It was, as some nights must be, a dark and stormy night when I picked up my pen and notebook to act again as secretary in the Writers’ Room of my imagination while my imaginary committee there looked at — and debated — another facet of my detective-novel-in-progress.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was again the chairman of the meeting. Robert Louis Stevenson wasn’t in any sort of chair; he was tucked up comfortably on the couch beside the meeting table. Even though he felt fine, he didn’t want to give up the habits of his actual life. (Or so I imagined.)
“It’s August for Margaret,” said Arthur. “The good cool weather canna last forever, and she’ll be struggling with that nasty tropical heat they get in Chicago. She’ll hate it when it comes back.”
“Tropical?” cried Louis. “But Arthur, Chicago’s no tropical! Mind that snowdrift Margaret had fallen in when I first came to see her in her imagination.”
Agatha Christie, seated at the table beside Arthur, shivered and said “Oh dear!”
“Wise up, Agatha,” said Daphne du Maurier, who was across the table from her. “Margaret can cope with snowdrifts –”
“With help from me afterward,” muttered Louis, but only I heard him.
“– and her characters can deal with them as well,” Daphne added.
“A capital idea, Daphne, capital,” said Arthur. “Let’s talk about snow in Margaret’s writing.”
Arthur opened up Chapter One in his manuscript copy of “My Roommate’s Murder.” (Yes, I left a copy lying around for them.) He began to read with the first sentence:
“The last normal thing I remember from that January night is the difference between the sky and the snow. The sky was blue-black, accented with stars, and the mushy, wet obstacles of snow had grown several inches longer and deeper while I was in my two-hour photography class.”
” ‘Obstacles of snow?’ What are they?” Agatha asked. “Surely ‘snowdrifts’ is all right if they don’t have obstacles in them.”
“You southerners,” muttered Louis. “It’s all right to use ‘snowdrifts,’ but what kind?”
“The mushy, wet, sticky snow,” Daphne said.
“Ah! The mushy, wet, sticky snow was a bigger problem now. Longer and deeper obstacles had formed while I was in my two-hour photography class,” said Arthur. “That’s much more precise.”
“Yes, she’ll like that,” said Agatha (who was right). “Go on reading, please.”
“I walked home that night — back to my dorm, Brandt Hall — from my three-hour photography class in Baldwin Hall on Valparaiso University’s old campus.”
“Well?” snapped Agatha. “Which was it, two or three?”
“We were discussing snow, Agatha,” said Arthur.
“But was it a two-hour class or a three-hour class?” said Agatha.
I told them I’d check my Diary, once I wasn’t checking notes, and they subsided.
“Say, who was that, trying to come in?” said Daphne as a dark shadow passed the well-lit door of the Writers’ Room.
“Walter Scott, wasn’t it, Louis?” said Arthur.
Louis nodded. “Ye ken it was, Arthur — that dark profile as the yellow window, that idea you used so well. The window was your ‘Magic Door,” I suspect.”
“Nay, Margaret’s door,” said Arthur calmly. “Now let’s trust her to go and check the length of her character’s class and keep looking at that snowy night.” He read on:
“I left Baldwin’s red-brick bulk behind and walked along Locust Street. ‘Home,” Brandt, was almost all the way to Indiana’s State Highway 49, unimaginatively known on campus as East Drive.
“I managed to enjoy looking at the night sky when I found a path that had been shoveled. Turning onto Freeman Street soaked my boots, but it was free of traffic for once.”
“Soaked?” said Agatha. “But I thought it was snowing, not raining!”
“Have ye not walked through a snowdrift, woman?” said Arthur.
“Has the narrator said anything about snowdrifts, man?” said Daphne.
“Not yet,” said Arthur, “but listen:”
“It (Freeman Street) was deserted, too, after the comparatively large, dark DeMotte Hall. I checked, but the snow obscured the brick posts near DeMotte — I couldn’t read the plaques which I knew read VALPARAISO UNIVERSITY/FOUNDED 1859. In our sociology class in DeMotte last month, Annie Remington and I had joked ‘Founded 1859, “losted” 1982.’
“Now the sign was really ‘losted’ in the snow. Still, I’d have to remind Annie that we’d need to change our date to 1983, now that it was January.”
“Very subtle,” said Louis.
“Lost in the snow is subtle?” said Agatha.
“No, the time element,” said Louis, smiling.
“Judging by the drifts that had grown past my knees,” Arthur read, but Daphne stopped him.
“Listen to that,” she said, grinning. “Whose knees?”
“A young woman, I suppose, with a friend called Annie,” said Arthur.
“But the narrator hasn’t a name yet!” said Daphne. “Just like my –”
“Your Mrs. De Winter, we know,” the others chorused.
“Louis,” said Arthur, “you’ve known Margaret longest and paid solo visits. Did she pick out a wintry name as some sort of nod to Daphne and her ‘Rebecca’?”
“Dinna ken,” said Louis.
(Not exactly, I told them. I just wanted a way to think of snowstorms all year through!)
Arthur read on:
“Judging by the drifts that had grown past my knees in the shoveled spots on Freeman Street and the way the snow covered my ankles and more when the shoveling ended, we’d had at least three inches — an inch an hour or more — during class. This was Valparaiso, Ind., on Jan. 25, 1983, so the snow itself wasn’t extreme.”
“That’s more vivid than ‘soaked,’ said Agatha.
“A good blend of scenery and time,” said Arthur.
“Doesn’t sound much like the Vale of Paradise,” said Louis. “That’s what Valparaiso means,” he added when he saw the three puzzled faces at the table.
“I’m sure the pace picks up soon,” said Arthur.
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