Mark Twain and the Adventure of the Whyos

Excerpt 2014 by Bill Peschel

Here’s the opening of my Twain Sherlock pastiche, “The Adventure of the Whyos.” It takes place during a time when Watson was busy with his practice and no longer living at Baker Street.

In the late spring of 1894, Mark Twain and I were getting along about as well as two cats in a burlap bag. I was bankrupt and we were not on speaking terms. Henry Rogers, my good friend and the financial wizard behind Standard Oil, had convinced me to close my publishing concern, Webster & Co., and I was obliged to assume responsibility for its debts. I was a pauper, same as my father was fifty years before, and confirmed the old saw to those who knew the family back in Hannibal that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” People who knew me as Mark Twain expected tall tales and japes, and what they got instead was Sam Clemens, who was in no mood for such jollity.

I had to close the house in Hartford that I had designed and lived in for nearly 20 years. To live more cheaply, my family was sent to Paris, and when my business with the publishing house was concluded, I followed them on the RMS Umbria. The trip took a week, and I spent the whole of it in my state room, smoking cigars and immersed in my misery.

The ship docked in England where Weatherwax shanghaied me. He was a florid bruiser I was acquainted with back in Hartford. He had read in the papers about my bankruptcy and my travel plans, and he wired me to expect him. He had a problem that needed my help.

Warned by Weatherwax’s telegram, I laid low in my cabin and intended to plead ignorance of his cable, but he bribed his way on board and barged in, acting like the wretched course of my life had been taken solely for the purpose of coming to his aid. I was overcome. The fight was not in me. My bags had been packed in anticipation of leaving at Le Havre six hours later, so he ordered them unloaded and bundled into his carriage.

Weatherwax had spent time in the West, but, unlike me, had struck it rich in California. A decade amid Eastern society had refined him some; he bit the cigar end off and opened the window before spitting out the stub. He set fire to the remainder and said,—

“Chloe’s been in a bad way since you last saw her, Twain.”

I winced at the mention of that cursed name. He said,—

“She’s taken to her bed a week ago.”

“My sympathies.” I had known Chloe since she was a playmate to my daughters and thought she had the most sense in the family.

He explained that he was in England to get his only daughter knotted in matrimony to a fesenllow named Rannulph Winthrop, the son of a genuine copper-bottomed gold-plated English lord, only she wasn’t having any of it. They were staying at Chalkhills, his lordship’s estate on the coast, while the lawyers were hammering out the contract, and he hoped that I could stop by and talk some sense into her.*

Footnote: It was the fashion at that time for rich Americans to marry off their daughters into the aristocracy. The year before, Cornelia Martin married the 4th Earl of Craven in New York City. The earl wore his boots to the ceremony with his pant-legs rolled up. The Martins’ ostentatious bragging in the press about the wealth of the earl triggered a riot at the ceremony. A side door into the church was left unlocked, and the public flooded in, disrupting the event and stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down. The Martins fled overseas for awhile, although that didn’t deter them from future social-climbing.

“I was afeared his Lordship would call the match off, but he said he’d like nothing better but to carry on. Said it was obvious they were meant for each other, and that she just didn’t cotton to it yet.”

I eyed him critically. Was he a humbug or a hypocrite? I had met many aristocrats on my previous visits to the mother country, and if Rannulph’s father was like them, Lord Winthrop had the morals of an imbecile and was chronically short of cash. Even if it meant his son marrying a near-corpse, Winthrop wasn’t about to let pass this golden opportunity. Weatherwax poured smoke like a steamship behind schedule and said,—

“You know what happens when a girl gets a notion into her head. Takes dynamite to blast it out. She’s taken a dislike to Rannulph.”

He prattled on in this fashion, and I regretted my decision to join this fool’s crusade. The carriage filled with smoke, and I had the notion of using it to screen my exit from the vehicle, but I decided against it. I wasn’t as athletic as in my youth, and leaping from a speeding carriage no longer held any charm. Weatherwax let loose another chimney full of smoke and said,—

“I told my Chloe that it was her duty as a daughter to obey. Rannulph’s as good as the next man, right Twain?”

“Assuming the next man was the Marquis de Sade,” I wanted to say, but the pressure in me was building like an overheated boiler. My concerns weighed heavily on my conscience, and it had been too long a voyage. Weatherwax fired another cannonade and said,—

“Don’t know what to do. She’s a girl, you know. We talk to her and talk to her, while Rannulph calls on her. The lawyers are still tussling over the contract — and won’t it make your eyes start to read the details in the Herald. Titled aristos are short on the market. Dukes and marquesses have vanished, so viscounts are holding firm and asking for the moon — and getting it. You wouldn’t believe what a mere baron without a castle would ask! Why —”

I fantasized shooting myself. Unfortunately, I missed, and instead, said,—

“Yes, yes, but what about Chloe? What’s the matter with her?”

“Don’t know. Doc won’t say. Consumption, English cholera, the yim-yams.” He grew silent and worked his jaw some while the coastline rolled by. I knew he was working up a head of steam to say something, and finally, he said,—

“This is strictly between us, Twain. We didn’t meet out West, but I feel I can tell you things I can’t tell a man like Beecher or Howell back in Hartford. They’re too refined for such sordid matters.”

“And I’m a crude hayseed.”

“Please! Please, Mark. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you. But you know what I mean. I can tell you things.”
He paused, then delivered his line like an actor on the Bowery stage,—

“Mark, I’m being blackmailed.”

I gasped. I felt it was expected, but I sucked a large cloud of smoke that tickled my lungs, and I spoiled the effect by hacking into my handkerchief. Weatherwax pounded my back until the spasm passed and said,—

“A week back, Lord Winthrop’s house was burgled. I thought they hadn’t touched us, but a few days later, I got this note.” He pulled a crisp half-sheet out of his pocket.

It read,—

“We found these pretty notes on our last visit. His Lordship gets the rest of the stash unless you place £100 on the sundial at the Grecian folly at sundown. Tell no-one.
“The Whyos”

“They had taken Chloe’s jewelry box. There were some letters she had written to some boy in Hartford.”

“Who?” I couldn’t help asking.

“I don’t know! She addressed it to ‘M.A.’ The affair ended three years ago and they returned each others presents and notes. But instead of burning the letters, she kept them! They sent a page from them with this demand.”

As he blew on, I worked through the list of families we knew who might qualify. Alcott, Adams, Anderson. Not a Mark, Matthew or Moses among them. “It’s no crime to fall in love,” I said.

I swear Weatherwax blushed. He said,—

“The . . . sentiments . . . were, well, I don’t have to spell it out to you, do I, Twain? Even if his Lordship didn’t mind, if the New York papers got ahold of these, it would cause an uproar! You remember the Martin wedding, don’t you? They were forced to leave the country, with the papers hissing their spite at them.”

“Did you pay?”

“Of course I paid! Cleaned me out of my ready money. I had to send to Coutt’s for more. I received the rest of the letter in next day’s post.”

“So your troubles are over.”

Weatherwax’s face grew red and he said,—

“But that’s just one letter! They’ve got the rest. This gang will either bleed me dry or expose my daughter. I’m trapped, Twain, no two ways about it.”

In the ordinary course of events, the prospect of extortion would have cheered me up considerable. I wasn’t looking forward to playing Dutch uncle with the girl, but not even a broken-down pauper lecturer like Mark Twain was expected to play policeman. Helped needed to be called in. But I knew only one man in England who would qualify, and after our last adventure, when I came within an inch of perdition, I swore that I’d rather let a tribe of Apaches skin me, or reread “The Last of the Mohicans,” before I darkened his threshold.

Then a vision of Chloe, and I knew I had no choice. I grumbled,—

“Weatherwax, I have this friend who might help . . . ”

Read more about the story at Peschel Press and where to buy it.

Return to the book page at Planet Peschel.