A FANTASIA ON MODERN THEMES
BY ARNOLD BENNETT
Transcriber's Notes: Mismatched quotes have been normalized. "L'eat, c'est moi." corrected to "L'etat, c'est moi." Recalicitant corrected to recalcitrant. Other oddities in spelling and punctuation have been left as in the original.
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
A MAN FROM THE NORTH. ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS. LEONORA. A GREAT MAN. SACRED AND PROFANE LOVE.
THE GRAND BABYLON HOTEL. THE GATES OF WRATH. TERESA OF WATLING STREET. THE LOOT OF CITIES
TALES OF THE FIVE TOWNS.
JOURNALISM FOR WOMEN. FAME AND FICTION. HOW TO BECOME AN AUTHOR. THE TRUTH ABOUT AN AUTHOR.
A FANTASIA ON MODERN THEMES
BY ARNOLD BENNETT
AUTHOR OF 'THE GRAND BABYLON HOTEL,' 'ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS,' 'A GREAT MAN,' ETC.
LONDON CHATTO & WINDUS 1906
PART I THE SEALED ROOMS
CHAPTER I. THE DOME II. THE ESTABLISHMENT III. HUGO EXPLAINS HIMSELF IV. CAMILLA V. A STORY AND A DISAPPEARANCE VI. A LAPSE FROM AN IDEAL VII. POSSIBLE ESCAPE OF SECRETS VIII. ORANGE-BLOSSOM IX. 'WHICH?' X. THE COFFIN
PART II THE PHONOGRAPH
XI. SALE XII. SAFE DEPOSIT XIII. MR. GALPIN XIV. TEA XV. RAVENGAR IN CAPTIVITY XVI. BURGLARS XVII. POLYCARP AND HAWKE'S MAN XVIII. HUSBAND AND WIFE XIX. WHAT THE PHONOGRAPH SAID
PART III THE TOMB
XX. 'ARE YOU THERE?' XXI. SUICIDE XXII. DARCY XXIII. FIRST TRIUMPH OF SIMON XXIV. THE LODGING-HOUSE XXV. CHLOROFORM XXVI. SECOND TRIUMPH OF SIMON XXVII. THE CEMETERY XXVIII. BEAUTY
PART I THE SEALED ROOMS
He wakened from a charming dream, in which the hat had played a conspicuous part.
'I shouldn't mind having that hat,' he murmured.
A darkness which no eye could penetrate surrounded him as he lay in bed. Absolute obscurity was essential to the repose of that singular brain, and he had perfected arrangements for supplying the deficiencies of Nature's night.
He touched a switch, and in front of him at a distance of thirty feet the ivory dial of a clock became momentarily visible under the soft yellow of a shaded electric globe. It was fifteen minutes past six. At the same moment a bell sounded the quarter in delicate tones, which fell on the ear as lightly as dew. In the upper gloom could be discerned the contours of a vast dome, decorated in turquoise-blue and gold.
He pressed a button near the switch. A portiere rustled, and a young man approached his bed—a short, thin, pale, fair young man, active and deferential.
'My tea, Shawn. Draw the curtains and open the windows.'
'Yes, sir,' said Simon Shawn.
In an instant the room was brilliantly revealed as a great circular apartment, magnificently furnished, with twelve windows running round the circumference beneath the dome. The virginal zephyrs of a July morning wandered in. The sun, although fierce, slanted his rays through the six eastern windows, printing a new pattern on the Tripoli carpets. Between the windows were bookcases, full of precious and extraordinary volumes, and over the bookcases hung pictures of the Barbizon school. These books and these pictures were the elegant monument of hobbies which their owner had outlived. His present hobby happened to be music. A Steinway grand-piano was prominent in the chamber, and before the ebony instrument stood a mechanical pianoforte-player.
'I must have that hat.'
He paused reflectively, leaning on one elbow, as he made the tea which Simon Shawn had brought and left on the night-table. And again, at the third cup, he repeated to himself that he must possess the hat.
He had a passion for tea. His servants had received the strictest orders to supply him at early morn with materials sufficient only for two cups. Nevertheless, they were always a little generous, and, by cheating himself slightly in the first and the second cup, the votary could often, to his intense joy, conjure a third out of the pot.
After glancing through the newspaper which accompanied the tea, he jumped vivaciously out of bed, veiled the splendour of his pyjamas beneath a quilted toga, and disappeared into a dressing-room, whistling.
'Shawn!' he cried out from his bath, when he heard the rattle of the tea-tray.
'Play me the Chopin Fantasie, will you. I feel like it.'
'Certainly, sir,' said Simon, and paused. 'Which particular one do you desire me to render, sir?'
'There is only one, Shawn, for piano solo.'
'I beg pardon, sir.'
The gentle plashing of water mingled with the strains of one of the greatest of all musical compositions, as interpreted by Simon Shawn with the aid of an ingenious contrivance the patentees of which had spent twenty thousand pounds in advertising it.
'Very good, Shawn,' said Shawn's master, coming forward in his shirt-sleeves as the last echoes of a mighty chord expired under the dome. He meditatively stroked his graying beard while the pianist returned to the tea-tray.
'I want a hat.'
'A hat, sir?'
'A lady's hat.'
'Run down into Department 42, there's a good fellow, and see if you can find me a lady's hat of dark-blue straw, wide brim, trimmed chiefly with a garland of pinkish rosebuds.'
'A lady's hat of dark-blue straw, wide brim, trimmed chiefly with pinkish rosebuds, sir?'
'Precisely. Here, you're forgetting the token.'
He detached a gold medallion from his watch-chain, and handed it to Shawn, who departed with it and with the tea-tray.
Two minutes later, having climbed the staircase between the inner and outer domes, he stood, fully clad in a light-gray suit, on the highest platform of the immense building, whose occidental facade is the glory of Sloane Street and one of the marvels of the metropolis. Far above him a gigantic flag spread its dazzling folds to the sun and the breeze. On the white ground of the flag, in purple letters seven feet high, was traced the single word, 'HUGO.'
From his eyrie he could see half the West End of London. Sloane Street stretched north and south like a ruled line, and along that line two hurrying processions of black dots approached each other, and met and vanished below him; they constituted the first division of his army of three thousand five hundred employes.
He leaned over the balustrade, and sniffed the pure air with exultant, eager nostrils. He was forty-six. He did not feel forty-six, however. In common with every man of forty-six, and especially every bachelor of forty-six, he regarded forty-six as a mere meaningless number, as a futile and even misleading symbol of chronology. He felt that Time had made a mistake—that he was not really in the fifth decade, and that his true, practical working age was about thirty.
Moreover, he was in love, for the first time in his life. Like all men and all women, he had throughout the whole of his adult existence been ever secretly preoccupied with thoughts, hopes, aspirations, desires, concerning the other sex, but the fundamental inexperience of his heart was such that he imagined he was going to be happy because he had fallen in love.
'I'm glad I sent for that hat,' he said, smiling absently at the Great Wheel over a mile and a half of roofs.
The key to his character and his career lay in the fact that he invariably found sufficient courage to respond to his instincts, and that his instincts were romantic. They had led him in various ways, sometimes to grandiose and legitimate triumphs, sometimes to hidden shames which it is merciful to ignore. In the main, they had served him well. It was in obedience to an instinct that he had capped the nine stories of the Hugo building with a dome and had made his bed under the dome. It was in obedience to another instinct that he had sent for the hat.
'Very pretty, isn't it?' he observed to Shawn, when Simon handed him the insubstantial and gay object and restored the gold token. They were at a window in the circular room; the couch had magically melted away.
'I admire it, sir,' said Shawn, and withdrew.
'Dolt!' he cried out upon Shawn in his heart. 'You didn't see her at work on it. As if you could appreciate her exquisite taste and the amazing skill of her blanched fingers! I alone can appreciate these things!'
He hung the hat on a Louis Quatorze screen, and blissfully gazed at it, her creation.
'But I must be careful,' he muttered—'I must be careful.'
A clerk entered with his personal letters. It was scarcely seven o'clock, but these fifteen or twenty envelopes had already been sorted from the three thousand missives that constituted his first post; he had his own arrangement with the Post-Office.
'So it's coming at last,' he said to himself, as he opened an envelope marked 'Private and Confidential' in red ink. The autograph note within was from Senior Polycarp, principal partner in Polycarps, the famous firm of company-promoting solicitors, and it heralded a personal visit from the august lawyer at 11.30 that day.
In the midst of dictating instructions to the clerk, Mr. Hugo stopped and rang for Shawn.
'Take that back,' he commanded, indicating the hat. 'I've done with it.'
The hat went.
'I may just as well be discreet,' his thought ran.
But her image, the image of the artist in hats, illumined more brightly than ever his soul.
Seven years before, when, having unostentatiously acquired the necessary land, and an acre or two over, Hugo determined to rebuild his premises and to burst into full blossom, he visited America and Paris, and amongst other establishments inspected Wanamaker's, the Bon Marche, and the Magasins du Louvre. The result disappointed him. He had expected to pick up ideas, but he picked up nothing save the Bon Marche system of vouchers, by which a customer buying in several departments is spared the trouble of paying separately in each department. He came to the conclusion that the art of flinging money away in order that it may return tenfold was yet quite in its infancy. He said to himself, 'I will build a shop.'
Travelling home by an indirect route, he stopped at a busy English seaport, and saw a great town-hall majestically rising in the midst of a park. The beautiful building did not appeal to him in vain. At the gates of the park he encountered a youth, who was staring at the town-hall with a fixed and fascinated stare.
'A fine structure,' Hugo commented to the youth.
'I think so,' was the reply.
'Can you tell me who is the architect?' asked Hugo.
'I am,' said the youth. 'And let me beg of you not to make any remark on my juvenile appearance. I am sick of that.'
They lunched together, and Hugo learnt that the genius, after several years spent in designing the varnished interiors of public-houses, had suddenly come out first in an open competition for the town-hall; thenceforward he had thought in town-halls.
'I want a shop putting up,' said Hugo.
The youth showed no interest.
'And when I say a shop,' Hugo pursued, 'I mean a shop.'
'Oh, a shop you mean!' ejaculated the youth, faintly stirred. They both spoke in italics.
'A real shop. Sloane Street. A hundred and eighty thousand superficial feet. Cost a quarter of a million. The finest shop in the world!'
The youth started to his feet.
'I've never had any luck,' said he, gazing at Hugo. 'But I believe you really do understand what a shop ought to be.'
'I believe I do,' Hugo concurred. 'And I want one.'
'You shall have it!' said the youth.
And Hugo had it, though not for anything like the sum he had named.
The four frontages of his land exceeded in all a quarter of a mile. The frontage to Sloane Street alone was five hundred feet. It was this glorious stretch of expensive earth which inflamed the architect's imagination.
'But we must set back the facade twenty feet at least,' he said; and added, 'That will give you a good pavement.'
'Young man,' cried Hugo, 'do you know how much this land has stood me in a foot?'
'I neither know nor care,' answered the youth. 'All I say is, what's the use of putting up a decent building unless people can see it?'
Hugo yielded. He felt as though, having given the genius something to play with, he must not spoil the game. The game included twelve thousand pounds paid to budding sculptors for monumental groups of a symbolic tendency; it included forests of onyx pillars and pillars of Carrara marble; it included ceilings painted by artists who ought to have been R.A.'s, but were not; and it included a central court of vast dimensions and many fountains, whose sole purpose was to charm the eye and lure the feet of customers who wanted a rest from spending money. Whenever Hugo found the game over-exciting, he soothed himself by dwelling upon the wonderful plan which the artist had produced, of his extraordinary grasp of practical needs, and his masterly solution of the various complicated problems which continually presented themselves.
After the last bit of scaffolding was removed and the machine in full working order, Hugo beheld it, and said emphatically, 'This will do.'
All London stood amazed, but not at the austere beauty of the whole, for only a few connoisseurs could appreciate that. What amazed London was the fabulous richness, the absurd spaciousness, the extravagant perfection of every part of the immense organism.
You could stroll across twenty feet of private tessellated pavement, enter jewelled portals with the assistance of jewelled commissionaires, traverse furlong after furlong of vistas where nought but man was vile, sojourn by the way in the concert-hall, the reading-room, or the picture-gallery, smoke a cigarette in the court of fountains, write a letter in the lounge, and finally ask to be directed to the stationery department, where seated on a specially designed chair and surrounded by the most precious manifestations of applied art, you could select a threepenny box of J pens, and have it sent home in a pair-horse van.
The unobservant visitor wondered how Hugo made it pay. The observant visitor did not fail to note that there were more than a hundred cash-desks in the place, and that all the cashiers had the air of being overworked. Once the entire army of cashiers, driven to defensive action, had combined in order to demand from Hugo, not only higher pay, but an increase in their numbers. Hugo had immediately consented, expressing regret that their desperate plight had escaped his attention.
The registered telegraphic address of the establishment was 'Complete, London.'
This address indicated the ideal which Hugo had turned into a reality. His imperial palace was far more than a universal bazaar. He boasted that you could do everything there, except get into debt. (His dictionary was an expurgated edition, and did not contain the word 'credit.') Throughout life's fitful fever Hugo undertook to meet all your demands. Your mother could buy your layette from him, and your cradle, soothing-syrup, perambulator, and toys; she could hire your nurse at Hugo's. Your school-master could purchase canes there. Hugo sold the material for every known game; also sweets, cigarettes, penknives, walking-sticks, moustache-forcers, neckties, and trouser-stretchers. He shaved you, and kept the latest in scents and kit-bags. He was unsurpassed for fishing-rods, motor-cars, Swinburne's poems, button-holes, elaborate bouquets, fans, and photographs. His restaurant was full of discreet corners with tables for two under rose-shaded lights. He booked seats for theatres, trains, steamers, grand-stands, and the Empire. He dealt in all stocks and shares. He was a banker. He acted as agent for all insurance companies. He would insert advertisements in the agony column, or any other column, of any newspaper. If you wanted a flat, a house, a shooting-box, a castle, a yacht, or a salmon river, Hugo could sell, or Hugo could let, the very thing. He provided strong-rooms for your savings, and summer quarters for your wife's furs; conjurers to amuse your guests after dinner, and all the requisites for your daughter's wedding, from the cake and the silk petticoats to the Viennese band. His wine-cellars and his specific for the gout were alike famous; so also was his hair-dye.... And, lastly, when the riddle of existence had become too much for your curiosity, Hugo would sell you a pistol by means of which you could solve it. And he would bury you in a manner first-class, second-class, or third-class, according to your deserts.
And all these feats Hugo managed to organize within the compass of four floors, a basement, and a sub-basement. Above, were five floors of furnished and unfurnished flats. 'Will people of wealth consent to live over a shop?' he had asked himself in considering the possibilities of his palace, and he had replied, 'Yes, if the shop is large enough and the rents are high enough.' He was right. His flats were the most sumptuous and the most preposterously expensive in London; and they were never tenantless. One man paid two thousand a year for a furnished suite. But what a furnished suite! The flats had a separate and spectacular entrance on the eastern facade of the building, with a foyer that was always brilliantly lighted, and elevators that rose and sank without intermission day or night. And on the ninth floor was a special restaurant, with prices to match the rents, and a roof garden, where one of Hugo's orchestras played every fine summer evening, except Sundays. (The County Council, mistrusting this aerial combination of music and moonbeams, had granted its license only on the condition that customers should have one night in which to recover from the doubtful influences of the other six.) The restaurant and the roof-garden were a resort excessively fashionable during the season. The garden gave an excellent view of the dome, where Hugo lived. But few persons knew that he lived there; in some matters he was very secretive.
That very sultry morning Hugo brooded over the face of his establishment like a spirit doomed to perpetual motion. For more than two hours he threaded ceaselessly the long galleries where the usual daily crowds of customers, sales-people, shopwalkers, inspectors, sub-managers, managers, and private detectives of both sexes, moved with a strange and unaccustomed languor in a drowsy atmosphere which no system of ventilation could keep below 75 deg. Fahrenheit. None but the chiefs of departments had the right to address him as he passed; such was the rule. He deviated into the counting-house, where two hundred typewriters made their music, and into the annexe containing the stables and coach-houses, where scores of vans and automobiles, and those elegant coupes gratuitously provided by Hugo for the use of important clients, were continually arriving and leaving. Then he returned to the purchasing multitudes, and plunged therein as into a sea. At intervals a customer, recognising him, would nudge a friend, and point eagerly.
'That's Hugo. See him, in the gray suit?'
'What? That chap?'
And they would both probably remark at lunch: 'I saw Hugo himself to-day at Hugo's.'
He took an oath in his secret heart that he would not go near Department 42, the only department which had the slightest interest for him. He knew that he could not be too discreet. And yet eventually, without knowing how or why, he perceived of a sudden that his legs carried him thither. He stopped, at a loss what to do, and then, by the direct interposition of kindly Fate, a manager spoke to him.... He gazed out of the corner of his eye. Yes, she was there. He could see her through a half-drawn portiere in one of the trying-on rooms. She was sitting limp on a chair, overcome by the tropic warmth of Sloane Street, with her noble head thrown back, her fine eyes half shut, and her beautiful hands lying slackly on her black apron.
What an impeachment of civilization that a creature so fair and so divine should be forced to such a martyrdom! He desired ardently to run to her and to set her free for the day, for the whole summer, and on full wages. He wondered if he could trust the manager with instructions to alleviate her lot.... The next instant she sprang up, giving the indispensable smile of welcome to some customer who had evidently entered the trying-on room from the other side. The phenomenon distressed him. She disappeared from view behind the portiere, and reappeared, but only for a moment, talking to a foppish old man with a white moustache. It was Senior Polycarp, the lawyer.
Hugo flushed, and, abandoning the manager in the middle of a sentence, fled to his central office. He had no confidence in his self-command.... Could this be jealousy? Was it possible that he, Hugo, should be so far gone? Nay!
But what was Polycarp, that old and desiccated widower, doing in the millinery department?
He said he must form some definite plan, and begin by giving her a private room.
HUGO EXPLAINS HIMSELF
'And what,' asked Hugo, smiling faintly at Mr. Senior Polycarp—'what is your client's idea of price?'
For half an hour they had been talking in the luxurious calm of Hugo's central office, which was like an island refuge in the middle of that tossing ocean of business. It overlooked the court of fountains from the second story, and the highest jet of water threw a few jewelled drops to the level of its windows.
Mr. Polycarp stroked his beautiful white moustache.
'We would give,' he said in his mincing, passionless voice, 'the cost price of premises, stock, and fixtures, and for goodwill seven times your net annual profits. In addition, we should be anxious to secure your services as managing director for ten years at five thousand a year, plus a percentage of profits.'
'And, of course, if you wished part of the purchase-money in shares—'
'Have you formed any sort of estimate of my annual profits?' Hugo demanded.
'Yes—a sort of estimate.'
'You have looked carefully round, eh?'
'My clients have. I myself, too, a little. This morning, for example. Very healthy, Mr. Hugo.'
'What departments did you visit this morning? Each has its busy days.'
'Grocery, electrical, and—let me see—yes, furniture.'
'Not a good day for that—too hot! Anything else?'
'No,' said Mr. Polycarp.
'Ah!... Well, and what is your clients' estimate?'
'Naturally, I cannot pretend—'
'Listen, Mr. Polycarp,' said Hugo, interrupting: 'I will be open with you.'
The lawyer nodded, appreciatively benign. As usual, he kept his thoughts to himself, but he had the air of adding Hugo to the vast collection of human curiosities which he had made during a prolonged professional career.
'My net trading profits last year were L106,000. You are surprised?'
'You expected a higher figure?'
'I knew it. And the figure might be higher if I chose. Only I do things in rather a royal way, you see. I pay my staff five hundred a week more than I need. And I allow myself to be cheated.' He laughed suddenly. 'Costume department, for instance. I send charming costumes out on approval, and fetch them back in two days. And the pretty girls who have taken off the tickets, and worn the garments, and carefully restored the tickets, and lied to my carmen—the pretty girls imagine they have deceived me. They have merely amused me. My detective reports are excellent reading. And, moreover, I like to think that I have helped a pretty girl to make the best of herself.'
'Immoral and unbusinesslike, Mr. Hugo.'
'Admitted. I have no doubt that if I put the screw on all round I could quite justifiably increase my profits by fifty per cent.'
'That shows what a splendid prospect a limited company would have.'
'Yes, doesn't it?' said Hugo joyously.
'But why are your clients so anxious to turn me into a limited company?'
'They see in your undertaking,' replied Polycarp, folding his thin hands, 'a legitimate opening for that joint-stock enterprise which has had such a beneficial effect on England's prosperity.'
'They would make a profit?'
'A reasonable profit. A small syndicate would be formed to buy from you, and that syndicate would sell to a public company. The usual thing.'
'And where do I come in?'
'Where do you come in, my dear Mr. Hugo? Everywhere! You would receive over a million in cash. You would have your salary and your percentage, and you would be relieved of all your present risks.'
'All my present risks?'
'You have risks, Mr. Hugo, because your business has increased so rapidly that your income is out of all proportion to your capital, which consists almost solely of buildings which you could not sell at anything like their cost price in open market, and of goodwill. Now, I ask you, what is goodwill? What is it? Under our scheme you would at once become a millionaire in actual fact.'
'Decidedly an inviting prospect,' said Hugo.
He walked about the room.
'Then I may take it that you are at any rate prepared to negotiate?' the lawyer ventured, staring at the fountain.
'Mr. Polycarp,' answered Hugo, 'I must first give you a little information and ask you a few questions.'
Hugo halted in front of Polycarp, close to him, and, lighting a cigar, gazed down at the frigid lawyer.
'Till the age of twenty-eight,' he began, 'I had no object in life. I was educated at Oxford. I narrowly escaped the legal profession. I had a near shave of the Church. I wasted years in aimless travel, waiting for destiny to turn up. I was conscious of no gift except a power for organizing. That gift I felt I had, and gradually I perceived that I would like to be the head of some large and complicated undertaking. I examined the latest developments of modern existence, and came to the conclusion that the direction of a thoroughly up-to-date stores would amuse me as well as anything. So I bought this concern—a flourishing little drapery and furnishing business it was then. I had exactly fifty thousand pounds—not a cent more. I paid twenty-five thousand for the business. It was too much, but when an idea takes me it takes me. I required a fine-sounding name, and I chose Hugo. It was an inspiration.'
'Then Hugo is not your—'
'It is not. My real name is Owen. But think of "Owen" on a flag, and then think of "Hugo" on a flag.'
'I began. And because I had everything to learn I lost money at first. I took lessons in my own shop, and the course cost me a hundred a week for some months. But in two years I had proved that my theory of myself was correct. In ten I had made nearly a quarter of a million. Everyone knows the history of my growth.'
'In the eleventh year I determined to emerge from the chrysalis. I dreamed a dream of my second incarnation as universal tradesman. And the fabric of my dream, Mr. Polycarp, you behold around you.' He waved the cigar. 'It is the most colossal thing of its kind ever known.'
Polycarp nodded again.
'Some people regard it as extravagant. It is. It is meant to be. Hugo's store is only my fun, my device for amusing myself. We have glorious times here, I and my ten managers—my Council of Ten. They know me; I know them. They are well paid; they are artists. A trade spirit must, of course, actuate a trade concern; but above that, controlling that, is another spirit—the spirit which has made this undoubtedly the greatest shop in the world. I cannot describe it, but it exists. All my managers, and even many of the rank and file, feel it.'
'Very interesting,' said the lawyer.
'Mr. Polycarp,' Hugo announced solemnly, 'the direction of this establishment is my life. In the midst of this lovely and interesting organism I enjoy every hour of the day. What else can I want?'
Polycarp raised his eyebrows.
'Do you suppose it would add to my fun to have a million in the bank—I, with an income of two thousand a week? Do you suppose I should find it diverting to be at the beck and call of a board of directors—I, the supreme fount of authority? Do you suppose it would be my delight to consider eternally the interests of a pack of shareholders—I, who consider nothing but my fancy? And, finally, do you suppose it would amuse me, Hugo, to have "limited" put after my name? Me, limited!'
'Then,' said the lawyer slowly, 'I am to understand you are not willing—'
'My friend,' Hugo replied, dropping into his chair, 'I would sooner see the whole blessed place fall like the Bastille than see it "limited."'
Polycarp rose in his turn.
'My clients,' he remarked in a peculiar tone, 'had set their minds on this affair.'
'For once in a way your clients will be disappointed,' said Hugo.
'What do you mean—"for once in a way"?'
'Who are your clients, Mr. Polycarp?'
'Since the offer is rejected, it would be useless to divulge their names.'
'I will tell you, then,' said Hugo. 'Your client—for there is only one—is Louis Ravengar. I saw it stated in a paper the other day that Louis Ravengar had successfully floated thirty-nine companies with a total capitalization of thirty millions. But my scalp will not be added to his collection.'
'I shall not disclose the identity of my clients,' Mr. Polycarp minced. 'But, speaking of Mr. Ravengar, I have noticed that what he wants he gets. The manner in which the United Coal Company, Limited, was brought to flotation by him in the teeth of the opposition of the proprietors was really most interesting.'
'You mean to warn me that there are ways of compelling a private concern to become public and joint-stock?'
'Not at all, Mr. Hugo. I am incapable of such a hint. I am sure that nothing and nobody could force you against your will. I was only mentioning the case of the Coal Company. I could mention others.'
'Don't trouble, my dear sir. Convey my decision to Louis Ravengar, and give him my compliments. We are old acquaintances.'
'You are?' The solicitor seemed astonished in his imperturbable way.
'I will convey your decision to my clients.'
Accepting a cigar, Mr. Polycarp departed.
Without giving himself time to think, Hugo went straight to Department 42, and direct to the artist in hats. She stood pale and deferential to receive him. The heat was worse than ever.
'Your name is Payne, I think?' he began. (He well knew her name was Payne.)
Other employes in the trying-on room looked furtively round.
'About half-past eleven an old gentleman, with white moustache, came into this room, Miss Payne. You remember?'
'What did he want?'
'He was inquiring about a hat, sir,' she hurriedly answered.
'For a lady?'
And he hastened back to his central office, and breathed a sigh. 'I have actually spoken to her,' he murmured. 'How charming her voice is!'
But Miss Payne's physical condition desolated him. If she was so obviously exhausted at 12.30, what would she be like at the day's end?'
'I've got it!' he cried.
He seized a pen and wrote: 'Notice.—The public are respectfully informed that this establishment will close to-day at two o'clock.'
He rang a bell, and a messenger appeared.
'Take this to the printing-office instantly, and tell Mr. Waugh it must be posted throughout the place in half an hour.'
Shortly after two o'clock Sloane Street was amazed to witness the exodus of the three thousand odd. The closure was attributed to a whim of Hugo's for celebrating some obscure anniversary in his life. Many hundreds of persons were inconvenienced, and the internal economy of scores of polite homes seriously deranged. The evening papers found a paragraph. And Hugo lost perhaps a hundred and fifty pounds net. But Hugo was happy, and he was expectant.
At ten o'clock that night a youngish man, extremely like Simon Shawn, was brought by Simon into Hugo's presence under the dome. This was Simon's brother, Albert Shawn, a member of Hugo's private detective force.
'Sit down,' said Hugo. 'Well?'
'I reckon you've heard, sir,' Albert Shawn began impassively, 'the yarn that's going all round the stores.'
'I have not.'
'Everyone's whispering,' said Albert Shawn, gazing carefully at his boots, 'that Mr. Hugo has taken a kind of a fancy to Miss Payne.'
Hugo restrained himself.
'Heavens!' he exclaimed, with a clever affectation of lightness, 'what next? I've only spoken to the chit once.'
'Don't I know it, sir!'
'Enough of that! What have you to report?'
'Miss Payne left at 2.15, whipped round to the flats entrance, took the lift to the top-floor, went into Mr. Francis Tudor's flat.'
'What's that you say? Whose flat?' cried Hugo.
'Mr. Francis Tudor's, sir.'
Mr. Tudor was famous as the tenant of the suite rented at two thousand a year; he had a reputation for being artistic, sybaritic, and something in the inner ring of the City.
'Ah!' said Hugo. 'Perhaps she is a friend of one of Mr. Tudor's—'
'Servants,' he was about to say, but the idea of Miss Payne being on terms of equality with a menial was not pleasant to him, and he stopped.
'No, sir,' said Albert Shawn, unmoved. 'She is not, because Mr. Tudor shunted out all his servants soon afterwards. Miss Payne was shown into his study. She had her tea there, and her dinner. The Hugo half-guinea dinner was ordered late by telephone for two persons, and rushed up at eight o'clock.'
'I wonder Mr. Tudor didn't order an orchestra with the dinner,' said Hugo grimly. It was a sublime effort on his part to be his natural self.
'I waited for Miss Payne to leave,' continued Albert Shawn. 'That's why I'm so late.'
'And what time did she leave?'
'She hasn't left,' said Albert Shawn.
Hugo dismissed Albert, with orders to continue his vigil, and then he rang for Simon.
'Do you think I might have some tea?' he asked.
'I am disposed to think you might, sir,' said Simon the cellarer. 'It is eight days since you indulged after dinner.'
'Bring me one cup, then, poured out.'
He was profoundly disturbed by Albert's news. He was, in fact, miserable. He had a physical pain in the region of the heart. He wished he could step off Love as one steps off an omnibus, but he found that Love resembled an express train more than an omnibus.
'Can she be secretly married to him?' he demanded half aloud, sipping at the tea.
The idea soothed him exactly as much as it alarmed him.
'The question is,' he murmured angrily, 'am I or am I not an ass?... At my age!'
He felt vaguely that he was not, that he was rather a splendid and Byronic figure in the grip of tremendous emotions.
Having regretfully finished the tea, he unlocked a bookcase, and picked out at random a volume of Boswell's 'Johnson.' It was the modern Oxford edition—the only edition worthy of a true amateur—bound by Riviere. Like all wise and lettered men, Hugo consulted Boswell in the grave crises of life, and to-night he happened upon the venerable Johnson's remark: 'Sir, I would be content to spend the remainder of my existence driving about in a post-chaise with a pretty woman.'
He leaned back in his chair and laughed. 'In the whole history of mankind,' he asserted to the dome, 'there have only been two really sensible men. Solomon was one, and Johnson the other.'
He restored the book to its place, and sat down to the piano-player, and in a moment the overture to 'Tannhaeuser,' that sublime failure to prove that passion is folly, filled the vast apartment. The rushing violin passages, and every call of Aphrodite, intoxicated his soul and raised his spirits till he knew with the certainty of a fully-aroused instinct that Camilla Payne must be his. He became optimistic on all points.
'A lady insists on seeing you, sir,' said Simon Shawn, intruding upon the Pilgrims' Chant.
'She may insist,' Hugo answered lightly. 'But it all depends who she is. I'm—'
He stopped, for the insisting lady had entered.
It was Camilla.
He jumped up. Never before in his career had he been so astounded, staggered, charmed, enchanted, dazzled, and completely silenced.
'Miss Payne?' he gasped after a prolonged pause.
Simon Shawn effaced himself.
'Yes, Mr. Hugo.'
'Won't you sit down?'
The singular prevalence of beautiful women in England is only appreciated properly by Englishmen who have lived abroad, and these alone know also that in no other country is beauty wasted by women as it is wasted in England. Camilla was beautiful, and supremely beautiful; she was tall, well and generously formed, graceful, fair, with fine eyes and fine dark chestnut hair; her absolutely regular features had the proud Tennysonian cast. But the coldness of Tennysonian damsels was not hers. Whether she had Latin blood in her veins, or whether Nature had peculiarly gifted her out of sheer caprice, she possessed in a high degree that indescribable demeanour, at once a defiance and a surrender, a question and an answer, a confession and a denial, which is the universal weapon of women of Latin race in the battle of the sexes, but of which Englishwomen seem to be almost deprived. 'I am Eve!' say the mocking, melting eyes of the Southern woman, and so said Camilla's eyes. No man could rest calm under that glance; no man could forbear the attempt to decipher the hidden secrecies of its message, and no man could succeed in the task.
Hugo felt that he had never seen this woman before.
And he might have been excused for feeling so; for instead of the black alpaca, Camilla now wore a simple but effectively charming toilette such as 'Hugo's' created and sold to women for the rapture of men in summer twilights, and over the white dress was thrown a very rich pearl-tinted opera-cloak, which only partly concealed the curves of the shoulders, and poised aslant on the glistening coiffure was the identical blue hat with its wide brims that had visited the dome seventeen hours before. The total effect was calculated, perfect, overwhelming.
'I'm sorry to disturb you, Mr. Hugo,' said Camilla, throwing back her cloak on the left side with a fine gesture, 'but I am in need of your assistance.'
'Yes?' Hugo whispered, seating himself.
She had a low voice, rare in a blonde, and it thrilled him. And she was so near him in the great chamber!
'I want you to tell me what plot I am in the midst of. What is the web that has begun to surround me?'
'Plot?' stammered Hugo. 'Web?'
Her eyes flashed scrutinizingly on his face.
'You have a kind heart,' she said; 'everybody can see that. Be frank. Do you know,' she asked in a different tone, 'or don't you, that you spoke very gruffly to me this morning?'
'Miss Payne,' he began, 'I assure you—'
'I thought perhaps you didn't know,' she smiled calmly. 'But you did speak very gruffly. Now, I have taken my courage in both hands in order to come to you to-night. I may have lost my situation through it—I can't tell. Whether I have lost my situation or not, I appeal to you for candour.'
'Miss Payne,' said Hugo, 'it distresses me to hear you speak of a "situation."'
'You know why,' he answered. 'A woman as distinguished as you are must be perfectly well aware how distinguished she is, and perfectly capable, let me add, of hiding her distinction from the common crowd. For what purpose of your own you came into my shop, I can't guess. But necessity never forced you there. No doubt you meant to avoid getting yourself talked about; nevertheless, you have got yourself talked about.'
'Indeed!' She looked at him sideways.
'Yes,' Hugo went on; 'several thousands of commonplace persons are saying that I have fallen in love with you. Do you think it's true, this rumour?'
'How can I tell you?' said she.
'Well, it is true!' he cried. 'It's doubly and trebly true! It's the greatest truth in the world at the present moment. It is one of those truths that a believer can't keep to himself.' He paused, expectant. 'A woman less fine than you would have protested against this sudden avowal, which is only too like me—too like Hugo. You don't protest. I knew you wouldn't. I knew you knew. You asked for candour. You have it. I love you.'
'Then, why,' she demanded firmly, with a desolating smile—'why do you have me followed by your private detective?'
Hugo was caught in a trap. He had hesitated long before instructing Albert Shawn to shadow Camilla, but in the end his desire for exact knowledge concerning her, and his possession of a corps of detectives ready to hand, had proved too much for his scruples. He had, however, till that day discovered little of importance for his pains—merely that her parents, who were dead, had kept a small milliner's shop in Edgware Road, that her age was twenty-five, that she had come to his millinery department with a good testimonial from an establishment in Walham Green, that she lived in lodgings at Fulham and saw scarcely anyone, and that she had once been a typewriter.
'The fact is—'
He stopped, perceiving that the 'fact' would not do at all, and that to explain to the woman you love why you have spied on her is a somewhat nice operation.
'Is that the way you usually serve us?' pursued Camilla, with a strange emphasis on the word 'us' which maddened him.
'The fact is, Miss Payne,' he said boldly, sitting down as soon as he had invented the solution of the difficulty, 'you will not deny that this afternoon and this evening you have been in a position of some slight delicacy. What your relations are with Mr. Francis Tudor I have never sought to inquire, but I have always doubted the bona fides of Mr. Francis Tudor. And to-day I have simply—if I may say so—watched over you. If my man has been clumsy, I beg your forgiveness. I beg you to believe in my deep respect for you.'
The plain sincerity of his accent and of his gaze touched and convinced her. She looked at her feet, white-shod on the crimson carpet.
'Ah!' she murmured, as if to herself, mournfully, 'why don't you ask me how it is that I, to whom you pay thirty-six shillings a week, am wearing these clothes? Surely you must think that an employe who—'
'At this hour you are not an employe,' he interrupted here. 'You visit me of your own free will to demand an explanation of matters which are quite foreign to our business relations. I give it you. Beyond that I permit myself no thoughts except such as any man is entitled to concerning any woman. You used the word "plot" when you came in. What did you refer to? If Mr. Tudor has—' He could not proceed.
'As I left Mr. Tudor's flat a few minutes since,' said Camilla quietly, producing a revolver from the folds of her cloak, 'I picked up this. It may or may not be loaded. Perhaps you can tell me.'
He seized the weapon, and impetuously aimed at a heavy Chinese gong across the room, and pulled the trigger several times. The revolver spoke noisily, and the gong sounded and swung.
'You see!' he exclaimed. 'Pardon the din. I did it without thinking.'
'Did you call, sir?' asked Simon Shawn, appearing in the doorway.
Hugo extirpated him with a look.
'How cool you are!' he resumed to Camilla, and laid down the revolver. 'No, you aren't! By Jove, you aren't! What is it? What have you been through? What is this plot? A plot—in my building—and against you! Tell me everything—everything! I insist.'
'Shall you believe all that I say?' she ventured.
'Yes,' he said, 'all.'
He saw with intense joy that he was going to be friendly with her. It seemed too good to be true.
A STORY AND A DISAPPEARANCE
'Perhaps I ought to begin by informing you,' said Camilla Payne, 'that I have known Mr. Francis Tudor for about two years. Always he has been very nice to me. Once he asked me to marry him—quite suddenly—it was a year ago. I refused because I didn't care for him. I then saw nothing of him for some time. But after I entered your service here, he came across me again by accident. I did not know until lately that he had one of your flats. He was very careful, very polite, timid, cautious—but very obstinate, too. He invited me to call on him at his rooms, and to bring any friends I liked. Of course, it was a stupidity on his part, but, then, what else could he do? A man who wants to cultivate relations with a homeless shopgirl is rather awkwardly fixed.'
'I wish to Heaven you would not talk like that, Miss Payne!' said Hugo, interrupting her impatiently.
'I am merely telling you these things so that you may understand my position,' Camilla coldly replied. 'Do you imagine that I am amusing myself?'
'Go on, go on, I beg,' he urged, with a gesture of apology.
'Naturally, I declined the invitation. Then next I received a letter from him, in which he said that unless I called on him, or agreed to meet him in some place where we could talk privately and at length, he should kill himself within a week. And he added that death was perhaps less to him than I imagined. I believed that letter. There was something about it that touched me.'
'And so you decided to yield?'
'I did yield. I felt that if I was to trust him at all, I might as well trust him fully, and I called at his flat this afternoon alone. He was evidently astonished to see me at that hour, so I explained to him that you had closed early for some reason or other.'
'Exactly,' said Hugo.
He insisted on giving me tea. I was treated, in fact, like a princess; but during tea he said nothing to me that might not have been said before a roomful of people. After tea he left me for a few moments, in order, as he said, to give some orders to his servants. Up till then he had been extremely agitated, and when he returned he was even more agitated. He walked to and fro in that lovely drawing-room of his—just as you were doing here not long since. I was a little afraid.'
'Afraid of what?' demanded Hugo.
'I don't know—of him, lest he might do something fatal, irretrievable; something—I don't know. And then, being alone with him in that palace of a place! Well, he burst out suddenly into a series of statements about himself, and about his future, and his intentions, and his feelings towards me. And these statements were so extraordinary and so startling that I could not think he had invented them. I believed them, as I had believed in the sincerity of his threat to kill himself if I would not listen to him.'
'And what were they—these statements?' Hugo inquired.
Camilla waved aside the interruptions, and continued: '"Now," he said, "will you marry me? Will you marry me now?"'
She paused and glanced at Hugo, who observed that her eyes were filling with tears.
'And then?' murmured Hugo soothingly.
'Then I agreed to marry him.'
And with these words she cried openly.
'If anyone had told me beforehand,' she resumed, 'that I should be so influenced by a man's—a man's acting, I would have laughed. But I was—I was. He succeeded completely.'
'You have not said what these extraordinary statements were,' Hugo insisted.
'Don't ask me,' she entreated, drying her eyes. 'It is enough that I was hoodwinked. If you have had no hand in this plot, don't ask me. I am too ashamed, too scornful of my credulity, to repeat them. You would laugh.'
'Should I?' said Hugo, smiling gravely. 'What occurred next?'
'The next step was that Mr. Tudor asked me to accompany his housekeeper to the housekeeper's room, and on the other side of the passage from the drawing-room I was to dine with him. The housekeeper is a Mrs. Dant, a kind, fat, lame old woman, and she produced this cloak and this hat, and so on, and said that they were for me! I was surprised, but I praised them and tried them on for a moment. You must remember that I was his affianced wife. I talked with Mrs. Dant, and prepared myself for dinner, and then I went back to the drawing-room, and found Mr. Tudor ready for dinner. I asked him why he had got the clothes, and he said he had got them this very morning merely on the chance of my accepting his proposal out of pity for him. And I believed that, too.'
There was a silence.
'But that is not the end?' Hugo encouraged her.
'Oh,' she exclaimed, 'it is useless, all this story! And the episode is finished! When I came in here I was angry; I suspect you of some complicity. But I suspect you no longer, and I see now that the wisest course for a woman such as I after such an adventure is to be mute about it, and to forget it.'
'No,' he said; 'you are wrong. Trust me. I entreat.'
Camilla bit her lip.
'We went into the dining-room, and dinner was served,' she recommenced, 'and there I had my first shock, my first doubt, for one of the two waiters was your spy.'
'Shawn! My detective!'
Hugo was surprised to find that Albert, almost a novice in his vocation, had contrived to be so insinuating.
'And he made a very bad waiter indeed,' Camilla added.
'I regret it,' said Hugo. 'He meant well.' 'When the waiters had gone I asked Mr. Tudor if they were his own servants. He hesitated, and then admitted frankly that they were not. He told me that his servants were out on leave for the evening. "You don't mean to say that I am now alone with you in the flat!" I protested. "No," he said quickly. "Mrs. Dant is always in her room across the passage. Don't be alarmed, dearest." His tone reassured me. After coffee, he took my photograph by flashlight. He printed one copy at once, and then, after we had both been in the dark-room together, he returned there to get some more printing-paper. While he was absent I went into the housekeeper's room for a handkerchief which I had left there. Mrs. Dant was not in the room. But in a mirror I saw the reflection of a man hiding behind the door. I was awfully frightened. However, I pretended to see nothing, and tried to hum a song. I same into the passage. The passage window was open, and I looked out. Another man was watching on the balcony. Of course, I saw instantly it was a plot. I—I—'
'Did you recognise the men, then?' Hugo asked.
'The one in the room I was not quite sure of. The other, on the balcony, was your detective, I think. I saw him disappear in this direction.'
'But whatever the plot was, Shawn had no hand in it.'
'No, no, of course not! I see now. But the other, in the room! Ah, if you knew all my history, you would understand better! I felt that some vengeance was out against me. I saw everything clearly. I tried to keep my head, and to decide calmly what I ought to do. It was from a little table in the passage that I picked up the revolver. Then I heard hurried footsteps coming through the drawing-room towards the passage. It was Mr. Tudor. He seemed very startled. I tried to appear unconcerned. "What is the matter?" he asked; he had gone quite pale. "Nothing," I said. "I only went to fetch a handkerchief." He laughed uneasily. "I was afraid you had thought better of it and run away from me," he said. And he kissed me; I was obliged to submit. All this time I was thinking hard what to do. I suggested we should go on to the roof garden for awhile. He objected, but finally he gave way, and he brought me the cloak and hat, and we went to the garden and sat down. I felt safer there. At last I ventured to tell him that I must go home. Of course, he objected to that too, but he gave way a second time. "I will just speak to Mrs. Dant," I said. "You stay here for three minutes. By that time I shall be ready." And I went off towards the flat, but as soon as I was out of his sight I turned and ran here. And that's all.'
'You are a wonderful creature,' Hugo murmured, looking at her meditatively.
'Why?' The question was put with a sort of artless and melancholy surprise.
'How can I tell?' said Hugo. 'How can I tell why Heaven made you so?'
She laughed, and the laugh enchanted him. He had studied her during her recital; he had observed her continual effort to use ordinary words and ordinary tones like a garment to hide vivid sensations and emotions which, however, shone through the garment as her face might have shone through a veil.
He recalled her little gestures, inflections, glances—the thousand avenues by which her rich and overflowing individuality escaped from the prison of her will, and impressed itself on the rest of the created universe. Her story was decidedly singular, and as mysterious as it was singular; that something sinister would be brought to light, he felt sure. But what occupied and charmed his mind was the exquisite fact that between him and her relations were now established. The story, her past danger, even her possible future danger—these things only interested him in so far as they formed the basis of an intimacy. He exulted in being near her, in the savour of her commanding presence. When he thought of her in his monstrous shop, wilting in the heat, bowing deferentially to fools, martyrizing her soul for less than two pounds a week, he thought of kings' daughters sold into slavery. But she was a princess now, and for evermore, and she had come to him of her own free will; she had trusted him; she had invited his help! It was glorious beyond the dreams of his passion.
'Come,' he said feverishly, 'show me how you managed to get to my dome.'
And he threw open the easternmost window, and she stepped with him out on to the balcony.
They looked down across Hugo's little private garden, into the blackness of the court of fountains, whose balconies were vaguely disclosed here and there by the reflection from lit interiors. On the other side of the deep pit of the court was the vast expanse of flat roof containing the famous roof garden. Amid dwarf trees and festoons of coloured lights, the figures of men and women who counted themselves the cream of London could dimly be seen walking about or sitting at tables; and the wild strain of the Tsigane musicians, as they swayed to and fro in their red coats on the bandstand, floated towards the dome through the heavy summer air. In the near distance the fantastic shapes of chimney-cowls raised themselves against the starry but moonless sky, and miles away the grandiose contours of a dome far greater than Hugo's—the dome of St. Paul's—finished the prospect in solemn majesty. It was a scene well calculated to intensify a man's emotions, especially when a man stands to view it, as Hugo stood, on a lofty balcony, with a beautiful and loved woman by his side.
She was indicating pathways, as well as she could, when they both saw a man hurrying in the direction of the dome along by the roof-balustrade of the court of fountains—the route by which Camilla herself had come. He arrived under the dome, and would have disappeared into a doorway had not Hugo called:
'Shawn, I'm here!'
'I was just coming to see you, sir,' replied Albert Shawn in a loud whisper, as he climbed breathless up to the little raised garden beneath the dome.
Camilla withdrew behind a curtain of the window.
'Well?' Hugo queried.
'She's gone, sir. But dashed if I know where, unless she's got herself lost somewhere on the roof.'
'She is here,' said Hugo, lowering his voice. 'And it appears that you waited very clumsily at that dinner, my boy. A bad disguise is worse than none. I must lend you Gaboriau's "Crime of Orcival" to read; that will teach you. Anything else to tell me?'
'I went back to the balcony entrance of the flat,' the youthful detective replied humbly, looking up to Hugo in the window of the dome. 'I could see through the lacework of the blind; the drawing-room was empty. The French window was open an inch or so, and I could hear a clock ticking as clear as a bell. Then Mr. Tudor toddled up, and I hid in the servants' doorway. Mr. Tudor went in by the other door, and out I popped again to my post. I see my gentleman stamping about and calling "Camilla! Camilla!" fit to burst. No answer. Then he picks up a photograph off a table and kisses it smack—twice.'
Camilla stirred behind the curtain.
'Then he goes into another room,' proceeded Albert Shawn, 'and lo and behold! another man comes from round the corner of a screen—a man much older than Mr. Tudor! And Mr. Tudor runs in again, and these two meet—these two do. And they stare at each other, and Mr. Tudor says, "Hullo, Louis—"'
'I knew it!' The cry came from Camilla within the dome.
'What?' demanded Hugo, turning to her and ignoring Shawn.
'It was Louis Ravengar whom I saw hiding behind the door. I felt all the time that it was he!'
And she put her hands to her face.
'Ravengar!' He was astounded to hear that name. What had she, what had Tudor, to do with Ravengar?
'That was why I thought you were in the plot, Mr. Hugo,' she added.
'Can you ask?'
Her eyes met his, and it was his that fell.
'I have no relations whatever with Ravengar, I assure you,' he said gravely. 'But, by the dagger! I'll see this affair to the end.' 'By the dagger' was a form of oath, meaningless yet terrible in sound, which Hugo employed only on the greatest occasions. He turned sharply to the window. 'Anything else, Shawn?'
'There was a gust of wind that shut the blessed window, sir. I couldn't hear any more, so I came to report.'
'Go to the front entrance of the flat instantly,' Hugo ordered him. 'I will watch the balcony.'
Camilla was crouching in the embrasure of the window. Her body seemed to shake.
'There is nothing to fear,' Hugo soothed her. 'Stay here till I return.' And he snatched up the revolver.
'No,' she said, straightening herself; 'I must go with you.'
'I must go with you,' she repeated.
They passed together along the railed edge of the court of fountains under the stars, skirted the gay and melodious garden behind the trees in their huge wooden boxes, and so came to a second quadrangle, upon whose highest story the windows of Tudor's flat gave. Descending a stairway of forged iron to the balcony, they crept forward in silence to the window of Tudor's drawing-room, and, still side by side, gazed, as Shawn had done, through the fine lacework of the blind into the splendid apartment.
The window was almost at a corner of the room, near a door; but Hugo had a perfect view of the two men within, and one was as certainly Louis Ravengar as the other was Francis Tudor. They were gesticulating violently and angrily, and a heavy, ornate Empire chair had already been overturned. The dispute seemed to be interminable; each moment heralded a fight, but it is the watched pot that never boils. Suddenly Hugo became aware that Camilla was no longer at his elbow, and the next instant, to his extreme amazement, he saw her glide into the room. She had removed her hat and cloak, and stood revealed in all her beauty. The two men did not perceive her. She softly opened the window, and the confused murmur of voices reached Hugo's ear.
'Give me the revolver,' Camilla whispered.
And her whisper was such that he passed the weapon, as it were hypnotically, to her under the blind. And then the blind slipped down, and he could see no more. He heard a shot, and the next thing was that the revolver was pushed back to him, nearly at the level of the floor.
'Wait there!' The sound of her voice, tense and authoritative, came through the slit of the window and thrilled him. 'All is well now, but I will send you a message.'
And the window was swiftly closed and a curtain drawn behind the blind. He could hear nothing.
He had small intention of obeying her. 'She must have gone in by the servants' entrance,' he argued. 'I should have seen her if she had tried the other.' And he ran to the small door, but it was shut fast. In vain he knocked and shook the handle for several minutes. Then he hastened to the main door on the broad balcony, but that also was impregnable.
Should he break a pane?
A noise far along the balcony attracted him. He flew towards it, found nothing but a cat purring, and returned. The luscious music of the Tsigane band, one of the nine orchestras which he owned, reached him faintly over the edge of the quadrangle.
Then he decidedly did hear human footsteps on the balcony. They were the footsteps of Shawn.
'She's gone, sir. Took the lift, and whizzed off in Mr. Tudor's electric brougham that was waiting.'
'And the men?' he gasped.
'Seen neither of them, sir. She put this note in my hand as she passed me, sir.'
A LAPSE FROM AN IDEAL
'If you please, sir,' said Simon Shawn, when he brought Hugo's tea the next morning, 'I am informed that a man has secreted himself on the summit of the dome.'
Hugo, lying moveless on his back, and ignoring even the tea, made no reply to this speech. He was still repeating to himself the following words, which, by constant iteration, had assumed in his mind the force and emphasis of italics: 'So grateful for your sympathetic help. When next I see you, if there is opportunity, I will try to thank you. Meantime, all is well with me. Please trouble no more. And forget.' Such were the exact terms of the note from Camilla Payne delivered to him by Albert Shawn. Of course, he knew it by heart. It was scribbled very hastily in pencil on half a sheet of paper, and it bore no signature, not even a solitary initial. If it had not been handed to Albert by Camilla in person, Hugo might have doubted its genuineness, and might have spent the night in transgressing the law of trespass and other laws, in order to be assured of a woman's safety. But under the circumstances he could not doubt its genuineness. What he doubted was its exact import. And what he objected to in it was its lack of information. He wished ardently to know whether Ravengar and Tudor, or either of them, had been wounded, and if so, by whose revolver; for he could not be certain that it was Camilla who had fired. An examination of the revolver which he and she had passed from hand to hand had shown two chambers undischarged. He wished ardently to know how she had contrived to settle her account with Tudor, and yet get away in Tudor's brougham, unless it was by a wile worthy of the diplomacy of a Queen Elizabeth. And he wished ardently to understand a hundred and one other things concerning Camilla, Tudor, and Ravengar, and the permutations and combinations of these three, which offered apparently insoluble problems to his brain. Nevertheless, there was one assurance which seemed to him to emerge clearly from the note, and to atone for its vagueness—a vagueness, however, perfectly excusable, he reflected, having regard to the conditions in which it was written—namely, that Camilla intended to arrive, as usual, in Department 42 that morning. What significance could be attached to the phrase, 'When next I see you, if there is opportunity,' unless it signified that she anticipated seeing him next in the shop and in the course of business? Moreover, he felt that it would be just like Camilla to start by behaving to him as though nothing had occurred. (But he would soon alter that, he said masterfully.) He was, on the whole, happy as he lay in bed. She knew that he loved her. They had been intimate. In three hours at most he would see her again. And his expectations ran high. Indeed, she had already begun to exist in his mind as his life's companion.
Simon coughed politely but firmly.
'What's that you say?' Hugo demanded; and Simon repeated his item of news.
'Ha!' said Hugo; 'doubtless some enthusiast for sunrises.'
'He has been twice perceived in the little gallery by the men cleaning the roof garden,' Simon added.
'And who is it?'
'His identity has not been established,' said Simon.
'Can't you moderate your language a little, Shawn?' Hugo asked, staring always absently up into the dome.
'I beg pardon, sir. I have spent part of the night with Albert, and his loose speech always drives me to the other extreme,' Simon observed, repentant.
'Has Albert seen the burglar?'
'No, sir, if it is a burglar.'
'Well,' said Hugo, 'he's quite safe where he is. He can't get down except by that door, can he?' pointing to a masked door, which was painted to represent a complete set in sixty volumes of the 'Acts of the Saints.'
'And he could only have got up by that door?' Hugo pursued.
'Which means that you were away from your post last night, my son.'
'I was, sir,' Shawn admitted frankly. 'When you and Albert and the lady ran off so quickly, I followed, as far as I judged expedient—beg pardon, sir. The man must have slipped in during my absence. I remember I noticed the masked door was ajar on my return. I shut and locked it.'
'That explains everything,' said Hugo. 'You see how your sins find you out.'
'I say, Shawn,' Hugo cried, as he went to his bath, 'talking of that chap up above, play me the Captives' chorus from "Fidelio."'
'It is not in the repertoire, sir,' said Simon, after searching.
'Not in the repertoire! Impossible!'
'Ah well, then, let us have the Wedding March from "Lohengrin."'
'With pleasure, sir.'
But Simon was unfortunate that morning. The toilet completed, Hugo came towards him swinging the gold token, the bearer of which had the right to take whatever he chose from all the hundred and thirty-one departments of the stores in exchange for a simple receipt.
'I will interview the burglar,' said Hugo. 'But just run down first and get me a pair of handcuffs.'
In ten minutes Simon returned crestfallen.
'We do not keep handcuffs, sir,' he stammered.
'Not—keep—! What nonsense! First you tell me that "Fidelio" is not in the repertoire, and then you have the effrontery to add that we do not keep handcuffs. Shawn, are you not aware that the fundamental principle of this establishment is that we keep everything? If we received an order for a herd of white elephants—'
'No doubt our arrangement with Jamrach's would enable us to supply them, sir,' Simon put in rapidly. 'But handcuffs seem to be a monopoly of the State.'
'Evidently, Shawn, you are not familiar with the famous remark of Louis the Fourteenth.'
'I am not, sir.'
'He said, "L'etat, c'est moi." Show me the catalogue.'
Simon, bearing on his shoulders at that moment the sins of ten managers, scurried to bring an immense tome, bound in crimson leather, and inscribed in gold, 'Hugo, General Catalogue.' It contained nearly two thousand large quarto pages, and above six thousand illustrations. Hugo turned solemnly to the exhaustive index, which alone occupied seventy pages of small type, and, running his finger down a column, he read out, Handbells, handbell-ringers, handbills, hand-embroidered sheets, handkerchiefs, handles, handsaws, hansoms, Hardemann's beetle powder, hares, haricot beans....'
'Lamentable!' he ejaculated—'lamentable! You will tell Mr.—Mr. Banbury this morning to procure some handcuffs, assorted sizes, at once, and to add them to the—the—Explorers' Outfit Department.'
'In the meantime I shall have to ascend the dome, and face the burglar without this necessary of life. Give me the revolver instead.'
POSSIBLE ESCAPE OF SECRETS
The top of the dome was fashioned into a kind of belvedere, with a small circular gallery. Hugo emerged at the head of the stairs, and saw no living thing; but at the sound of his footstep a man sprang nervously into view round the curve of the gallery, and fronted him.
Hugo, with his hands still on either rail of the staircase, took the top step, gazing the while at his burglar, first in wonder, and then with a capricious abandonment to what he considered the humour of the situation. He thought of Albert Shawn's account of the meeting between Francis Tudor and his visitor in Tudor's flat on the previous night, and some fantastic impulse, due to the strain of Welsh blood in him, caused him to address the man as Tudor had addressed him:
There was a pause, and then came the reply in a tone which might have been ferocious or facetious:
'Well, my young friend?'
It was indeed Louis Ravengar. Dishevelled, fatigued, and unstrung, he formed a sinister contrast to Hugo, fresh from repose, cold water and music, and also to the spirit of the beautiful summer morning itself, which at that unspoilt hour seemed always to sojourn for a space in the belvedere. The sun glinted joyously on the golden ornament of the dome, and on Hugo's smooth hair, but it revealed without pity the stains on Ravengar's flaccid collar and the disorder of his evening clothes and opera-hat.
He was a fairly tall man, with thin gray hair round the sides of his head, but none on the crown nor on his face, the chief characteristics of which were the square jaw, the extremely long upper lip, the flat nose, and the very small blue-gray eyes. He looked sixty, and was scarcely fifty. He looked one moment like a Nonconformist local preacher who had mistaken his vocation; but he was nothing of the kind. He looked the next moment like a good hater and a great scorner of scruples; and he was.
These two men had not exchanged a word, had not even seen each other, save at the rarest intervals, for nearly a quarter of a century. They were the principals in a quarrel of the most vivid, satanic, and incurable sort known to anthropological science—the family quarrel—and the existence of this feud was a proof of the indisputable truth that it sometimes takes less than two to make a quarrel. For, though Owen Hugo was not absolutely an angel, Ravengar had made it single-handed.
The circumstances of its origin were quite simple. When Louis Ravengar was nine years old, his father, a widower, married a widow with one child, aged six. That child was Hugo. The two lads, violently different in temperament—the one gloomy and secretive, the other buoyant and frank—with no tie of blood or of affection, were forced by destiny to grow up together in the same house, and by their parents even to sleep in the same room. They were never apart, and they loathed each other. Louis regarded young Owen as an interloper, and acted towards him as boys and tigers will towards interlopers weaker than themselves. The mischief was that Owen, in course of years, became a great favourite with his step-father. This roused Louis to a fury which was the more dangerous in that Owen had begun to overtake him in strength, and the fury could, therefore, find no outlet. Then Owen's mother died, and Ravengar, senior, married again—a girl this time, who soon discovered that the household in which she had planted herself was far too bellicose to be comfortable. She abandoned her husband, and sought consolation and sympathy with another widower, who also was blessed with offspring. Such is the foolishness of women. You cannot cure a woman of being one. But it must be said in favour of the third Mrs. Ravengar and her consoler that they conducted their affair with praiseworthy attention to outward decency. She went to America by one steamer, and purchased a divorce in Iowa for two hundred dollars. He followed in the next steamer, and they were duly united in Minneapolis. Meanwhile, the Ravengar household, left to the ungoverned passions of three males, became more and more impossible, and at length old Ravengar expired. In his will he stated that it was only from a stern sense of justice that he divided his considerable fortune in equal shares between Louis and Owen. Had he consulted his inclination, he would have left one shilling to Louis, and the remainder to Owen, who alone had been a true son to him.
It was a too talkative will. Testators, like politicians, should never explain.
Louis, who got as a favour half the fortune of which the whole was, in his opinion, his by right, was naturally exasperated in the highest degree by the terms of the indiscreet testament, and on the day of the funeral he parted from the son of his step-mother, swearing, in a somewhat melodramatic manner, that he would be revenged. Hugo was then twenty-one, and for twenty-five years he had waited in vain for symptoms of the revenge.
And now they met again, in the truest sense strangers. And each had a reason for humouring the other, for each wanted to know what the other had to do with Camilla Payne.
'So you're determined, Louis,' said Hugo lightly, 'to bring me to my knees about the transfer of my business to a limited company, eh?'
'What on earth do you mean, man?' asked Ravengar, whose voice was always gruff.
'I refer to Polycarp's visit yesterday.'
'I know nothing of it,' said Ravengar slowly, looking across the wilderness of roofs.
'Then why are you here, Louis? Is your revenge at last matured?'
Ravengar controlled himself, and glanced round as if for unseen aid in a forlorn enterprise.
'Owen,' he said, moved, 'I'm here because I need your help. I won't say anything about the past. I know you were always good-natured. And you've worn better than I have. I need your help in a matter of supreme importance to me. I became aware last night that you and your men were interested in the proceedings at Tudor's flat. I ran here, meaning to see you. There was no one in the big circular room downstairs, and no one at the entrance. Then I saw your servant coming, and I retreated through the door. I wished my presence to be known only to you. The door was locked on me. I knocked in vain. Then I stumbled up the stairs, and found myself out here. I wanted to calm myself, and here I remained. I knew your habit of coming up here at early morning. That is the whole explanation of my presence.'
'I guessed as much,' he said. 'I will help you if I can. But first tell me what happened in the flat last night after Miss Payne entered while you and Tudor were quarrelling. She fired on you?'
'No,' said Ravengar; 'I believe she would have done. It was Tudor who drew a revolver and fired. Had I had my own—But I had laid it on a table, like a fool, and it disappeared.'
'Is not this it?' asked Hugo, producing Camilla's weapon.
Ravengar nodded, amazed.
'I thought so,' Hugo said, and returned it to his pocket. 'Were you wounded?'
'It was nothing. A scratch on the wrist. See! But I left. She—she ordered me to. And I saw I had no chance. I came out by the principal door on the balcony while you were struggling with the servants' door.'
'Wait a moment,' Hugo put in. 'Tudor knew you were hiding in the flat?'
'Not much!' exclaimed Ravengar. 'I dropped on him like something out of the sky. It cost me some trouble to get in. I had a silly old housekeeper to dispose of.'
Hugo's heart fell.
'Great heavens!' he sighed.
'Why? What's the matter?'
'Nothing. But tell me what you wanted to get into the flat for at all. What is there between you and Tudor?'
'Man! he's taken Camilla from me!' The accents of rage and despair were in Ravengar's voice as he uttered these words. 'He's taken her from me! She was my typewriter, you know. I fell in love with her. We were engaged!'
Hugo was startled for a moment; then he smiled bitterly and incredulously. It seemed too monstrous and absurd that Camilla should have betrothed herself to this forbidding, ugly, ageing, and terrible man.
'You were engaged? Never! Perhaps you aren't aware that she was engaged to Tudor?'
'I tell you we were engaged.'
'She accepted you?'
'Why not? I meant well by the girl.'
'And then she disappeared?'
Hugo spoke with a certain cynicism.
'How do you know?' Ravengar demanded angrily.
'I only guess.'
'Well, she did. I can't imagine why. I meant well by her. And the next thing is, I find her working in your shop, and in the arms of that scoundrel, Tudor.' He hesitated, and then, as he proceeded, his tones softened to an appeal. 'Owen, why were you watching last night? I must know. It's an affair of life or death to me.'
Hugo did not believe most of Ravengar's story, and he perceived the difficulty of his own position and the necessity for caution.
'I was watching because Miss Payne thought herself in some mysterious danger,' he said.
'She came to me, as you have done, to ask my help. And I won't hide from you that it was she herself who informed me definitely that Tudor had invited her to marry him, and that she had consented.'
'She shall not marry him!' cried Ravengar, exasperated.
'You are right,' said Hugo. 'She shall not. I have yet to be convinced even that he meant to marry her.'
'The rascal! He and I had business relations for several years before I discovered who he was. Of course, you know?'
'Indeed I don't,' said Hugo, 'if he isn't Francis Tudor.'
'He has as much right to the name of Tudor as you have to the name of Hugo,' Ravengar sneered. 'He is the son of the man who dishonoured my father's name by pretending to marry that woman in Minneapolis. Even if I hated my father, I've no cause to love that branch of our complicated family connections.'
'I did not think there was so much money there,' he said at length.
'There wasn't. The fellow came into twenty thousand two years ago, and he has never earned a cent.'
'Yet he's living at the rate of five thousand a year at least.'
'It's like him!' Ravengar snorted. 'It's like him!'
'Perhaps he can't help it,' Hugo said queerly. 'Everyone isn't like you and me.'
'He can help robbing me of my future wife!'
'But she left you of her own accord.'
'Owen, she must marry me. It is essential. You must bring your influence to bear,' Ravengar burst out wildly. 'She must be my wife!'
'My dear fellow,' Hugo protested calmly, 'what are you dreaming of? I have no influence. You talk like a man at his wits' end.'
There was a silence.
'I am a man at his wits' end,' Ravengar murmured, half sadly. 'I trusted that girl. She knows all my secrets.'
'What secrets?' asked Hugo, struck by the phrase.
'My business secrets, of course. What else do you fancy?'
'My fancy is too active,' said Hugo, with careful casualness. 'It runs away with me. I was thinking of other sorts of secrets, and of that curious principle of English law that a wife can't give evidence against her husband.... You must pardon my fancy,' he added.
'Do you mean to insinuate that my eagerness to marry Camilla Payne is in order to prevent her from being able to—'
'No, Louis; I mean to insinuate nothing. Can't you see a joke?'
'I cannot,' said Ravengar. 'Not that variety of joke.'
'The appreciation of humour was never your strong point.'
Something in Hugo's manner made Ravengar spring forward; then he checked himself.
'Owen,' he entreated, 'don't let's quarrel again. I beg you to help me. Help me, and I'll promise never to interfere with you in your business—I'll swear it.'
'Then it was you, after all, that instructed Polycarp?'
Ravengar gave an affirmative sign.
'I meant either to get hold of this place or to ruin you. Remember what I suffered—in the old days.... You see I'm frank with you. Help me. We're neither of us growing younger. I'm mad for that girl, and I must have her.'
Hugo put his hands into his pockets, and consulted his toes. This semi-step-brother of his somehow aroused his compassion.
'No, Louis,' he said; 'I can't.'
'You hate me?'
'Not a bit.'
'Do you think I'm too old to marry, or what is it?'
'It's just like this, Louis, my friend: I have every intention of marrying Miss Payne myself.'
'You!... Ah!... Indeed!'
'I have so decided. And when I decide, the thing is as good as done.'
'And that's why you were watching last night! Good! Oh, good! Only I may as well inform you, Owen, that if Camilla Payne marries anyone but me, there will be murder. And no ordinary murder, either!'
Hugo took a turn in the gallery. He felt genuinely sorry for the gray and desperate man, driven by the intensity of emotion to utterances which were merely absurd.
'Louis,' he remarked, with a melancholy kindliness of tone, 'fate has a grudge against us two. It ruined our youth, and now it's embroiling us once more. Can't we both be philosophical? Can't we contrive to look at the thing in a—'
'Enough!' Ravengar almost yelled. 'You always talked that kind of d——d nonsense, you did! Unless you can arrange to say you'll give her up, you may as well hold your tongue.'
'Very well,' said Hugo, 'I'll hold my tongue.'
'That's all, then?'
'I suppose I can go? You'll let me pass? You'll not exercise your right to treat me as a burglar?'
'There are the stairs. Pass Shawn boldly. He is terrible, but he will not eat you.'
'And that is the unrivalled company promoter! And this is life!' Hugo meditated when he was alone on the dome.
He leaned over the railing of the gallery, and watched his legions gathering for the day's battle.
Some two hours later Hugo was in one of the common rooms devoted to the leisure and diversion of the legions in the upper basement: a large and bright apartment, ornamented with bookcases, wicker chairs, and reproductions of all that was most uplifting in graphic art. It was the domain of the ladies engaged in Departments 30 to 45, and was managed by an elected committee of their number. Affixed to the walls, in and out among the specimens of graphic art, were quite a lot of little red diamond squares, containing in white the words, 'Do it now,' in excessively readable letters. A staff notice about the early closing of the previous day had been pinned up near the door, and printed information relating to a trip to the Isle of Man, balloting for the use of motor-cars on Sundays, and a gratis book entitled 'Human Nature in Shoppers,' were also prominent. Above the fireplace was a fine mirror, and Hugo was personally engaged in pasting on the mirror a fine and effective poster, which ran as follows:
'Interesting. Last year the sales of the Children's Boot and Shoe Department surpassed the sales of the Ladies' Ditto by L558. In the first half of this year, on the contrary, the sales of the Ladies' Boot and Shoe Department have surpassed the sales of the Children's Ditto by L25. Great credit is due to the staff of the L.B. and S.D. But will the staff of the C.B. and S.D. allow themselves to be thus wiped out? That is the question, and Mr. Hugo will watch for the answer. Managers' Council, July 10th.'
Hugo, as the supreme head of Hugo's, had organized his establishment in such a manner as to leave no regular duties for himself, conformably to the maxim that a well-managed business is a business which runs smoothly and efficiently when the manager is not managing, and to that other maxim that the highest aim of the competent manager should be to make himself unnecessary. Hence he was perfectly at liberty to be wayward and freakish in his activities from time to time. And this happened to be one of his wayward and freakish mornings. There were, however, few young women in the common room to behold his aberration, for the hour was within two minutes of nine, and at nine o'clock the latest of the legionaries was supposed to be at her post. Three girls who were being hastily served with glasses of milk by a pink-aproned waitress politely feigned not to see him. Then another girl ran in, and she, too, had to pretend that the spectacle of Hugo pasting posters on mirrors was one of the most ordinary in life. Hugo glanced at this last comer in the mirror, and sighed a secret disappointment.
The interview with Louis Ravengar had left him less perturbed than might be imagined—at any rate, as regards Ravengar's own share in what had occurred and what was to occur. He was inclined to leave Ravengar out of the account, and to put the greater part of his hysterical appeals and threats down to the effect of a sleepless and highly unusual night. That Ravengar was absolutely sincere in his desire to marry Camilla he did not doubt, and he fully shared the frenzied man's determination that Camilla should not marry Francis Tudor. But beyond this Hugo did not go. He certainly did not go so far as to believe that Camilla had ever formally engaged herself to Ravengar. He thought it just possible that Ravengar might have committed a crime, or several crimes, and that Camilla might have knowledge of them, but the question whether Ravengar was or was not a criminal appeared to him to be a little off the point.