The Gates of Chance
Van Tassel Sutphen
I THE GENTLEMAN'S VISITING-CARD II THE RED DUCHESS III HOUSE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BLOCK IV THE PRIVATE LETTER-BOX V THE NINETY-AND-NINE KISSES VI THE QUEEN OF SPADES VII THE OPAL BUTTON VIII THE TIP-TOP TIP IX THE BRASS BAGGAGE-CHECK X THE UPSET APPLE-CART XI THE PHILADELPHIA QUIZZING-GLASS XII THE ADJUSTER OF AVERAGES
The Gentleman's Visiting-Card
The card that had been thrust into my hand had pencilled upon it, "Call at 4020 Madison Avenue at a quarter before eight this evening." Below, in copper-plate, was engraved the name, Mr. Esper Indiman.
It was one of those abnormally springlike days that New York sometimes experiences at the latter end of March, days when negligee shirts and last summer's straw hats make a sporadic appearance, and bucolic weather prophets write letters to the afternoon papers abusing the sun-spots. Really, it was hot, and I was anxious to get out of the dust and glare; it would be cool at the club, and I intended dining there. The time was half-past six, the height of the homeward rush hours, and, as usual, there was a jam of vehicles and pedestrians at the Fourth Avenue and Twenty-third Street crossing. The subway contractors were still at work here, and the available street space was choked with their stagings and temporary footwalks. The inevitable consequent was congestion; here were two of the principal thoroughfares of the city crossing each other at right angles, and with hardly enough room, at the point of intersection, for the traffic of one. The confusion grew worse as the policemen and signalmen stationed at the crossing occasionally lost their heads; every now and then a new block would form, and several minutes would elapse before it could be broken. In all directions long lines of yellow electric cars stood stalled, the impatient passengers looking ahead to discover the cause of the trouble. A familiar enough experience to the modern New-Yorker, yet it never fails to exasperate him afresh.
The impasse looked hopeless when I reached the scene. A truck loaded with bales of burlap was on the point of breaking down at the crossing, and it was a question of how to get it out of the way in the shortest possible time consistent with the avoidance of the threatened catastrophe. Meanwhile, the jam of cars and trucks kept piling up until there was hardly space for a newsboy to worm his way from one curb to another, and the crowd on the street corners began to grow restive. They do these things so much better in London.
Now, I detest being in the mob, and I was about to back my way out of the crowd and seek another route, even if a roundabout one. But just then the blockade was partially raised, an opening presented itself immediately in front of me, and I was forced forward willy-nilly. Arrived at the other side of the street, I drew out of the press as quickly as possible, and it was then that I discovered Mr. Indiman's carte de visite tightly clutched in my left hand. Impossible to conjecture how it had come there, and my own part in the transaction had been purely involuntary; the muscles of the palm had closed unconsciously upon the object presented to it, just as does a baby's. "Mr. Esper Indiman—and who the deuce may he be?"
The club dining-room was full, but Jeckley hailed me and offered me a seat at his table. I loathe Jeckley, and so I explained politely that I was waiting for a friend, and should not dine until later.
"Well, then, have a cocktail while I am finishing my coffee," persisted the beast, and I was obliged to comply.
"I had to feed rather earlier than usual," explained Jeckley.
"Yes," I said, not caring in the least about Mr. Jeckley's hours for meals.
"You see I'm doing the opening at the Globe to-night, and I must get my Wall Street copy to the office before the theatre. And what do you think of that by way of an extra assignment?" He took a card from his pocket-book and tossed it over. It was another one of Mr. Esper Indiman's calling-cards, and scrawled in pencil, "Call at 4020 Madison Avenue at eight o'clock this evening."
Jeckley was lighting his cigar, and so did not observe my start of surprise. Have I said that Jeckley was a newspaper man? One of the new school of journalism, a creature who would stick at nothing in the manufacture of a sensation. The Scare-Head is his god, and he holds nothing else sacred in heaven and earth. He would sacrifice—but perhaps I'm unjust to Jeckley; maybe it's only his bounce and flourish that I detest. Furthermore, I'm a little afraid of him; I don't want to be written up.
"Esper Indiman," I read aloud. "Don't know him."
"Ever heard the name?" asked Jeckley.
I temporized. "It's unfamiliar, certainly."
Jeckley looked gloomy. "Nobody seems to know him," he said. "And the name isn't to be found in the directory, telephone-book, or social register."
Wonderful fellows, these newspaper men; I never should have thought of going for Mr. Indiman like that.
"But why and wherefore?" I asked, cautiously.
"A mystery, my son. The card was shoved into my hand not half an hour ago."
"At Twenty-third and Fourth. There were a lot of people around, and I haven't the most distant notion of the guilty party."
"What does it mean?"
Jeckley shook his head. "What will you do about it?"
"I will make the call, of course."
"There maybe a story there—who knows. Besides, it's directly on my way to the Globe, and the curtain is not until eight-thirty. Tell you what, old man; come along with me and see the thing to a finish. Fate leads a card—Mr. Esper Indiman's—and we'll play the second hand; what do you say?"
I declined firmly. God forbid that I should be featured, along with the other exhibits in the case, on the first page of to-morrow's Planet.
"So," he assented, indifferently, and pushed his chair back. "Well, I must push along—Lord! there's that copy—the old man will have it in for me good and plenty if I don't get it down in time. Adios!" He disappeared, and I let him depart willingly enough. Later on I went up to the library for a smoke—no fear of encountering any Jeckleys there, and, in fact, the room was entirely deserted. I looked at my watch; it was ten minutes after seven, and that gave me a quarter of an hour in which to think it over. Should I accept Mr. Indiman's invitation to call?
I looked around for an ash-tray, and, seeing one on the big writing-table in the centre of the room, I walked over to it.
There were some bits of white lying in the otherwise empty tray—the fragments of a torn-up visiting-card. A portion of the engraved script caught my eye, "Indi—"
It was not difficult to piece together the bits of pasteboard, for I knew pretty well what I should find. Completed, the puzzle read, "Mr. Esper Indiman," and in pencil, "Call at 4020 Madison Avenue at half-past seven this evening."
So there were three of us—if not more. Rather absurd this assignment of a separate quarter of an hour to each interview—quite as though Mr. Indiman desired to engage a valet and we were candidates for the position. Evidently, an eccentric person, but it's a queer world anyhow, as most of us know. There's my own case, for example. I'm supposed to be a gentleman of leisure and means. Leisure, certainly, but the means are slender enough, and proceeding in a diminishing ratio. That's the penalty of having been born a rich man's son and educated chiefly in the arts of riding off at polo and thrashing a single-sticker to windward in a Cape Cod squall. But I sha'n't say a word against the governor, God bless him! He gave me what I thought I wanted, and it wasn't his fault that an insignificant blood-clot should beat him out on that day of days—the corner in "R. P." It was never the Chicago crowd that could have downed him—I'm glad to remember that.
Well, there being only the two of us, it didn't matter so much; it wasn't as though there were a lot of helpless womenfolk to consider. After the funeral and the settlement with the creditors there was left—I'm ashamed to say how little, and, anyway, it's no one's business; the debts were paid. What is a man to do, at thirty-odd, who has never turned his hand to anything of use? The governor's friends? Well, they didn't know how bad things were, and I couldn't go to them with the truth and make them a present of my helpless, incompetent self.
And so for the last two years I've been sticking it out in a hall bedroom, just west of the dead-line. I have a life membership in the club—what a Christmas present that has turned out to be!—and twice in the week I dine there. As for the rest of it, never mind—there are things which a man can do but of which he doesn't care to speak.
The future? Ah, you can answer that question quite as well as I. Now I had calculated that, at my present rate of expenditure, I could hold out until Easter, but there have been contingencies. To illustrate, I had my pocket picked yesterday morning. Amusing—isn't it?—that it should have been my pocket—my pocket!
Fortunately I have stacks of clothes and some good pearl shirt-studs, and I continue to present a respectable appearance. I shall always do that, I think. I don't like the idea of the pawn-shop and the dropping down one degree at a time. If, in the end, it shall be shown clearly that the line is to be crossed, I shall walk over it quietly and as a man should; I object to the indecency of being dragged or carried across. What line do I mean? I don't know that I could tell you clearly. What is in your own mind? There IS a line.
At half after seven I left the club, and exactly a quarter of an hour later I stood opposite the doorway of No. 4020 Madison Avenue. A tall man was descending the steps; I recognized Bingham, a member of my club, and recalled the torn-up visiting-card that I had found in the library. So Bingham was one of us.
Now I don't know Bingham, except by sight, and I shouldn't have cared to stop and question him, anyway. But I caught one glimpse of his face as he hurried away, and it looked gray under the electrics. Call it the effect of the arc light, if you like; he was hurrying, certainly, and it struck me that it was because he was anxious to get away.
Many are the motives that send men into adventurous situations, but there is at least one among them that is compelling—hunger. I have said that I had gone to the club for dinner; I did not say that I got it. To be honest, I had hoped for an invitation—charity, if you insist upon it. But I had been unfortunate. None of my particular friends had chanced to be around, and Jeckley's cocktail had been the only hospitality proffered me. You remember that my pocket had been picked yesterday morning, and since then—well, I had eaten nothing. I might have signed the dinner check, you say. Quite true, but I shall probably be as penniless on the first of the month as I am to-day, and then what? Too much like helping one's self from a friend's pocket.
So it was just a blind, primeval impulse that urged me on. This Mr. Indiman had chosen to fish in muddy waters, and his rashness but matched my necessity. A host must expect to entertain his guests. I walked up the steps and rang the bell.
Instantly the door opened, and a most respectable looking serving-man confronted me.
"Mr. Indiman will see you presently," he said, before I had a chance to get out a word. "This way, sir."
The house was of the modern American basement type, and I was ushered into a small reception-room on the right of the entrance hall. "Will you have the Post, sir? Or any of the illustrated papers? Just as you please, sir; thank you."
The man withdrew, and I sat looking listlessly about me, for the room, while handsomely furnished, had an appearance entirely commonplace.
Five and ten minutes passed, and I began to grow impatient. I remembered that Jeckley's appointment had been for eight o'clock, and for obvious considerations I did not wish that he should find me waiting here. It was eight o'clock now, and I would abide Mr. Indiman's lordly pleasure no longer. I rose to go; the electric bell sounded.
I could hear Jeckley's high-pitched voice distinctly; he seemed to be put out about something; he spoke impatiently, even angrily.
"But this is 4020 Madison Avenue, isn't it? Mr. Indiman—I was asked to call—Mr. Jeckley, of the Planet."
"Must be some mistake, sir," came the answer. "This is No. 4020, but there's no Mr. Inkerman—"
"Indiman, not Inkerman—Mr. Esper Indiman. Look at the card."
"Never heard the name, sir."
"What! Well, then, who does live here?"
"Mr. Snell, sir. Mr. Ambrose Johnson Snell. But he's at dinner, and I couldn't disturb him."
"Humph!" I fancy that Jeckley swore under his breath as he turned to go. Then the outer door was closed upon him.
It was a relief, of course, to be spared the infliction of Mr. Jeckley's society, but I could not but admit that the situation was developing some peculiarities. Eliminating the doubtful personality of Mr. Ambrose Johnson Snell, who was this Mr. Esper Indiman, whose identity had been so freely admitted to me and so explicitly denied to Jeckley? The inference was obvious that Jeckley had failed to pass the first inspection test, and so had been turned down without further ceremony. This reflection rather amused me; I forgot about the incivility to which I was being subjected in the long wait, and began to be curious about the game itself. What next?
At a quarter after eight, and then again at half after, there were inquiries at the door for Mr. Indiman. To each caller the answer was returned that no Mr. Indiman was known at No. 4020 Madison Avenue, and that Mr. Ambrose Johnson Snell could not be disturbed at his dinner.
There was no caller at the next quarter, and none again at nine o'clock. The series had, therefore, come to an end, and I remained the sole survivor—of and for what?
I dare say that my nerves had been somewhat weakened by my two days' fast, or else it was the effect of Jeckley's cocktail on an otherwise empty stomach. Whatever the cause, I suddenly became conscious that I was passing into a state of high mental tension; I wanted to scream, to beat impotently upon the air; Jeckley would have put it that I was within an ace of flying off the handle.
A deafening clash of clanging metal smote my ears. It should have been the finishing touch, and it was, but not after the fashion that might have been expected. As though by magic, the horrible tension relaxed; my nerves again took command of the situation; I felt as cool and collected as at any previous moment in my life.
In the centre of the room stood a heavy table of some East-Indian wood—teak, I think, they call it. I could have sworn that there was nothing whatever upon this table when I entered the room; now I saw three objects lying there. I walked up and examined them. As they lay towards me, the first was a ten-thousand-dollar bill, the second a loaded revolver, caliber .44, the third an envelope of heavy white paper directed to me, Winston Thorp. The letter was brief and formal; it read:
"Mr. Indiman presents his compliments to Mr. Thorp and requests the honor of his company at dinner, Tuesday, March the thirtieth, at nine o'clock.
"4020 Madison Avenue."
Dishonor, death, and dinner—a curious trio to choose between. Yet to a man in my present position each of them appealed in its own way, and I'm not ashamed to confess it. Perhaps the choice I made may seem inevitable, but what if you had seen Bingham's face as I did, with the arc light full upon it? It was the remembrance of that which made me hesitate; twice I drew my hand away and looked at the money and the pistol.
Through the open door came a ravishing odor, that of a filet a la Chateaubriand; the purely animal instincts reasserted themselves, and I picked up the gardenia blossom that lay beside the letter and stuck it into the button-hole of my dinner-jacket. I looked down at the table, and it seemed to me that the ten-thousand-dollar note and the pistol had disappeared. But what of that, what did anything matter now; I was going to dine—to dine!
I walked up-stairs, guided by that delicious, that heavenly odor, and entered the dining-room in the rear, without the smallest hesitation. At one end of the table sat a man of perhaps forty years of age. An agreeable face, for all of the tired droop about the mouth and the deep lines in the forehead; it could light up, too, upon occasion, as I was soon to discover. For the present I did not bother myself with profitless conjectures; that entrancing filet, displayed in a massive silver cover, stood before him; I could not take my eyes from it.
My host, for such he evidently was, rose and bowed with great politeness.
"You must pardon me," he said, "for sitting down; but, as my note said, I dine at nine. I will have the shell-fish and soup brought on."
"I should prefer to begin with the filet," I said, decidedly.
A servant brought me a plate; my hand trembled, but I succeeded in helping myself without spilling the precious sauce; I ate.
"There are three conditions of men who might be expected to accept the kind of invitation which has brought me the honor of your company," remarked my host as we lit our cigarettes over the Roman punch. "To particularize, there is the curious impertinent, the merely foolish person, and the man in extremis rerum. Now I have no liking for the dog-faced breed, as Homer would put it, and neither do I suffer fools gladly. At least, one of the latter is not likely to bother me again." He smiled grimly, and I thought of Bingham's face of terror.
"I found my desperate man in you, my dear Mr. Thorp, shall we drink to our better acquaintance?" I bowed, and we drank.
"The precise nature of your misfortune does not concern me," he continued, airily. "It is sufficient that we are of the same mind in our attitude towards the world—'to shake with Destiny for beers,' is it not?
"One may meet with many things on the highway of life—poverty, disease, sorrow, treacheries. These are disagreeable, I admit, but they are positive; one may overcome or, at least, forget them. But suppose you stand confronting the negative of existence; the highway is clear, indeed, but how interminable its vista, its straight, smooth, and intolerably level stretch. That road is mine.
"Yes; I have tried the by-paths. Once I was shanghaied; twice I have been marooned and by my own men. That last amused me—a little. I was the second man to arrive at Bordeaux in the Paris-Madrid race of 1903; during the Spanish-American war I acted as a spy for the United States government in Barcelona.
"I made the common mistake of confounding the unusual with the interesting. Romance is a shy bird, and not to be hunted with a brass band. Where is the heart of life, if not at one's elbow? At the farthest, one has only to turn the corner of the street. It is useless to look for prodigies in the abyss, but every stream has its straws that float; I have determined to watch and follow them.
"I want a companion, and so I advertised after my own fashion. I selected you, tentatively, from the mob; later on I made the test more complete. But you have no boutonniere; allow me."
He took a spray of orchid from the silver bowl in the centre of the table and handed it to me.
I protested: "I have my gardenia—" I looked at my button-hole and it was gone.
Mr. Indiman smiled. "Let me confess," he said. "You recall the abnormal tension of your nerves as you sat waiting in my reception-room. Merely the effect produced by a mixture of certain chemical gases turned on from a tap under my hand. Then the crash of a brazen gong; it is what the scientists call 'massive stimulation,' resolving super-excitation into partial hypnosis.
"Once I had you in the hypnotic condition, the rest was simple enough. I had only to suggest to your mind the three objects on the table, and you saw them. The bank-note, the revolver—they were as immaterial as the gardenia that no longer adorns your button-hole.
"I did not attempt to influence your choice among the three, as that would have destroyed the value of the test to me. But, as I had hoped, you accepted my invitation to dinner. Frankly, now, I am curious—why?"
"That is very simple," I answered. "I had not eaten anything for two days, and I detected the odor of that exquisite filet. Not the slightest ethical significance in the choice, as you see."
Esper Indiman laughed. "I should have kept my pantry door closed. But it does not matter; I am satisfied. Shall we go into the library for coffee?"
Directly opposite the door of the latter apartment stood an easel holding an unframed canvas. A remarkable portrait—little as I know about pictures, I could see that clearly enough. A three-quarter length of a woman wearing a ducal coronet and dressed in a magnificent costume of red velvet.
"Lely's 'Red Duchess,'" remarks my host, carelessly. "You may have seen it in the Hermitage at Petersburg."
I looked at the picture again. Why should this masterpiece not have been properly mounted and glazed? The edges of the canvas were jagged and uneven, as though it had been cut from its frame with a not oversharp knife. We sat down to our coffee and liqueurs.
As I awake in the narrow quarters of my hall bedroom I am inclined to believe that the occurrences of the preceding night were only the phantasms of a disordered digestion; where had I eaten that Welsh rabbit? The morning paper had been thrown over the transom, and, following my usual custom, I reached for it and began reading. Among the foreign despatches I note this paragraph dated St. Petersburg:
"The famous portrait of the Duchess of Lackshire, by Sir Peter Lely, better known as the 'Red Duchess,' has disappeared from the gallery of the Hermitage. It is now admitted that it must have been stolen, cut bodily from its frame and carried away. The theft took place several months ago, but the secret has just become public property. The absence of the picture from its accustomed place had, of course, been noted, but it was understood that it had been removed for cleaning. An enormous reward is to be offered for information leading to its recovery."
There is also a letter for me which I had not noticed until now. It was from Indiman, and it read:
"Dear Thorp,—Dine with me to-night at half after eight. I noticed that you were rather taken with my 'Red Duchess'; we will ask the lady to preside over our modest repast, and you can then gaze your fill upon her. Faithfully, E. I."
Of course, I intend to accept the invitation.
The Red Duchess
At half after eight we sat down to dinner. Indiman, of course, took the head of the table, and opposite him, propped up on the arms of an enormous "bishop's chair" of Flemish oak, was Lely's portrait of the "Red Duchess." What a glorious picture it was, in the masterly sweep of its lines, in the splendor of its incomparable coloring! The jagged edges of the canvas showed plainly where the vandal knife had passed, separating the painting from its frame. But the really big thing is always independent of its cadre; one hardly noticed the mutilation, and then immediately forgot about it.
I had been honored with a seat at the lady's right hand, and opposite me a fourth cover had been laid. Indiman noticed my look of inquiry.
"Only one of my fancies," he explained, smiling. "I always make provision for the unexpected guest. Who knows what supperless angels may be hovering around?"
We were hardly at the soup before a servant brought in a card.
"Roger W. Blake," read Indiman, aloud. "An honest-enough-sounding name. Is the gentleman in evening dress, Bolder?"
"No, sir; I don't think so, sir."
"Hym! That is unfortunate. Still, if Madame la Duchesse will permit, and you, Thorp, have no objection—Good! Ask Mr. Blake to do me the favor of joining us at dinner."
A few minutes later Mr. Roger Blake appeared at the door of the dining-room. He was a young man with a profusion of fair hair and a good deal of color, the latter heightened considerably by the somewhat embarrassing circumstances attending his introduction. But Indiman relieved the situation immediately, going forward and greeting the new guest with unaffected cordiality.
"Mr. Blake, is it? You are very heartily welcome, I assure you. Let Bolder take your hat and stick; indeed, I insist upon it. Allow me now to present you: Her Grace the Duchess of Lackshire, more generally known as Lely's 'Red Duchess'—Mr. Roger W. Blake. My friend, Mr. Thorp—Mr. Blake."
Evidently the young man was not overclear in his own mind as to how it had all happened, but there he was, sitting bolt upright in the vacant chair and drinking two glasses of wine in rapid succession to cover his confusion. A comedy, apparently, but to what purpose? Mr. Blake blushed painfully, and made no reply to the polite commonplaces that I ventured; Indiman smiled benevolently upon both of us, and in the most natural possible manner led the conversation to the subject of portrait-painting. There was his text before him—the famous "Red Duchess"—and he talked well. I found myself listening with absorbed attention, and even the shy Mr. Blake became oblivious of the keener agonies of self-consciousness. So we went on until the game course had been removed.
Our host rose to his feet, champagne glass in hand. "Gentlemen," he said, and we followed his example, Blake managing to upset a decanter of sherry in the process, "in life and in art—the fairest of her sex. I give you, gentlemen, 'La Duchesse Rouge.'"
The toast was drunk with becoming decorum. I was about to resume my seat when I saw that Mr. Blake had screwed himself up to a desperate decision, and that the climax of the drama was at hand. He was quite pale, and he stuttered a little as he spoke.
"Very sorry, I—I'm sure," he blurted out, "but you are Mr. In-Indiman?"
"I am, and not in the least sorry for it. Go on."
"It is my d-duty, sir, to place you under arrest for complicity in the theft of that p-p-picture." Mr. Blake threw back his coat and displayed a detective's shield attached to an aggressively red suspender brace.
Esper Indiman bowed ironically. "I presume that my presence at Police Headquarters is necessary?" he inquired.
"Yes, sir. I have a coach in waiting outside, and we will start at once, if you please." Mr. Blake, under the stimulus of his professional functions, lost his embarrassed air and became severely business-like and official. "This gentleman will have to accompany us," he continued, looking at me.
"The coffee, Bolder," called our host, "and never mind the sweets." I drank a demi-tasse and lit a cigarette. "Ready," announced Indiman, and we descended to the coach, Mr. Blake bringing up the rear and carrying the precious picture enveloped in a silken table-cover.
"What reward is offered, officer?" asked Indiman as the carriage drove off.
"One hundred thousand dollars, sir. It will be a big thing for me if—if—" He stopped, a trifle embarrassed.
"Ah, those ifs!" quoted Indiman, musingly.
The chief of the detective bureau received us in his private room. He listened attentively to Blake's report, but seemed rather puzzled than gratified by its triumphant peroration. Now the young man felt that he had done a big thing, and this non-committal attitude of his superior chagrined him. He unrolled the covering in which the picture had been wrapped.
"There!" he said, half resentfully. The chief looked carefully at the picture and turned to Indiman.
"Do you desire to make any explanation, Mr. Indiman, as to how this picture happens to be in your possession?"
"Certainly," was the prompt reply. "I bought it for a small sum a month ago on the lower Bowery. The dealer's name was Gregory, I think."
Young Mr. Blake sniffed incredulously. A messenger handed a couple of telegrams to the chief. He read them with knitted brows and then touched a call-bell.
"Send in Officer Stone," he ordered.
Mr. Stone immediately made his appearance. In his hand he carried a flat, square parcel which, in obedience to a further order, he proceeded to unwrap. I uttered an involuntary cry, for it was nothing less than a replica of the famous portrait of the "Red Duchess." A replica, indeed!—it would take an expert to decide which of the two was the copy; they were absolutely alike, even to the detail of the rough edges, the marks of the blunted knife.
"This picture was discovered in an art dealer's window on Fourth Avenue near Twenty-ninth Street," explained the chief of the detective bureau. "And now kindly listen to these despatches. The first from the chief of police of New Orleans:
"'Lely portrait discovered in pawn-shop. Officer Smith goes North to-night to return property and claim reward. J. H. BOWEN."
The other from Pittsburg, in substantially the same language, reports the finding of the portrait of the 'Red Duchess' in a private gallery. This fourth picture is also on its way to New York for identification."
We all looked at one another, Blake the picture of puzzled anger and disappointment. "Which is the true picture?" asked the chief. "Mr. Indiman, I should be glad of your opinion."
Indiman, who had been examining the canvas held by Stone, answered quickly: "Neither of these, and it is more than probable that the other two are also copies by the same hand. Wonderfully well done, too, but the study of portraiture is a hobby of mine; I have even contemplated a monograph on the subject, or, more particularly, a hand-book to the smaller galleries and private collections. But I doubt if I ever do it now," he concluded, meditatively.
"The 'Red Duchess'?" persisted the chief.
"Of course, I know it perfectly. I won't bore you with technical explanations, but on the back of the stretcher is the address of the American art dealer from whom the original canvas was purchased. That should be enough."
It was as Indiman said; each of the canvas stretchers carried a small gummed label, the address of a Fulton Street art-supply shop.
"That settles the question," remarked the chief of detectives. "I may say finally that I have this cable from the Minister of Police at St. Petersburg, communicated to me through the Russian Consul-General:
"'Lely portrait recovered and replaced in the gallery at the Hermitage. Withdraw published reward.
"A queer piece of business; but this appears to be the end of it," commented the chief. "Needless to say, gentlemen, that you are at liberty to depart. My apologies for the annoyance to which you have been subjected."
We all bowed and withdrew to the anteroom. Blake, blushing redly, came up to Indiman; he began to apologize, stuttering pitiably, but Indiman cut him short.
"Call up the coach and offer the driver extra fare for the best time his horses can make to this address." He scribbled the name of the street and the house number on a leaf torn from his note-book and handed it to Blake. "Yes, you can come along if you like; it may be the big thing yet."
As the carriage rolled along Indiman vouchsafed certain explanations.
"As I have already told you," he began, "I bought the picture from a small dealer in the Bowery. I happened to notice it in his window, and, the 'Red Duchess' being one of the half-dozen superlative portraits of the world, I was naturally interested. It was certainly a fine copy, and I was pleased to get it so cheaply.
"Now there were two or three circumstances connected with my find that afterwards struck me as peculiar. In the first place it is well known that permission to copy any of the pictures at the Hermitage Gallery is very rarely given, and the authorities are particularly averse to having reproductions made of the Lely portrait. Secondly, why were the edges of the canvas so curiously serrated, giving the picture the look of having been hastily cut away from its frame? And, finally, where and when had this copy been made? for the label of the Fulton Street art dealer on the back bore the date 1903, and this was the 2d of February in the same year. Obviously impossible that the artist could have gone to Russia, painted the picture, and returned with it to New York in a little over a month.
"Two days later I was walking up Fourth Avenue, through the district affected by the curio and old-furniture dealers, and I discovered a replica of my 'Red Duchess' hanging in a shop-window. In every respect identical, you understand, the two pictures were unquestionably the work of the same hand. Whose hand?
"Do you remember, Thorp, the name of Clive Richmond? Well, for a year or two he was the favorite painter of women's portraits here in New York, hailed as genius and all that. Then suddenly his work began to fall off in quality; his failures became egregious, and his clients left him. Shortly after he disappeared; it was the common report that his misfortunes had affected his reason; there were even hints at suicide. That was some four or five years ago, and whatever the secret may be it has been kept faithfully.
"At least I had solved a portion of the problem—it was Clive Richmond and no other who had painted my copy of the 'Red Duchess.' How do I know? Well, with the expert it is a matter partly technical but more largely intuitive. How do you recognize a friend's face? How does the bank clerk detect the counterfeit bill?
"Now this second copy bore the same ear-marks as the one in my possession—the edges of the canvas marred and jagged, the Fulton Street label on the back. What was this mystery?
"Mystery—yes, and behind it the shadow of a crime, of a human tragedy. Who was to lift the veil? There was but one man—Clive Richmond—who could answer my question; and where was Clive Richmond? A week later I found still a third copy of my 'Duchess' over on Sixth Avenue. I had left my purse at home that morning, and when I went back the next day to buy the picture it was gone—sold to a stranger. Did I say that I had missed getting possession of the second picture through the same sort of contretemps? I never saw either of them again.
"I had written to a friend in Petersburg to make certain inquiries for me, and his answer confirmed my suspicions. The 'Red Duchess' was not hanging in its accustomed place at the Hermitage; it was in process of renovation, according to a statement made by the director of the gallery.
"That was enough for me. The portrait had been stolen and was probably in New York at this very moment. Where? Let me first find Clive Richmond, and I must be quick about it, for once the secret of the theft got out the detectives would not be long in rounding up the various purchasers of those wonderfully accurate copies. This morning the cable brought the news, and at dinner-time Mr. Blake's card was presented to me. Quick work, Mr. Blake; I congratulate you.
"Here is the letter that I received just before we left my house; you remember that it had come in the evening mail and been overlooked. I will read it.
"'DEAR INDIMAN,—There's more in the art business than can be squeezed out of a color tube, isn't there? But I have the secret now; it was given me by Lely himself—no less. What a pity it is that I shan't have the chance to use it, but you and the cognoscenti can fight it out together. You might bury me decently if you like; you ought to be willing to do that much, seeing that your critical pronouncements have been so amply vindicated.
"'P. S.—My secret? But on second thought I will take it with me.'"
St. John's Park and the streets fronting upon it was once a fashionable quarter of the town. Now a hideous railway freight station occupies the former park area, and the old-time residences, with their curiously wrought-iron stoop-railings and graceful fan-lights, have been degraded to the base uses of a tenement population. Only the quaint chapel of St. John has survived the slow process of contamination, a single rock rising above the sordid tide.
The coach stopped before one of the most pretentious of the old-time houses-now, alas! one of the dirtiest and most dilapidated. We were directed to the upper story, Indiman leading the way.
A single attic chamber, bearing the marks of the cruelest poverty, a stove, an artist's easel, a pallet spread directly on the grimy floor, and upon it a man in the last stage of consumption. He glanced up at Indiman and waved his hand feebly. He tried to speak, but his voice died away in his throat; Indiman knelt by his side to catch the words.
"It is cold—shut stove door—there's enough now to last me out."
Indiman went to the stove, where a little fire was smouldering; he shut the door and turned on the draught. The flame leaped up instantly, the crazy smoke-pipe rattling as it expanded under the influence of the heat. Indiman turned again to the dying man.
"You know well enough why I have come," he said, slowly. "I have in my possession one of your copies of the 'Red Duchess.' Tell me the truth."
There was no audible response from the bloodless lips, but the dark eyes were full of ironic laughter. Then they closed again.
"Richmond!" said Indiman, sharply. "Richmond!"
I had been standing by the door, but now I came forward and joined Indiman. "Gone!" he said, briefly. "Gone, and taken his secret with him. Only, what WAS the secret?"
We tried to argue it out on the way up-town, but with only indifferent success. Granted the premise that Richmond had actually stolen the "Red Duchess," what were his motives in multiplying copies of the picture, a proceeding that must infallibly end in the detection of his crime? And the supreme question—what had finally become of the original?
My theory was simple enough. The man was mentally unbalanced, the result of brooding over his own failure in art. He had stolen the picture, possessed with the idea that by study of it he should discover the secret of its power. He had made copies of the picture and sold them in order to supply himself with the necessities of life. At the end, knowing himself to be dying, he had caused the original to be returned to the gallery at Petersburg, a contribution to the conscience fund.
Indiman's argument was more subtle. "Granted," he said, "that the poor chap was mentally irresponsible, and that he actually did steal the picture. But you must take into account his colossal vanity, his monumental egotism. Richmond never admitted for a moment that he was a failure as an artist; there was a cabal against him, and that accounted for everything. This affair was simply his revenge upon his critics and detractors; he would turn out these reproductions of a masterpiece so perfect in their technique as not to be distinguished from their original, nor indeed from each other. So having set the artistic world by the ears, he would enjoy his triumph, at first in secret, and afterwards openly."
"But what was the picture returned to the Hermitage?"
"One of these same copies—that was the supreme sarcasm."
"The original, then—the 'Red Duchess'?"
"The fuel in the stove consisted of some strips of painted canvas," said Indiman, gravely. "I don't know, I can't be sure—they were almost consumed when I shut the door."
"An imperfect copy," I hazarded.
"Some day we will take a trip to the Hermitage to make sure," answered Indiman. "'Where ignorance is bliss,' etc. What do you think, Blake?" he continued, turning to our companion.
"It's all the same to me, sir," answered Blake, a little ruefully. "It was a big thing, right enough, but somehow I seem to have missed it all round. Well, good-night, sir, if you'll kindly set me down at this corner."
Indiman and I enjoyed a small supper under Oscar's watchful eye. The night was fine and we started to walk home. Have I said that Indiman had proposed that I should move my traps over to his house and take up my quarters there for an indefinite period? In exchange for services rendered, as he put it, and somehow he made it possible for me to accept the invitation. It had been twenty-four hours now since I had first enjoyed the honor of Mr. Esper Indiman's acquaintance; the novelty of having enough to eat—actually enough—was already beginning to wear off. Man is a wonderful creature; give him time and he will adjust himself to anything.
At the corner of Fifth Avenue and Twenty-seventh Street, Indiman stopped suddenly and picked up a small object. It was a latch-key of the familiar Yale-lock pattern. I looked at it rather indifferently.
"Man! man!" said Indiman, with simulated despair. "Surely you are an incorrigibly prosaic person. A key—does it suggest to you no possibilities of mystery, of romance?"
"Well, not without a door," I answered, smartly.
"Oh, is that all! To-morrow we will go out and find a door upon which this little key may be profitably employed. You promise to enter that door with me?"
House in the Middle of the Block
"All things come to him who waits," quoted Indiman. "Do you believe that?"
"It's a comfortable theory," I answered.
"But an untenable one. And Fortune is equally elusive to those who seek her over-persistently. The truth, as usual, lies between the extremes."
"The secret is simple enough. He who is ready to receive, receives. Love, fame, the shower of gold—they are in the air, and only waiting to be precipitated. I stand ready to be amused, and that same afternoon the Evening Post aims a blow at the Tammany 'Tiger' over the shoulder of Mr. Edward M. Shepard; I am in the mood adventurous, and instantly the shadow of a prodigy falls across my threshold; yea, though I live on upper West End Avenue. Do you remember this?" and he held out a small Yale latch-key.
"It is the one you picked up at Twenty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue last night."
"Precisely. Now a key, you observe, is intended to open something—in this case a door. What door? As though that mattered! Put on your rain-coat, my dear Thorp, and let us begin a little journey into the unknown. Fate will lead us surely, O unbelieving one, if you will but place your hand unresistingly in hers."
We left the house, and Indiman tossed a penny into the air. "Broadway, heads; Fourth Avenue, tails." Tails it was.
Arrived at Fourth Avenue, we stood waiting for a car. The first that came along was on its way up-town and we boarded it.
"Was it you who asked for a cross-town transfer at Twenty-ninth?" inquired the conductor of Indiman a few minutes later, and Indiman nodded assent and took the transfer slips.
At Eighth Avenue the cross-town car was blocked by a stalled coal-cart. We alighted and passively awaited further directions from our esoteric guide. Quite an amusing game for a dull, rainy afternoon, and I felt grateful to Indiman for its invention.
The policeman on the corner was endeavoring to direct a very small boy with a very large bundle. "Up one block and turn east," he said, impressively. "I've told you that now three times."
I had a flash of inspiration. "Copper it," I cried.
"Right," said Indiman, soberly. We walked down one block to Twenty-eighth Street and then turned westward.
New York is a big city, and therefore entitled to present an occasional anomaly to the observant eye. And this particular section of Twenty-eighth Street is one of these departures from the normal, a block or two of respectable, even handsome houses set as an oasis in a dull and sordid neighborhood. How and why this should be does not matter; it is to be presumed that the people who live there are satisfied, and it is nobody else's business.
We walked on slowly, then, half-way down the block, Indiman stopped me. "What did I tell you?" he whispered.
The house was of the English basement type, and occupied two of the ordinary city lots; nothing particularly remarkable about that, and I said as much.
"But look again," insisted Indiman. I did so and saw a man standing at the door, evidently desirous of entering. Twice, while we stood watching him, he rang without result, and the delay annoyed him. He shook the door-knob impatiently, and then fell to researching his pockets, an elaborate operation that consumed several minutes.
"Lost his latch-key," commented Indiman. He walked up the steps of the entrance porch. "You might try mine," he said, politely, and held out the key picked up the night before at Fifth Avenue and Twenty-seventh Street.
"Huh!" grunted the man, suspiciously, but he took the little piece of metal and inserted it into the slot of the lock. The door swung open. Amazing, but what followed was even more incredible. The man stepped into the hall, but continued to hold the door wide open.
"You're coming in, I suppose," he said, surlily.
"Certainly," answered Indiman. "This way, Thorp," he called at me, and most unwillingly I obeyed. We passed into the house and the door closed behind us. Our introducer turned up the gas in the old-fashioned hall chandelier, and favored us with a perfunctory stare. "New members, eh!" he grunted, and turned away as though it were a matter of entire indifference to him. But Indiman spoke up quickly.
"Pardon me," he began, with the sweetest suavity. "I was afraid for the moment that we had got into the wrong place. This is the—" a delicately suggestive pause.
"The Utinam Club," supplied the other.
"Exactly," said Indiman, in a most relieved tone. "It IS the Utinam, Thorp," he continued, turning to me. Now I had not the smallest notion of what the Utinam Club might be, consequently I preserved a discreet silence. Indiman addressed himself again to our ungracious cicerone.
"A snug little box you have here, Mr, er—"
"Hoyt, sir—Colman Hoyt."
"Ah, yes—of North Pole fame. You are the man—"
"Who has led four expeditions to reach it, and failed as often. That is MY title to fame. And also my qualification for membership in the Utinam Club," he added, grimly.
"Ah, yes—the discovery of the Pole. A unique and delightful idea in clubdom—eh, Thorp? To succeed—"
"No, sir; to FAIL," interrupted Mr. Hoyt, rudely. "What the devil do you suppose I am doing in this galley? You must be a very new member of the Utinam Club."
"To tell the truth, Mr. Hoyt," said Indiman, with an air of engaging frankness, "I have never, until this moment, even heard of the Utinam Club. But for all that I am convinced that I am about to become a member of it, and I may say the same for my friend, Mr. Thorp. Now, possibly you may be inclined to assist us."
Mr. Hoyt stared. "It's a pity, isn't it," he remarked, reflectively, "that our standard of eligibility doesn't conform to that of your impudence. Still, I won't say that it can't be done; this is a proprietary club, you know. You had better see Dr. Magnus."
"The proprietor of the Utinam Club. Here he comes now."
A slight, gray-haired man of fifty or there-abouts had entered the hall from the rear and immediately came forward to meet us. His eyes were the extraordinary feature of his face, piercingly brilliant and enormously magnified by the spectacles that he wore. The lenses of the latter were nearly an eighth of an inch thick and evidently of the highest power. Even with their aid his powers of vision seemed imperfect. On hearing the few words of explanation vouchsafed by the unamiable Mr. Hoyt, he drew from his pocket a second and third pair of glasses and deliberately added both to his original optical equipment. I know that I felt like a fly under a microscope in facing that formidable battery of lenses. But the scrutiny seemed to satisfy him; he spoke courteously enough:
"Step into my office, gentlemen, and we will talk the matter over."
Mr. Colman Hoyt had departed without further formality, and we followed our host into the room adjoining the hall on the right. It looked like the study of a man of science; charts and globes and plaster-of-Paris casts were everywhere, while the far end of the apartment was occupied by a huge, flat-topped table covered with papers, test-tubes, and glass-slides. But even more remarkable than its contents was the room itself, and its singular architectural proportions at once engaged my attention.
As I have said, the house occupied two twenty-five-foot city lots, but the entrance and hall were at the extreme right as one looks outward towards the street, instead of being in the centre, as is usually the case. Consequently, the room in which we stood (being undivided by any interior partitions) extended the full width of the house, less that of the entrance hall—forty feet, let us say, in round numbers. But its measurements in the other direction were barely ten feet, the apartment presenting the appearance of a long, low, and narrow gallery. At the back were a row of five windows taking light from the interior court-yard; in brief, the house, imposing in its dimensions from the street side, was little more than a mask of masonry extremely ill-adapted for human habitation, or, indeed, for any purpose. Stepping to one of the rear windows, I looked out, and then the reason for this extraordinary construction—or, rather, reconstruction—became apparent. The lot was of the usual depth of one hundred feet, and, being a double one, it had a width of fifty. A large building of gray stone occupied the farther end of this inside space, the erection measuring about sixty feet in depth and extending the full width of the enclosure. That left a little less than thirty feet of court-yard between this back building and the one facing on the street, and it was evident that the rear of the original house had been sheared off bodily to provide for this singular readjustment in the owner's modus vivendi, only the party walls on either side being left standing. And these had been extended so as to enflank the building in the rear.
If I have made my description clear, it now will be understood that the facade of the original house was nothing more than a shell, a ten-foot screen whose principal office was to conceal the interior structure from curious eyes. Describing the latter more particularly, it should be noted that it was connected with the original house by a covered passageway of brick running along one side of the court-yard and communicating with the hallway that led to the street door. Apparently, the rear building was three stories in height—I say apparently, for, being entirely destitute of windows, it was impossible to accurately deduce the number of its floors. Aesthetically, it made no pretensions, its only architectural feature being a domed roof of copper and a couple of chimney-stacks, from one of which a thin streak of vapor ascended. A chilling and depressing spectacle was that presented by the "House in the Middle of the Block," as I mentally christened it, and I speculated upon the strange offices to which it had been consecrated.
"The Utinam Club," answered my unspoken query. Dr. Magnus had advanced to my side and stood staring at me through his triple lenses. I started, involuntarily.
"There! there!" he said, soothingly. "I did not perceive that your attention was so entirely absorbed. I am honored by your interest—the Utinam Club, it is my hobby, sir, and one not altogether unworthy of the consideration of an intelligent man."
"I can quite understand that," said Indiman, who had joined us at the window. "There is a distinct stimulus to the imagination in the picture before us. And what a picture!—this eyeless, gray-faced, architectural monstrosity, crowned with squat, domelike head of coppery red, and set in that gigantic cadre of fifty-foot masonry! Superb! Magnificent!"
"The honor of your acquaintance—" began Dr. Magnus.
"In two words," interrupted Indiman, smilingly. He made a brief statement of the circumstances attendant upon the finding of the Yale latch-key, and the proprietor of the Utinam Club listened attentively.
"I have a passion for the unique," concluded Indiman, "and the Utinam Club appears to possess claims of unusual merit in that direction. I own frankly that I am curious as to its object and qualifications for membership."
"They are quite simple," answered Dr. Magnus. "Indeed, the name of the club explains its raison d'etre—Utinam, a Latin ejaculation equivalent to our 'Would to Heaven!' or 'Would that I could be!' To be eligible for membership in the Utinam Club, one must have had a distinct object or ambition in life and then have failed to realize it."
"Ah, I begin to understand," murmured Indiman. "An extraordinary basis, indeed, for a social organization—the lame ducks, the noble army of the incapables, the gentlemen a main gauche! Pray go on; you interest me exceedingly."
"We have them all here," answered Dr. Magnus, smiling. "The unsuccessful author, the business bankrupt, the artist whose pictures have never reached the line. The touch-stone of failure, you see; the clubability (odious word!) of our membership is unimpeachable.
"A superb conception. My dear Dr. Magnus, I must beg of you to enroll Mr. Thorp and myself at once. Believe me that we are not unworthy of a place in your galaxy of dark stars."
Dr. Magnus walked to the table and took up his pen. "This gentleman?" he began, inquiringly, and looked at me.
"An unfortunate affair of the heart," answered Indiman—an exquisite piece of audacity at which I frowned, and then perforce had to smile. "It comes within your rule, I trust?"
"For limited membership only," answered Dr. Magnus. "In fact, we rather discourage victims of sentimental reverses, it being invariably impossible to determine whether the transaction is finally to show a profit or a loss. Then, too, the quick recoveries—but we'll let it stand at that. Now, with yourself?"
"I," said Indiman, gravely, "am a mathematician by instinctive preference and early training, but I have never been able to cross the 'Ass's Bridge,' the Forty-seventh problem of Euclid. Incidentally, I may mention that I am a golf-player with a handicap of eighteen."
"A double first," commented the proprietor of the Utinam Club. "I perceive, Mr. Indiman, that you are bent upon amusing yourself; and since circumstances have undeniably favored you, you may continue to do so. But not at my expense," and thereupon he mentioned a figure for initiation and dues that made me sit up. But Indiman settled without flinching; he happened to have his check-book with him, and the remaining formalities were quickly discharged.
"And now, gentlemen, let me show you about the club," said Dr. Magnus, affably. "Will you be good enough to follow me?"
He led the way into the hall, and thence into the cloister-like passage communicating with the "House in the Middle of the Block." I glanced out at the court-yard as we passed a window; it was most ingeniously planned to take the utmost advantage of its limited area. An antique Italian fountain occupied a niche in the opposite wall, and on either side were sedilia flanked by bay-trees in tubs and two or three fine specimens of the Japanese dwarf oak. A bas-relief in plaster of the Elgin marbles ran friezelike the full length of the party wall, and fixed immediately above the fountain niche the terrible mask of the Medusa face looked down upon us. The time of the year being late in March, there was no snow upon the ground, and I could see that the ground of the court-yard was divided into four garden-beds, separated from each other by narrow paths of broad, red tile bordered by box. All in all it was a charming little bit of formal gardening; I could imagine how pretty it would be on a spring morning, when the beds should be gay with crocuses and tulips.
We were admitted into the club proper by a liveried servant, and from the handsome oak-panelled vestibule we passed into a lofty apartment hung with pictures and filled with miscellaneous objects of art. All, without exception, were execrable—miserable daubs of painting, criminal essays in plastic and decorative work, and a collection of statuary that could be adequately matched only by the horrors in Central Park. "Our art gallery, gentlemen," explained Dr. Magnus.
Art gallery indeed! To me it was the most melancholy of exhibitions, but Indiman was enraptured.
"What a magnificent record of failure!" he exclaimed. "What miracles of ineptitude!" and Dr. Magnus smiled, well pleased.
We ascended to the next floor. Here was the library, lined ceiling-high with books that had fallen still-born from the press. Gigantic cabinet presses occupied the centre of the room, the final depository of countless "unavailable" MSS. In an adjoining room were glass-cases crowded with mechanical models of unsuccessful inventions. Naturally, I expected to see a large section devoted to the resolution of the perpetual-motion problem, but in this I was disappointed, not a single specimen of the kind could I discover.
"We do not attempt the impossible," explained Dr. Magnus, dryly. "Our failures must be inherent in the man, not in his subject."
There were other rooms, a long succession of them, filled with melancholy evidences of incapacity and defeat in almost every department of human activity—plans of abortive military campaigns, prospectuses of moribund business enterprises, architectural and engineering drawings of structures never to be reared, charts, models, unfinished musical scores, finally a huge papier-mache globe on which were traced the routes of Mr. Colman Hoyt's four unsuccessful dashes for the North Pole. It depressed me, the sight of this vast lumber-room, this collection of useless flotsam and jetsam, cast up and rejected by the sea of strenuous life. Most moving of all, a broken golf-club standing in a dusty corner, and beside it a wofully scarred and battered ball. I pointed them out to Indiman.
"A fellow-sufferer," he said, and sighed deeply.
Last of all we were conducted to the common room, a spacious apartment immediately under the dome. At one end a huge stone fireplace, in which a fire crackled cheerfully.
"'Non Possumus,'" read Indiman, deciphering the motto chiselled upon the chimney-breast.
"An admirable sentiment indeed! Dr. Magnus, I venture to infer that the Utinam Club is the child of your own brain. Permit me, sir, to congratulate you—a glorious inception and carried out to perfection."
Dr. Magnus smiled frostily. "I thank you, Mr. Indiman," he said, staring hard at him. "In a civilization so complex as ours the Utinam undoubtedly fills a want. And now, gentlemen, if you will excuse me; I have some affairs of moment. The club is yours; make use of it as you will. You are already acquainted with Mr. Hoyt, I believe. The other gentlemen—but opportunity will doubtless serve." He bowed and withdrew.
Indiman dropped into an easy-chair and lit a cigar. "Les miserables," he said to me in an undertone. "Look at them."
In truth, it was a strange company with whom we had foregathered. There were perhaps a dozen men in the room, and each seemed absorbed in the listless contemplation of his own dejected personality. The large table in the centre of the room was laden with newspapers and periodicals, but no one had taken the trouble to displace the neat files in which they had been arranged. The card-room adjoining was untenanted; the green-baize tables, with their complement of shiny, new packs of cards and metal counters, bore no evidence of use; in the billiard-room at the back a marker slept restfully in his high-legged chair. Assuredly, the members of the Utinam Club were not advocates of the strenuous life.
It was after six o'clock now, and the big room was beginning to fill up with later arrivals. Yet there was none of the cheerful hum and bustle ordinarily characteristic of such a gathering. A man would enter and pass to his place unfavored by even the courtesy of a friendly glance; at least a score of men had made their first appearance within the last quarter of an hour, and not a single word of greeting or recognition had I heard exchanged. Among them was Mr. Colman Hoyt, the unsuccessful Arctic explorer. He passed close to where Indiman and I sat, yet never looked at us. An odd set, these our fellow-members of the Utinam, and one naturally wondered why they came to the club at all. But we were now to learn.
As I have said, the building was entirely windowless, ventilation being secured by forced draught from an engine-room in the basement. Consequently, artificial light was necessary at all times, and a very agreeable quality of it was furnished by electroliers concealed behind ground-glass slides in the walls and ceilings of the various apartments. The light thus obtained was diffused rather than direct, and, being colorless, it closely approximated natural conditions, the delusion being heightened by the construction of the wall panels so as to simulate windows. To add again to the effect, these lights had been gradually lowered as the day wore on. Now it must be almost dark in the outside world, and it was twilight in the common room of the Utinam Club; I could no longer distinguish between the motionless figures of the men around me and the shadows that enveloped them. Even the fire was dying out; in a few moments the darkness would become profound, and I felt my pulse slow down with the chill of the thought.
One single ember remained in the fireplace; I watched it gleaming like a great red eye in its bed of ashes, then it winked and went out, and at the same instant the last ray from the false windows disappeared. Strain my eyes as I would, the sensitive retina remained absolutely unaffected; the darkness had finally come, and from one to another of that desolate company ran a little, tremulous sigh, then the silence of complete negation.
From the apex of the domed ceiling a sudden and wonderful effulgence of rose-colored light streamed forth, flooding the great room with glorious color and life. Magical were its effects. Men straightened up in their chairs and looked about them, the flush of returning animation in their cheeks, and their eyes bright with questioning interest. A youngish chap leaned over and spoke earnestly to his neighbor, then some one laughed aloud. Instantly the flood-gates were opened; the air was vibrant with the hum of conversation, the ringing of call-bells, and the sputtering of fusees. A blue haze of cigarette-smoke formed itself above the heads of the assemblage; the Utinam Club had come to its own again.
The large folding-doors at the east end were now opened, disclosing the supper-room beyond—a spacious apartment, and decorated with a barbaric splendor of gilding and intricate plastic work. I remarked particularly the preponderance of the red tints; indeed, no other shade of color could I discover—but of this more particularly hereafter. Indiman looked at me, and we trooped out with the rest—que voulez-vous? One must always dine.
We found a small table; the napery and glass were exquisite, the cuisine and service perfect. We surrendered ourselves to the allurements of the hour. I was conscious of an unusual lightness and exhilaration of spirit; Indiman's eyes were sparkling with unwonted brilliancy. I raised my champagne-glass: "To the Utinam Club," I said, with enthusiasm, and rather more loudly than I had intended. The toast was at once re-echoed from every mouth, and a burst of laughter followed.
A late-comer entered and looked about the room somewhat uncertainly, for all the tables had been taken. It was Mr. Colman Hoyt. He saw us and smiled genially. "We have room here," called out Indiman, and he joined us.
"I am fortunate as ever," he said, as he took his seat. "New friends, old wine; and our chef's sauce tartare is incomparable to-night. What more can the heart of man desire?"
"Not even the North Pole?" said Indiman.
"Ah, the Pole! Bah! I can put my hand on it when I want it. Did I tell you that I start to-morrow on my fifth expedition? Success is certain. Will you honor me by drinking to it?" We drank solemnly.
"I thought you were wearing a dark-green scarf," I interrupted, somewhat irrelevantly, speaking to Indiman.
"I am," he replied.
"It is red," I insisted. "Not green at all."
"Nonsense!" said Indiman, and thereupon Mr. Colman Hoyt burst into a cackle of laughter.
"Complementary colors," he said. "All the blue, green, and yellow rays are excluded from this kindly light invented by our friend Magnus; consequently there can be no sensation of those colors within our vision."
"A curious fancy," said Indiman.
"Say rather the most glorious and beneficent of discoveries," retorted Mr. Hoyt. "All life and vigor and power of achievement are dependent upon the red end of the spectrum. Incapacity, failure, disease, death-they are generated by the violet rays alone; eliminate them, and the problem of existence is solved. All hail to thee, O Magnus, and to thy incomparable genius! Light of lights! All hail!"
A score of voices took up the cry, and I know that I shouted with the rest. Then I felt Indiman's hand upon my arm; my sober senses partially returned. "Keep hold of yourself," he whispered, and the warning came in time, I pushed away my wineglass, and thereafter ate only enough of the exquisitely seasoned viands to satisfy my hunger. And all the while Mr. Colman Hoyt babbled foolishly about the white glories of the queen of the North; to-morrow he should again be on the way to her dear embraces. "The Pole, gentlemen; behold, I arrive; c'est moi!"
We passed out into the general room. The card-tables were now full, the billiard-balls rolled incessantly across the green cloth; from an inner room came the unmistakable click of a roulette-wheel. Men talked loudly of their projects and ambitions shortly to be accomplished. An epic poet was about to publish his magnum opus, the birth of a new star in the poetical firmament; a speculator had made his great coup—to-morrow he would have the wheat market cornered.
"My novel!" cried one. "My symphony!" retorted another. A third said no word, but looked at the miniature of a woman's face that he held in the hollow of his hand—looked and smiled.
The night wore away; nay, speeded were the better word, for no one felt any suggestion even of weariness or satiety. Then suddenly the rose glow grew dimmer; little by little the laughter died away and the voices were hushed. A few of the bolder spirits set themselves to stem the receding tide, but their blasphemies quickly trailed away into weak incoherencies, and again silence conquered all. And darkness fell.
A servant crossed the room and drew aside the heavy velvet curtains draping the false windows; the pure, colorless light streamed in, but it disclosed a world in tinge all blue and green and indigo. Our eyes, so long deprived of the rays emanating from the violet end of the spectrum, were now affected by them alone; every object was horribly transformed by the bluish-green bands surrounding and outlining it. A man brushed carelessly past me; it was Colman Hoyt, and his face was of a man already dead; his lips moved, but no sound issued from them. He passed into the model-room connecting on the west with the central hall; there was the sound of a fall, and Indiman and I followed quickly. Yet not quickly enough, for across the great globe upon which were traced the records of his four unsuccessful expeditions lay the body of Colman Hoyt. He was a heavy man, and he had evidently flung himself at his full weight upon the sharp, arrow-pointed rod that served as the axis of this miniature world; it had pierced to his very heart. The North Pole-at last he had reached it.
"Let us go," said Indiman to me, and we stole quickly away.
Now, in the vestibule below, a young man who had entered in haste pushed rudely past us and made for the row of private letter-boxes fixed opposite the coat-room. He paused at box No. 82 and gazed eagerly into it. The front was of glass, and I could see readily that the box was empty. The young man had his pass-key in his hand, but it was clearly useless to insert it, and he finally turned away, his countenance displaying the bitterest sense of disappointment. His wildly roving eye encountered that of Esper Indiman. "Sir!" he began, impetuously, then checked himself, bowed ceremoniously, and was gone.
The Private Letter-Box
I had agreed to meet Esper Indiman at the Utinam and dine there. The weather had turned cold again, for it was the end of our changeable March, and the fireplace in the common room of the club was heaped high with hickory logs, a cheerful sight, were it not for that odious motto, "Non Possumus," graven over the mantel-shelf where it must inevitably meet every eye. Never could I read it without a tightening at my heartstrings; a potency of blighting evil seemed to lie in the very words.
There were but two or three club members in the room, one of them the young Mr. Sydenham, who had attracted my attention once or twice before by the infinite wretchedness of his face. A mere boy, too, hardly five-and-twenty at the most. He sat in a big chair, a magazine with its leaves uncut lying in his lap. For an hour or more he had not stirred; then he rang for a servant, directing him to inquire for any mail that might have come in the afternoon delivery. Nothing for Mr. Sydenham was the report, and again the young man relapsed into his melancholy musing. An hour later, and just after Indiman had joined me, Mr. Sydenham repeated his inquiry about his letters, receiving the same negative answer—"Nothing for Mr. Sydenham." Evidently the disappointment was not unexpected, but it was none the less a bitter one. With a sigh which he hardly attempted to stifle, the young man took up his uncut magazine and made a pretence at examining its contents; I watched him with a lively but silent pity; any active sympathy might have seemed obtrusive.
A servant stood at the young man's elbow holding a salver on which lay a missive of some sort, a telegraphic message, to judge by the flimsy, buff envelope.
"Telegram, sir," said the man, at length. "For Mr. Sydenham; yes, sir. Will you sign for it?"
The boy turned slowly, and there was a shaking horror in his eyes that made me feel sick. He signed the book and took the message from the salver, apparently acting against a sense of the most intense repulsion, and for all that unable to help himself. The message once in his hand he did not seem to concern himself overmuch with its possible import; presently the envelope fell from his inert fingers and fluttered down at Indiman's feet. The latter picked it up and handed it to the young man, who thanked him in a voice barely audible.
"The man is waiting to see if there is any answer," suggested Indiman, quietly.
Mr. Sydenham started, colored deeply, and tore open the envelope. He read the message through carefully, then perused it for a second and a third time, and sat motionless, staring into vacancy.
Indiman leaned forward. "Well?" he said, sharply.
The young man looked up; the cool confidence of Indiman's gaze seemed suddenly to inspire in him a feeling of trust; he took the risk; he handed the message to Indiman. "What answer would you advise me to give?" he said.
The message contained these words:
"The Empire State express passes the Fifty-third Street bridge at 8.35 o'clock to-morrow morning. You can drop from the guard-rail. Is life more than honor? Answer. V. S."
Indiman looked at me, then he rose and took Mr. Sydenham by the arm. "Let us go into the card-room," he said, quietly. "Thorp, will you come?"
The young man's story was very simple. He had held until lately the position of cashier in the firm of Sandford & Sands, stock-brokers. On January 15th a shortage of fifty thousand dollars had been discovered in his books. Mr. Sandford being an intimate friend of the elder Sydenham had declined to prosecute. That was all.
"Let us proceed frankly, Mr. Sydenham," said Indiman. "Did you take the money?"
"I am beginning to think so," answered the young man, dully.
"Come," said Indiman, encouragingly, "that does not sound like a confession of guilt. Don't you know?"
Mr. Sydenham shook his head. "I can't tell you," he answered, hopelessly. "My accounts were in perfect order up to January 10th, when I discovered that our bank balance showed a discrepancy of fifty thousand dollars. I covered it over for the time, hoping to find the source of the error. Five days later I told Mr. Sandford. The money was gone, and that was all that I could say."
"Let us recall the events of January 9th. Did you make your regular deposit that day, and where?"
"We keep our account at the Bank of Commerce. But that afternoon I overlooked a package of bills in large denominations. I sent another messenger over to the bank, but it was after three o'clock and the deposit was refused. The boy brought the money back to me—the package contained fifty thousand dollars."
"I don't know. I might have locked it up in our own safe or carried it home with me or pitched it out of the window. It is all a blank."
"Did you stay at the office later than usual that day?"
"Yes; I was busy with some of Mr. Sandford's private affairs, and that delayed me until all the others had gone. I left about five o'clock."
"And now who is V. S.? Pardon me, but the question is necessary."
"Miss Valentine Sandford—Mr. Sandford's daughter. I was engaged to be married to her."
"I had proposed and was waiting for my answer. Then that very day she sent me a telegram. It contained the single word 'yes' and was signed by her initials. It came at the same moment that the messenger brought back the money from the bank."
"And it is the same V. S, who sends this message?" asked Indiman, smoothing out the telegraph blank which he held in his hand.
The young man took a bundle of papers from his breast-pocket. They were all telegraphic messages, and each was a suggestion towards self-destruction in one form or another. "Suicide's corner" at Niagara, poison, the rope—all couched in language of devilish ingenuity in innuendo, and ending in every instance with the expression, "Is life more than honor? Answer. V. S."
"I have had at least one every day," said the young man. "Sometimes two or three. Generally in the morning, but they also come at any hour."
"And Miss Sandford?"
"I wrote and told her of my terrible misfortune, released her from the unannounced engagement, and begged her to believe in me until I could clear myself. I have not seen her since the fatal day of the 15th of January."
"And you have received from her only these—these messages?"
"That is all."
"And you think they come from her?"
"No; or I should have killed myself long ago. But there are times when I have to take a tight hold on myself; to-day is one of them," he added, very simply.
"Mr. Sydenham," said Indiman, solemnly, "I now know you to be an innocent man. Had it been otherwise you would long since have succumbed under this mysterious and terrible pressure."
"I am innocent!" repeated the young man. "But to prove it?"
"It shall be proved."
"It shall be found."
"Yourself. A simple lapse of memory is the undoubted explanation. The gap must be bridged, that is all. Will you put yourself in my hands?"
"Good! I desire then that you should return to your home and wait there until you hear from me. The address—thank you. You had better leave the club at once; this atmosphere is not the most wholesome for a man in your position."
Mr. Sydenham proved most amenable to all of Indiman's suggestions, and we did not lose sight of him until he was finally on his way uptown in a Columbus Avenue car.
"A good subject," remarked Indiman, "and it should be comparatively easy to get at the submerged consciousness in his case. A simple reconstruction of the scene should be sufficient."
"You don't think the money was stolen, then?"
"Not at all. It will be found in some safe place, its disposal being an act of Sydenham's subliminal personality, of which his normal consciousness knows nothing."
"The man was NOT himself that ninth day of January. He had received a tremendous impression in the receipt of that message from Miss Sandford. He was an accepted lover, and the consciousness, for the time being, swept him off his feet. He was doing his work mechanically, and it did not matter so long as it was only routine. Then came the emergency, and, objectively, he was unable to cope with it. The subjective personality took command and did the right thing, for Sydenham is an honest man. What action the subliminal self actually took is known only to itself, and no effort of Sydenham's normal memory will suffice to recall it. But there are other means of getting at the truth. The most practical is to reproduce the situation as exactly as possible. Given the same first causes and we get the identical results. First, now to see Mr. Sandford, with whom luckily I have some acquaintance."
It was like the playing of a game, the scene in Sandford & Sand's office that following afternoon. The staff of clerks had been sent home as soon as possible after three o'clock, all save the young man who acted as bank messenger. The calendar on the wall had been set back to January 9th, and the HERALD of that date lay half-opened on Sydenham's old desk. It will be remembered that Sydenham had been detained on some of Mr. Sandford's private business, and it was perfectly feasible to reconstruct its details. Mr. Sandford had been coached in his part by Indiman, and the preparations for the experiment being finally perfected, Sydenham was called in. He appeared, dressed in the same clothes that he had worn the month before, looking a little pale, indeed, but resolute and collected.
"Mr. Sydenham," said Indiman, keeping his eyes fixed on the young man's face, "you will observe that this is January 9, 1903. Kindly seat yourself at your desk, and remain there as passive as possible. Wait now until we withdraw."
Through the half-opened door of Mr. Sandford's private office we could see distinctly all that passed. Sydenham sat motionless at his desk; Alden, the bank messenger, was within call in the outer office. The hands of the clock, which had been set back, pointed to five minutes of three.
A telegraph delivery boy entered and handed Sydenham a yellow envelope. He signed for it and the boy withdrew. He opened it, and instead of a written message drew out a fresh sprig of heliotrope. Motionless and scarcely breathing, he sat and gazed at it as though he could never fill his eyes with the sight.
"Now," said Indiman, pushing Mr. Sandford into the room where the young cashier sat.
The conversation was a brief one, relating to the papers that Mr. Sandford carried in his hand.
"Leave them on your way up-town in my box at the safe-deposit company," concluded Mr. Sandford. Then he took his hat and went out.
Sydenham swung back to his desk; the HERALD lying there was in his way, and he tossed it onto the floor. Underneath lay a package of bills of large denominations.
The cashier acted quickly. "Alden!" he called, and the messenger came running in.
"I overlooked this package," said Sydenham; "it contains fifty thousand dollars. Do you think you can get to the bank with it? You have a minute and a half."
The messenger seized the package and dashed away. Sydenham looked again at the sprig of heliotrope; he pressed it passionately to his lips. Then carefully placing it in his pocket-book, he began an examination of the papers left by Mr. Sandford. The clock struck three.
The clerk Alden re-entered. "They wouldn't take it," he said, and handed the package of bills to Sydenham.
"Oh, very well," said the cashier, absently, "I'll take care of it. That's all, Alden; you can go."
For an hour or more Sydenham worked steadily. Then, gathering the papers together, he rose, took off his office-coat, and began making preparations to depart. Once he came into Mr. Sandford's private office, where we were sitting, but apparently he did not notice our presence. Indiman gripped my hand hard. "Going splendidly," he whispered.
The cashier put on his hat and top-coat. The legal papers were carefully stowed in an inside pocket, and he was about to close down his roll-top desk when the package of bank-bills met his eye. He frowned perplexedly; then picking up the bundle he dropped it into the same pocket with the papers belonging to Mr. Sandford. He went out, closing the door behind him.
We followed as quickly as we could, but this time luck was against us—Sydenham had disappeared.
"To the safe-deposit company," said Indiman, and we jumped into a hansom. Mr. Sandford was there, and we waited impatiently for Sydenham's appearance; it was the only chance of again picking up the lost trail.
There he came, walking slowly up Nassau Street, his manner a trifle preoccupied and his eyes bent on the pavement. Opposite the safe-deposit company he stopped and thrust his hand into a waistcoat-pocket. He took it away empty and a terrible change came over his face. With a quick movement he drew out the bundle of bank-notes and regarded it fixedly. A cry burst from his lips; he reeled and fell, the money still clutched in his hand.
Instantly we were at his side. A coach was at hand, and we got him into it and directed the driver to proceed to Indiman's lodgings. The attack had been but a momentary one, and Sydenham revived as we turned out of Park Row. He looked at us, then at the money in his hand.
"It has failed," he said, brokenly, and none of us could say a word. "I came to myself," continued Sydenham, with forced calmness, "there in Nassau Street; it was as though I had awakened from a dream. The money—it was in my hand. I stood before the world, a self-convicted thief. I thank you; you have done your best, but it is useless." He passed the money to Mr. Sandford; mechanically his hand went to the inside breast-pocket of his over-coat; he drew out the package of legal papers bearing Mr. Sandford's name. "But—but," he stammered, "I don't understand—I left these in your box at the safe-deposit company."
"To be sure you did," answered Indiman, coolly. He pulled the check-cord. "Drive back to the safe deposit," he called to the hackman.
"Now, then," said Indiman, in a quiet, matter-of-fact tone, "will you tell me the conditions under which you had access to Mr. Sandford's vault. Of course your name as an authorized agent of Mr. Sandford was on the company's books. You had your pass-key, of course?"
"No," said Mr. Sandford. "There was but one pass-key, and that I kept myself. When Mr. Sydenham had any business to do for me at the safe-deposit vaults I would let him have the key temporarily."
"You gave it to him on that particular day, the 9th of January?" continued Indiman.
"Where is it now?" almost shouted Indiman.
"Here," said Mr. Sandford, in surprise. "On my key-ring."
"Exactly. There is the broken link in our psychological chain. When Mr. Sydenham felt for the pass-key, which should have been in his pocket, he discovered that it was missing. Instantly the continuity of events was broken, the subliminal personality was again submerged, and Mr. Sydenham's normal consciousness was re-established. Mr. Sandford, you are perfectly aware of the fact that these legal papers were properly deposited in your vault, and that the pass-key was returned to you by Mr. Sydenham on the morning of January 10th. Gentlemen, it is evident that we shall find the original fifty thousand dollars lying in Mr. Sandford's strong-box, where it was left by Mr. Sydenham on the afternoon of January 9th."
I confess that I was mightily excited when the moment came to test the correctness of Indiman's deductions. We were shown into a private room, and, under Mr. Sandford's eye, the treasure-box belonging to him was carried in and opened. Almost at the bottom lay a long, brown Manila envelope fastened with three red rubber bands. It contained fifty one-thousand-dollar bills.
"I noticed that envelope several times," explained Mr. Sandford, "but supposed it contained some mining stock. You see here is another envelope identical in appearance and lying directly beneath it. Mr. Sydenham never suggested even that he might have left the missing money in my safe-deposit vault."
"It never occurred to me that I could have done so," said Sydenham. "I remembered making a deposit of the papers—but the money, no, I had no recollection of having seen or touched it from the moment that Alden brought it back from the bank and laid it on my desk."
"Gentlemen," said Mr. Sandford, "I am indebted to you for much more than the mere recovery of the money. But we will speak of that again. Where can I put you down? Mr. Sydenham I shall carry off to my house; I want to have a talk with him."
But Indiman declined to re-enter the coach, pleading some further business down-town, and, of course, I remained with him. The carriage was about to drive off when Indiman put up his hand.
"How stupid of me!" he exclaimed. "I had almost forgotten." He took from the pocket of his overcoat a rather bulky package and handed it to young Mr. Sydenham. "They'll explain themselves," he said, smiling. The coach rolled away.
"The missing letters from V. S.," said Indiman, in answer to my look of inquiry. "An average of two a day, and all addressed to him at the Utinam. Well, what was the poor girl to do? The young fool had changed his lodgings and obliterated every possible trace of his whereabouts. All Miss Sandford had to go on was the bare intimation that he could be addressed at the Utinam Club. She might as well have posted her communications in the North River."
"I don't follow you."
"Two days ago I put a dummy letter addressed to Sydenham in his private lock-box at the Utinam. I had promised, you know, to send him on his mail if he would keep away from the club, and accordingly I had the key of the letter-box in my possession. Ten minutes later I went again to the box and it was empty—that is, you could see distinctly from one end of the box to the other, and it was absolutely bare."
"A duplicate key, of course."
"Not at all. It is only a stupid person who descends to crime—except as a last resort."
"Did you ever attend any of the exhibitions at the old Egyptian Hall? One of the favorite illusions was the trick cabinet in which the performer seated himself in full view of the spectators. The doors would be closed for an instant, and then, when reopened, the man had disappeared. The full interior of the cabinet was plainly visible; it stood on legs, which precluded the idea of a trap-door, and it was incontestably shown that egress from the back, top, or sides was impossible."
"Yet the performer was gone?"
"I said that the cabinet appeared to be empty—quite another thing."
"It was a simple arrangement of plate-glass mirrors fitting closely at the sides and backed by the distinctive pattern of wall-paper with which the rest of the cabinet was covered. Immediately that the doors were closed, the performer drew these false sides outward, so that they met the centre post of the doors at an acute angle. The true side walls were thereby exposed, and, of course, they were papered to correspond with the rest of the interior. Their reflection was doubled in the mirrors, making it appear to the observer that the whole cabinet was open to his vision. The truth was that he saw only half of it, the performer being concealed behind the mirrors. The only possible point at which the illusion could be detected was the angle where the mirrors joined, and this was masked by the centre post at which the double doors met. To conclude the trick, the doors were again closed, the performer swung the mirrors back into place, and, presto! he was back in the cabinet, smiling genially at the gaping crowd."
"Then you think—"
"I know. Lock-box No. 82 was constructed on the same principle in miniature, the letter-slit being placed in such a position that anything deposited in the box fell behind the mirrors, the whole interior remaining apparently visible through the glass front, and presumably empty. The owner of the box would naturally glance into it before actually using his pass-key. Obviously, it were a waste of time to go through the form of opening an EMPTY box, and so poor Sydenham never got any of the letters that were daily deposited there, for the receptacle is a large one and the secret place behind the mirrors was almost full. The action of unlocking the box operated upon an interior mechanism that swung back the mirrors at the same instant that the door was pulled open. After seeing my dummy disappear, I tried the experiment, and was amply rewarded.
"There isn't much more to tell. When I saw the letters lying there I knew that it was all right so far as the girl was concerned. I had only to acquaint Miss Sandford with the circumstances in the case to secure her further co-operation, for, of course, she had never ceased to believe in her lover. She prepared and sent the message which you saw delivered to Sydenham in Sandford's office this afternoon.
"But it was not the same as the one received by him on the actual January 9th. That contained a word, 'yes,' and was signed by her initials; this second one consisted simply of a sprig of heliotrope."
"Do you understand the language of flowers? The heliotrope means, 'Je t'adore,' and Sydenham understood it instantly, as you saw."
"Yes; but why—"
"To repeat the original message would not have impressed him as I wished; it would simply have seemed part of the illusion which he knew perfectly well we were endeavoring to create. The problem was to suddenly startle him by a real communication from V. S., and, above all, to have it of such a nature as to convince him that the cloud between them had finally lifted. Now, without trust and confidence, true love is impossible. The message of the sprig of heliotrope told him all that he had been hungering and longing to hear throughout these terrible two months; the shock was sufficient to drive the normal consciousness from its seat and permit the subliminal self to take control. In other words, it practically put him back in the identical mental mood of the afternoon of January 9th, and that was the crucial point of the whole experiment. Anything more?"
"Who sent the false telegrams?"
"Of course, you would ask that. I don't know."
"Such a monstrous wickedness! It is inconceivable."
"Yes, unless we admit the existence of a spirit of pure malevolence seeking to drive an innocent man to self-destruction for no other motive than that of doing evil for evil's sake. That such an intelligence has been active in this case is certain; or how explain the cheat of the letter-box, a necessary factor in the problem, as you will admit?"
"But you don't know."
"Not yet," answered my friend Indiman.
We dined down-town that evening, and it was about nine o'clock when we called a hackney-coach and started homeward. As we drove on up the Bowery an illuminated transparency caught our eyes.
"'Fair and Bazaar,'" read Indiman. "'Benefit of the United House-smiths' Benevolent Association.' What is a house-smith, Thorp? Evidently we will have to go and find out for ourselves." He pulled the check-cord and gave the driver the new direction. Pure foolishness, of course, but Indiman was not to be put out of his humor.
Up one flight of stairs to a large, low-ceilinged hall that was jammed to suffocation. A score of gayly trimmed booths wherein were displayed various articles of feminine fallals and cheap bric-a-brac, each presided over by a lady house-smith. "Or should it be house-smithess?" asked Indiman. "Hullo! What's this?"
Behind a long counter covered with red-paper muslin sat a dozen young women of more or less pronounced personal charms, and a huge placard announced that, kisses were on sale at the uniform price of fifty cents. "Take your own choice." Smaller cards bore the various cognomens assumed for the occasion by the fair venders of osculatory delights. "Cleopatra," "The Fair One with Golden Locks," "Kathleen Mavourneen," "Pocahontas," or more simply, albeit not less mysteriously, "Miss A. B.," or "Mademoiselle X." Of course, each had dressed the part as nearly as might be, and the exhibition was certainly attractive to the masculine eye. In questionable taste, no doubt, but one does not stand upon trifles when it is all for sweet charity's sake.
"My dear Thorp," said Indiman, with the utmost gravity, "have you half a dollar in your pocket? Then come with me," and forthwith we jammed and corkscrewed our way through the crowd until we reached the long counter covered with red-paper muslin.
The Ninety-and-nine Kisses
The fair and bazaar of the United House-smiths' Benevolent Association was assuredly a tremendous success, and not the least of its attractions was the open market where kisses might be purchased at the ridiculously small price of fifty cents each. But "Cash before delivery" was the motto, and on the counter in front of each young woman stood a brass bowl in which the purchaser deposited his money—"Free list entirely suspended." One could see that "The Fair One with Golden Locks," a large, full-fed blonde with extraordinarily vivid red cheeks, had been doing a rushing business; her bowl was overflowing with notes and coin. And the others also had done well, all except "Mademoiselle D.," the girl at the far end; she had not made a single sale. A slight little thing, pale and somewhat anxious-looking; no wonder that customers had passed her by. Then she looked up, and we both caught our breath. What eyes! Eyes of the purest, serenest gray—gray of that rare quality that holds no tint of either green or blue. Her eyes were her one beauty indeed, but the superlative miracle of loveliness is best seen when it stands alone. And these dolts of house-smiths had passed on to sample the pink-and-white confectionery at the other end of the counter.
"One hundred, if you please," and Indiman laid a fifty-dollar bill in the bowl of the girl with the gray eyes. The crowd stopped and gaped, and "Mademoiselle D." turned from white to red and then to white again.
"Bought up the whole stock, boss?" asked a foolish-looking youth whose collar was slowly but surely choking him to death.
"Better take a couple on account," said the pert damsel attached to the young fellow's arm; "they might turn sour on you, Mister Man."
"Give 'em away with a pound of tea," put in a third joker. "Eh, Josie?"
"Let's get away from here," whispered Indiman to me. "The girl looks as though she might faint."
We pushed on through the crowd that continued to chaff us good-naturedly—"joshing" they called it. Then we managed to struggle into a sort of backwater at the side of the dais upon which an alleged string band was trying to make good, as the scornful Miss Josie remarked.
"There's something wrong in this, Thorp," said Indiman to me, in an undertone. "Did you notice the stout man who stood immediately behind her?"
"The chap with one ear a full size larger than the other? Yes, I did."
"He never takes his eyes from her, and I believe that the girl is here against her will."
"Indiman!—" I began, but he cut me short.
"I know it, I tell you, and I'm going to take her away. Do you see that electric-light switch on the wall behind you?"
Back of the musicians' platform was a small wall cupboard holding the usual apparatus for controlling the incandescent lights with which the hall was illuminated. "Pull down both handles when I give the signal," he went on, imperturbably.
Indiman considered. "I'll take one of my kisses," he said, smiling.
"I'll do nothing of the kind."
"Oh yes, you will. Remember now—the instant that I bend down to kiss her."
He was gone, leaving me to curse his folly. I tried to overtake him, but the foolish youth and his Josie blocked my way, intentionally, it seemed; that was part of their joshing of the stranger within the house-smiths' gates. I stepped up on the platform, and looked for Indiman. He had just reached the counter covered with red-paper muslin; he pushed his way up to the girl with the gray eyes and said something to her. She seemed to shrink away. Indiman turned for an instant and looked back at me, then he bent down and kissed her.
Without having had the slightest intention of so doing, I pulled down both handles; the hall was in instant and utter darkness. For a moment the following silence persisted, menacing and deadly; it was as though panic had suddenly reared her frightful head, a wild beast ready to spring.
A girl's light laugh turned the scale. "Trying to raid the fruit-stand, are you, bub?" went on Miss Josie, in her thin, cool voice. "Thought you could pinch a couple in the dark of the moon; but nay, nay, Thomas—those two smacks 'll just cost you supper for four. I'm not sitting behind the bargain-counter to-day, thank you."
A babel of cat-calls, oaths, and laughter broke out, but the tension had been released and the danger was over. I pushed and jammed through the crowd to the stairs. No one was attempting to leave; in the hall they had just got the lights turned on again. I started down.
I looked back; the stout man with the disproportionate ears stood at the head of the stairs, hemmed in by the crowd. He panted and shook his clinched fist at me. "You!—you!" he shouted, impotently. I ran on.
In the street below Indiman was helping the girl into the coach. He turned as I ran up.
"Good!" he said, and offered me his cigarette-case.
"The big fellow is coming down," I urged.
"Have a light," said Indiman. "And now, my son, allons!"
I stepped into the coach, and Indiman after me. There was a sound of angry voices from the hall above; two or three men dashed down the stairway, others following.
"Drive on!" shouted Indiman, and the carriage started. Then we both turned and looked blankly at that empty back seat.
Indiman bit his lip. "It is an old trick—leaving by the other door," he said, quietly. "It was while we were lighting our cigarettes; and that reminds me that I have decided to give up the habit." He tossed his cigarette out of the window; the coach rolled away.
Private business called me to Washington the next day, and I had to take the night train back, arriving in New York at the uncomfortably early hour of seven. But it was some small satisfaction to rap vigorously upon Indiman's door as I passed to my own room. One always experiences a sense of virtue in being up at unseasonable hours, and blessings should be shared with one's friends. Later on we met at breakfast, and he did not thank me.