On that particular November evening, Viner, a young gentleman of means and leisure, who lived in a comfortable old house in Markendale Square, Bayswater, in company with his maiden aunt Miss Bethia Penkridge, had spent his after-dinner hours in a fashion which had become a habit. Miss Penkridge, a model housekeeper and an essentially worthy woman, whose whole day was given to supervising somebody or something, had an insatiable appetite for fiction, and loved nothing so much as that her nephew should read a novel to her after the two glasses of port which she allowed herself every night had been thoughtfully consumed and he and she had adjourned from the dining-room to the hearthrug in the library. Her tastes, however, in Viner's opinion were somewhat, if not decidedly, limited.
Brought up in her youth on Miss Braddon, Wilkie Collins and Mrs. Henry Wood, Miss Penkridge had become a confirmed slave to the sensational. She had no taste for the psychological, and nothing but scorn for the erotic. What she loved was a story which began with crime and ended with a detection of a story which kept you wondering who did it, how it was done, and when the doing was going to be laid bare to the light of day. Nothing pleased her better than to go to bed with a brain titivated with the mysteries of the last three chapters; nothing gave her such infinite delight as to find, when the final pages were turned, that all her own theories were wrong, and that the real criminal was somebody quite other than the person she had fancied. For a novelist who was so little master of his trade as to let you see when and how things were going, Miss Penkridge had little but good-natured pity; for one who led you by all sorts of devious tracks to a startling and surprising sensation she cherished a whole-souled love; but for the creator of a plot who could keep his secret burning to his last few sentences she felt the deepest thing that she could give to any human being respect. Such a master was entered permanently on her mental library list.
At precisely ten o'clock that evening Viner read the last page of a novel which had proved to be exactly suited to his aunt's tastes. A dead silence fell on the room, broken only by the crackling of the logs in the grate. Miss Penkridge dropped her knitting on her silk-gowned knees and stared at the leaping flames; her nephew, with an odd glance at her, rose from his easy-chair, picked up a pipe and began to fill it from a tobacco-jar on the mantelpiece. The clock had ticked several times before Miss Penkridge spoke. "Well!" she said, with the accompanying sigh which denotes complete content. "So he did it! Now, I should never have thought it! The last person of the whole lot! Clever, very clever! Richard, you'll get all the books that that man has written!"
Viner lighted his pipe, thrust his hands in the pockets of his trousers and leaned back against the mantelpiece. "My dear aunt!" he said half-teasingly, half-seriously. "You're worse than a drug-taker. Whatever makes a highly-respectable, shrewd old lady like you cherish such an insensate fancy for this sort of stuff?"
"Stuff?" demanded Miss Penkridge, who had resumed her knitting. "Pooh! It's not stuff, it's life! Real life, in the form of fiction!" Viner shook his head, pityingly. He never read fiction for his own amusement; his tastes in reading lay elsewhere, in solid directions. Moreover, in those directions he was a good deal of a student, and he knew more of his own library than of the world outside it. So he shook his head again. "Life!" he said. "You don't mean to say that you think those things" he pointed a half-scornful finger to a pile of novels which had come in from Mudie's that day, "really represent life?" "What else?" demanded Miss Penkridge.
"Oh, I don't know," replied Viner vaguely. "Fancy, I suppose, and imagination, and all that sort of thing, invention, you know, and so on. But, life! Do you really think such things happen in real life, as those we've been reading about?" "I don't think anything about it," retorted Miss Penkridge sturdily. "I'm sure of it. I never had a novel yet, nor heard one read to me, that was half as strong as it might have been!" "Queer thing, one never hears or sees of these things, then!" exclaimed Viner. "I never have! and I've been on this planet thirty years." "That sort of thing hasn't come your way, Richard," remarked Miss Penkridge sententiously. "And you don't read the popular Sunday newspapers. I do! They're full of crime of all sorts. So's the world. And as to mysteries, well, I've known of two or three in my time that were much more extraordinary than any I've ever read of in novels. I should think so!"