Authors: Rex Stout
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller, #Classic
Nero Wolfe 40 - A Right To Die
He had no appointment and, looking at him across the doorsill, it didn’t seem likely that he would be bringing the first big fee of 1964. But when he said his name was Whipple and he wanted to consult Mr. Wolfe I let him in and took him to the office, because after a long dull day I would welcome Wolfe’s glare at me for breaking a rule, and also because he was a Negro. So far as I knew, in their hot campaign for civil rights the Negroes hadn’t mentioned the right to consult a private detective, but why not'So I didn’t even ask him what the trouble was. In the office, when I put him in the red leather chair near the end of Wolfe’s desk, he looked around and then leaned back and closed his eyes. I had told him that Wolfe would be down in ten minutes, at six o’clock, and he had nodded and said, “I know. Orchids.”
Sitting at my desk, I swiveled when the sound came of the elevator and was facing the door when Wolfe entered. When he was in far enough to see the man in the chair he stopped and turned to me, and the glare was one of his best. I met it square.
“Mr. Whipple,” I said. “To consult you.”
He held the glare. He was deciding whether to turn and march out, to the kitchen, or to bellow. But suddenly the glare became a frown, and he said, not a bellow, “Whipple?”
He wheeled for a look at the man, circled around his desk to his outsize chair, sat, and aimed the frown at the man. “Well, sir?”
The man smiled a little and said, “I’m going to make a Speech.” He cleared his throat and cocked his head. “The agreements of human society embrace not only protection against murder, but thousands of other things, and it is certainly true that in America the whites have excluded the blacks from some of the benefits of those agreements. It is said that the exclusion has sometimes even extended to murder-that in parts of this country a white man may kill a black one, if not with impunity, at least with a good chance of escaping the penalty which the agreement imposes. That’s deplorable, and I don’t blame black men for resenting it. But how do you propose to change it?”
He turned a hand over. “I’ll skip a little. But if you shield him because he is your color there is a great deal to say. You are rendering your race a serious disservice. You are helping to perpetuate and aggravate the very exclusions which you justly resent. The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded; anyone helping to preserve those distinctions is postponing that ideal; and you are certainly helping to preserve them. If in a question of murder you permit your action to be influenced& “
He went on, but I wasn’t listening. My eyes were at him, but I wasn’t seeing him. I was seeing a small room in the Upshur Pavilion at Kanawha Spa, West Virginia, as it had been late one night many years ago. Wolfe was on a chair not big enough for his seventh of a ton, facing an audience of fourteen colored men, cooks and waiters, seated on the floor. He knew, and so did I, that one of them had a vital piece of information regarding a murder, and for two hours he had been trying to find out which one, with no success. Around two a.m. he tried another angle and made a long speech, and that did it. It loosened up a twenty-one-year-old college boy, Howard University, named Paul Whipple, and he blurted it out. And the man in the red leather chair was delivering, word for word, parts of the speech Wolfe had made that long-ago night.
I left Upshur Pavilion and came back to what I was looking at. Should I have recognized him'No. Then he had been young and slim with no extra meat on his face muscles; now he was middle-aged, going bald, with saggy cheeks, wearing cheaters with black rims. But the name, Whipple, should have rung a bell, and it hadn’t. It had for Wolfe. I did not like that. I will concede that he is a genius and I am not, but on memory I’ll concede nothing.
He stopped-in the middle of a sentence, because that was where he had interrupted Wolfe that night. He glanced at me with a little smile, settled back in the chair, and shifted the smile to Wolfe.
Wolfe grunted. “You have a good memory, Mr. Whipple.”
He shook his head. “Not really. Not usually. But that speech was a high spot in my education. I wrote it down that night. If I had a good memory I could do a better job at my work.”
“What is your work?”
“I’m a teacher, an assistant professor at Columbia. I’m afraid I’ll never move up.”
Whipple’s eyes widened. “Good lord, talk about memory. You remember that?”
“Certainly. You mentioned it.” Wolfe’s lips puckered. “You have me cornered, sir. I know I am beholden to you. But for you I might have been stuck there for days-weeks. And of course you have tickled my vanity, quoting me verbatim at length. So you need me for something?”
Whipple nodded. “That’s putting it bluntly, but I know you’re always blunt. Yes, I need you.” He smiled, more of a smile than before. “I need help on a very confidential matter, and I decided to come to you. I doubt if I can pay what you would normally charge, but I can pay.”
“That can wait. I have said I have an obligation. Your problem?”
“It’s very& personal.” His lips worked. He looked at me and back at Wolfe. “In a way, it’s related to what you said that night; that’s why I quoted it. I have a son, Dunbar, twenty-three years old. Do you remember that you quoted Paul Laurence Dunbar that night?”
“Well, we named our son Dunbar. He’s a good enough boy. He has his share of shortcomings, but on the whole he’s a pretty good boy. He works for the ROCC. Do you know what the ROCC is?”
Wolfe nodded. “The Rights of Citizens Committee. I have sent them small contributions.”
A corner of Wolfe’s mouth went up. “Come, Mr. Whipple. Another speech to quote?”
“I could use one, or my people could. My son could. He’s pretty good at a speech. But he’s what I-he’s the problem, or rather, he’s in the problem. He has got involved with a white girl and he’s going to marry her, and I can’t talk him out of it. So I need help.”
Wolfe made a face. “Not mine,” he said emphatically.
Whipple shook his head. “Not to talk to him. To find out what’s wrong with her.”
“Except for the innate and universal flaws of her sex, there may be nothing wrong with her.”
“But obviously there is.” His brows were up. “She is-not speaking as an anthropologist-of good family. She is young, attractive, and financially independent. For her to marry a Negro is absurd. Obviously-“
“My dear sir. Instead of another speech I could quote for an hour. Benjamin Franklin: ‘A man in a passion rides a wild horse.’ Or, by courtesy, a woman. An ancient Latin proverb: ‘_Ex visu amor._’ Loving comes by looking. Pfui. Nothing in nature is absurd, though much is deplorable.”
“Yes.” Whipple smiled. “Do you remember that when you asked me how old I was and I said twenty-one, Moulton told me to say ‘Sir’'Passion or love is not the point. A white woman taking to a black man, even going to bed with him, there’s nothing absurd about that. But not marriage. I say if this Susan Brooke wants to marry my son there’s something wrong with her. She has a screw loose. All the difficulties, the snags, the embarrassments, the complications& I don’t need to list them for you.”
“She couldn’t possibly be a good wife to him, and she ought to know it. There’s something wrong with her. It may be something specific in her past, or it may be her basic character. If I can find out what it is I can put it up to my son; he’s not a fool. But the finding out-I don’t know how, I’m not equipped for it. But you are.” He turned his palms up. “So here I am.”
Wolfe said distinctly, “Pride of race.”
“You, of course. You may not be aware-“
Whipple was moving, up. On his feet, his eyes, half closed, slanted down at Wolfe. “I am not a racist. I see I have made a mistake. I didn’t think-“
“Nonsense. Sit down. Your problem-“
“Forget it. Forget me. I should have forgotten you. To accuse me of-“
“Confound it,” Wolfe bellowed, “sit down! An anthropologist disclaiming pride of race'You should know better. If you are an anthropos you have it. The remark was not offensive, but I withdraw it because it was pointless. You have been moved to action; what moved you is immaterial. What moves me is the fact that I’m indebted to you and you have dunned me, and I’ll pay. But first I have a comment. Will you please sit down?”
“I suppose I’m touchy,” Whipple said, and sat.
Wolfe regarded him. “The comment is about marriage. It’s possible that Miss Brooke is more realistic than you are. She may be intelligent enough to know that no matter whom she marries there will be the devil to pay. The difficulties, snags, embarrassments, and complications-I use your words, though I would prefer sharper ones-are in any case inevitable. If she marries a man of her own color and class, the grounds for them will be paltry, ignoble, degrading, and tiresome. If she marries a Negro the grounds will be weighty, worthy, consequential, and diverting. I have never met a woman with so much sense, but there may be one. What if it is Miss Brooke?”
Whipple was shaking his head. “No, sir. Of course that’s very clever. It’s good talk, but it’s talk.” He smiled. “My father used to say about a good talker, ‘He rides words bareback.’ No, sir.”
“Yes. If you want to put it that way, I am.”
“Very well. You remember Mr. Goodwin.”
Whipple shot me a glance. “Of course.”
“Will you arrange for him to meet Miss Brooke'Perhaps a meal, lunch or dinner, with you, her, and your son'With some plausible pretext?”
He was looking doubtful. “I’m afraid that isn’t possible. She knows what I-my attitude. Does Mr. Goodwin have to meet her'And my son?”
“Not necessarily your son. Her, yes. I can’t proceed until he has seen her, spoken with her, and if possible danced with her, and reported. This may even settle it. His feeling for attractive young women, his understanding of them, and his talent for gaining their confidence may be all we’ll need.” He turned. “Archie. Have you a suggestion?”
I nodded. “Sure.” He had asked for it. “I meet her, feel her out, understand her, get her confidence, bring her here and install her in the south room, and you seduce her and then marry her. As for the difficulties, snags, embar-“
Whipple cut in. “Mr. Goodwin. You can joke about it, but I can’t.”
I met his eyes. “I wouldn’t expect you to, Mr. Whipple. I was merely reacting to Mr. Wolfe’s joke about me and attractive young women. But of course I’ll have to meet her. He never leaves the house on business. How urgent is it'Have they set a date for the wedding?”
“How sure are you they’re not already married?”
“I’m quite sure. My son wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t dissemble with me-or with his mother.”
“Is his mother with you on this?”
“Yes. Completely.” He turned to Wolfe. “You said your remark about pride of race was pointless, but you had made the remark. With my wife I suppose it could be called that. Is it pride of race if she wants her son’s wife to be a girl, a woman, with whom she can be friends'Real friends'Speaking as an American Negro, as a man, and as an anthropologist, can she expect to get true familial intimacy from a white woman?”
“No,” Wolfe said. “Nor from a colored woman either if it’s her son’s wife.” He waved it away. “However, you’re fixed.” He tilted his head to look at the wall clock: forty minutes till dinner. “Since Mr. Goodwin’s suggestion isn’t feasible, let’s see if we can find one. Tell me all you know about Miss Brooke.”
I got out my notebook.
It took only half an hour, so there were still ten minutes when I returned to the office after escorting Whipple to the front, helping him on with his coat, handing him his hat, and letting him out. Wolfe sat with his current book, closed, in his hands, gazing at it with his lips tight. He had been cheated out of a full hour of reading.
I stood and looked down at him. “If you expect an apology,” I said, “you’ll have to expect. When you make personal remarks about me with company present, I react.”
His head came up. “Of course. You always do. I’m in the middle of a chapter.”
“I didn’t know that. As for my letting him in and not telling you, there are exceptions to-“
“Bah. You wanted to see if I would recognize him. I didn’t until I heard the name. Did you?”
“Since we’re being frank, no. Not his face or voice. With me too it was the name.” I went on. It’s better to keep going after a lie. “Anyway, it’s a new slant on civil rights. She has a right to marry the man she loves, and look who’s trying to stop her. He had a nerve to begin by quoting that speech.”
He grunted. “I’m obliged.”
“Yeah. We’re really going to tackle it?”
“You leave it to me?”
“No. We’ll discuss it later.”
“There isn’t much to discuss. No matter what we dig up about her, he’ll probably-“
There were footsteps in the hall, and Fritz was at the door to announce dinner. Wolfe put the book down, stroked it with his fingertips, and rose.