E-text prepared by Lionel G. Sear
OLD FIRES AND PROFITABLE GHOSTS.
A Book of Stories
A. T. QUILLER-COUCH.
The stories in this book are of revenants: persons who either in spirit or in body revisit old scenes, return upon old selves or old emotions, or relate a message from a world beyond perception. "Which?" was suggested by a passage in Hawthorne's Note-books, where he proposes a story or sketch the scene of which is "to be laid within the light of a street lantern; the time, when the lamp is near going out; and the catastrophe to be simultaneous with the last flickering gleam." "The Lady of the Ship" is very nearly historical. "Prisoners of War" rests on the actual adventures of two St. Ives men, Thomas Williams and John Short, in the years 1804-1814. "Frozen Margit" and "The Seventh Man" have—if not their originals—at least their suggestions in fact.
One of the tales, "Once Aboard the Lugger," is itself a revenant. After writing it in the form here presented, I took advice and gave it another, under the title of "Ia." Yet some whose opinion I value prefer the original, and to satisfy them (though I think them wrong) it is reprinted; not with intent to pad out the volume. But my readers are too generous to need the assurance.
II. THE SEVENTH MAN.
III. THE ROOM OF MIRRORS.
IV. A PAIR OF HANDS.
V. THE LADY OF THE SHIP.
VI. FROZEN MARGIT.
VII. THE SINGULAR ADVENTURE OF A SMALL FREE-TRADER.
VIII. THE MYSTERY OF JOSEPH LAQUEDEM.
IX. PRISONERS OF WAR.
X. A TOWN'S MEMORY.
XI. THE LADY OF THE RED ADMIRALS.
XII. THE PENANCE OF JOHN EMMET.
XIV. "ONCE ABOARD THE LUGGER".
My Dear Violet,—So you "gather from the tone of two or three recent letters that my spirit is creeping back to light and warmth again"? Well, after a fashion you are right. I shall never laugh again as I used to laugh before Harry's death. The taste has gone out of that carelessness, and I turn even from the remembrance of it. But I can be cheerful, with a cheerfulness which has found the centre of gravity. I am myself again, as people say. After months of agitation in what seemed to be chaos the lost atom has dropped back to its place in the scheme of things, and even aspires (poor mite!) to do its infinitesimal business intelligently. So might a mote in a sunbeam feel itself at one with God!
But when you assume that my recovery has been a gradual process, you are wrong. You will think me more than ever deranged; but I assure you that it has been brought about, not by long strivings, but suddenly—without preparation of mine—and by the immediate hand of our dead brother.
Yes; you shall have the whole tale. The first effect of the news of Harry's death in October last was simply to stun me. You may remember how once, years ago when we were children, we rode home together across the old Racecourse after a long day's skating, our skates swinging at our saddle-bows; how Harry challenged us to a gallop; and how, midway, the roan mare slipped down neck over crop on the frozen turf and hurled me clean against the face of a stone dyke. I had been thrown from horseback more than once before, but somehow had always found the earth fairly elastic. So I had griefs before Harry died and took some rebound of hope from each: but that cast repeated in a worse degree the old shock—the springless brutal jar—of the stone dyke. With him the sun went out of my sky.
I understand that this torpor is quite common with men and women suddenly bereaved. I believe that a whole week passed before my brain recovered any really vital motion; and then such feeble thought as I could exert was wholly occupied with the desperate stupidity of the whole affair. If God were indeed shaping the world to any end, if any design of His underlay the activities of men, what insensate waste to quench such a heart and brain as Harry's!—to nip, as it seemed out of mere blundering wantonness, a bud which had begun to open so generously: to sacrifice that youth and strength, that comeliness, that enthusiasm, and all for nothing! Had some campaign claimed him, had he been spent to gain a citadel or defend a flag, I had understood. But that he should be killed on a friendly mission; attacked in ignorance by those East Coast savages while bearing gifts to their king; deserted by the porters whose comfort (on their own confession) he had studied throughout the march; left to die, to be tortured, mutilated—and all for no possible good: these things I could not understand. At the end he might have escaped; but as he caught hold of his saddle by the band between the holsters, it parted: it was not leather, but faced paper, the job of some cheating contractor. I thought of this, too. And Harry had been through Chitral!
But though a man may hate, he cannot easily despise God for long. "He is great—but wasteful," said the American. We are the dust on His great hands, and fly as He claps them carelessly in the pauses of His work. Yet this theory would not do at all: for the unlucky particles are not dust, not refuse, but exquisite and exquisitely fashioned, designed to live, and to every small function of life adapted with the minutest care. There were nights indeed when, walking along the shore where we had walked together on the night before Harry left England and looking from the dark waters which divided me from his grave up to the nightly moon and to the stars around her, I could well believe God wasteful of little things. Sirius flashing low, Orion's belt with the great nebula swinging like a pendant of diamonds; the ruby stars, Betelgueux and Aldebaran—my eyes went up beyond these to Perseus shepherding the Kids westward along the Milky way. From the right Andromeda flashed signals to him: and above sat Cassiopeia, her mother, resting her jewelled wrists on the arms of her throne. Low in the east Jupiter trailed his satellites in the old moon's path. As they all moved, silent, looking down on me out of the hollow spaces of the night, I could believe no splendid waste too costly for their perfection: and the Artificer who hung them there after millions of years of patient effort, if more intelligible than a God who produced them suddenly at will, certainly not less divine. But walking the same shore by daylight I recognised that the shells, the mosses, the flowers I trampled on, were, each in its way, as perfect as those great stars: that on these— and on Harry—as surely as on the stars—God had spent, if not infinite pains, then at least so superlative a wisdom that to conceive of them as wastage was to deny the mind which called them forth.
There they were: and that He who had skill to create them could blunder in using them was simply incredible.
But this led to worse: for having to admit the infallible design, I now began to admire it as an exquisite scheme of evil, and to accuse God of employing supreme knowledge and skill to gratify a royal lust of cruelty. For a month and more this horrible theory justified itself in all innocent daily sights. Throughout my country walks I "saw blood." I heard the rabbit run squeaking before the weasel; I watched the butcher crow working steadily down the hedge. If I turned seaward I looked beneath the blue and saw the dog-fish gnawing on the whiting. If I walked in the garden I surprised the thrush dragging worms from the turf, the cat slinking on the nest, the spider squatting in ambush. Behind the rosy face of every well-nourished child I saw a lamb gazing up at the butcher's knife. My dear Violet, that was a hideous time!
And just then by chance a book fell into my hands—Lamartine's Chute d'un Ange. Do you know the Seventh and Tenth Visions of that poem, which describe the favourite amusements of the Men-gods? Before the Deluge, beyond the rude tents of the nomad shepherds, there rose city upon city of palaces built of jasper and porphyry, splendid and utterly corrupt; inhabited by men who called themselves gods and explored the subtleties of all sciences to minister to their vicious pleasures. At ease on soft couches, in hanging gardens set with fountains, these beings feasted with every refinement of cruelty. Kneeling slaves were their living tables; while for their food—
Tous les oiseaux de l'air, tous les poissons de l'onde, Tout ce qui vole ou nage ou rampe dans le monde, Mourant pour leur plaisir des plus cruels trepas De sanglantes savours composent leurs repas. . . .
In these lines I believed that I discerned the very God of the universe, the God whom men worship—
Dans les infames jeux de leur divin loisir Le supplice de l'homme est leur premier plaisir. Pour que leur oeil feroce a l'envi s'en repaisse Des bourreaux devant eux en immolent sans cesse. Tantot ils font lutter, dans des combats affreux, L'homme contre la brute et les hommes entre eux, Aux longs ruisseaux de sang qui coulent de la veine, Aux palpitations des membres sur l'arene, Se levant a demi de leurs lits de repos Des frissons de plaisir fremissent sur leurs peaux. Le cri de la torture est leur douce harmonie, Et leur oeil dans son oeil boit sa lente agonie.
I charged the Supreme Power with a cruelty deliberate, ruthless, serene. Nero the tyrant once commanded a representation in grim earnest of the Flight of Icarus; and the unhappy boy who took the part, at his first attempt to fly, fell headlong beside the Emperor's couch and spattered him with blood and brains. For the Emperor, says Suetonius, perraro praesidere, ceterum accubans, parvis primum foraminibus, deinde toto podio adaperto, spectare consuerat. So I believed that on the stage of this world men agonised for the delight of one cruel intelligence which watched from behind the curtain of a private box.
In this unhappy condition of mind, then, I was lying in my library chair here at Sevenhays, at two o'clock on the morning of January 4th. I had just finished another reading of the Tenth Vision and had tossed my book into the lap of an armchair opposite. Fire and lamp were burning brightly. The night outside was still and soundless, with a touch of frost.
I lay there, retracing in thought the circumstances of Harry's last parting from me, and repeating to myself a scrap here and there from the three letters he wrote on his way—the last of them, full of high spirits, received a full three weeks after the telegram which announced his death. There was a passage in this last letter describing a wonderful ride he had taken alone and by moonlight on the desert; a ride (he protested) which wanted nothing of perfect happiness but me, his friend, riding beside him to share his wonder. There was a sentence which I could not recall precisely, and I left my chair and was crossing the room towards the drawer in the writing-table where I kept his letters, when I heard a trampling of hoofs on the gravel outside, and then my Christian name called—with distinctness, but not at all loudly.
I went to the window, which was unshuttered; drew up the blind and flung up the sash. The moon, in its third quarter and about an hour short of its meridian, shone over the deodars upon the white gravel. And there, before the front door, sat Harry on his sorrel mare Vivandiere, holding my own Grey Sultan ready bridled and saddled. He was dressed in his old khaki riding suit, and his face, as he sat askew in his saddle and looked up towards my window, wore its habitual and happy smile.
Now, call this and what follows a dream, vision, hallucination, what you will; but understand, please, that from the first moment, so far as I considered the matter at all, I had never the least illusion that this was Harry in flesh and blood. I knew quite well all the while that Harry was dead and his body in his grave. But, soul or phantom— whatever relation to Harry this might bear—it had come to me, and the great joy of that was enough for the time. There let us leave the question. I closed the window, went upstairs to my dressing-room, drew on my riding-boots and overcoat, found cap, gloves, and riding-crop, and descended to the porch.
Harry, as I shall call him, was still waiting there on the off side of Grey Sultan, the farther side from the door. There could be no doubt, at any rate, that the grey was real horseflesh and blood, though he seemed unusually quiet after two days in stall. Harry freed him as I mounted, and we set off together at a walk, which we kept as far as the gate.
Outside we took the westward road, and our horses broke into a trot. As yet we had not exchanged a word; but now he asked a question or two about his people and his friends; kindly, yet most casually, as one might who returns after a week's holidaying. I answered as well as I could, with trivial news of their health. His mother had borne the winter better than usual—to be sure, there had been as yet no cold weather to speak of; but she and Ethel intended, I believed, to start for the south of France early in February. He inquired about you. His comments were such as a man makes on hearing just what he expects to hear, or knows beforehand. And for some time it seemed to be tacitly taken for granted between us that I should ask him no questions.
"As for me—" I began, after a while.
He checked the mare's pace a little. "I know," he said, looking straight ahead between her ears; then, after a pause, "it has been a bad time for you, You are in a bad way altogether. That is why I came."
"But it was for you!" I blurted out. "Harry, if only I had known why you were taken—and what it was to you!"
He turned his face to me with the old confident comforting smile.
"Don't you trouble about that. That's nothing to make a fuss about. Death?" he went on musing—our horses had fallen to a walk again— "It looks you in the face a moment: you put out your hands: you touch— and so it is gone. My dear boy, it isn't for us that you need worry."
"For whom, then?"
"Come," said he, and he shook Vivandiere into a canter.
I cannot remember precisely at what point in our ride the country had ceased to be familiar. But by-and-by we were climbing the lower slopes of a great down which bore no resemblance to the pastoral country around Sevenhays. We had left the beaten road for short turf—apparently of a copper-brown hue, but this may have been the effect of the moonlight. The ground rose steadily, but with an easy inclination, and we climbed with the wind at our backs; climbed, as it seemed, for an hour, or maybe two, at a footpace, keeping silence. The happiness of having Harry beside me took away all desire for speech.
This at least was my state of mind as we mounted the long lower slopes of the down. But in time the air, hitherto so exhilarating, began to oppress my lungs, and the tranquil happiness to give way to a vague discomfort and apprehension.
"What is this noise of water running?"
I reined up Grey Sultan as I put the question. At the same moment it occurred to me that this sound of water, distant and continuous, had been running in my ear for a long while.
Harry, too, came to a halt. With a sweep of the arm that embraced the dim landscape around and ahead, he quoted softly—
en detithei potamoio mega spenos Okeanoio antyga par pymaten sakeos pyka poietoio . . . .
and was silent again.
I recalled at once and distinctly the hot summer morning ten years back, when we had prepared that passage of the Eighteenth Book together in our study at Clifton; I at the table, Harry lolling in the cane-seated armchair with the Liddell and Scott open on his knees; outside, the sunny close and the fresh green of the lime-trees.
Now that I looked more attentively the bare down, on which we climbed like flies, did indeed resemble a vast round shield, about the rim of which this unseen water echoed. And the resemblance grew more startling when, a mile or so farther on our way, as the grey dawn overtook us, Harry pointed upwards and ahead to a small boss or excrescence now lifting itself above the long curve of the horizon.
At first I took it for a hummock or tumulus. Then, as the day whitened about us, I saw it to be a building—a tall, circular barrack not unlike the Colosseum. A question shaped itself on my lips, but something in Harry's manner forbade it. His gaze was bent steadily forward, and I kept my wonder to myself, and also the oppression of spirit which had now grown to something like physical torture.
When first the great barrack broke into sight we must have been at least two miles distant. I kept my eyes fastened on it as we approached, and little by little made out the details of its architecture. From base to summit—which appeared to be roofless—six courses of many hundred arches ran around the building, one above the other; and between each pair a course, as it seemed, of plain worked stone, though I afterwards found it to be sculptured in low relief. The arches were cut in deep relief and backed with undressed stone. The lowest course of all, however, was quite plain, having neither arches nor frieze; but at intervals corresponding to the eight major points of the compass—so far as I who saw but one side of it could judge—pairs of gigantic stone figures supported archways pierced in the wall; or sluices, rather, since from every archway but one a full stream of water issued and poured down the sides of the hill. The one dry archway was that which faced us with open gate, and towards which Harry led the way; for oppression and terror now weighted my hand as with lead upon Grey Sultan's rein.
Harry, however, rode forward resolutely, dismounted almost in the very shadow of the great arch, and waited, smoothing his mare's neck. But for the invitation in his eyes, which were solemn, yet without a trace of fear, I had never dared that last hundred yards. For above the rush of waters I heard now a confused sound within the building—the thud and clanking of heavy machinery, and at intervals a human groan; and looking up I saw that the long friezes in bas-relief represented men and women tortured and torturing with all conceivable variety of method and circumstance—flayed, racked, burned, torn asunder, loaded with weights, pinched with hot irons, and so on without end. And it added to the horror of these sculptures that while the limbs and even the dress of each figure were carved with elaborate care and nicety of detail, the faces of all—of those who applied the torture and of those who looked on, as well as of the sufferers themselves—were left absolutely blank. On the same plan the two Titans beside the great archway had no faces. The sculptor had traced the muscles of each belly in a constriction of anguish, and had suggested this anguish again in moulding the neck, even in disposing the hair of the head; but the neck supported, and the locks fell around, a space of smooth stone without a feature.
Harry allowed me no time to feed on these horrors. Signing to me to dismount and leave Grey Sultan at the entrance, he led me through the long archway or tunnel. At the end we paused again, he watching, while I drew difficult breath. . . .
I saw a vast amphitheatre of granite, curving away on either hand and reaching up, tier on tier, till the tiers melted in the grey sky overhead. The lowest tier stood twenty feet above my head; yet curved with so lordly a perspective that on the far side of the arena, as I looked across, it seemed almost level with the ground; while the human figures about the great archway yonder were diminished to the size of ants about a hole. . . For there were human figures busy in the arena, though not a soul sat in any of the granite tiers above. A million eyes had been less awful than those empty benches staring down in the cold dawn; bench after bench repeating the horror of the featureless carvings by the entrance-gate—repeating it in series without end, and unbroken, save at one point midway along the semicircle on my right, where the imperial seat stood out, crowned like a catafalque with plumes of purple horse-hair, and screened close with heavy purple hangings. I saw these curtains shake once or twice in the morning wind.
The floor of this amphitheatre I have spoken of as an arena; but as a matter of fact it was laid with riveted sheets of copper that recalled the dead men's shelves in the Paris morgue. The centre had been raised some few feet higher than the circumference, or possibly the whole floor took its shape from the rounded hill of which it was the apex; and from an open sluice immediately beneath the imperial throne a flood of water gushed with a force that carried it straight to this raised centre, over which it ran and rippled, and so drained back into the scuppers at the circumference. Before reaching the centre it broke and swirled around a row of what appeared to be tall iron boxes or cages, set directly in face of the throne. But for these ugly boxes the whole floor was empty. To and from these the little human figures were hurrying, and from these too proceeded the thuds and panting and the frequent groans that I had heard outside.
While I stood and gazed, Harry stepped forward into the arena. "This also?" I whispered.
He nodded, and led the way over the copper floor, where the water ran high as our ankles and again was drained off, until little dry spaces grew like maps upon the surface, and in ten seconds were flooded again. He led me straight to the cages, and I saw that while the roof and three sides of these were of sheet iron, the fourth side, which faced the throne, lay open. And I saw—in the first cage, a man scourged with rods; in the second, a body twisted on the rack; in the third, a woman with a starving babe, and a fellow that held food to them and withdrew it quickly (the torturers wore masks on their faces, and whenever blood flowed some threw handfuls of sawdust, and blood and sawdust together were carried off by the running water); in the fourth cage, a man tied, naked and helpless, whom a masked torturer pelted with discs of gold, heavy and keen-edged; in the fifth a brasier with irons heating, and a girl's body crouched in a corner—
"I will see no more!" I cried, and turned towards the great purple canopy. High over it the sun broke yellow on the climbing tiers of seats. "Harry! someone is watching behind those curtains! Is it—HE?"
Harry bent his head.
"But this is all that I believed! This is Nero, and ten times worse than Nero! Why did you bring me here?" I flung out my hand towards the purple throne, and finding myself close to a fellow who scattered sawdust with both hands, made a spring to tear his mask away. But Harry stretched out an arm.
"That will not help you," he said. "The man has no face."
"He once had a face, but it has perished. His was the face of these sufferers. Look at them."
I looked from cage to cage, and now saw that indeed all these sufferers—men and women—had but one face: the same wrung brow, the same wistful eyes, the same lips bitten in anguish. I knew the face. We all know it.
"His own Son! O devil rather than God!" I fell on my knees in the gushing water and covered my eyes.
"Stand up, listen and look!" said Harry's voice.
"What can I see? He hides behind that curtain."
"And the curtain?"
"It shakes continually."
"That is with His sobs. Listen! What of the water?"
"It runs from the throne and about the floor. It washes off the blood."
"That water is His tears. It flows hence down the hill, and washes all the shores of earth."
Then as I stood silent, conning the eddies at my feet, for the first time Harry took my hand.
"Learn this," he said. "There is no suffering in the world but ultimately comes to be endured by God."
Saying this, he drew me from the spot; gently, very gently led me away; but spoke again as we were about to pass into the shadow of the arch—
"Look once back: for a moment only."
I looked. The curtains of the imperial seat were still drawn close, but in a flash I saw the tiers beside it, and around, and away up to the sunlit crown of the amphitheatre, thronged with forms in white raiment. And all these forms leaned forward and bowed their faces on their arms and wept.
So we passed out beneath the archway. Grey Sultan stood outside, and as I mounted him the gate clashed behind. . . .
I turned as it clashed. And the gate was just the lodge-gate of Sevenhays. And Grey Sultan was trampling the gravel of our own drive. The morning sun slanted over the laurels on my right, and while I wondered, the stable clock struck eight.
The rest I leave to you; nor shall try to explain. I only know that, vision or no vision, my soul from that hour has gained a calm it never knew before. The sufferings of my fellows still afflict me; but always, if I stand still and listen, in my own room, or in a crowded street, or in a waste spot among the moors, I can hear those waters moving round the world—moving on their "priest-like task "—those lustral divine tears which are Oceanus.
THE SEVENTH MAN.
In a one-roomed hut, high within the Arctic Circle, and only a little south of the eightieth parallel, six men were sitting—much as they had sat, evening after evening, for months. They had a clock, and by it they divided the hours into day and night. As a matter of fact, it was always night. But the clock said half-past eight, and they called the time evening.
The hut was built of logs, with an inner skin of rough match-boarding, daubed with pitch. It measured seventeen feet by fourteen; but opposite the door four bunks—two above and two below—took a yard off the length, and this made the interior exactly square. Each of these bunks had two doors, with brass latches on the inner side; so that the owner, if he chose, could shut himself up and go to sleep in a sort of cupboard. But as a rule, he closed one of them only—that by his feet. The other swung back, with its brass latch showing. The men kept these latches in a high state of polish.
Across the angle of the wall, to the left of the door, and behind it when it opened, three hammocks were slung, one above another. No one slept in the uppermost.
But the feature of the hut was its fireplace; and this was merely a square hearth-stone, raised slightly above the floor, in the middle of the room. Upon it, and upon a growing mountain of soft grey ash, the fire burned always. It had no chimney, and so the men lost none of its warmth. The smoke ascended steadily and spread itself under the blackened beams and roof-boards in dense blue layers. But about eighteen inches beneath the spring of the roof there ran a line of small trap-doors with sliding panels, to admit the cold air, and below these the room was almost clear of smoke. A newcomer's eyes might have smarted, but these men stitched their clothes and read in comfort. To keep the up-draught steady they had plugged every chink and crevice in the match-boarding below the trap-doors with moss, and payed the seams with pitch. The fire they fed from a stack of drift and wreck wood piled to the right of the door, and fuel for the fetching strewed the frozen beach outside—whole trees notched into lengths by lumberers' axes and washed thither from they knew not what continent. But the wreck-wood came from their own ship, the J. R. MacNeill, which had brought them from Dundee.
They were Alexander Williamson, of Dundee, better known as The Gaffer; David Faed, also of Dundee; George Lashman, of Cardiff; Long Ede, of Hayle, in Cornwall; Charles Silchester, otherwise The Snipe, of Ratcliff Highway or thereabouts; and Daniel Cooney, shipped at Tromso six weeks before the wreck, an Irish-American by birth and of no known address.
The Gaffer reclined in his bunk, reading by the light of a smoky and evil-smelling lamp. He had been mate of the J. R. MacNeill, and was now captain as well as patriarch of the party. He possessed three books—the Bible, Milton's "Paradise Lost," and an odd volume of "The Turkish Spy." Just now he was reading "The Turkish Spy." The lamplight glinted on the rim of his spectacles and on the silvery hairs in his beard, the slack of which he had tucked under the edge of his blanket. His lips moved as he read, and now and then he broke off to glance mildly at Faed and the Snipe, who were busy beside the fire with a greasy pack of cards; or to listen to the peevish grumbling of Lashman in the bunk below him. Lashman had taken to his bed six weeks before with scurvy, and complained incessantly; and though they hardly knew it, these complaints were wearing his comrades' nerves to fiddle-strings—doing the mischief that cold and bitter hard work and the cruel loneliness had hitherto failed to do. Long Ede lay stretched by the fire in a bundle of skins, reading in his only book, the Bible, open now at the Song of Solomon. Cooney had finished patching a pair of trousers, and rolled himself in his hammock, whence he stared at the roof and the moonlight streaming up there through the little trap-doors and chivying the layers of smoke. Whenever Lashman broke out into fresh quaverings of self-pity, Cooney's hands opened and shut again, till the nails dug hard into the palm. He groaned at length, exasperated beyond endurance.
"Oh, stow it, George! Hang it all, man! . . ."
He checked himself, sharp and short: repentant, and rebuked by the silence of the others. They were good seamen all, and tender dealing with a sick shipmate was part of their code.
Lashman's voice, more querulous than ever, cut into the silence like a knife—
"That's it. You've thought it for weeks, and now you say it. I've knowed it all along. I'm just an encumbrance, and the sooner you're shut of me the better, says you. You needn't to fret. I'll be soon out of it; out of it—out there, alongside of Bill—"
"Easy there, matey." The Snipe glanced over his shoulder and laid his cards face downward. "Here, let me give the bed a shake up. It'll ease yer."
"It'll make me quiet, you mean. Plucky deal you care about easin' me, any of yer!"
"Get out with yer nonsense! Dan didn' mean it." The Snipe slipped an arm under the invalid's head and rearranged the pillow of skins and gunny-bags.
"He didn't, didn't he? Let him say it then . . ."
The Gaffer read on, his lips moving silently. Heaven knows how he had acquired this strayed and stained and filthy little demi-octavo with the arms of Saumarez on its book-plate—"The Sixth Volume of Letters writ by a Turkish Spy, who liv'd Five-and-Forty Years Undiscovered at Paris: Giving an Impartial Account to the Divan at Constantinople of the most remarkable Transactions of Europe, And discovering several Intrigues and Secrets of the Christian Courts (especially of that of France)," etc., etc. "Written originally in Arabick. Translated into Italian, and from thence into English by the Translator of the First Volume. The Eleventh Edition. London: Printed for G. Strahan, S. Ballard"—and a score of booksellers—"MDCCXLI." Heavens knows why he read it; since he understood about one-half, and admired less than one-tenth. The Oriental reflections struck him as mainly blasphemous. But the Gaffer's religious belief marked down nine-tenths of mankind for perdition: which perhaps made him tolerant. At any rate, he read on gravely between the puffs of his short clay—
"On the 19th of this Moon, the King and the whole Court were present at a Ballet, representing the grandeur of the French monarchy. About the Middle of the Entertainment, there was an Antique Dance perform d by twelve Masqueraders, in the suppos'd form of Daemons. But before they had advanc'd far in their Dance, they found an Interloper amongst 'em, who by encreasing the Number to thirteen, put them quite out of their Measure: For they practise every Step and Motion beforehand, till they are perfect. Being abash'd therefore at the unavoidable Blunders the thirteenth Antique made them commit, they stood still like Fools, gazing at one another: None daring to unmask, or speak a Word; for that would have put all the Spectators into a Disorder and Confusion. Cardinal Mazarini (who was the chief Contriver of these Entertainments, to divert the King from more serious Thoughts) stood close by the young Monarch, with the Scheme of the Ballet in his Hand. Knowing therefore that this Dance was to consist but of twelve Antiques, and taking notice that there were actually thirteen, he at first imputed it to some Mistake. But, afterwards, when he perceived the Confusion of the Dancers, he made a more narrow Enquiry into the Cause of this Disorder. To be brief, they convinced the Cardinal that it could be no Error of theirs, by a kind of Demonstration, in that they had but twelve Antique Dresses of that sort, which were made on purpose for this particular Ballet. That which made it seem the greater Mystery was, that when they came behind the Scenes to uncase, and examine the Matter, they found but twelve Antiques, whereas on the Stage there were thirteen . . ."
"Let him say it. Let him say he didn't mean it, the rotten Irishman!"
Cooney flung a leg wearily over the side of his hammock, jerked himself out, and shuffled across to the sick man's berth.
"Av coorse I didn' mane it. It just took me, ye see, lyin' up yondher and huggin' me thoughts in this—wilderness. I swear to ye, George: and ye'll just wet your throat to show there's no bad blood, and that ye belave me." He took up a pannikin from the floor beside the bunk, pulled a hot iron from the fire, and stirred the frozen drink. The invalid turned his shoulder pettishly. "I didn't mane it," Cooney repeated. He set down the pannikin, and shuffled wearily back to his hammock.
The Gaffer blew a long cloud and stared at the fire; at the smoke mounting and the grey ash dropping; at David Faed dealing the cards and licking his thumb between each. Long Ede shifted from one cramped elbow to another and pushed his Bible nearer the blaze, murmuring, "Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil our vines."
"Full hand," the Snipe announced.
"Ay." David Faed rolled the quid in his cheek. The cards were so thumbed and tattered that by the backs of them each player guessed pretty shrewdly what the other held. Yet they went on playing night after night; the Snipe shrilly blessing or cursing his luck, the Scotsman phlegmatic as a bolster.
"Play away, man. What ails ye?" he asked.
The Snipe had dropped both hands to his thighs and sat up, stiff and listening.
"Whist! Outside the door. . . ."
All listened. "I hear nothing," said David, after ten seconds.
"Hush, man—listen! There, again . . ."
They heard now. Cooney slipped down from his hammock, stole to the door and listened, crouching, with his ear close to the jamb. The sound resembled breathing—or so he thought for a moment. Then it seemed rather as if some creature were softly feeling about the door—fumbling its coating of ice and frozen snow.
Cooney listened. They all listened. Usually, as soon as they stirred from the scorching circle of the fire, their breath came from them in clouds. It trickled from them now in thin wisps of vapour. They could almost hear the soft grey ash dropping on the hearth.
A log spluttered. Then the invalid's voice clattered in—
"It's the bears—the bears! They've come after Bill, and next it'll be my turn. I warned you—I told you he wasn't deep enough. O Lord, have mercy . . . mercy . . . !" He pattered off into a prayer, his voice and teeth chattering.
"Hush!" commanded the Gaffer gently; and Lashman choked on a sob.
"It ain't bears," Cooney reported, still with his ear to the door. "Leastways . . . we've had bears before. The foxes, maybe . . . let me listen."
Long Ede murmured: "Take us the foxes, the little foxes . . ."
"I believe you're right," the Gaffer announced cheerfully. "A bear would sniff louder—though there's no telling. The snow was falling an hour back, and I dessay 'tis pretty thick outside. If 'tis a bear, we don't want him fooling on the roof, and I misdoubt the drift by the north corner is pretty tall by this time. Is he there still?"
"I felt something then . . . through the chink, here . . . like a warm breath. It's gone now. Come here, Snipe, and listen."
"'Breath,' eh? Did it smell like bear?"
"I don't know . . . I didn't smell nothing, to notice. Here, put your head down, close."
The Snipe bent his head. And at that moment the door shook gently. All stared; and saw the latch move up, up . . . and falteringly descend on the staple. They heard the click of it.
The door was secured within by two stout bars. Against these there had been no pressure. The men waited in a silence that ached. But the latch was not lifted again.
The Snipe, kneeling, looked up at Cooney. Cooney shivered and looked at David Faed. Long Ede, with his back to the fire, softly shook his feet free of the rugs. His eyes searched for the Gaffer's face. But the old man had drawn back into the gloom of his bunk, and the lamplight shone only on a grey fringe of beard. He saw Long Ede's look, though, and answered it quietly as ever.
"Take a brace of guns aloft, and fetch us a look round. Wait, if there's a chance of a shot. The trap works. I tried it this afternoon with the small chisel."
Long Ede lit his pipe tied down the ear-pieces of his cap, lifted a light ladder off its staples, and set it against a roof-beam: then, with the guns under his arm, quietly mounted. His head and shoulders wavered and grew vague to sight in the smoke-wreaths. "Heard anything more?" he asked. "Nothing since," answered the Snipe. With his shoulder Long Ede pushed up the trap. They saw his head framed in a panel of moonlight, with one frosty star above it. He was wriggling through. "Pitch him up a sleeping-bag, somebody," the Gaffer ordered, and Cooney ran with one. "Thank 'ee, mate," said Long Ede, and closed the trap.
They heard his feet stealthily crunching the frozen stuff across the roof. He was working towards the eaves over-lapping the door. Their breath tightened. They waited for the explosion of his gun. None came. The crunching began again: it was heard down by the very edge of the eaves. It mounted to the blunt ridge overhead; then it ceased.
"He will not have seen aught," David Faed muttered.
"Listen, you. Listen by the door again." They talked in whispers. Nothing; there was nothing to be heard. They crept back to the fire, and stood there warming themselves, keeping their eyes on the latch. It did not move. After a while Cooney slipped off to his hammock; Faed to his bunk, alongside Lashman's. The Gaffer had picked up his book again. The Snipe laid a couple of logs on the blaze, and remained beside it, cowering, with his arms stretched out as if to embrace it. His shapeless shadow wavered up and down on the bunks behind him; and, across the fire, he still stared at the latch.
Suddenly the sick man's voice quavered out—
"It's not him they want—it's Bill! They're after Bill, out there! That was Bill trying to get in. . . . Why didn't yer open? It was Bill, I tell yer!"
At the first word the Snipe had wheeled right-about-face, and stood now, pointing, and shaking like a man with ague.
"Matey . . . for the love of God . . ."
"I won't hush. There's something wrong here to-night. I can't sleep. It's Bill, I tell yer. See his poor hammock up there shaking. . . ."
Cooney tumbled out with an oath and a thud. "Hush it, you white-livered swine! Hush it, or by—" His hand went behind him to his knife-sheath.
"Dan Cooney"—the Gaffer closed his book and leaned out—"go back to your bed."
"I won't, Sir. Not unless—"
"Flesh and blood—"
"Go back." And for the third time that night Cooney went back.
The Gaffer leaned a little farther over the ledge, and addressed the sick man.
"George, I went to Bill's grave not six hours agone. The snow on it wasn't even disturbed. Neither beast nor man, but only God, can break up the hard earth he lies under. I tell you that, and you may lay to it. Now go to sleep."
Long Ede crouched on the frozen ridge of the hut, with his feet in the sleeping-bag, his knees drawn up, and the two guns laid across them. The creature, whatever its name, that had tried the door, was nowhere to be seen; but he decided to wait a few minutes on the chance of a shot; that is, until the cold should drive him below. For the moment the clear tingling air was doing him good. The truth was Long Ede had begun to be afraid of himself, and the way his mind had been running for the last forty-eight hours upon green fields and visions of spring. As he put it to himself, something inside his head was melting. Biblical texts chattered within him like running brooks, and as they fleeted he could almost smell the blown meadow-scent. "Take us the foxes, the little foxes . . . for our vines have tender grapes . . . A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon . . . Awake, O north wind, and come, thou south . . . blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out . . ." He was light-headed, and he knew it. He must hold out. They were all going mad; were, in fact, three parts crazed already, all except the Gaffer. And the Gaffer relied on him as his right-hand man. One glimpse of the returning sun—one glimpse only—might save them yet.
He gazed out over the frozen hills, and northward across the ice-pack. A few streaks of pale violet—the ghost of the Aurora—fronted the moon. He could see for miles. Bear or fox, no living creature was in sight. But who could tell what might be hiding behind any one of a thousand hummocks? He listened. He heard the slow grinding of the ice-pack off the beach: only that. "Take us the foxes, the little foxes. . ."
This would never do. He must climb down and walk briskly, or return to the hut. Maybe there was a bear, after all, behind one of the hummocks, and a shot, or the chance of one, would scatter his head clear of these tom-fooling notions. He would have a search round.
What was that, moving . . . on a hummock, not five hundred yards away? He leaned forward to gaze.
Nothing now: but he had seen something. He lowered himself to the eaves by the north corner, and from the eaves to the drift piled there. The drift was frozen solid, but for a treacherous crust of fresh snow. His foot slipped upon this, and down he slid of a heap.
Luckily he had been careful to sling the guns tightly at his back. He picked himself up, and unstrapping one, took a step into the bright moon-light to examine the nipples; took two steps: and stood stock-still.
There, before him, on the frozen coat of snow, was a footprint. No: two, three, four—many footprints: prints of a naked human foot: right foot, left foot, both naked, and blood in each print—a little smear.
It had come, then. He was mad for certain. He saw them: he put his fingers in them; touched the frozen blood. The snow before the door was trodden thick with them—some going, some returning.
"The latch . . . lifted . . ." Suddenly he recalled the figure he had seen moving upon the hummock, and with a groan he set his face northward and gave chase. Oh, he was mad for certain! He ran like a madman— floundering, slipping, plunging in his clumsy moccasins. "Take us the foxes, the little foxes . . . My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him . . . I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem . . . I charge you . . . I charge you . . ."
He ran thus for three hundred yards maybe, and then stopped as suddenly as he had started.
His mates—they must not see these footprints, or they would go mad too: mad as he. No, he must cover them up, all within sight of the hut. And to-morrow he would come alone, and cover those farther afield. Slowly he retraced his steps. The footprints—those which pointed towards the hut and those which pointed away from it—lay close together; and he knelt before each, breaking fresh snow over the hollows and carefully hiding the blood. And now a great happiness filled his heart; interrupted once or twice as he worked by a feeling that someone was following and watching him. Once he turned northwards and gazed, making a telescope of his hands. He saw nothing, and fell again to his long task.
Within the hut the sick man cried softly to himself. Faed, the Snipe, and Cooney slept uneasily, and muttered in their dreams. The Gaffer lay awake, thinking. After Bill, George Lashman; and after George? . . . Who next? And who would be the last—the unburied one? The men were weakening fast; their wits and courage coming down at the end with a rush. Faed and Long Ede were the only two to be depended on for a day. The Gaffer liked Long Ede, who was a religious man. Indeed he had a growing suspicion that Long Ede, in spite of some amiable laxities of belief, was numbered among the Elect: or might be, if interceded for. The Gaffer began to intercede for him silently; but experience had taught him that such "wrestlings," to be effective, must be noisy, and he dropped off to sleep with a sense of failure . . .
The Snipe stretched himself, yawned, and awoke. It was seven in the morning: time to prepare a cup of tea. He tossed an armful of logs on the fire, and the noise awoke the Gaffer, who at once inquired for Long Ede. He had not returned. "Go you up to the roof. The lad must be frozen." The Snipe climbed the ladder, pushed open the trap, and came back, reporting that Long Ede was nowhere to be seen. The old man slipped a jumper over his suits of clothing—already three deep—reached for a gun, and moved to the door. "Take a cup of something warm to fortify," the Snipe advised. "The kettle won't be five minutes boiling." But the Gaffer pushed up the heavy bolts and dragged the door open.
"What in the! . . .Here, bear a hand, lads!"
Long Ede lay prone before the threshold, his out-stretched hands almost touching it, his moccasins already covered out of sight by the powdery snow which ran and trickled incessantly—trickled between his long, dishevelled locks, and over the back of his gloves, and ran in a thin stream past the Gaffer's feet.
They carried him in and laid him on a heap of skins by the fire. They forced rum between his clenched teeth and beat his hands and feet, and kneaded and rubbed him. A sigh fluttered on his lips: something between a sigh and a smile, half seen, half heard. His eyes opened, and his comrades saw that it was really a smile.
"Wot cheer, mate?" It was the Snipe who asked.
"I—I seen . . ." The voice broke off, but he was smiling still.
What had he seen? Not the sun, surely! By the Gaffer's reckoning the sun would not be due for a week or two yet: how many weeks he could not say precisely, and sometimes he was glad enough that he did not know.
They forced him to drink a couple of spoonfuls of rum, and wrapped him up warmly. Each man contributed some of his own bedding. Then the Gaffer called to morning prayers, and the three sound men dropped on their knees with him. Now, whether by reason of their joy at Long Ede's recovery, or because the old man was in splendid voice, they felt their hearts uplifted that morning with a cheerfulness they had not known for months. Long Ede lay and listened dreamily while the passion of the Gaffer's thanksgiving shook the hut. His gaze wandered over their bowed forms—"The Gaffer, David Faed, Dan Cooney, the Snipe, and—and George Lashman in his bunk, of course—and me." But, then, who was the seventh? He began to count. "There's myself—Lashman, in his bunk— David Faed, the Gaffer, the Snipe, Dan Cooney . . . One, two, three, four—well, but that made seven. Then who was the seventh? Was it George who had crawled out of bed and was kneeling there? Decidedly there were five kneeling. No: there was George, plain enough, in his berth, and not able to move. Then who was the stranger? Wrong again: there was no stranger. He knew all these men—they were his mates. Was it—Bill? No, Bill was dead and buried: none of these was Bill, or like Bill. Try again—One, two, three, four, five—and us two sick men, seven. The Gaffer, David Faed, Dan Cooney—have I counted Dan twice? No, that's Dan, yonder to the right, and only one of him. Five men kneeling, and two on their backs: that makes seven every time. Dear God—suppose—"
The Gaffer ceased, and in the act of rising from his knees, caught sight of Long Ede's face. While the others fetched their breakfast-cans, he stepped over, and bent and whispered—
"Tell me. Ye've seen what?"
"Seen?" Long Ede echoed.
"Ay, seen what? Speak low—was it the sun?"
"The s—" But this time the echo died on his lips, and his face grew full of awe uncomprehending. It frightened the Gaffer.
"Ye'll be the better of a snatch of sleep," said he; and was turning to go, when Long Ede stirred a hand under the edge of his rugs.
"Seven . . . count . . ." he whispered.
"Lord have mercy upon us!" the Gaffer muttered to his beard as he moved away. "Long Ede; gone crazed!"
And yet, though an hour or two ago this had been the worst that could befall, the Gaffer felt unusually cheerful. As for the others, they were like different men, all that day and through the three days that followed. Even Lashman ceased to complain, and, unless their eyes played them a trick, had taken a turn for the better. "I declare, if I don't feel like pitching to sing!" the Snipe announced on the second evening, as much to his own wonder as to theirs. "Then why in thunder don't you strike up?" answered Dan Cooney, and fetched his concertina. The Snipe struck up, then and there—"Villikins and his Dinah"! What is more, the Gaffer looked up from his "Paradise Lost," and joined in the chorus.
By the end of the second day, Long Ede was up and active again. He went about with a dazed look in his eyes. He was counting, counting to himself, always counting. The Gaffer watched him furtively.
Since his recovery, though his lips moved frequently, Long Ede had scarcely uttered a word. But towards noon on the fourth day he said an extraordinary thing.
"There's that sleeping-bag I took with me the other night. I wonder if 'tis on the roof still. It will be froze pretty stiff by this. You might nip up and see, Snipe, and"—he paused—"if you find it, stow it up yonder on Bill's hammock."
The Gaffer opened his mouth, but shut it again without speaking. The Snipe went up the ladder.
A minute passed; and then they heard a cry from the roof—a cry that fetched them all trembling, choking, weeping, cheering, to the foot of the ladder.
"Boys! boys!—the Sun!"
Months later—it was June, and even George Lashman had recovered his strength—the Snipe came running with news of the whaling fleet. And on the beach, as they watched the vessels come to anchor, Long Ede told the Gaffer his story. "It was a hall—a hallu—what d'ye call it, I reckon. I was crazed, eh?" The Gaffer's eyes wandered from a brambling hopping about the lichen-covered boulders, and away to the sea-fowl wheeling above the ships: and then came into his mind a tale he had read once in "The Turkish Spy." "I wouldn't say just that," he answered slowly.
"Anyway," said Long Ede, "I believe the Lord sent a miracle to us to save us all."
"I wouldn't say just that, either," the Gaffer objected. "I doubt it was meant just for you and me, and the rest were presairved, as you might say incidentally."
THE ROOM OF MIRRORS
A late hansom came swinging round the corner into Lennox Gardens, cutting it so fine that the near wheel ground against the kerb and jolted the driver in his little seat. The jingle of bells might have warned me; but the horse's hoofs came noiselessly on the half-frozen snow, which lay just deep enough to hide where the pavement ended and the road began; and, moreover, I was listening to the violins behind the first-floor windows of the house opposite. They were playing the "Wiener Blut."
As it was, I had time enough and no more to skip back and get my toes out of the way. The cabby cursed me. I cursed him back so promptly and effectively that he had to turn in his seat for another shot. The windows of the house opposite let fall their light across his red and astonished face. I laughed, and gave him another volley. My head was hot, though my feet and hands were cold; and I felt equal to cursing down any cabman within the four-mile radius. That second volley finished him. He turned to his reins again and was borne away defeated; the red eyes of his lamps peering back at me like an angry ferret's.
Up in the lighted room shadows of men and women crossed the blinds, and still the "Wiener Blut" went forward.
The devil was in that waltz. He had hold of the violins and was weaving the air with scents and visions—visions of Ascot and Henley; green lawns, gay sunshades, midsummer heat, cool rivers flowing, muslins rippled by light breezes; running horses and silken jackets; white tables heaped with roses and set with silver and crystal, jewelled fingers moving in the soft candle-light, bare necks bending, diamonds, odours, bubbles in the wine; blue water and white foam beneath the leaning shadow of sails; hot air flickering over stretches of moorland; blue again—Mediterranean blue—long facades, the din of bands and King Carnival parading beneath showers of blossom:—and all this noise and warmth and scent and dazzle flung out into the frozen street for a beggar's portion. I had gone under.
The door of the house opposite had been free to me once—and not six months ago; freer to me perhaps than to any other. Did I long to pass behind it again? I thrust both hands into my pockets for warmth, and my right hand knocked against something hard. Yes . . . just once. . . .
Suddenly the door opened. A man stood on the threshold for a moment while the butler behind him arranged the collar of his fur overcoat. The high light in the portico flung the shadows of both down the crimson carpet laid on the entrance-steps. Snow had fallen and covered the edges of the carpet, which divided it like a cascade of blood pouring from the hall into the street. And still overhead the "Wiener Blut" went forward.
The man paused in the bright portico, his patent-leather boots twinkling under the lamp's rays on that comfortable carpet. I waited, expecting him to whistle for a hansom. But he turned, gave an order to the butler, and stepping briskly down into the street, made off eastwards. The door closed behind him. He was the man I most hated in the world. If I had longed to cross the threshold a while back it was to seek him, and for no other reason.
I started to follow him, my hands still in my pockets. The snow muffled our footfalls completely, for as yet the slight north-east wind had frozen but the thinnest crust of it. He was walking briskly, as men do in such weather, but with no appearance of hurry. At the corner of Sloane Street he halted under a lamp, pulled out his watch, consulted it, and lit a cigarette; then set off again up the street towards Knightsbridge.
This halt of his had let me up within twenty paces of him. He never turned his head; but went on presenting me his back, a target not to be missed. Why not do it now? Better now and here than in a crowded thoroughfare. My right hand gripped the revolver more tightly. No, there was plenty of time: and I was curious to know what had brought Gervase out at this hour: why he had left his guests, or his wife's guests, to take care of themselves: why he chose to be trudging afoot through this infernally unpleasant snow.
The roadway in Sloane Street was churned into a brown mass like chocolate, but the last 'bus had rolled home and left it to freeze in peace. Half-way up the street I saw Gervase meet and pass a policeman, and altered my own pace to a lagging walk. Even so, the fellow eyed me suspiciously as I went by—or so I thought: and guessing that he kept a watch on me, I dropped still further behind my man. But the lamps were bright at the end of the street, and I saw him turn to the right by the great drapery shop at the corner.
Once past this corner I was able to put on a spurt. He crossed the roadway by the Albert Gate, and by the time he reached the Park railings the old distance separated us once more. Half-way up the slope he came to a halt, by the stone drinking-trough: and flattening myself against the railings, I saw him try the thin ice in the trough with his finger-tips, but in a hesitating way, as if his thoughts ran on something else and he scarcely knew what he did or why he did it. It must have been half a minute before he recovered himself with a shrug of his shoulders, and plunging both hands deep in his pockets, resumed his pace.
As we passed Hyde Park Corner I glanced up at the clock there: the time was between a quarter and ten minutes to one. At the entrance of Down Street he turned aside again, and began to lead me a zigzag dance through the quiet thoroughfare: and I followed, still to the tune of the "Wiener Blut."
But now, at the corner of Charles Street, I blundered against another policeman, who flashed his lantern in my face, stared after Gervase, and asked me what my game was. I demanded innocently enough to be shown the nearest way to Oxford Street, and the fellow, after pausing a moment to chew his suspicions, walked with me slowly to the south-west corner of Berkeley Square, and pointed northwards.
"That's your road," he growled, "straight on. And don't you forget it!"
He stood and watched me on my way. Nor did I dare to turn aside until well clear of the square. At the crossing of Davies and Grosvenor Streets, however, I supposed myself safe, and halted for a moment.
From the shadow of a porch at my elbow a thin voice accosted me.
"Heh?" I spun round on her sharply: for it was a woman, stretching out one skinny hand and gathering her rags together with the other.
"Kind gentleman, spare a copper. I've known better days—I have indeed."
"Well," said I, "as it happens, I'm in the same case. And they couldn't be much worse, could they?"
She drew a shuddering breath back through her teeth, but still held out her hand. I felt for my last coin, and her fingers closed on it so sharply that their long nails scraped the back of mine.
"Ay, they are kind, are they not?"
She stared at me, and in a nerveless tone let one horrible oath escape her.
"There'll be one less before morning," said I, "if that's any consolation to you. Good night!" Setting off at a shuffling run, I doubled back along Grosvenor Street and Bond Street to the point where I hoped to pick up the trail again. And just there, at the issue of Bruton Street, two constables stood ready for me.
"I thought as much," said the one who set me on my way. "Hi, you! Wait a moment, please;" then to the other, "Best turn his pockets out, Jim."
"If you dare to try—" I began, with my hand in my pocket: the next moment I found myself sprawling face downward on the sharp crust of snow.
"Hullo, constables!" said a voice. "What's the row?" It was Gervase. He had turned leisurely back from the slope of Conduit Street, and came strolling down the road with his hands in his pockets.
"This fellow, Sir—we have reason to think he was followin' you."
"Quite right," Gervase answered cheerfully, "of course he was."
"Oh, if you knew it, Sir—"
"Certainly I knew it. In fact, he was following at my invitation."
"What for did he tell me a lie, then?" grumbled the constable, chapfallen.
I had picked myself up by this time and was wiping my face. "Look here," I put in, "I asked you the way to Oxford Street, that and nothing else." And I went on to summarise my opinion of him.
"Oh! it's you can swear a bit," he growled. "I heard you just now."
"Yes," Gervase interposed suavely, drawing the glove from his right hand and letting flash a diamond finger-ring in the lamp-light. "He is a bit of a beast, policeman, and it's not for the pleasure of it that I want his company."
A sovereign passed from hand to hand. The other constable had discreetly drawn off a pace or two.
"All the same, it's a rum go."
"Yes, isn't it?" Gervase assented in his heartiest tone. "Here is my card, in case you're not satisfied."
"If you're satisfied, Sir—"
"Quite so. Good night!" Gervase thrust both hands into his pockets again and strode off. I followed him, with a heart hotter than ever— followed him like a whipped cur, as they say. Yes, that was just it. He who had already robbed me of everything else had now kicked even the pedestal from under me as a figure of tragedy. Five minutes ago I had been the implacable avenger tracking my unconscious victim across the city. Heaven knows how small an excuse it was for self-respect; but one who has lost character may yet chance to catch a dignity from circumstances; and to tell the truth, for all my desperate earnestness I had allowed my vanity to take some artistic satisfaction in the sinister chase. It had struck me—shall I say?—as an effective ending, nor had I failed to note that the snow lent it a romantic touch.
And behold, the unconscious victim knew all about it, and had politely interfered when a couple of unromantic "Bobbies" threatened the performance by tumbling the stalking avenger into the gutter! They had knocked my tragedy into harlequinade as easily as you might bash in a hat; and my enemy had refined the cruelty of it by coming to the rescue and ironically restarting the poor play on lines of comedy. I saw too late that I ought to have refused his help, to have assaulted the constable and been hauled to the police-station. Not an impressive wind-up, to be sure; but less humiliating than this! Even so, Gervase might have trumped the poor card by following with a gracious offer to bail me out!
As it was, I had put the whip into his hand, and must follow him like a cur. The distance he kept assured me that the similitude had not escaped him. He strode on without deigning a single glance behind, still in cold derision presenting me his broad back and silently challenging me to shoot. And I followed, hating him worse than ever, swearing that the last five minutes should not be forgotten, but charged for royally when the reckoning came to be paid.
I followed thus up Conduit Street, up Regent Street, and across the Circus. The frost had deepened and the mud in the roadway crackled under our feet. At the Circus I began to guess, and when Gervase struck off into Great Portland Street, and thence by half-a-dozen turnings northward by east, I knew to what house he was leading me.
At the entrance of the side street in which it stood he halted and motioned me to come close.
"I forget," he said with a jerk of his thumb, "if you still have the entry. These people are not particular, to be sure."
"I have not," I answered, and felt my cheeks burning. He could not see this, nor could I see the lift of his eyebrows as he answered—
"Ah? I hadn't heard of it. . . . You'd better step round by the mews, then. You know the window, the one which opens into the passage leading to Pollox Street. Wait there. It may be ten minutes before I can open."
I nodded. The house was a corner one, between the street and a by-lane tenanted mostly by cabmen; and at the back of it ran the mews where they stabled their horses. Half-way down this mews a narrow alley cut across it at right angles: a passage un-frequented by traffic, known only to the stablemen, and in the daytime used only by their children, who played hop-scotch on the flagged pavement, where no one interrupted them. You wondered at its survival—from end to end it must have measured a good fifty yards—in a district where every square foot of ground fetched money; until you learned that the house had belonged, in the 'twenties, to a nobleman who left a name for eccentric profligacy, and who, as owner of the land, could afford to indulge his humours. The estate since his death was in no position to afford money for alterations, and the present tenants of the house found the passage convenient enough.
My footsteps disturbed no one in the sleeping mews; and doubling back noiselessly through the passage, I took up my station beside the one low window which opened upon it from the blank back premises of the house. Even with the glimmer of snow to help me, I had to grope for the window-sill to make sure of my bearings. The minutes crawled by, and the only sound came from a stall where one of the horses had kicked through his thin straw bedding and was shuffling an uneasy hoof upon the cobbles. Then just as I too had begun to shuffle my frozen feet, I heard a scratching sound, the unbolting of a shutter, and Gervase drew up the sash softly.
"Nip inside!" he whispered. "No more noise than you can help. I have sent off the night porter. He tells me the bank is still going in the front of the house—half-a-dozen playing, perhaps."
I hoisted myself over the sill, and dropped inside. The wall of this annexe—which had no upper floor, and invited you to mistake it for a harmless studio—was merely a sheath, so to speak. Within, a corridor divided it from the true wall of the room: and this room had no window or top-light, though a handsome one in the roof—a dummy—beguiled the eyes of its neighbours.
There was but one room: an apartment of really fine proportions, never used by the tenants of the house, and known but to a few curious ones among its frequenters.
The story went that the late owner, Earl C—, had reason to believe himself persistently cheated at cards by his best friends, and in particular by a Duke of the Blood Royal, who could hardly be accused to his face. The Earl's sense of honour forbade him to accuse any meaner man while the big culprit went unrebuked. Therefore he continued to lose magnificently while he devised a new room for play: the room in which I now followed Gervase.
I had stood in it once before and admired the courtly and costly thoroughness of the Earl's rebuke. I had imagined him conducting his expectant guests to the door, ushering them in with a wave of the hand, and taking his seat tranquilly amid the dead, embarrassed silence: had imagined him facing the Royal Duke and asking, "Shall we cut?" with a voice of the politest inflection.
For the room was a sheet of mirrors. Mirrors panelled the walls, the doors, the very backs of the shutters. The tables had mirrors for tops: the whole ceiling was one vast mirror. From it depended three great candelabra of cut-glass, set with reflectors here, there, and everywhere.
I had heard that even the floor was originally of polished brass. If so, later owners must have ripped up the plates and sold them: for now a few cheap Oriental rugs carpeted the unpolished boards. The place was abominably dusty: the striped yellow curtains had lost half their rings and drooped askew from their soiled vallances. Across one of the wall-panels ran an ugly scar. A smell of rat pervaded the air. The present occupiers had no use for a room so obviously unsuitable to games of chance, as they understood chance: and I doubt if a servant entered it once a month. Gervase had ordered candles and a fire: but the chimney was out of practice, and the smoke wreathed itself slowly about us as we stood surrounded by the ghostly company of our reflected selves.
"We shall not be disturbed," said Gervase. "I told the man I was expecting a friend, that our business was private, and that until he called I wished to be alone. I did not explain by what entrance I expected him. The people in the front cannot hear us. Have a cigar?" He pushed the open case towards me. Then, as I drew back, "You've no need to be scrupulous," he added, "seeing that they were bought with your money."
"If that's so, I will," said I; and having chosen one, struck a match. Glancing round, I saw a hundred small flames spurt up, and a hundred men hold them to a hundred glowing cigar-tips.
"After you with the match." Gervase took it from me with a steady hand. He, too, glanced about him while he puffed. "Ugh!" He blew a long cloud, and shivered within his furred overcoat. "What a gang!"
"It takes all sorts to make a world," said I fatuously, for lack of anything better.
"Don't be an infernal idiot!" he answered, flicking the dust off one of the gilt chairs, and afterwards cleaning a space for his elbow on the looking-glass table. "It takes only two sorts to make the world we've lived in, and that's you and I." He gazed slowly round the walls. "You and I, and a few fellows like us—not to mention the women, who don't count."
"Well," said I, "as far as the world goes—if you must discuss it— I always found it a good enough place."
"Because you started as an unconsidering fool: and because, afterwards, when we came to grips, you were the under-dog, and I gave you no time. My word—how I have hustled you!"
I yawned. "All right: I can wait. Only if you suppose I came here to listen to your moral reflections—"
He pulled the cigar from between his teeth and looked at me along it.
"I know perfectly well why you came here," he said slowly, and paused. "Hadn't we better have it out—with the cards on the table?" He drew a small revolver from his pocket and laid it with a light clink on the table before him. I hesitated for a moment, then followed his example, and the silent men around us did the same.
A smile curled his thin lips as he observed this multiplied gesture. "Yes," he said, as if to himself, "that is what it all comes to."
"And now," said I, "since you know my purpose here, perhaps you will tell me yours."
"That is just what I am trying to explain. Only you are so impatient, and it—well, it's a trifle complicated." He puffed for a moment in silence. "Roughly, it might be enough to say that I saw you standing outside my house a while ago; that I needed a talk with you alone, in some private place; that I guessed, if you saw me, you would follow with no more invitation; and that, so reasoning, I led you here, where no one is likely to interrupt us."
"Well," I admitted, "all that seems plain sailing."
"Quite so; but it's at this point the thing grows complicated." He rose, and walking to the fireplace, turned his back on me and spread his palms to the blaze. "Well," he asked, after a moment, gazing into the mirror before him, "why don't you shoot?"
I thrust my hands into my trouser-pockets and leaned back staring— I daresay sulkily enough—at the two revolvers within grasp. "I've got my code," I muttered.
"The code of—these mirrors. You won't do the thing because it's not the thing to do; because these fellows"—he waved a hand and the ghosts waved back at him—"don't do such things, and you haven't the nerve to sin off your own bat. Come"—he strolled back to his seat and leaned towards me across the table—"it's not much to boast of, but at this eleventh hour we must snatch what poor credit we can. You are, I suppose, a more decent fellow for not having fired: and I—By the way, you did feel the temptation?"
I nodded. "You may put your money on that. I never see you without wanting to kill you. What's more, I'm going to do it."
"And I," he said, "knew the temptation and risked it. No: let's be honest about it. There was no risk: because, my good Sir, I know you to a hair."
"There was," I growled.
"Pardon me, there was none. I came here having a word to say to you, and these mirrors have taught me how to say it. Take a look at them— the world we are leaving—that's it: and a cursed second-hand, second-class one at that."
He paced slowly round on it, slewing his body in the chair.
"I say a second-class one," he resumed, "because, my dear Reggie, when all's said and done, we are second-class, the pair of us, and pretty bad second-class. I met you first at Harrow. Our fathers had money: they wished us to be gentlemen without well understanding what it meant: and with unlimited pocket-money and his wits about him any boy can make himself a power in a big school. That is what we did: towards the end we even set the fashion for a certain set; and a rank bad fashion it was. But, in truth, we had no business there: on every point of breeding we were outsiders. I suspect it was a glimmering consciousness of this that made us hate each other from the first. We understood one another too well. Oh, there's no mistake about it! Whatever we've missed in life, you and I have hated."
He paused, eyeing me queerly. I kept my hands in my pockets. "Go on," I said.
"From Harrow we went to College—the same business over again. We drifted, of course, into the same set; for already we had become necessary to each other. We set the pace of that set—were its apparent leaders. But in truth we were alone—you and I—as utterly alone as two shipwrecked men on a raft. The others were shadows to us: we followed their code because we had to be gentlemen, but we did not understand it in the least. For, after all, the roots of that code lay in the breeding and tradition of honour, with which we had no concern. To each other you and I were intelligible and real; but as concerned that code and the men who followed it by right of birth and nature, we were looking-glass men imitating—imitating—imitating."
"We set the pace," said I. "You've allowed that."
"To be sure we did. We even modified the code a bit—to its hurt; though as conscious outsiders we could dare very little. For instance, the talk of our associates about women—and no doubt their thoughts, too—grew sensibly baser. The sanctity of gambling debts, on the other hand, we did nothing to impair: because we had money. I recall your virtuous indignation at the amount of paper floated by poor W—— towards the end of the great baccarat term. Poor devil! He paid up—or his father did—and took his name off the books. He's in Ceylon now, I believe. At length you have earned a partial right to sympathise: or. would have if only you had paid up."
"Take care, Gervase."
"My good Sir, don't miss my point. Wasn't I just as indignant with W—? If I'd been warned off Newmarket Heath, if I'd been shown the door of the hell we're sitting in, shouldn't I feel just as you are feeling? Try to understand!"
"You forget Elaine, I think."
"No: I do not forget Elaine. We left College: I to add money to money in my father's office; you to display your accomplishments in spending what your father had earned. That was the extent of the difference. To both of us, money and the indulgence it buys meant everything in life. All I can boast of is the longer sight. The office-hours were a nuisance, I admit: but I was clever enough to keep my hold on the old set; and then, after office-hours, I met you constantly, and studied and hated you—studied you because I hated you. Elaine came between us. You fell in love with her. That I, too, should fall in love with her was no coincidence, but the severest of logic. Given such a woman and two such men, no other course of fate is conceivable. She made it necessary for me to put hate into practice. If she had not offered herself, why, then it would have been somebody else: that's all. Good Lord!" he rapped the table, and his voice rose for the first time above its level tone of exposition, "you don't suppose all my study— all my years of education—were to be wasted!"
He checked himself, eyed me again, and resumed in his old voice—
"You wanted money by this time. I was a solicitor—your old college friend—and you came to me. I knew you would come, as surely as I knew you would not fire that pistol just now. For years I had trained myself to look into your mind and anticipate its working. Don't I tell you that from the first you were the only real creature this world held for me? You were my only book, and I had to learn you: at first without fixed purpose, then deliberately. And when the time came I put into practice what I knew: just that and no more. My dear Reggie, you never had a chance."
"Elaine?" I muttered again.
"Elaine was the girl for you—or for me: just that again and no more."
"By George!" said I, letting out a laugh. "If I thought that!"
"Why, that after ruining me, you have missed being happy!"
He sighed impatiently, and his eyes, though he kept them fastened on mine, seemed to be tiring. "I thought," he said, "I could time your intelligence over any fence. But to-night there's something wrong. Either I'm out of practice or your brain has been going to the deuce. What, man! You're shying at every bank! Is it drink, hey? Or hunger?"
"It might be a little of both," I answered. "But stay a moment and let me get things straight. I stood between you and Elaine—no, give me time—between you and your aims, whatever they were. Very well. You trod over me; or, rather, you pulled me up by the roots and pitched me into outer darkness to rot. And now it seems that, after all, you are not content. In the devil's name, why?"
"Why? Oh, cannot you see? . . . Take a look at these mirrors again— our world, I tell you. See—you and I—you and I—always you and I! Man, I pitched you into darkness as you say, and then I woke and knew the truth—that you were necessary to me."
"I can't do without you!" It broke from him in a cry. "So help me God, Reggie, it is the truth!"
I stared in his face for half a minute maybe, and broke out laughing. "Jeshurun waxed fat and—turned sentimental! A nice copy-book job you make of it, too!"
"Oh, send my brother back to me— I cannot play alone!"
"Perhaps you'd like me to buy a broom and hire the crossing in Lennox Gardens? Then you'd be able to contemplate me all day long, and nourish your fine fat soul with delicate eating. Pah! You make me sick."
"It's the truth," said he quietly.
"It may be. To me it looks a sight more like foie gras. Can't do without me, can't you? Well, I can jolly well do without you, and I'm going to."
"I warn you," he said: "I have done you an injury or two in my time, but by George if I stand up and let you shoot me—well, I hate you badly enough, but I won't let you do it without fair warning."
"I'll risk it anyway," said I.
"Very well." He stood up, and folded his arms. "Shoot, then, and be hanged!"
I put out my hand to the revolver, hesitated, and withdrew it.
"That's not the way," I said. "I've got my code, as I told you before."
"Does the code forbid suicide?" he asked.
"That's a different thing."
"Not at all. The man who commits suicide kills an unarmed man."
"But the unarmed man happens to be himself."
"Suppose that in this instance your distinction won't work? Look here," he went on, as I pushed back my chair impatiently, "I have one truth more for you. I swear I believe that what we have hated, we two, is not each other, but ourselves or our own likeness. I swear I believe we two have so shared natures in hate that no power can untwist and separate them to render each his own. But I swear also I believe that if you lift that revolver to kill, you will take aim, not at me, but by instinct at a worse enemy—yourself, vital in my heart."
"You have some pretty theories to-night," I sneered. "Perhaps you'll go on to tell me which of us two has been Elaine's husband, feeding daintily in Lennox Gardens, clothed in purple and fine linen, while the other—"
He interrupted me by picking up his revolver and striding to the fireplace again.
"So be it, since you will have it so. Kill me," he added, with a queer look, "and perhaps you may go back to Lennox Gardens and enjoy all these things in my place."
I took my station. Both revolvers were levelled now. I took sight along mine at his detested face. It was white but curiously eager— hopeful even. I lowered my arm, scanning his face still; and still scanning it, set my weapon down on the table.
"I believe you are mad," said I slowly. "But one thing I see—that, mad or not, you're in earnest. For some reason you want me to kill you; therefore that shall wait. For some reason it is torture to you to live and do without me: well, I'll try you with that. It will do me good to hurt you a bit." I slipped the revolver into my pocket and tapped it. "Though I don't understand them, I won't quarrel with your sentiments so long as you suffer from them. When that fails, I'll find another opportunity for this. Good night." I stepped to the door. "Reggie!"
I shut the door on his cry: crossed the corridor, and climbing out through the window, let myself drop into the lane.
As my feet touched the snow a revolver-shot rang out in the room behind me.
I caught at the frozen sill to steady myself: and crouching there, listened. Surely the report must have alarmed the house! I waited for the sound of footsteps: waited for three minutes—perhaps longer. None came. To be sure, the room stood well apart from the house: but it was incredible that the report should have awakened no one! My own ears still rang with it.
Still no footsteps came. The horse in the stable close by was still shuffling his hoof on the cobbles. No other sound . . .
Very stealthily I hoisted myself up on the sill again, listened, dropped inside, and tip-toed my way to the door. The candles were still burning in the Room of Mirrors. And by the light of them, as I entered, Gervase stepped to meet me.
"Ah, it's you," I stammered. "I heard—that is, I thought—"
And with that I saw—recognised with a catch of the breath—that the figure I spoke to was not Gervase, but my own reflected image, stepping forward with pale face and ghastly from a mirror. Yet a moment before I could have sworn it was Gervase.
Gervase lay stretched on the hearthrug with his hand towards the fire. I caught up a candle, and bent over him. His features were not to be recognised.
As I straightened myself up, with the candle in my hand, for an instant those features, obliterated in the flesh, gazed at me in a ring, a hundred times repeated behind a hundred candles. And again, at a second glance, I saw that the face was not Gervase's but my own.
I set down the candle and made off, closing the door behind me. The horror of it held me by the hair, but I flung it off and pelted down the lane and through the mews. Once in the street I breathed again, pulled myself together, and set off at a rapid walk, southwards, but not clearly knowing whither.
As a matter of fact, I took the line by which I had come: with the single difference that I made straight into Berkeley Square through Bruton Street. I had, I say, no clear purpose in following this line rather than another. I had none for taking Lennox Gardens on the way to my squalid lodgings in Chelsea. I had a purpose, no doubt; but will swear it only grew definite as I came in sight of the lamp still burning beneath Gervase's portico.
There was a figure, too, under the lamp—the butler—bending there and rolling up the strip of red carpet. As he pulled its edges from the frozen snow I came on him suddenly.