Tarleton, the amateur’s amateur, was sat one evening in an armchair in his consulting rooms, constructing a working scale model of a hydroelectric power station out of matchsticks and cardboard and glue and fusewire and hydroelectric power, when there came a sudden urgent knocking, the door crashed open, and into the room came a man holding, at arm’s length, an asp.
“Are you Tarleton?” gasped the man. It was his last gasp, for as soon as the words were out of his mouth he collapsed upon the carpet. In death, his grip on the asp was necessarily relaxed, but the manner in which he fell meant that the asp was trapped under the weight of his corpse. Its head, however, poked free, and it hissed in an aspy way at Tarleton.
This, then, was the famous mystery of the asp, some say Tarleton’s finest hour. The mystery may be thought to have inhered in the identity of the man who had come carrying an asp into the consulting-rooms, his purpose in bringing the asp, and indeed in the provenance of the asp. There were certain other matters, too, to which Tarleton needed to turn the cranks of his powerful mind, but those mentioned are considered the main three. We might mention here that the dead man had a pudding-basin haircut.
Before solving the mystery, Tarleton determined to put the finishing touches to his model. He was unruffled by the hissing of the asp, for he had, years before, gained mastery of a mystic oriental technique for remaining unruffled in the presence of hissing asps, and indeed of other things that hiss. One inadvertent consequence of his mastery was that, on the one occasion Tarleton met Alger Hiss, the communist spy, he remained utterly unruffled, when a certain rufflement might have spurred him to action, and he could have taken steps to gather evidence of Hiss’s perfidy, and thus saved Whittaker Chambers a great deal of pother. Chambers, with his rotten infected teeth and shabby stained suit, never forgave Tarleton for his languid lack of concern, and sent the amateur’s amateur several poison pen letters in succeeding years. These have now been collected in The Correspondence Of Whittaker Chambers And Tarleton, The Amateur’s Amateur, a somewhat misleading title in that the word ‘correspondence’ suggests that Tarleton replied, which he did not. He could not bestir himself to do so, preferring to muck about with matchsticks and cardboard and glue and fusewire and hydroelectric power. Having made one working scale model of a hydroelectric power station, putting the finishing touches to it under the watchful eyes of a hissing asp, Tarleton was so delighted with it that he immediately set about making another. It was a hobby that kept him profitably occupied for a number of years.
Obviously, he had to take a break from his model-making from time to time, for example to sleep, to eat, to go for long hikes, to solve cases that perplexed the best minds of the police force, and not least, to do something about the asp. But before he could address the matter of the asp, Tarleton had to arrange for the disposal of the corpse of the man who had burst into his consulting rooms carrying the asp at arm’s length. He placed a call to the local rascally illegal disposer of corpses. One might ask why he did not seek to have the corpse disposed of in a manner commensurate with the law. One might ask, but to no avail, for Tarleton was notoriously tight-lipped about such things. Let us say it was not the first time he had had a corpse disposed of illegally, nor the first time said corpse had a pudding-basin haircut. It was, however, the first time the removal of the corpse from his consulting rooms would release, from under its dead weight, a hissing asp.
To this end, after making arrangements with the rascal, Tarleton placed a second call, this one to an asp expert at a zoo.
“Tell me about asps,” he said.
The asp expert took the call at a busy time, when he was engaged in tackling some kind of zoo asp mayhem. It is the kind of thing that happens all the time even at the best regulated zoos, and it is best you know nothing more. The upshot, however, was that the expert could not afford the time to spout all he knew of asps to Tarleton, as that would have taken several hours, hours he did not have as he strained every sinew to avert zoo asp mayhem. All he managed to splutter was some nonsense about the first asps having been created from the spilled blood of the head of Medusa, borne aloft by Perseus on his flight to Mount Olympus. He then slammed the phone down, leaving Tarleton little wiser than he was before.
All this while, the mystery of the asp remained unsolved. Yet we know there are those who say it was Tarleton’s finest hour. Why would they say such a thing? He sat there, faffing with matchsticks and cardboard and glue and fusewire and hydroelectric power, and placing a couple of calls, occasionally glancing over at the trapped hissing asp, and hissing back at it. Perhaps that in itself is the mystery.
When, later in the evening, the rascal appeared, to make illegal disposal of the corpse, he spotted the asp and licked his lips and asked Tarleton if he might remove, not just the corpse, but the asp into the bargain. Tarleton nodded.
“Thankee kindly, sir,” said the rascal, doffing his cap, “There’s nothing I like better for a nightcap than a tot of asp’s blood.” and he whacked the asp on its head with a lead-weighted sap, and dragged it from under the corpse, and popped it in his pocket. We might mention here that the rascal had a pudding-basin haircut atop a countenance that was the spit and image of Alger Hiss.