Argosy All-Story Weekly/Volume 123/Number 3/The Brazen Serpent

The Brazen Serpent  (1920) 
by H. Bedford-Jones

Extracted from Argosy Allstory Weekly, July 1920, pp. 311–317. Title illustration may be omitted.

You seek a new type of detective story—something unhackneyed, something differing from the murder-clue-underworld stuff? Very good. I beg to submit the case of the brazen serpent and the mysterious heathen who wore spectacles.

The Brazen

by H. Bedford-Jones

YOU seek a new type of detective story—something unhackneyed, something differing from the murder-clue-underworld stuff? Very good. I beg to submit the case of the brazen serpent and the mysterious heathen who wore spectacles.

It is true that for some years poor devils of authors have racked their brains inventing unhackneyed detective stories; have delved into realms of science and art and magic and even humanity; and have in the end accomplished nothing. How should they? From the time the first detective story was written—you will find it in the Book of Genesis—the model has not been improved upon. That model reached up into heaven and down into hell, and centered its plet upon a stolen apple. Nothing could be simpler; nothing could be more comprehensive. Imagine the fine simplicity of that stolen apple as a plot motive! A murder would have spoiled the whole story.

A real detective yarn, then, must involve one who detects. Let us look at Bixby Thornton; his work in this matter of the brazen serpent is remarkable in the annals of detection. He was a quiet man, with years, of experience in the narcotics squad of the revenue service. He confided in no one except his wife, a mute, inglorious Watson of the hearth who kept no records.

When John Duck appeared upon his horison, Thornton was enjoying his annual vacation, and the police very gladly let him, as a Federal man, work upon the mystery. Thornton, in fact, first discovered the thing.

He was letting himself in at the side door. Something warm splashed on his hand, and as he stepped into the dimly lighted vestibule, he saw that it had made a crimson splotch. He stared at it dully for a moment; then stepped back outside, leaving the door open. There in the light, half washed from the stones by the evening rain, was a thin seepage of red.

It came, of course, from above. Thornton saw that there was a light in the oriel windows where the Chinaman lived, on the second floor. For a moment he was oppressed by the hideous thought that John Duck had cut his throat and was lying up there in the peak of the room by the oriel windows—

Then he saw, as he looked up, a flutter of the blinds; an up-and-down movement as they were drawn more closely. Frowning, he passed into the house, rubbed his hand dry on his overcoat, and said nothing of the odd occurrence to his wife.


The house in which Bixby Thornton lived had been built some time in the eighties, and was just off Gramercy Park. Thornton did not live here because of the historic atmosphere; it mattered nothing to him that the Players' Club was a stone's throw away, or that his house had lately been the residence of a real poet. He lived here because the rent was low, and because the upper floor could be steadily sub-leased to John Duck at a profitable figure.

It was a dingy old house, full of disrepair and genteel negligence. There was and elevator which had normally but three stops—basement, first floor, and second floor. Not infrequently, however, the elevator would halt en route, and only a certain cunning shake of the cable would persuade it to continue its course. Even John Duck, who had been established in his present quarters long before Thornton took over the house, usually preferred the stairs.

John Duck was something of a genial mystery. A small, urbane man, slightly saffron in hue, he wore large round spectacles edged with black shell. On the street, he always wore an English walking-suit; what he wore in his rooms, nobody knew. He was invariably dapper, smiling, polite.

Bixby Thornton had seen John Duck's rooms only once. He had gained a confused impression of heathen deities, gilded and unpleasant; of the largest chamber, that which contained the oriel windows jutting over the side entry, furnished with work-bench and retorts, bottles, and chemical apparatus; and of a large serpent of brass which bore a crystal ball in one claw. At least, he mentally termed it a serpent, which was close enough to the truth.

John Duck said very frankly that he was engaged in research work, a term which covers a multitude of sins; and said nothing further. The gilded deities caused Thornton to class the man as a heathen.

Upon the day following the evening whereupon Thornton wiped the red smear from his hand, Mrs. Thornton departed upon a visit to her cousin, who lived in Brooklyn. Thornton accompanied his wife to the subway, then returned home. On the way he purchased a paper. As he was nearing his house, he encountered John Duck, was greeted with a polite smile and a bow, and passed on.

With the afternoon before him, Bixby Thornton settled down to peruse his newspaper. The first thing that struck his eye was the account of a body found in the street near his own house that same morning. The body was that of a Chinaman, whose throat had been cut.

“My Lord!” exclaimed Thornton. “Then—then that was what—”

A jangle of the door-bell completed his sentence. The thin jangle came from up-stairs. Knowing that he was alone in the house, Thornton rose and went to the door. He found a messenger boy, who queried partly whether he were John Duck.

“No,” said Thornton. “He's out. You can leave any message with me—”

“Got a bundle.” The boy produced a small, soft parcel wrapped in butcher's paper. 'Fifty cents collect. Sign here. Ain't it hell how everybody sends things collect so's it 'll get delivered sure? Thanks.”

Thornton went indoors with the bundle, laid it aside, and resumed his paper. He wanted to discover more about that dead Chinaman, and he did. He discovered the unpleasant fact that approximately two square feet of skin had been removed from the back of the yellow man, either before or after the latter's throat had been cut. The identity of the victim was unknown.

“This is a devil of a business!” reflected Bixby Thornton. He had dealt much with yellow men in his work with the narcotics squad, even knew a smattering of their tongue. “Yet it hardly seems possible that John Duck could have actually—”

He paused as his eye fell upon the package. What was in that bundle? Could it be possible that John Duck was engaged in some illicit traffic? Narcotics commanded huge prices, of course; any yellow man would be in a position to sell opium or morphine without trouble. The package was tied with string, carelessly.

Thornton took up the package, turned it over. He started; upon the brown paper he beheld the three ideographs: “Pu-kan-ching” which means, substantially, “unclean.” Temptation seized upon him suspicion goaded him. With sudden determination he broke the string and opened it.

From it he took a small roll of human skin recently fleshed. There could be no mistake.

With shaking fingers, Thornton brought his magnifying-glass to bear, and confirmed his diagnosis. It was human skin with a decidedly yellow hue; it was the piece of skin removed from the back of the murdered Chinaman.

Thornton went to the telephone and called a certain captain of detectives whom he knew very well.

Fifteen minutes later the police officer sat in Thornton's study, inspecting the piece of skin and listening to the story. He did not speak until Thornton had finished; then he imparted some information.

“We know who the murdered man was,” he said, revolving a cigar between his lips. “He was identified to-day as Tan Tock, one of the joss-house men down in Chinatown. His scalp showed cicatrices of old burns—”

“Ah!” exclaimed Thornton eagerly. “A Taoist priest?”

“Exactly.” From his pocket the officer produced a newspaper clipping. “Here is an advertisement one of the boys turned in—obviously it has some bearing on the case. We traced it. It was handed in by a Chinaman, late last night, for one insertion. We could get no description of the advertiser, except that he wore spectacles.”

“Spectacles! Then it was John Duck!”

“Very likely,” said the detective dryly.

Thornton spread out the clipping, which was from a “personal” column:

TAN T. may have brazen serpent by calling for same, and paying one hundred dollars. JOHN D.

“They remembered the Chinaman and his spectacles, byhis insistence on the spelling of the word 'brazen,'” said the detective. “It's an open and shut case, Thornton! Congratulations, old boy! We'll send this guy up the river in one-two time—”

Thornton looked up, frowning.

“Hold on!” he said reflectively. “Let me tell you something. John Duck has a 'brass dragon up-stairs, all right. Further, it's a Taoist emblem, for the Taoists go strong on the forces of nature and all that. But there are two points for you to look at very hard: the spelling of that word 'brazen,' and the name Tan Tock.”

The detective leaned back, his eyes narrowed upon Thornton. 2

“Shoot,” he said. “You're the doctor in this business. What's the idea?”

Thornton remained silent for a moment, then spoke with slow decision.

“Little things have impressed me with English influences on John Duck, now that I recall them. His walking-suit, his stick, his precise speech which contains many Anglicisms. This word brazen is just such an oddity. That's point one. Now, point two is the name Tan Tock. That's absolutely a Straits Settlement's name, cap'n. The Chinamen there, you know, have been removed from China for generations; they're almost a distinct race, in fact. I'll wager that this whole matter goes back to something in England or Singapore—the cause of the murder will be found—”

The detective laughed heartily.

“My dear Thornton, what the hell do you suppose I care about all this?” he demanded. “It does you credit, old man, but doesn't affect the case. John Duck killed this Tan Tock; we've got that proved beyond a doubt. The cause of the murder will come out later. Even if it doesn't, what matter? We have enough evidence right here,” and he tapped the roll of human skin, “to put John Duck in the chair!”

“No, you haven't,” said Thornton bluntly. “What time was that advertisement handed in?”

“Somewhere around ten thirty.”

“It was nine when I came home and noticed the red drip. D'you suppose he'd have cut a man's throat up-stairs, then have gone down to Park Row and put in a personal ad to the victim? Rats! Besides, who'd have sent this skin to him? If he wanted it, he'd have taken it up-stairs!”

“Confound you!” exclaimed the captain thoughtfully. “I believe there's something in that! Does he know you're in the service?”

Thornton shook his head. At this moment the front door banged. Thornton made a significant gesture, which the other man understood. John Duck had come home.

It is unfortunate for the police that all detectives do not possess the coordinated mental power of their fictional representatives, which bring out all facts in orderly progress. With a start of sudden recollection, the captain abruptly vouchsafed an astonishing fact,

“Look here! I forgot something. That body was found at six this morning by a milkman. It was examined within twenty minutes. The surgeon said the chap had not yet settled into rigor mortis. Therefore, Tan Tock was not killed until some time after midnight, at least.”

Thornton stared at him, dismayed. The officer pursued his line of reasoning.

“Granting this time of the murder, your red drip is all nonsense. So is your argument about the newspaper ad. Here's what I think about it! That ad got into the bull-pup editions, and Tan Tock, who was watching for it, came right up here. John Duck killed him and carried the body out into the street. Get me? Now, if we had any means of knowing whether John Duck had a caller last night—”

An exclamation broke from Thornton. “He did! He did! My wife woke me up and said that she heard the elevator creaking—it sticks, you know, and you have to shake the cable just so to make it go on—and I remember hearing the cable shaking.”

The captain of detectives rose.

“Come on, let's go!” he said briskly. “This guy goes to the chair. We'll run up and collar him here and now. Open and shut—open and shut, I tel! you!”

Thornton nodded, and picked up the roll of skin.


John Duck opened the door to his callers with a bow. He displayed no surprise nor perturbation when Thornton, instead of returning his greeting, threw back his coat to show a badge, and then the police captain followed suit.

“Please come in,” he asked, holding the door open.

“You bet,” said the captain, swiftly catching his wrist. “I want you for the murder of Tan Tock late last night. What you got to say about it?”

John Duck attempted no resistance. He blinked at his two visitors, and swallowed hard. Then he responded, in a voice that was unsteady:

“You want—me?”

“You,” shot out the officer. “We know all about it—about the brass snake, and about Tan. Tock coming here to get it, and you cuttin' his throat: Now—”

“I—I think you have made a mistake,” said John Duck gently.

“Don't try to pull that with wus—we're hep!” said the officer savagely. “Got anything you want to say before we calf the wagon?”

John Duck glanced from one to the other, then nodded.

“I'll tell you the wile thing,” he said meekly. “Sit down, gentlemen. I suppose you saw my advertisement, and traced it to me?”

The captain did not answer. He frisked his prisoner, found no weapon, locked the door, and returned. The main thing, as Thornton realized, was to get John Duck's confession at once; so Thornton let the officer manage affairs.

“You're from Singapore?” asserted the captain. “Same as Tan Tock?”

John Duck nodded without surprise. He seemed resigned to telling all he knew.

The three men were sitting in the main room of the apartment the one adorned with brocades and glittering, whiskered gods of gold lacquer. Thornton glanced into the adjoining chamber, which contained the retorts and work-bench and oriel windows; he looked for red stains near the windows, but found none.

John Duck took a cigarette from a box on the table beside him, lighted it, and talked,

“I am from Singapore,” He said ae. “I went to college in England, then returned home on a vacation, after three years of education. The temple at which my family worshiped contained that brazen dragon, yonder.”

He waved his hand toward the dragon—a tall creature of brass, standing three feet holding in one claw a large crystal ball.

“The brass,” he pursued, “is Ming work, old and very historic, and valuable. One day it was stolen from the temple and vanished. Together with other men, I searched for it vainly. Then I came to this country and settled here in New York to study. One day, not long ago, I found this historic dragon in a pawn-shop, kept by one of my own race. By means of exposing its whole history, I obtained it from the shopkeeper, and found that the man who had pawned it, and who expected to redeem it, was a priest in the temple here Tan Tock by name. He was the man who had stolen it in Singapore and had then fled to America.

“Now that I had obtained the dragon I set about letting my friends know of it. They were not satisfied merely to obtain the thing back; they desired punishment. It was intimated to Tan Tock that I had the dragon. He sent word that he wished it back and would buy it, for he had lately won largely in the lottery. So the advertisement was put in the paper.”

The captain nodded knowingly. “And he came, and you croaked him, eh?”

John Duck smiled. It was a smile of gentle pity.

“No,” he said briefly. “Not at all.”

“Well, damn it!” ejaculated the officer. “Then who did?”

“Two men. One of them, Hip Sing, is also a priest in the temple. The other, Lui Yen Yuan, is his friend. They were not of our party at all. They murdered Tan Tock to get his money, which he always carried on his person. That is why I am telling you the whole thing. They had heard of the brazen serpent, and they also wanted to get hold of it for the local temple. They now desire to kill me, in order to get it. This strip of skin was sent me as a threat, you understand?”

The officer swore under his breath. At this point Thornton intervened.

“In view of these facts,” he said, accepting John Duck's story as true, “you will aid us in obtaining a conviction of the murderers?”.

“Very gladly,” said John Duck, with admirable promptitude. “They are no friends of mine. Lui Yen Yuan is an eater of opium, and finds it hard to obtain the drug. If you wish, I will send him a note now offering him some opium and also the brazen serpent at a certain price. He will come to get it. You will arrest him. By offering him opium, he will be unable to refuse—and will confirm all I have said.”

“It's against the law to have dope in your possession,” said the captain roughly. “How 'd you get it?”

“I have a permit,” and John Duck smiled. “I am a chemist.”

There was nothing in his proposal that seemed unlikely. If Lui Yen Yuan were a murderer, and were also an opium fiend, the chances were that in order to get the drug he would confess very fully. Those who smoke opium cannot eat it, and vice versa. Pellets are very difficult to obtain. One who has been deprived of them for some time will go through hell to get a supply.

The captain of detectives glanced at Thornton, who nodded imperceptibly.

“All right,” said the officer. “Write your note. Thornton, phone for a messenger, will you? I'll watch this guy.”

Thornton departed to his telephone down-stairs, for John Duck had none.

Under the watchful eye of the officer, John Duck opened a desk, laid out brushes and ink and paper, and rapidly got off several lines if ideographs. Thornton returned in time to look over the letter, but it was written in Mandarin, of which he knew almost nothing.

“If this story is true,” said Thornton, “then—”

“Then we get the guys who croaked Tan Tock,” added the officer. “That's what I'm interested in! How soon will the man get here?”

“I think he will come immediately,” said John Duck, smiling.


The message was sent. Thornton took one of John Duck's cigarettes, which were of English make and extraordinarily good; it occurred to him that as yet he had no explanation of the red drip which had first drawn his attention to the entire affair. He said nothing of it at the moment, however. The. most important thing now was to substantiate the story told by John Duck.

As the three men waited, the two visitors gradually became impressed with the fact that their host must have told the truth. John Duck had personality. He chatted with them lightly, keenly, giving them both some very interesting information in regard to his race, and subtly impressing upon them his education and standing. He was a research chemist, and the bare fact that he made no pretension to being a Christian convert was enough to vouch strongly for him. Men instinctively respect other men who have the strength of their convictions.

Half an hour passed. The bell jangled.

“If you will allow me,” said John Duck, “I will speak to him myself. Otherwise, he might be suspicious.”

Since there was nothing else to be done, the captain assented. John Duck went to the old-fashioned speaking-tube that connected with the entrance below, and spoke rapidly in Mandarin. He turned, smiling.

“He is coming right up. May I suggest that he will be armed?”

“You leave him to us!” said the officer eagerly, stationing himself beside the door.

Two minutes later, there was a knock. John Duck opened the door. Into the room stepped a yellow man whom Thornton 'judged to be of the coolie class, cheaply dressed, his features high-boned and imperturbable, quite ignorant. The captain had him by the wrists as he entered.

“You're under arrest for the murder of Tan Tock! Frisk him, Thornton.”

Helpless in that iron grip, the coolie could not resist. His eyes went to the face of John Duck, who smiled and nodded. He said nothing. From his clothes, Thornton took a pistol, also a large and keen knife.

The catain ironed his man and dropped him into a chair.

“Now,” he said, standing over him, “d'you want to talk?”

John Duck interposed, apologetically. He came forward with a small box open in his hand, and showed this box to the prisoner. He spoke for a moment rapidly; 'both the words and the inflection were incomprehensible to Thornton. Lui- Yen Yuan nodded.

“He will tell everything, for he is badly in need of the drug,” he said. “But he knows no English—”

“Tell him to speak Cantonese, and to speak slowly,” said Thornton.

This was done. The prisoner, his eye fastened on the box in the hand of John Duck, obeyed.

“We knew that Tan Tock was coming here,” he said. “We followed him and caught him in the street below. It was nearly two in the morning. I held him while Hip Sing cut at his throat, then I cut also. We took his money and left him.”

“Straight enough,”” said Thornton, turning. “Cap'n, go down and use my telephone. Get Hip Sing at once. Bring the wagon here, with an interpreter, and get the story all over again. No dope until the interpreter also gets the story, John Duck! That 'll make sure of everything.”

Fifteen minutes later the prisoner once again recited his confession. He seemed. to have gone utterly and absolutely to pieces. It was a somewhat unusual case, but the opium explained his talking so freely. He even went to the extent of signing a confession in full, Then, and not until then, John Duck gave him the little box of opium pellets.

Before the wagon left a telephone message came saying that Hip Sing had been arrested, and protested his entire innocence. But the story that Hip Sing told made no difference whatever.

When the~police had departed Thornton turned to John Duck.

“I regret our suspicions of you,” he said. “But there is one thing—” and he went on to tell of the red drip. When he had finished, John Duck beckoned him into the laboratory, smiling.

“I have been engaged on work relating to dyes,” he said, and went to the oriel windows. “In order to get rid of unnecessary fluids, which might injure the house piping, I constructed this outlet.”

He lifted a small trap in the flooring by the windows, and showed a pipe which led down and out.

“Anything put through this pipe,” he explained, “will pass outside to the ground. Last night I had been working on a red dye. What you saw was not blood, but an aniline fluid.”

Thornton went down-stairs, wondering at the workings of destiny.

Two weeks later John Duck gave up his lease and disappeared from sight. With another month Lui Yuan and Hip Sing were found guilty of murder in the first degree, although Hip Sing protested innoce, and were duly executed.


Some months passed. Bixby Thornton had completely forgotten the peculiar case of the brazen serpent in the rush of work thrown on the service by the prohibition laws and the income tax.

One night Thornton came home, dead tired. His wife, with the agreeable intimation that she had corned beef and cabbage for supper, handed him a letter bearing a Chinese postmark. In some surprise Thornton examined this letter, and perceived that it had been posted from Pekin. He got into his slippers and settled down by the fire while Mrs. Thornton set about getting supper on the table.

Thornton drew from the envelope a typewritten sheet. The letter was not long, but it contained a gently ironic gist of information:

My dear Mr. Thornton:
Perhaps you remember the brazen serpent affair? I cannot let this go longer without giving an explanation which is due you, my dear friend.
The story which I told you and the police officer was incorrect. I myself was the person who stole the brass dragon from the temple in Singapore. Facts will suffice; reasons are immaterial here.
I hid myself in New York. At length, Tan Tock ran me down; but by that time I was prepared for him. Thinking me repentant, he called on me to receive the dragon; instead, I killed him and left him in the street outside. Hip Sing, his fellow priest, sent me a strip of his skin, as you know, in mute threatening. Hip Sing, I presume, had been watching the house and found the body. The way out was very simple. I hired Lui Yen Yuan to die for me, which he was glad to do in order to relieve his honored parents from all future poverty. He implicated Hip Sing. The police attended to all other details, and left me at liberty to pursue my research work. I thank you, and beg to remain,

Your humble and grateful servant,
John Duck.

Bixby Thornton pressed the letter into a crumpled ball, and quietly laid it on the coals before him. A moment later his wife bustled into the room with a passing query:

“And who was your Chinese letter from, my dear?”

Thornton started slightly. “That? Oh, that was just a note of thanks,” he said reflectively, “from a young Chink I helped out of trouble some little while back.”

Mrs. Thornton noticed, however, that her husband did not relish his corned beef and cabbage nearly as much as usual that evening.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1949, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 73 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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