that he would send the wagon down directly. As Grover trotted, I reflected on how distraught Eva would be to lose her sweet beau. As would be Adam’s parents. Being financially comfortable was no guarantee against death or any other wrenching loss.
The police wagon passed me near Patten’s Hollow. By the time I arrived back at the river, Rose stood near her bicycle. The sun’s orb glistened as the broad expanse of water flowed toward the Atlantic. Uniformed officers clustered around Adam’s body.
“I thank thee, Bertie,” Rose said. “It would’ve taken me much longer to have cycled all the way into town and back. But thee missed thy sunrise on the river.”
“I daresay it’ll rise again tomorrow.”
Rose’s hand could not disguise her yawn. “Forgive me.”
“Did Donovan say you needed to stay here?”
She nodded. “He asked me to, because I told him I had a suspicion this was not an accidental death.”
A moment later up strode the detective. He regarded both of us, his hands on his robust stomach.
“Now what’s this idea you have about young Osgood’s death?” His round face was ruddy from his exertions.
“While his clothes were wet,” Rose began, “I didn’t find any evidence of him hitting his head, and his skin didn’t have the look that comes from being immersed in water.”
“Very good. I noticed the same,” the detective said.
“Did you smell his mouth and nose?” I asked.
He frowned. “No.”
Rose told him about detecting laudanum, her face somber.
“I don’t believe he’d suffered an injury warranting pain-numbing laudanum,” I said.
“Those rich young folks will do anything to have fun these days,” Kevin scoffed.
“He might have been rich, but he was a sober, kind, honest fellow, Kevin.” Rose gazed at him. “I believe someone might have dosed him, and then pushed him into the river. I don’t know if his body snagged on a limb, or if he crawled up the bank and then died from the dosage.” Poor exhausted Rose stood less and less tall by the minute.
“That’s your job to figure out, isn’t it, Detective?” I asked.
“We’ll look into it. Find out who his friends were. See if he had any enemies, young as he was. And so on and so forth. But first I have to notify Mr. and Mrs. Osgood. I don’t look forward to that.”
It was a long and distressing day. In the office, Eva had gone white at the news, and I’d offered to send her directly back home. She insisted on working, although she did it with reddened eyes and pale cheeks. It had also proved to be a warm day, in fact, and the air in the office grew stultifying even with the small breeze that passed through the windows.
Not a townsperson came in who didn’t want to talk about the death with me and with each other. Many remained in the office after they conducted their business. They stood in small clusters speculating that Adam had taken his own life, or that the slippery banks of the river were no place to cavort. Eva reeled at each remark.
“What, can’t get enough of my lovely face?” I teased her. I tied Grover to the post and sank down next to her, loosening the neck button of my shirtwaist. “Did you find some rest?”
She nodded. “Yes, but not enough. I couldn’t stop thinking about Adam’s death. I wanted to talk with thee before I’m off to the Hamilton household. Juliette appears to be ready to give birth, but it’s early stages yet.”
“The daughter you mentioned?”
“Yes. She is married, of course, but they live across the river, and she wished to have her baby in her parents’ home. The girls in that family always get what they want.”
“That’s how Lily struck me.” I reminded Rose about the scene at the Opera House. “She seemed furious that Adam rejected her advances.”
“Do you think she would have killed him for that?” she asked.
“Gracious, I certainly hope not.” I reached out to pluck a stem of pink sweet pea from the trellis that arched over the path and smelled deeply of the flower’s delicate scent.
“Just the ladies I wanted to see. Came looking for you, Miss Winslow, but having Miss Carroll here, too, is a bonus.”
“Kevin, please call me Rose.” She gazed at him over the top of her spectacles. Rose must have asked him that a hundred times. She’d told me about how Quakers don’t use titles for anyone, following their admirable principle of equality.
“Oh, for land’s sake, Miss C… Miss Rose. You know that goes against everything my sainted mother drummed into me.” He shook his head, but smiled.
Rose smiled back. “What news has thee?”
His mouth turned down. “I’ve arrested Tobias Clark for the death of Adam Osgood. Thought you might like to know, being as how you found the body.”
“You’ve found evidence linking him to Adam’s death, then?” I asked.
“It’s more circumstantial, like. Clark and Osgood were together in the tavern last night. Clark claims they parted ways after that, of course. But he’s a devious type, and accustomed to having his way. And he’s been known to indulge in opium.”
Rose and I exchanged a glance. “So thee has no proof?” She narrowed her eyes.
Kevin set his hands on his hips. “The boy has no one to vouch for his whereabouts until after dawn, when you discovered young Osgood.”
“Did you ask the residents of the area if anyone was seen near the coal wharf in the hours after Adam was last spotted in public?” I removed my hat and fanned myself with it. The heat had barely abated since its apex in the early afternoon.
“Haven’t had anyone come forward to report such a sighting.” He tipped his hat. “Ladies, I merely wanted to inform you of the arrest. I didn’t expect to be interrogated, myself. Good day.”
After he huffed off, I glanced at Rose. “What do you think?”
“It doesn’t feel right to me. That solution is too easy.”
I nodded. “Exactly.”
I ate my supper at the small table in the back garden, the shady arbor providing a cooler setting than indoors. A bright yellow warbler flitted in the green leaves of the lilac, and a chipmunk scolded from the branches of the swamp oak overhead.
That Tobias could be arrested without proof whatsoever nagged at my brain. Perhaps the detective had overlooked a clue of some kind. As the sun neared its evening rest, I mounted Grover again and retraced our steps to the river.
I poked around the bushes near where Rose had found Adam’s body. I scanned the rocks that lined the river. I even crept around the edge of the piles of coal on the wharf, but didn’t see anything untoward, nothing that didn’t belong there. I don’t know what I expected. With the sun almost disappeared into the Merrimack, it was time to go.
I untied Grover and hoisted myself over his back, my skirt riding up over the long bloomers of matching cloth I always wore underneath. As I straightened in the saddle, I glimpsed a splash of pink in a tree, and it wasn’t a flowering tree. Clucking to Grover, we moved closer until I could pluck the object from where it was caught on a low branch.
I sat examining it, then secured it in my bosom. If that wasn’t the feather from Lily’s hat, I would be most surprised. It wasn’t proof she killed Adam, of course, but it showed she’d been here, and recently.
The next day, I rode the few blocks to Rose’s during my midday dinner break. She opened the door, pushing her glasses up on her nose, and invited me in.
“I can’t tarry but I wanted to show you.” I produced the feather. I had penned a quick note to Rose after arriving home last night and had paid a boy to deliver the message to the Hamilton home where she was attending the birth. “I found it right where we discovered poor Adam. I’m sure it’s from Lily’s hat.”
She nodded. “And look what I discovered last night after I assisted in the birth of Juliette’s baby boy. Because of thy note, I ventured into Lily’s room while she was occupied with the newborn.” Rose produced a blue glass vial from her satchel, then uncorked and proffered it. “Smell.”
I obliged, then stared at her. “Laudanum. But even these together aren’t going to convince Donovan that a slip of a girl killed Adam instead of Tobias Clark, especially a girl from a prominent family. Many ladies indulge in the drug. And who doesn’t wear pink these days?” At her wry smile, I added, “Besides you Quakers, of course.”
“She’s not a slip of a girl. She’s as tall as I.”
“And she told Adam she’d won equestrian prizes. Surely she’s strong enough to push an unsuspecting and drugged man into the river.”
“We need a plan.” Rose frowned.
I nodded, and decided to tarry, after all.
After the post office closed at five, I told Eva our idea. After only a moment’s hesitation, she agreed. We hurried to my house and hitched Grover to my small carriage that featured a rumble seat in the rear. After we fetched Rose, we headed out to the equestrian ring in West Amesbury.
“Do you think Kevin received thy note?” Rose asked in a soft voice.
“I surely hope so.” I pulled up at the far edge of the stable. As we had planned, Rose and I strolled over to the field, leaving Eva with Grover. Observers clustered at a fence surrounding the large oval ring. Inside, several ladies cantered sidesaddle, their small black toppers worn forward on their heads. Despite the cultured scene, the aroma of pungent manure filled my nostrils.
“There she is,” Rose said pointing.
Lily, in a royal blue habit, rode with erect back atop a spirited black beast. After she dismounted and handed the reins to a boy, we waylaid her before she reached the refreshments tent.
“Miss Hamilton,” I said. “Lovely riding.”
“Thank you, Miss Winslow. Oh, hello, Rose.” Lily’s cheeks were bright from her exercise in the still warm evening.
“I wondered if you’d take a look at my own steed, tell me if he has potential for competing,” I said.
Lily narrowed her eyes. “You want to enter an equestrian competition?”
“I was thinking about it. Grover is just over here.” I led the way. Eva was out of sight.
“This old gelding?” Lily made a tsking sound when we stood at Grover’s side. “You need a better horse than that to compete. My Blackie is a hot-blood thoroughbred.”
“Oh, well. Say, I rode Grover down to the river last night. I found one of your pink feathers in a tree there.” I watched her. Rose did, too.
Lily blinked several times. “My pink feather? Surely you jest.” She spoke fast, and didn’t meet my gaze.
“And I found this in your room after your nephew was born.” Rose drew the laudanum bottle out of a small cloth bag.
Lily extended her hand to snatch it, but Rose pulled it back. “We know thee drugged Adam Osgood and then pushed him into the river.”
“I did no such thing,” she exclaimed, glancing from Rose to me and back. “Why would I? I was fond of Adam. I wanted him to court me.”
“Because he scorned you, more than once, that’s why,” I said. “He was in love with Eva Stillwell, and she with him.”
“That mousy little thing?” Her lip curled. “What could he have seen in her?”
“Me?” Eva strolled around the side of the stable, hands clasped in front of her.
“You!” Lily’s pretty mouth turned down in a nasty expression.
Eva kept her voice level. “Adam loved me, you know.”
“He had it coming to him, rejecting me for you. It was all his fault.” She looked with scorn at Rose, then at me.
“My father has great influence in this town. I’ll have him publicly chastise you three for even suggesting I killed Adam.”
“How did you get out at night alone?” I asked.
“I do what I wish.” She raised her chin. “I slipped out of the house in a dark cloak and rode Blackie. Tobias told me the boys were going to bathe in Lake Gardner after they went drinking. I promised Adam he could ride Blackie if he’d come with me, instead.”
“How did thee drug him?” Rose folded her arms.
“I told him I’d brought cognac from Paris and offered it to him in that bottle. He was already half gone from what he’d imbibed with Tobias, so he didn’t taste the opium.” She sniffed. “I never would’ve done it if he hadn’t shunned me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m here to ride.”
“Not so fast, young lady.” Detective Donovan also stepped out from around the corner of the stable. “Miss Lily Hamilton, you are under arrest for the murder of Adam Osgood.” He strode toward her and grasped her hand.
“I didn’t kill Adam! Take your hands off me, you filthy copper.”
“I heard every word you just said to these ladies.” Donovan slid a handcuff around Lily’s wrist and clicked it into place. As he reached for her other hand, she slapped him across the face and twisted away, but she was no match for Amesbury’s finest. I’d never heard such a satisfying sound as the snick-snick of the second handcuff securing Lily’s hands behind her back.
She glowered at us before Donovan marched her away. “You tricked me. Father will make you pay for this.”
I raised my eyebrows at Rose and Eva. “How about if this old presidential gelding takes us home?” I stroked Grover’s neck.
Rose nodded. “Lily wanted to be the apple of Adam’s eye.”
Eva watched Donovan load Lily into the wagon. “She ended up the snake in the garden.”
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.