THE MAN WHO LOST HIMSELF
H. DE VERE STACPOOLE
Author of "Sea Plunder," "The Gold Trail," "The Blue Lagoon," Etc.
New York: John Lane Company Toronto: S. B. Gundy :: MCMXVIII
Copyright, 1917-1918 by Street & Smith
Copyright, 1918 by John Lane Company
The Plimpton Press Norwood Mass U.S.A.
CHAPTER PAGE I. Jones 9 II. The Stranger 14 III. Dinner and After 18 IV. Carlton House Terrace 20 V. The Point of the Joke 38
VI. The Net 45 VII. Luncheon 52 VIII. Mr. Voles 61 IX. More Intruders 74 X. Lady Plinlimon 85 XI. The Coal Mine 94 XII. The Girl in the Victoria 104 XIII. Teresa 119
XIV. The Attack 125 XV. The Attack (Continued) 131 XVI. A Wild Surprise 136 XVII. The Second Honeymoon 148 XVIII. The Mental Trap 158 XIX. Escape Closed 164 XX. The Family Council 179 XXI. Hoover's 200 XXII. An Interlude 212 XXIII. Smithers 222 XXIV. He Runs to Earth 230 XXV. Moths 234 XXVI. A Tramp, and Other Things 241 XXVII. The Only Man in the World Who Would Believe Him 264 XXVIII. Pebblemarsh 274 XXIX. The Blighted City 283 XXX. A Just Man Angered 289 XXXI. He Finds Himself 294
THE MAN WHO LOST HIMSELF
It was the first of June, and Victor Jones of Philadelphia was seated in the lounge of the Savoy Hotel, London, defeated in his first really great battle with the thing we call life.
Though of Philadelphia, Jones was not an American, nor had he anything of the American accent. Australian born, he had started life in a bank at Melbourne, gone to India for a trading house, started for himself, failed, and become a rolling stone. Philadelphia was his last halt.
With no financial foundation, Victor and a Philadelphia gentleman had competed for a contract to supply the British Government with Harveyised steel struts, bolts, and girders; he had come over to London to press the business; he had interviewed men in brass hats, slow moving men who had turned him over to slower moving men. The Stringer Company, for so he dubbed himself and Aaron Stringer, who had financed him for the journey, had wasted three weeks on the business, and this morning their tender had been rejected. Hardmans', the Pittsburg people, had got the order.
It was a nasty blow. If he and Stringer could have secured the contract, they could have carried it through all right, Stringer would have put the thing in the hands of Laurenson of Philadelphia, and their commission would have been enormous, a stroke of the British Government's pen would have filled their pockets; failing that they were bankrupt. At least Jones was.
And justifiably you will say, considering that the whole business was a gigantic piece of bluff—well, maybe, yet on behalf of this bluffer I would put it forward that he had risked everything on one deal, and that this was no little failure of his, but a disaster, naked and complete.
He had less than ten pounds in his pocket and he owed money at the Savoy. You see he had reckoned on doing all his business in a week, and if it failed—an idea which he scarcely entertained—on getting back third class to the States. He had not reckoned on the terrible expenses of London, or the three weeks delay.
Yesterday he had sent a cable to Stringer for funds, and had got as a reply: "Am waiting news of contract."
Stringer was that sort of man.
He was thinking about Stringer now, as he sat watching the guests of the Savoy, Americans and English, well to do people with no money worries, so he fancied. He was thinking about Stringer and his own position, with less than ten pounds in his pocket, an hotel bill unreceipted, and three thousand miles of deep water between himself and Philadelphia.
Jones was twenty-four years of age. He looked thirty. A serious faced, cadaverous individual, whom, given three guesses you would have judged to be a Scotch free kirk minister in mufti; an actor in the melodramatic line; a food crank. These being the three most serious occupations in the world.
In reality, he had started life, as before said, in a bank, educated himself in mathematics and higher commercial methods, by correspondence, and, aiming to be a millionaire, had left the bank and struck out for himself in the great tumbling ocean of business.
He had glimpsed the truth. Seen the fact that the art of life is not so much to work oneself as to make other people work for one, to convert by one's own mental energy, the bodily energy of others into products or actions. Had this Government contract come off, he would have, and to his own profit, set a thousand hammers swinging, a dozen steel mills rolling, twenty ships lading, hammers, mills and ships he had never seen, never would see.
That is the magic of business, and when you behold roaring towns and humming wharves, when you read of raging battles, you see and read of the work of a comparatively small number of men, gentlemen who wear frock coats, who have never handled a bale, or carried a gun, or steered a ship with their own hands. Magicians!
He ordered a whisky and soda from a passing attendant, to help him think some more about Stringer and his own awful position, and was taking the glass from the salver when a very well dressed man of his own age and build who had entered by the passage leading up from the American bar drew his attention.
This man's face seemed quite familiar to him, so much so that he started in his chair as though about to rise and greet him. The stranger, also, seemed for a second under the same obsession, but only for a second; he made a half pause and then passed on, becoming lost to sight beyond the palm trees at the entrance. Jones leaned back in his chair.
"Now, where did I see that guy before?" asked he of himself. "Where on earth have I met him? and he recognised me—where in the—where in the—where in the—?"
His memory vaguely and vainly searching for the name to go with that face was at fault. He finished his whisky and soda and rose, and then strolled off not heeding much in what direction, till he reached the book and newspaper stand where he paused to inspect the wares, turning over the pages of the latest best seller without imbibing a word of the text.
Then he found himself downstairs in the American bar, with a champagne cocktail before him.
Jones was an abstemious man, as a rule, but he had a highly strung nervous system and it had been worked up. The unaccustomed whiskey and soda had taken him in its charge, comforting him and conducting his steps, and now the bar keeper, a cheery person, combined with the champagne cocktail, the cheeriest of drinks, so raised his spirits and warmed his optimism, that, having finished his glass he pushed it across the counter and said, "Give me another."
At this moment a gentleman who had just entered the bar came up to the counter, placed half a crown upon it and was served by the assistant bar keeper with a glass of sherry.
Jones, turning, found himself face to face with the stranger whom he had seen in the lounge, the stranger whose face he knew but whose name he could not remember in the least.
Jones was a direct person, used to travel and the forming of chance acquaintanceships. He did not hang back.
"'Scuse me," said he. "I saw you in the lounge and I'm sure I've met you somewhere or another, but I can't place you."
The stranger, taking his change from the assistant bar tender, laughed.
"Yes," said he, "you have seen me before, often, I should think. Do you mean to say you don't know where?"
"Nope," said Jones—he had acquired a few American idioms—"I'm clear out of my reckoning—are you an American?"
"No, I'm English," replied the other. "This is very curious, you don't recognise me, well—well—well—let's sit down and have a talk, maybe recollection will come to you—give it time—it is easier to think sitting down than standing up."
Now as Jones turned to take his seat at the table indicated by the stranger, he noticed that the bar keeper and his assistant were looking at him as though he had suddenly become an object of more than ordinary interest.
The subtlety of human facial expression stands unchallenged, and the faces of these persons conveyed the impression to Jones that the interest he had suddenly evoked in their minds had in it a link with the humorous.
When he looked again, however, having taken his seat, they were both washing glasses with the solemnity of undertakers.
"I thought those guys were laughing at me," said Jones, "seems I was wrong, and all the better for them—well, now, let's get to the bottom of this tangle—who are you, anyway?"
"Just a friend," replied the other, "I'll tell you my name presently, only I want you to think it out for yourself. Talk about yourself and then, maybe, you'll arrive at it. Who are you?"
"Me," cried Jones, "I'm Victor Jones of Philadelphia. I'm the partner of a skunk by name of Stringer. I'm the victim of a British government that doesn't know the difference between tin plate and Harveyised steel. I'm a man on the rocks."
The flood gates of his wrath were opened and everything came out, including the fact of his own desperate position.
When he had finished the only remark of the stranger was:
"Not on your life," cried Jones. "I ought to be making tracks for the consul or somewhere to get my passage back to the States—well—I don't know. No—no more cocktails. I'll have a sherry, same as you."
The sherry having been despatched, the stranger rose, refusing a return drink just at that moment.
"Come into the lounge with me," said he, "I want to tell you something I can't tell you here."
They passed up the stairs, the stranger leading the way, Jones following, slightly confused in his mind but full of warmth at his heart, and with a buoyancy of spirit beyond experience. Stringer was forgotten, the British Government was forgotten, contracts, hotel bills, steerage journeys to the States, all these were forgotten. The warmth, the sumptuous rooms, and the golden lamps of the Savoy were sufficient for the moment, and as he sank into an easy chair and lit a cigarette, even his interest in the stranger and what he had to say was for a moment dimmed and diminished by the fumes that filled his brain, and the ease that lapped his senses.
"What I have to say is this," said the stranger, leaning forward in his chair. "When I saw you here some time ago, I recognised you at once as a person I knew, but, as you put it, I could not place you. But when I got into the main hall a mirror at once told me. You are, to put it frankly, my twin image."
"I beg your pardon," said Jones, the word image shattering his complacency. "Your twin which do you say?"
"Image, likeness, counterpart—I mean no offence—turn round and glance at that mirror behind you."
Jones did, and saw the stranger, and the stranger was himself. Both men belonged to a fairly common type, but the likeness went far beyond that—they were identical. The same hair and colour of hair, the same features, shape of head, ears and colour of eyes, the same serious expression of countenance.
Absolute likeness between two human beings is almost as rare as absolute likeness between two pebbles on a beach, yet it occurs, as in the case of M. de Joinville and others well known and confirmed, and when I say absolute likeness, I mean likeness so complete that a close acquaintance cannot distinguish the difference between the duplicates. When nature does a trick like this, she does it thoroughly, for it has been noticed—but more especially in the case of twins—the likeness includes the voice, or at least its timbre, the thyroid cartilage and vocal chords following the mysterious law that rules the duplication.
Jones' voice and the voice of the stranger might have been the same as far as pitch and timbre were concerned, the only difference was in the accent, and that was slight.
"Well, I'm d-d-d—," said Jones.
He turned to the other and then back to the mirror.
"Extraordinary, isn't it?" said the other. "I don't know whether I ought to apologise to you or you to me. My name is Rochester."
Jones turned from the mirror, the two champagne cocktails, the whisky and the sherry were accommodating his unaccustomed brain to support this most unaccustomed situation. The thing seemed to him radiantly humorous, yet if he had known it there was very little humour in the matter.
"We must celebrate this," said Jones, calling an attendant and giving him explicit orders as to the means.
DINNER AND AFTER
A small bottle of Boellinger was the means, and the celebration was mostly done by Jones, for it came about that this stranger, Rochester, whilst drinking little himself, managed by some method to keep up in gaiety and in consequence of mind with the other, though every now and then he would fall away from the point, as a ship without a steersman falls away from the wind, and lapse for a moment into what an acute observer might have deemed to be the fundamental dejection of his real nature.
However, these lapses were only momentary, and did not interfere at all with the gay spirits of his companion, who having found a friend in the midst of the loneliness of London, and his twin image in the person of that friend, was now pouring out his heart on every sort of subject, always returning, and with the regularity of a pendulum to the fact of the likeness, and the same question and statement.
"What's this, your name? Rochester! well, 'pon my soul this beats me."
Presently, the Bollinger finished, Jones found himself outside the Savoy with this new found friend, walking in the gas lit Strand, and then, without any transition rememberable, he found himself seated at dinner in a private room of a French restaurant in Soho.
Afterwards he could remember parts of that dinner quite distinctly. He could remember the chicken and salad, and a rum omelette, at which he had laughed because it was on fire. He could remember Rochester's gaiety, and a practical joke of some sort played on the waiter by Rochester and ending in smashed plates—he could remember remonstrating with the latter over his wild conduct. These things he could remember afterwards, and also a few others—a place like Heaven—which was the Leicester Lounge, and a place like the other place which was Leicester Square.
A quarrel with a stranger, about what he could not tell, a taxi cab, in which he was seated listening to Rochester's voice giving directions to the driver, minute directions as to where he, Jones, was to be driven.
A lamp lit hall, and stairs up which he was being led.
CARLTON HOUSE TERRACE
He awoke from sleep in bed in the dark, with his mind clear as crystal and hot shame clutching at his throat. Rochester was the first recollection that came to him, and it was a recollection tinged with evil. He felt like a man who had supped with the devil. Led by Rochester he had made a fool of himself, he had made a brute of himself, how would he face the hotel people? And what had he done with the last of his money?
These thoughts held him motionless for a few terrific moments. Then he clapped his hand to his unfortunate head, turned on his side, and lay gazing into the darkness. It had all come back to him clearly. Rochester's wild conduct, the dinner, the smashed plates, the quarrel. He was afraid to get up and search in his pockets, he guessed their condition. He occupied himself instead, trying to imagine what would become of him without money and without friends in this wilderness of London. With ten pounds he might have done something; without, what could he do? Nothing, unless it were manual labour, and he did not know where to look for that.
Then Rochester, never from his mind, came more fully before him—that likeness, was it real, or only a delusion of alcohol? And what else had Rochester done? He seemed mad enough to have done anything, plum crazy—would he, Jones, be held accountable for Rochester's deeds? He was fighting with this question when a clock began to strike in the darkness and close to the bed, nine delicate and silvery strokes, that brought a sudden sweat upon the forehead of Jones.
He was not in his room at the Savoy. There was no clock in the Savoy bed room, and no clock in any hotel ever spoke in tones like these. On the sound, as if from a passage outside, he heard a voice:
"Took all his money, and sent him home in another chap's clothes."
Then came the sound of a soft step crossing the carpet, the sound of curtain rings moving—then a blind upshrivelled letting the light of day upon a room never before seen by Jones, a Jacobean bed room, severe, but exquisite in every detail.
The man who had pulled the blind string, and whose powerful profile was silhouetted against the light, showed to the sun a face highly but evenly coloured, as though by the gentle painting of old port wine, through a long series of years and ancestors. The typical colour of the old fashioned English Judge, Bishop, and Butler.
He was attired in a black morning coat, and his whole countenance, make, build and appearance had something grave and archiepiscopal most holding to the eye and imagination.
It terrified Jones, who, breathing now as though asleep, watched through closed eyelids whilst the apparition, with pursed lips, dealt with the blind of the other window.
This done, it passed to the door, conferred in muted tones with some unseen person, and returned bearing in its hands a porcelain early morning tea service.
Having placed this on the table by the bed, the apparition vanished, closing the door.
Jones sat up and looked around him.
His clothes had disappeared. He always hung his trousers on the bed post at the end of his bed and placed his other things on a chair, but trousers or other things were nowhere visible, they had been spirited away. It was at this moment that he noticed the gorgeous silk pyjamas he had got on. He held out his arm and looked at the texture and pattern.
Then, in a flash came comfort and understanding. He was in Rochester's house. Rochester must have sent him here last night. That apparition was Rochester's man servant. The vision of Rochester turned from an evil spirit to an angel, and filled with a warm sensation of friendliness towards the said Rochester he was in the act of pouring out a cup of tea, when the words he had heard spoken in the passage outside came back to him.
"Took all his money, and sent him home in another chap's clothes."
What did that mean?
He finished pouring out the tea and drank it; there was thin bread and butter on a plate but he disregarded it. Whose money had been taken, and who had been sent home in another chap's clothes?
Did those words apply to him or to Rochester? Had Rochester been robbed? Might he, Jones, be held accountable?
A deep uneasiness and a passionate desire for his garments begotten of these queries, brought him out of bed and on to the floor. He came to the nearer window and looked out. The window gave upon the Green Park, a cheerful view beneath the sky of a perfect summer's morning. He turned from the window, and crossing the room opened the door through which the apparition had vanished. A thickly carpeted corridor lay outside, a corridor silent as the hypogeum of the Apis, secretive, gorgeous, with tasseled silk curtains and hanging lamps. Jones judged these lamps to be of silver and worth a thousand dollars apiece. He had read the Arabian Nights when a boy, and like a waft now from the garden of Aladdin came a vague something stirring his senses and disturbing his practical nature. He wanted his clothes. This silent gorgeousness had raised the desire for his garments to a passion. He wanted to get into his boots and face the world and face the worst. Swinging lamps of silver, soft carpets, silken curtains, only served to heighten his sensitiveness as to his apparel and whole position.
He came back into the room. His anger was beginning to rise, the nervous anger of a man who has made a fool of himself, upon whom a jest is being played, and who finds himself in a false position.
Seeing an electric button by the fire place he went to it and pressed it twice, hard, then he opened the second door of the room and found a bath room.
A Pompeian bath room with tassellated floor, marble walls and marble ceiling. The bath was sunk in the floor. Across hot water pipes, plated with silver, hung towels of huck-a-back, white towels with cardinal red fringes. Here too, most un-Pompeian stood a wonderful dressing table, one solid slab of glass, with razors set out, manicure instruments, brushes, powder pots, scent bottles.
Jones came into this place, walked round it like a cat in a strange larder, gauged the depth of the bath, glanced at the things on the table, and was in the act of picking up one of the manicure implements, when a sound from the bed room drew his attention.
Someone was moving about there.
Someone who seemed altering the position of chairs and arranging things.
He judged it to be the servant who had answered the bell; he considered that it was better to have the thing out now, and have done with it. He wanted a full explanation, and bravely, but with the feelings of a man who is entering a dental parlour, he came to the bath room door.
A pale faced, agile-looking young man with glossy black hair, a young man in a sleeved waistcoat, a young man carrying a shirt and set of pink silk undergarments over his left arm, was in the act of placing a pair of patent leather boots with kid tops upon the floor. A gorgeous dressing gown lay upon the bed. It had evidently been placed there by the agile one.
Jones had intended to ask explanations. That intention shrivelled, somehow, in the act of speech. What he uttered was a very mildly framed request.
"Er—can I have my clothes, please?" said Jones.
"Yes, my Lord," replied the other. "I am placing them out."
The instantaneous anger raised by the patent fact that he was being guyed by the second apparition was as instantly checked by the recollection of Rochester. Here was another practical joke. This house was evidently Rochester's—the whole thing was plain. Well, he would show that tricky spirit how he could take a joke and turn it on the maker. Like Brer Rabbit he determined to lie low.
He withdrew into the bath room and sat down on the rush bottomed chair by the table, his temper coiled, and ready to fly out like a spring. He was seated like this, curling his toes and nursing his resolve, when the Agile One, with an absolute gravity that disarmed all anger, entered with the dressing gown. He stood holding it up, and Jones, rising, put it on. Then the A. O. filled the bath, trying the temperature with a thermometer, and so absorbed in his business that he might have been alone.
The bath filled, he left the room, closing the door.
He had thrown some crystals into the water, scenting it with a perfume fragrant and refreshing, the temperature was just right, and as Jones plunged and wallowed and lay half floating, supporting himself by the silver plated rails arranged for that purpose, the idea came to him that if the practical joke were to continue as pleasantly as it had begun, he, for one, would not grumble.
Soothed by the warmth his mind took a clearer view of things.
If this were a jest of Rochester's, as most certainly it was, where lay the heart of it? Every joke has its core, and the core of this one was most evidently the likeness between himself and Rochester.
If Rochester were a Lord and if this were his house, and if Rochester had sent him—Jones—home like a bundle of goods, then the extraordinary likeness would perhaps deceive the servants and maybe other people as well. That would be a good joke, promising all sorts of funny developments. Only it was not a joke that any man of self respect would play. But Rochester, from those vague recollections of his antics, did not seem burdened with self respect. He seemed in his latter developments crazy enough for anything.
If he had done this, then the servants were not in the business; they would be under the delusion that he, Jones, was Rochester, doped and robbed and dressed in another man's clothes and sent home.
Rochester, turning up later in the morning, would have a fine feast of humour to sit down to.
This seemed plain. The born practical joker coming on his own twin image could not resist making use of it. This explanation cleared the situation, but it did not make it a comfortable one. If the servants discovered the imposition before the arrival of Rochester things would be unpleasant. He must act warily, get downstairs and escape from the place as soon as possible. Later on he would settle with Rochester. The servants, if they were not partners in the joke, had taken him on his face value, his voice had evidently not betrayed him. He felt sure on this point. He left the bath and, drying himself, donned the dressing gown. Tooth paste and a tooth brush stood on a glass tray by a little basin furnished with hot and cold water taps, and now, so strangely are men constituted, the main facts of his position were dwarfed for a second by the consideration that he had no tooth brush of his own.
Just that little thing brought his energies to a focus and his growing irritation.
He, opened the bed-room door. The glossy haired one was putting links in the sleeves of a shirt.
"Get me a tooth brush—a new one," said Jones, brusquely, almost brutally. "Get it quick."
"Yes, my Lord."
He dropped the shirt and left the room swiftly, but not hurriedly, taking care to close the door softly behind him.
It was the first indication to Jones of a method so complete and a mechanism so perfectly constituted, that jolts were all but eliminated.
"I believe if I'd asked that guy for an elephant," he said to himself, "he'd have acted just the same—do they keep a drug store on the premises?"
They evidently kept a store of tooth brushes, for in less than a minute and a half Expedition had returned with the tooth brush on a little lacquered tray.
Now, to a man accustomed to dress himself it comes as a shock to have his underpants held out for him to get into as though he were a little boy.
This happened to Jones—and they were pink silk.
A pair of subfusc coloured trousers creased and looking absolutely new were presented to him in the same manner. He was allowed to put on his own socks, silk and never worn before, but he was not allowed to put on his own boots. The perfect valet did that kneeling before him, shoe horn and button hook in hand.
Having inducted him into a pink silk under vest and a soft pleated shirt, with plain gold links in the sleeves, each button of the said links having in its centre a small black pearl, a collar and a subfusc coloured silk tie were added to him, also a black morning vest and a black morning coat, with rather broad braid at the edges.
A handkerchief of pure white cambric with a tiny monogram also in white was then shaken out and presented.
Then his valet, intent, silent, and seeming to move by clockwork, passed to a table on which stood a small oak cabinet. Opening the cabinet he took from it and placed on the table a watch and chain.
His duties were now finished, and, according to some prescribed rule, he left the room carefully and softly, closing the door behind him.
Jones took up the watch and chain.
The watch was as thin as a five shilling piece, the chain was a mere thread of gold. It was an evening affair, to be worn with dress clothes, and this fact presented to the mind of Jones a confirmation of the idea that, not only was he literally in Rochester's shoes, but that Rochester's ordinary watch and chain had not returned.
He sat down for a moment to consider another point. His own old Waterbury and rolled gold chain, and the few unimportant letters in his pockets—where were they?
He determined to clear this matter at once, and boldly rang the bell.
The valet answered it.
"When I came back last night—er—was there anything in my pockets?" asked he.
"No, my Lord. They had taken everything from the pockets."
"No watch and chain?"
"No, my Lord."
"Have you the clothes I came back in?"
"Yes, my Lord."
"Go and fetch them."
The man disappeared and returned in a minute with a bundle of clothes neatly folded on his arm.
"Mr. Church told me to keep them careful, lest you'd want to put the matter in the hands of the police, my Lord, shockin' old things they are."
Jones examined the clothes. They were his own. Everything he had worn yesterday lay there, and the sight of them filled his mind with a nostalgia and a desire for them—a home sickness and a clothes sickness—beyond expression.
He was absolutely sure from the valet's manner that the servants were not "in the know." A wild impulse came on him to take the exhibitor of these remnants of his past into his confidence. To say right out: "I'm Jones. Victor Jones of Philadelphia. I'm no Lord. Here, gimme those clothes and let me out of this—let's call it quits."
The word "police" already dropped held him back. He was an impostor. If he were to declare the facts before Rochester returned, what might be the result? Whatever the result might be one thing was certain, it would be unpleasant. Besides, he was no prisoner, once downstairs he could leave the house.
So instead of saying: "I'm Victor Jones of Philadelphia," he said: "Take them away," and finding himself alone once more he sat down to consider.
Rochester must have gone through his pockets, not for loot, but for the purpose of removing any article that might cast suspicion, or raise the suspicion that he, Jones, was not Rochester. That seemed plain enough, and there was an earnestness of purpose in the fact that was disturbing.
There was no use in thinking, however. He would go downstairs and make his escape. He was savagely hungry, but he reckoned the Savoy was good enough for one more meal—if he could get there.
Leaving the watch and chain—unambitious to add a charge of larceny to his other troubles, should Fate arrest him before the return of Rochester, he came down the corridor to a landing giving upon a flight of stairs, up which, save for the gradient, a coach and horses might have been driven.
The place was a palace. Vast pictures by gloomy old artists, pictures of men in armour, men in ruffs, women without armour or ruffs, or even a rag of chiffon, pictures worth millions of dollars no doubt, hung from the walls of the landing, and the wall flanking that triumphant staircase.
Jones looked over into the well of the hall, then he began to descend the stairs.
He had intended, on finding a hat in the hall, to clap it on and make a clean bolt for freedom and the light of heaven, get back to the Savoy, dress himself in another suit, and once more himself, go for Rochester, but this was no hall with a hat-rack and umbrella-stand. Knights in armour were guarding it, and a flunkey, six feet high, in red plush breeches, and with calves that would have made Victor Jones scream with laughter under normal conditions.
The flunkey, seeing our friend, stepped to a door, opened it, and held it open for him. Not to enter the room thus indicated would have been possible enough, but the compelling influence of that vast flunkey made it impossible to Jones.
His volition had fled, he was subdued to his surroundings, for the moment conquered.
He entered a breakfast room, light and pleasantly furnished, where at a breakfast table and before a silver tea urn sat a lady of forty or so, thin faced, high nosed, aristocratic and rather faded.
She was reading a letter, and when she saw the incomer she rose from the table and gathered some other letters up. Then she, literally, swept from the room. She looked at him as she passed, and it seemed to Jones that he had never known before the full meaning of the word "scorn."
For a wild second he thought that all had been discovered, that the police were now sure to arrive. Then he knew at once. Nothing had been discovered, the delusion held even for this woman, that glance was meant for Rochester, not for him, and was caused by the affair of last night, by other things, too, maybe, but that surely.
Uncomfortable, angry, nervous, wild to escape, and then yielding to caution, he took his seat at the table where a place was laid—evidently for him.
The woman had left an envelope on the table, he glanced at it.
THE HONBLE: VENETIA BIRDBROOK, 10A Carlton House Terrace, London, S. W.
Victor read the inscription written in a bold female hand.
It told him where he was, he was in the breakfast-room of 10A Carlton House Terrace, but it told him nothing more.
Was the Honble: Venetia Birdbrook his wife, or at least the wife of his twin image? This thought blinded him for a moment to the fact that a flunkey—they seemed as numerous as flies in May—was at his elbow with a menu, whilst another flunkey, who seemed to have sprung from the floor, was fiddling at the sideboard which contained cold edibles, tongue, ham, chicken and so forth.
"Scrambled eggs," said he, looking at the card.
"Tea or coffee, my Lord?"
He broke a breakfast roll and helped himself mechanically to some butter, which was instantly presented to him by the sideboard fiddler, and he had just taken a mechanical bite of buttered roll, when the door opened and the Archiepiscopal gentleman who had pulled up his window blind that morning entered. Mr. Church, for Jones had already gathered that to be his name, carried a little yellow basket filled with letters in his right hand, and in his left a great sheaf, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Morning Post, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Chronicle, and Daily News. These papers he placed on a side table evidently intended for that purpose. The little letter basket he placed on the table at Jones' left elbow.
Then he withdrew, but not without having spoken a couple of murmured words of correction to the flunkey near the sideboard, who had omitted, no doubt, some point in the mysterious ritual of which he was an acolyte.
Jones glanced at the topmost letter.
THE EARL OF ROCHESTER, 10A, Carlton House Terrace, London, S. W.
Ah! now he knew it. The true name of the juggler who had played him this trick. It was plain, too, now, that Rochester had sent him here as a substitute.
But the confirmation of his idea did not ease his mind. On the contrary it filled him with a vague alarm. The feeling of being in a trap came upon him now for the first time. The joke had lost any semblance of colour, the thing was serious. Rochester ought to have been back to put an end to the business before this. Had anything happened to him? Had he got jailed?
He did not touch the letters. Without raising suspicion, acting as naturally as possible the part of a peer of the realm, he must escape as swiftly as possible from this nest of flunkeys, and with that object in view he accepted the scrambled eggs now presented to him, and the coffee.
When they were finished, he rose from the table. Then he remembered the letters. Here was another tiny tie. He could not leave them unopened and untouched on the table without raising suspicion. He took them from the basket, and with them in his hand left the room, the fellow in waiting slipping before to open the door.
The hall was deserted for a wonder, deserted by all but the men in armour. A room where he might leave the infernal letters, and find a bell to fetch a servant to get him a hat was the prime necessity of the moment.
He crossed to a door directly opposite, opened it, and found a room half library, half study, a pleasant room used to tobacco, with a rather well worn Turkey carpet on the floor, saddle bag easy chairs, and a great escritoire in the window, open and showing pigeon holes containing note paper, envelopes, telegraph forms, and a rack containing the A. B. C. Railway Guide, Whitakers Almanac, Ruffs' Guide to the Turf, Who's Who, and Kelly.
Pipes were on the mantel piece, a silver cigar box and cigarette box on a little table by one of the easy chairs, matches—nothing was here wanting, and everything was of the best.
He placed the letters on the table, opened the cigar box and took from it a Ramon Alones. A blunt ended weapon for the destruction of melancholy and unrest, six and a half inches long, and costing perhaps half-a-crown. A real Havana cigar. Now in London there are only four places where you can obtain a real and perfect Havana cigar. That is to say four shops. And at those four shops—or shall we call them emporiums—only known and trusted customers can find the sun that shone on the Vuelta Abajos in such and such a perfect year.
The Earl of Rochester's present representative was finding it now, with little enough pleasure, however, as he paced the room preparatory to ringing the bell. He was approaching the electric button for this purpose, when the faint and far away murmuring of an automobile, as if admitted by a suddenly opened hall door, checked his hand. Here was Rochester at last. He waited listening.
He had not long to wait.
The door of the room suddenly opened, and the woman of the breakfast table disclosed herself. She was dressed for going out, wearing a hat that seemed a yard in diameter, and a feather boa, from which her hen-like face and neck rose to the crowning triumph of the hat.
"I am going to Mother," said she. "I am not coming back."
"Um-um," said Jones.
She paused. Then she came right in and closed the door behind her.
Standing with her back close to the door she spoke to Jones.
"If you cannot see your own conduct as others see it, who can make you? I am not referring to the disgrace of last night, though heaven knows that was bad enough, I am talking of everything, of your poor wife who loves you still, of the estate you have ruined by your lunatic conduct, of the company you keep, of the insults you have heaped on people—and now you add drink to the rest. That's new." She paused.
"That's new. But I warn you, your brain won't stand that. You know the taint in the family as well as I do, it has shewn itself in your actions. Well, go on drinking and you will end in Bedlam instead of the workhouse. They call you 'Mad Rochester'; you know that." She choked. "I have blushed to be known as your sister—I have tried to keep my place here and save you. It's ended." She turned to the door.
Jones had been making up his mind. He would tell the whole affair. This Rochester was a thoroughly bad lot evidently; well, he would turn the tables on him now.
"Look here," said he. "I am not the man you think I am."
"Tosh!" cried the woman.
She opened the door, passed out, and shut it with a snap.
"Well, I'm d——d," said Jones, for the second time in connection with Rochester.
The clock on the mantelpiece pointed to a quarter to eleven; the faint sound of the car had ceased. The lady of the feather boa had evidently taken her departure, and the house had resumed its cloistral silence.
He waited a moment to make sure, then he went into the hall where a huge flunkey—a new one, more curious than the others, was lounging near the door.
"My hat," said Jones.
The thing flew, and returned with a glossy silk hat, a tortoiseshell handled cane, and a pair of new suede gloves of a delicate dove colour. Then it opened the door, and Jones, clapping the hat on his head, walked out.
The hat fitted, by a mercy.
THE POINT OF THE JOKE
Out in the open air and sunshine he took a deep satisfying breath. He felt as though he had escaped from a cage full of monkeys. Monkeys in the form of men, creatures who would servilely obey him as Rochester, but who, scenting the truth, would rend him in pieces.
Well, he was clear of them. Once back in the Savoy he would get into his own things, and once in his own things he would strike. If he could not get a lawyer to take his case up against Rochester, he would go to the police. Yes, he would. Rochester had doped him, taken his letters, taken his watch.
Jones was not the man to bring false charges. He knew that in taking his belongings, this infernal jester had done so, not for plunder, but for the purpose of making the servants believe that he, Rochester, had been stripped of everything by sharks, and sent home in an old suit of clothes; all the same he would charge Rochester with the taking of his things, he would teach this practical joker how to behave.
To cool himself and collect his thoughts before going to the Savoy, he took a walk in the Green Park.
That one word "Tosh!" uttered by the woman, in answer to what he had said, told him more about Rochester than many statements. This man wanted a cold bath, he wanted to be held under the tap till he cried for mercy.
Walking, now with the stick under his right arm and his left hand in his trousers pocket, he felt something in the pocket. It was a coin. He took it out. It was a penny, undiscovered evidently, and unremoved by the valet.
It was also a reminder of his own poverty stricken condition. His thoughts turned from Rochester and his jokes, to his own immediate and tragic position. The whole thing was his own fault. It was quite easy to say that Rochester had led him along and tempted him; he was a full grown man and should have resisted temptation. He had let strong drink get hold of him; well, he had paid by the loss of his money, to say nothing of the way his self-respect had been bruised by this jester.
Near Buckingham Palace he turned back, walking by the way he had come, and leaving the park at the new gate.
He crossed the plexus of ways where Northumberland Avenue debouches on Trafalgar Square. It was near twelve o'clock, and the first evening papers were out. A hawker with a bundle of papers under his arm and a yellow poster in front of him like an apron, drew his attention; at least the poster did.
"Suicide of an American in London!" were the words on the poster.
Jones, remembering his penny, produced it and bought a paper.
The American's suicide did not interest him, but he fancied vaguely that something of Rochester's doings of the night before might have been caught by the Press through the Police news. He thought it highly probable that Rochester, continuing his mad course, had been gaoled.
He was rewarded. Right on the first page he saw his own name. He had never seen it before in print, and the sight and the circumstances made his tongue cluck back, as though checked by a string tied to its root.
This was the paragraph:
"Last night, as the 11.35 Inner Circle train was entering the Temple Station, a man was seen to jump from the platform on to the metals. Before the station officials could interfere to save him, the unfortunate man had thrown himself before the incoming engine. Death was instantaneous.
"From papers in possession of deceased, his identity has been verified as that of Mr. V. A. Jones, an American gentleman of Philadelphia, lately resident at the Savoy Hotel, Strand."
Jones stood with the paper in his hand, appalled. Rochester had committed suicide!
This was the Jest—the black core of it. All last evening, all through that hilarity he had been plotting this. Plotting it perhaps from the first moment of their meeting. Unable to resist the prompting of the extraordinary likeness, this joker, this waster, done to the world, had left life at the end of a last jamboree, and with a burst of laughter—leaving another man in his clothes, nay, almost one might say in his body.
Jones saw the point of the thing at once.
He saw something else. He was automatically barred from the Savoy, and barred from the American Consul. And on top of that something else. He had committed a very grave mistake in accepting for a moment his position. He should have spoken at once that morning, spoken to "Mr. Church," told his tale and made explanations, failing that he should have made explanations before leaving the house. He had left in Rochester's clothes, he had acted the part of Rochester.
He rolled the paper into a ball, tossed it into the gutter, and entered Charing Cross to continue his soliloquy.
He had eaten Rochester's food, smoked one of his cigars, accepted his cane and gloves. All that might have been explainable with Rochester's aid, but Rochester was dead.
No one knew that Rochester was dead. To go back to the Savoy and establish his own identity, he would have to establish the fact of Rochester's death, tell the story of his own intoxication, and make people believe that he was an innocent victim.
An innocent victim who had gone to another man's house and palpably masqueraded for some hours as that other man, walking out of the house in his clothes and carrying his stick, an innocent victim, who owed a bill at the Savoy.
Why, every man, the family included you may be sure, would be finding the innocent victim in Rochester.
What were Jones' letters doing on Rochester? That was a nice question for a puzzle-headed jury to answer.
By what art did Jones, the needy American Adventurer—that was what they would call him—impose himself upon Rochester, and induce Rochester to order him to be taken to Carlton House Terrace?
Oh, there were a lot more questions to be asked at that phantom court of Justice, where Jones beheld himself in the dock trying to explain the inexplicable.
The likeness would not be any use for white-washing; it would only deepen the mystery, make the affair more extravagant. Besides, the likeness most likely by this time would be pretty well spoiled; by the time of the Assizes it would be only verifiable by photographs.
Sitting on a seat in Charing Cross station, he cogitated thus, chasing the most fantastic ideas, yet gripped all the time by the cold fact.
The fact that the only door in London open to him was the door of 10A, Carlton House Terrace.
Unable to return to the Savoy, he possessed nothing in the world but the clothes he stood up in and the walking stick he held in his hand. Dressed like a lord, he was poorer than any tramp, for the simple reason that his extravagantly fine clothes barred him from begging and from the menial work that is the only recourse of the suddenly destitute.
Given time, and with his quick business capacity, he might have made a fight to obtain a clerk-ship or some post in a store—but he had no time. It was near the luncheon hour and he was hungry. That fact alone was an indication of how he was placed as regards Time.
He was a logical man. He saw clearly that only two courses lay before him. To go to the Savoy and tell his story and get food and lodging in the Police Station, or to go to 10A, Carlton House Terrace and get food and lodging as Rochester.
Both ideas were hateful, but he reckoned, and with reason, that if he took the first course, arrest and ignominy, and probably imprisonment would be certain, whereas if he took the second he might be able to bluff the thing out till he could devise means of escape from the net that surrounded him.
He determined on the second course. The servants, and even that scarecrow woman in the feather boa had accepted him as good coin; there was no reason why they should not go on accepting him for a while. For the matter of that, there was no reason why they should not go on accepting him forever.
Even in the midst of his disturbance of mind and general tribulation, the humour of the latter idea almost made him smile. The idea of living and dying as Lord Rochester, as a member of the English Aristocracy, always being "My Lorded," served by flunkeys with big calves, and inducted every morning into his under pants by that guy in the sleeved jacket!
This preposterous idea, more absurd than any dream, was yet based on a substantive foundation. In fact he had that morning put it in practice, and unless a miracle occurred he would have to continue putting it in practice for some days to come.
However, Jones, fortunately or unfortunately for himself, was a man of action and no dreamer. He dismissed the ideas and came to practical considerations.
If he had to hold on to the position, he would have to make more sure of his ground.
He rose, found his way into Charing Cross Station Hotel, and obtained a copy of "Who's Who" from the hotel clerk.
He turned the pages till he found the R's. Here was his man.
Rochester. 21st Earl of (cr. 1431) Arthur Coningsby Delamere. Baron Coningsby of Wilton, ex Lieut. Rifle Brigade, m. Teresa, 2d daughter of Sir Peter Mason Bart. 9 v. Educ. Heidelberg. Owns about 21,000 acres. Address 10A, Carlton House Terrace. Rochester Court, Rochester. The Hatch, Colney, Wilts. Clubs, Senior Conservative, National Sporting, Pelican.
That was only a part of the sayings of "Who's Who" regarding Rochester, Arthur Coningsby, Delamere. The last decadent descendant of a family that had been famous in long past years for its power, prodigality and prolificacy.
If Jones could have climbed up his own family tree he might have found on some distaff branch the reason of his appalling likeness to Rochester, Arthur Coningsby, Delamere, but this was a pure matter of speculation, and it did not enter the mind of Jones.
He closed the book, returned it, and walked out.
Now that his resolve was made, his fighting spirit was roused. In other words he felt the same recklessness that a man feels who is going into battle, the regardlessness of consequence which marks your true explorer. For Stanley on the frontier of Darkest Africa, Scott on the ice rim of the Beardmore Glacier, had before them positions and districts simple in comparison to those that now fronted Jones, who had before him the Western and South Western London Districts, with all they contained in the way of natives in top hats, natives painted and powdered, tribes with tribal laws of which he knew little, tricks of which he knew less, convenances, ju-pu's and fetishes. And he was entering this dark and intricate and dangerous country, not as an explorer carrying beads and bibles, but disguised as a top man, a chief.
Burton's position when he journeyed to Mecca disguised as a Mohammedan was easy compared to the position of Jones. Burton knew the ritual. He made one mistake in it it is true, but then he was able to kill the man who saw him make that mistake. Jones could not protect himself in this way, even if the valet in the sleeved jacket were to discover him in a position analogous to Burton's.
He was not thinking of any of these things at the present moment, however; he was thinking of luncheon. If he were condemned to play the part of a Lord for awhile, he was quite determined to take his salary in the way of everything he wanted. Yet it seemed that to obtain anything he wanted in his new and extraordinary position, he would have to take something he did not want. He wanted luncheon but he did not want to go back to Carlton House Terrace, at least not just now. Those flunkeys—the very thought of them gave him indigestion—more than that, he was afraid of them. A fear that was neither physical nor moral, but more in the nature of the fear of women for mice, or the supposed fear of the late Lord Roberts for cats.
The solemn Church, the mercurial valet, the men with calves, belonged to a tribe that maybe had done Jones to death in some past life: either bored him to death or bludgeoned him, it did not matter, the antipathy was there, and it was powerful.
At the corner of Northumberland Avenue an idea came to him. This Rochester belonged to several clubs, why not go and have luncheon at one of them on credit? It would save him for the moment from returning to the door towards which Fate was shepherding him, and he might be able to pick up some extra wrinkles about himself and his position. The idea was indicative of the daring of the man, though there was little enough danger in it. He was sure of passing muster at a club, since he had done so at home. He carried the names of two of Rochester's clubs in his mind, the Pelican and the Senior Conservative. The latter seemed the more stodgy, the least likely to offer surprises in the way of shoulder clapping, irresponsible parties who might want to enter into general conversation.
He chose it, asked a policeman for directions, and made for Pall Mall.
Here another policeman pointed out to him the building he was in search of.
It stood on the opposite side of the way, a building of grey stone, vast and serious of feature, yet opulent and hinting of the best in all things relative to comfort.
It was historical. Disraeli had come down those steps, and the great Lord Salisbury had gone up them. Men, to enter this place, had to be born, not made, and even these selected ones had to put their names down at birth, if they wished for any chance of lunching there before they lost their teeth and hair.
It took twenty-one years for the elect to reach this place, and on the way they were likely to be slain by black balls.
Victor Jones just crossed the road and went up the steps.
He had lunched at the Constitutional with a chance acquaintance picked up on his first week in London, so he knew something of the ways of English clubs, yet the vast hall of this place daunted him for a moment.
However, the club servants seeming to know him, and recognising that indecision is the most fatal weakness of man, he crossed the hall, and seeing some gentlemen going up the great staircase he followed to a door in the first landing.
He saw through the glass swing doors that this was the great luncheon room of the club, and having made this discovery he came downstairs again where good fortune, in the form of a bald headed man without hat or stick, coming through a passage way, indicated the cloak room to him.
Here he washed his hands and brushed his hair, and looking at himself in a glass judged his appearance to be conservative and all right. He, a democrat of the Democrats in this hive of Aristocracy and old crusted conservatism, might have felt qualms of political conscience, but for the fact that earthly politics, social theories, and social instincts were less to him now than to an inhabitant of the dark body that tumbles and fumbles around Sirius. Less than the difference between the minnow and the roach to the roach in the landing net.
Leaving the place he almost ran into the arms of a gentleman who was entering, and who gave him a curt "H'do."
He knew that man. He had seen his newspaper portrait in America as well as England. It was the leader of His Majesty's Opposition, the Queen bee of this hive where he was about to sit down to lunch. The Queen bee did not seem very friendly, a fact that augured ill for the attitude of the workers and the drones.
Arrived at the glass swing doors before mentioned, he looked in.
The place was crowded.
It looked to him as though for the space of a mile and a half or so, lay tables, tables, tables, all occupied by twos and threes and fours of men. Conservative looking men, and no doubt mostly Lords.
It was too late to withdraw without shattering his own self respect and self confidence. The cold bath was before him, and there was no use putting a toe in.
He opened the door and entered, walking between the tables and looking the luncheon parties in the face.
The man seated has a tremendous advantage over the man standing in this sort of game. One or two of the members met by the newcomer's glance, bowed in the curious manner of the seated Briton, the eyes of others fell away, others nodded frigidly, it seemed to Jones. Then, like a pilot fish before a shark leading him to his food, a club waiter developed and piloted him to a small unoccupied table, where he took a seat and looked at a menu handed to him by the pilot.
He ordered fillet of sole, roast chicken, salad, and strawberry ice. They were the easiest things to order. He would have ordered roast elephant's trunk had it been easier and on the menu.
A man after the storming of Hell Gate, or just dismounted after the Charge of the Light Brigade, would have possessed as little instinct for menu hunting as Jones.
He had pierced the ranks of the British Aristocracy; that was nothing—he was seated at their camp fire, sharing their food, and they were all inimical towards him; that was everything.
He felt the draught. He felt that these men had a down on him; felt it by all sorts of senses that seemed newly developed. Not a down on him, Jones, but a down on him, Rochester, Arthur Coningsby Delamere, 21st Earl of.
And the extraordinary thing was that he felt it. What on earth did it matter to him if these men looked coldly upon another man? It did. It mattered quite a lot, more than perhaps it ever mattered to the other man. Is the soul such a shallow and blind thing that it cannot sort the true from the false, the material from the immaterial, cannot see that an insult levelled at a likeness is not an insult levelled at it?
Surely not, and yet the soul of Victor Jones resented the coolness of others towards the supposed body of Rochester, as though it were a personal insult.
It was the first intimation to Jones that when the actor puts on his part he puts on more than a cloak or trunk hose, that the personality he had put on had nerves curiously associated with his own nerves, and that, though he might say to himself a hundred times with respect to the attitudes of other people, "Pah! they don't mean me," that formula was no charm against disdain.
The wine butler, a gentleman not unlike Mr. Church, was now at his elbow, and he found himself contemplating the wine card of the Senior Conservative, a serious document, if one may judge by the faces of the men who peruse it.
It is in fact the Almanach de Gotha of wines. The old kings of wine are here, the princess and all the aristocracy. Unlike the Almanach de Gotha, however, the price of each is set down. Unlike the Almanach de Gotha, the names of a few commoners are admitted.
Macon was here, and even Blackways' Cyder, the favourite tipple of the old Duke of Taunton.
Jones ran his eye over the list without enthusiasm. He had taken a dislike to alcohol even in its mildest guise.
"Er—what minerals have you got?" asked he.
The man with the wine card was nonplussed. Jones saw his mistake.
"Soda water," said he. "Get me some soda water."
The fillet of sole with sauce Tartare was excellent. Nothing, not even the minerals could dim that fact. As he ate he looked about him, and with all the more ease, because he found now that nobody was looking at him; his self consciousness died down, and he began speculating on the men around, their probable rank, fortune, and intellect. It seemed to Jones that the latter factor was easier of determination than the other two.
What struck him more forcibly was a weird resemblance between them all, a phantom thing, a link undiscoverable yet somehow there. This tribal expression is one of the strangest phenomena eternally comforting and battering our senses.
Just as men grow like their wives, so do they grow like their fellow tradesmen, waiters like waiters, grooms like grooms, lawyers like lawyers, politicians like politicians. More, it has been undeniably proved that landowners grow like landowners, just as shepherds grow like sheep, and aristocrats like aristocrats.
A common idea moulds faces to its shape, and a common want of ideas allows external circumstances to do the moulding.
So, English Conservative Politicians of the higher order, being worked upon by external circumstances of a similar nature, have perhaps a certain similar expression. Radical Politicians on the other hand, shape to a common idea—evil—but still an idea. Jones was not thinking this, he was just recognising that all these men belonged to the same class, and he felt in himself that, not only did he not belong to that class, but that Rochester also, probably, had found himself in the same position.
That might have accounted for the wildness and eccentricity of Rochester, as demonstrated in that mad carouse and hinted at by the woman in the feather boa. The wildness of a monkey condemned to live amongst goats, hanging on to their horns, and clutching at their scuts, and playing all the tricks that contrariness might suggest to a contrary nature.
Something of this sort was passing through Jones' mind, and as he attacked his strawberry ice, for the first time since reading that momentous piece of news in the evening newspaper his mental powers became focussed on the question that lay at the very heart of all this business. It struck him now so very forcibly that he laid down his spoon and stared before him, forgetful of the place where he was and the people around him.
"Why did that guy commit suicide?"
That was the question.
He could find no answer to it.
A man does not as a rule commit suicide simply because he is eccentric or because he has made a mess of his estates, or because being a practical joker he suddenly finds his twin image to defraud. Rochester had evidently done nothing to bar him from society. Though perhaps coldly received by his club, he was still received by it. Had he done something that society did not know of, something that might suddenly obtrude itself?
Jones was brought back from his reverie with a snap. One of the confounded waiters was making off with his half eaten ice.
"Hi," cried he. "What you doing? Bring that back."
His voice rang through the room, people turned to look. He mentally cursed the ice and the creature who had snapped it from him, finished it, devoured a wafer, and then, rising to his feet, left the room. It was easier to leave than to come in, other men were leaving, and in the general break up he felt less observed.
Downstairs he looked through glass doors into a room where men were smoking, correct men in huge arm chairs, men with legs stretched out, men smoking big cigars and talking politics no doubt. He wanted to smoke, but he did not want to smoke in that place.
He went to the cloak room, fetched his hat and cane and gloves and left the club.
Outside in Pall Mall he remembered that he had not told the waiter to credit him with the luncheon, but a trifle like that did not bother him now. They would be sure to put it down.
What did trouble him was the still unanswered question, "Why did that guy commit suicide?"
Suppose Rochester had murdered some man and had committed suicide to escape the consequences? This thought gave him a cold grue such as he had never experienced before. For a moment he saw himself hauled before a British Court of Justice; for a moment, and for the first time in his life, he found himself wondering what a hangman might be like.
But Victor Jones, though a visionary sometimes in business, was at base a business man. More used to his position now, and looking it fairly in the face, he found that he had little to fear even if Rochester had committed a murder. He could, if absolutely driven to it, prove his identity. Driven to it, he could prove his life in Philadelphia, bring witnesses and relate circumstances. His tale would all hang together, simply because it was the truth. This inborn assurance heartened him a lot, and, more cheerful now, he began to recognise more of the truth. His position was very solid. Every one had accepted him. Unless he came an awful bump over some crime committed by the late defunct, he could go on forever as the Earl of Rochester. He did not want to go on forever as the Earl of Rochester; he wanted to get back to the States and just be himself, and he intended so to do having scraped a little money together. But the idea tickled him just as it had done in Charing Cross Station, and it had lost its monstrous appearance and had become humorous, a highly dangerous appearance for a dangerous idea to take.
Jones was a great walker, exercise always cleared his mind and strengthened his judgment. He set off on a long walk now, passing the National Gallery to Regent Circus, then up Regent Street and Oxford Street, and along Oxford Street towards the West. He found himself in High Street Kensington, in Hammersmith, and then in those dismal regions where the country struggles with the town.
Oh, those suburbs of London! Within easy reach of the city! Those battalions of brick houses, bits of corpses, of what once were fields; those villas, laundries——
The contrast between this place and Pall Mall came as a sudden revelation to Jones, the contrast between the power, ease, affluence and splendour of the surroundings of the Earl of Rochester, and the surroundings of the bank clerks and small people who dwelt here.
The view point is everything. From here Carlton House Terrace seemed almost pleasing.
Jones, like a good Democrat, had all his life professed a contempt for rank. Titles had seemed as absurd to him as feathers in a monkey's cap. It was here in ultra Hammersmith that he began to review this question from a more British standpoint.
Tell it not in Gath, he was beginning to feel the vaguest antipathetic stirring against little houses and ultra people.
He turned and began to retrace his steps. It was seven o'clock when he reached the door of 10A, Carlton House Terrace.
The flunkey who admitted him, having taken his hat, stick and gloves, presented him with a letter that had arrived by the midday post, also with a piece of information.
"Mr. Voles called to see you, my Lord, shortly after twelve. He stated that he had an appointment with you. He is to call again at quarter past seven."
Jones took the letter and went with it to the room where he had sat that morning. Upon the table lay all the letters that he had not opened that morning. He had forgotten these. Here was a mistake. If he wished to hold to his position for even a few days, it would be necessary to guard against mistakes like this.
He hurriedly opened them, merely glancing at the contents, which for the most part were unintelligible to him.
There was a dinner invitation from Lady Snorries—whoever she might be—and a letter beginning "Dear old Boy" from a female who signed herself "Julie," an appeal from a begging letter writer, and a letter beginning "Dear Rochester" from a gentleman who signed himself simply "Childersley."
The last letter he opened was the one he had just received from the servant.
It was written on poor paper, and it ran:
"Stick to it—if you can. You'll see why I couldn't. There's a fiver under the papers of the top right hand drawer of bureau in smoke room.
Jones knew that this letter, though addressed to the Earl of Rochester, was meant for him, and was written by Rochester, written probably on some bar counter, and posted at the nearest pillar box just before he had committed the act.
He went to the drawer in the bureau indicated, raised the papers in it and found a five pound note.
Having glanced at it he closed the drawer, placed the note in his waistcoat pocket and sat down again at the table.
"Stick to it—if you can." The words rang in his ears just as though he had heard them spoken.
Those words, backed by the five pound note, wrought a great change in the mind of Jones. He had Rochester's permission to act as he was acting, and a little money to help him in his actions.
The fact of his penury had been like a wet blanket upon him all day. He felt that power had come to him with permission. He could think clearly now. He rose and paced the floor.
"Stick to it—if you can."
Why not—why not—why not? He found himself laughing out loud, a great gush of energy had come to him. Jones was a man of that sort, a new and great idea always came to him on the crest of a wave of energy; the British Government Contract idea had come to him like that, and the wave had carried him to England.
Why not be the Earl of Rochester, make good his position finally, stand on the pinnacle where Fate had placed him, and carry this thing through to its ultimate issue?
It would not be all jam. Rochester must have been very much pressed by circumstances; that did not frighten Jones, to him the game was everything, and the battle.
He would make good where Rochester had failed, meet the difficulties that had destroyed the other, face them, overcome them.
His position was unassailable.
Coming over from New York he had read Nelson's shilling edition of the Life of Sir Henry Hawkins. He had read with amazement the story of British credulity expressed in the Tichborne Case. How Arthur Orton, a butcher, scarcely able to write, had imposed himself on the Public as Roger Tichborne, a young aristocrat of good education.
He contrasted his own position with Orton's.
He was absolutely unassailable.
He went to the cigar box, chose a cigar and lit it.
There was the question of hand writing! That suddenly occurred to him, confronting his newly formed plans. He would have to sign cheques, write letters. A typewriter could settle the latter question, and as for the signature, he possessed a sample of Rochester's, and would have to imitate it. At the worst he could pretend he had injured his thumb—that excuse would last for some time. "There's one big thing about the whole business," said he to himself, "and that is the chap's eccentricity. Why, if I'm shoved too hard, I can pretend to have lost my memory or my wits—there's not a blessed card I haven't either in my hand or up my sleeve, and if worst comes to worst, I can always prove my identity and tell my story." He was engaged with thoughts like these when the door opened and the servant, bearing a card on a salver, announced that Mr. Voles, the gentleman who had called earlier in the day, had arrived.
"Bring him in," said Victor. The servant retired and returned immediately ushering in Voles, who entered carrying his hat before him. The stranger was a man of fifty, a tubby man, dressed in a black frock coat, covered, despite the summer weather, by a thin black overcoat with silk facings. His face was evil, thick skinned, yellow, heavy nosed, the hair of the animal was jet black, thin, and presented to the eyes of the gazer a small Disraeli curl upon the forehead of the owner.
The card announced:
MR. A. S. VOLES 12B. Jermyn Street
Voles himself, and unknown to himself, announced a lot of other things.
Victor Jones had a sharp instinct for men, well whetted by experience.
He nodded to the newcomer, curtly, and without rising from his chair; the servant shut the door and the two men were alone.
Just as a dog's whole nature livens at the smell of a pole cat, so did Jones' nature at the sight of Voles. He felt this man to be an enemy.
Voles came to the table and placed his hat upon it. Then he turned, went to the door and opened it to see if the servant was listening.
He shut the door.
"Well," said he, "have you got the money for me?"
Another man in Jones' position might have asked, and with reason. "What money?"
Jones simply said "No."
This simple answer had a wonderful effect. Voles, about to take a seat, remained standing, clasping the back of the chair he had chosen. Then he burst out.
"You fooled me yesterday, and gave me an appointment for to-day. I called, you were out."
"Were you? You said the money would be here waiting for me—well, here I am now, I've got a cab outside ready to take it."
"And suppose I don't give it to you?" asked Jones.
"We won't suppose any nonsense like that!" replied Voles taking his seat, "not so long as there are policemen to be called at a minute's notice."
"That's true," said the other, "we don't want the police."
"You don't," replied Voles. He was staring at Jones. The Earl of Rochester's voice struck him as not quite the same as usual, more spring in it and vitality—altered in fact. But he suspected nothing of the truth. Passed as good coin by Voles, Jones had nothing to fear from any man or woman in London, for the eye of Voles was unerring, the ear of Voles ditto, the mind of Voles balanced like a jeweller's scales.
"True," said Jones. "I don't—well, let's talk about this money. Couldn't you take half to-night, and half in a week's time?"
"Not me," replied the other. "I must have the two thousand to-night, same as usual."
Jones had the whole case in his hands now, and he began preparing the toast on which to put this most evident blackmailer when cooked.
His quick mind had settled everything. Here was the first obstacle in his path, it would have to be destroyed, not surmounted. He determined to destroy it. If the worst came to the worst, if whatever crime Rochester had committed were to be pressed home on him by Voles, he would declare everything, prove his identity by sending for witnesses from the States, and show Rochester's letter. The blackmailing would account for Rochester's suicide.
But Jones knew blackmailers, and he knew that Voles would never prosecute. Rochester must indeed have been a weak fool not to have grasped this nettle and torn it up by the roots. He forgot that Rochester was probably guilty—that makes all the difference in the world.
"You shall have the money," said he, "but see here, let's make an end of this. Now let's see. How much have you had already?"
"Only eight," said Voles. "You know that well enough, why ask?"
"Eight thousand," murmured the other, "you have had eight thousand pounds out of me, and the two to-night will make ten. Seems a good price for a few papers." He made the shot on spec. It was a bull's eye.
"Oh, those papers are worth a good deal more than that," said Voles, "a good deal more than that."
So it was documents not actions that the blackmailer held in suspense over the head of Rochester. It really did not matter a button to Jones, he stood ready to face murder itself, armed as he was with Rochester's letter in his pocket, and the surety of being able to identity himself.
"Well," said he, "let's finish this business. Have you a cheque book on you?"
"I have a cheque book right enough—what's your game now?"
"Just an idea of mine before I pay you—bring out your cheque book, you'll see what I mean in a minute."
Voles hesitated, then, with a laugh, he took the cheque book from the breast pocket of his overcoat.
"Now tear out a cheque."
"Tear out a cheque," cried the other. "What on earth are you getting at—one of my cheques—this is good."
"Tear out a cheque," insisted the other, "it will only cost you a penny, and you will see my meaning in a moment."
The animal, before the insistent direction of the other, hesitated, then with a laugh he tore out a cheque.
"Now place it on the table."
Voles placed it on the table.
Jones going to the bureau fetched a pen and ink. He pushed a chair to the table, and made the other sit down.
"Now," said Jones, "write me out a cheque for eight thousand pounds."
Voles threw the pen down with a laugh—it was his last in that room.
"You won't?" said Jones.
"Oh, quit this fooling," replied the other. "I've no time for such stuff—what are you doing now?"
"Ringing the bell," said Jones.
Voles, just about to pick up the cheque, paused. He seemed to find himself at fault for a moment. The jungle beast, that hears the twig crack beneath the foot of the man with the express rifle, pauses like that over his bloody meal on the carcass of the decoy goat.
The door opened and a servant appeared, it was the miracle with calves.
"Send out at once, and bring in an officer—a policeman," said Jones.
"Yes, my Lord."
The door shut.
Voles jumped up, and seized his hat. Jones walked to the door and locked it, placing the key in his pocket.
"I've got you," said he, "and I'm going to squeeze you, and I'm going to make you squeal."
"You're going to—you're going to—you're going to—" said Voles. He was the colour of old ivory.
"I'm going to make you go through this—"
"Here, d—n this nonsense—stop it—you fool, I'll smash you," said Voles. "Here, open that door and stop this business."
"I told you I was going to make you squeal," said Jones, "but that's nothing to what's coming."
Voles came to the table and put down his hat. Then, facing Jones, he rapped with the knuckles of his right hand on the table.
"You've done it now," said he, "you've laid yourself open to a nice charge, false imprisonment, that's what you've done. A nice thing in the papers to-morrow morning, and intimidation on top of that. Over and above those there's the papers. I'll have no mercy—those papers go to Lord Plinlimon to-morrow morning, you'll be in the divorce court this day month, and so will she. Reputation! she won't have a rag to cover herself with."
"Oh, won't she?" said Jones. "This is most interesting." He felt a great uplift of the heart. So this blackmail business had to do with a woman. The idea that Rochester was some horrible form of criminal had weighed upon him. It had seemed to him that no man would pay such a huge sum as eight thousand pounds in the way of blackmail unless his crime were in proportion. Rochester had evidently paid it to shield not only his own name, but the name of a woman.
"Most interesting," said Voles. "I'm glad you think so—" Then in a burst, "Come, open that door and stop this nonsense—take that key out of your pocket and open the door. You always were a fool, but this is beyond folly—the pair of you are in the hollow of my hand, you know it—I can crush you like that—like that—like that!"
He opened and shut his right hand. A cruel hand it was, hairy as to the back, huge as to the thumb.
Jones looked at him.
"You are wasting a lot of muscular energy," said he. "My determination is made, and it holds. You are going to prison, Mr. Filthy Beast, Voles. I'm up against you, that's the plain truth. I'm going to cut you open, and show your inside to the British Public. They'll be so lost in admiration at the sight, they won't bother about the woman or me. They'll call us public benefactors, I reckon. You know men, and you know when a man is determined. Look at me, look at me in the face, you sumph—"
A knock came to the door.
Jones took the key from his pocket and opened the door.
"The constable is here, my Lord," said the servant.
"Tell him to come in," said Jones.
Voles had taken up his hat again, and he stood now by the table, hat in hand, looking exactly what he was, a criminal on his defence.
The constable was a fresh-looking and upstanding young man; he had removed his helmet and was carrying it by the chin strap. He had no bludgeon, no revolver, yet he impressed Jones almost as much as he impressed the other.
"Officer," said Jones. "I have called you in for the purpose of giving this man in charge for attempting—"
"Stop," cried Voles.
Then something Oriental in his nature took charge of him. He rushed forward with arms out, as though to embrace the policeman.
"It is all a mistake," cried he, "constable, one moment, go outside one moment, leave me with his lordship. I will explain. There is nothing wrong, it is all a big mistake."
The constable held him off, glancing for orders at Jones.
Jones felt no vindictiveness towards Voles now; disgust, such as he might have felt towards a vulture or a cormorant, but no vindictiveness.
He wanted that eight thousand pounds.
He had determined to make good in his new position, to fight the world that Rochester had failed to fight, and overcome the difficulties sure to be ahead of him. Voles was the first great difficulty, and lo, it seemed, that he was about not only to destroy it, but turn it to a profit. He did not want the eight thousand for himself, he wanted it for the game; and the fascination of that great game he was only just beginning to understand.
"Go outside, officer," said he to the constable.
He shut the door. "Sit down and write," said he. Voles said not a word.
He went to the table, sat down and picked up the pen. The cheque was still lying there. He drew it towards him. Then he flung the pen down. Then he picked it up, but he did not write. He waved it between finger and thumb, as though he were beating time to a miniature orchestra staged on the table before him. Then he began to write.
He was making out a cheque to the Earl of Rochester for the sum of eight thousand pounds, no shillings, no pence.
He signed it A. S. Voles.
He was about to cross it, but Jones stopped him. "Leave it open," said he, "and now one thing more, I must have those papers to-morrow morning without fail. And to make certain of them you must do this."
He went to the bureau and took a sheet of note paper, which he laid before the other.
"Write," said he. "I will dictate. Begin June 2nd."
Voles put the date.
"'My Lord,'" went on the dictator. "'This is to promise you that to-morrow morning I will hand to the messenger you send to me all the papers of yours in my possession. I confess to having held those papers over you for the purpose of blackmail, and of having obtained from you the sum of eight thousand pounds, and I promise to amend my ways, and to endeavour to lead an honest life.
Signed. A. S. VOLES.'" To The Earl of Rochester.
That was the letter.
Three times the rogue at the table refused to go on writing, and three times his master went to the door, the rattle of the door handle always inspiring the scribe to renewed energy.
When the thing was finished Jones read it over, blotted it, and put it in his pocket with the cheque.
"Now you can go," said he. "I will send a man to-morrow morning at eight o'clock to your home for the papers. I will not use this letter against you, unless you give trouble—Well, what do you want?"
"Brandy," gasped Voles. "For God's sake some brandy."
The little glass that had held the fin champagne stood on the table, the door was shut, Voles was gone, and the incident was ended.
Jones, for the first time in his life, felt the faintness that comes after supreme exertion. He could never have imagined that a thing like that would have so upset him. He was unconscious during the whole of the business that he was putting out more energy than ordinary, he knew it now as he contemplated the magnitude of his victory, sitting exhausted in the big saddle-bag chair on the left of the fire place and facing the door.
He had crushed the greatest rogue in London, taken from him eight thousand pounds of ill gotten money, and freed himself of an incubus that would have made his position untenable.
Rochester could have done just the same, had he possessed daring, and energy, and courage enough. He hadn't, and there was an end of it.
At this moment a knock came to the door, and a flunkey—a new one—appeared.
"Dinner is served, my Lord."
Jones sat up in his chair.
"Dinner," said he. "I'm not ready for it yet. Fetch me a whisky and soda—look here, tell Mr. Church I want to see him."
"Yes, my Lord."
Jones, as stated before, possessed that very rare attitude—an eye for men. It was quite unknown to him; up to this he had been condemned to take men as he found them; the pressure of circumstances alone had made him a business partner with Aaron Stringer. He had never trusted Stringer. Now, being in a position of command, he began to use this precious gift, and he selected Church for a first officer. He wanted a henchman.
The whisky and soda arrived, and, almost immediately on it, Church.
Jones, placing the half empty glass on the table, nodded to him.
"Come in," said he, "and shut the door."
Church closed the door and stood at attention. This admirable man's face was constructed not with a view to the easy interpretation of emotions. I doubt if an earthquake in Carlton House Terrace and the vicinity could have altered the expression of it.