Two incidents, widely different in character yet bound together by results, marked the night of January the twenty-third. On that night the blackest fog within a four years' memory fell upon certain portions of London, and also on that night came the first announcement of the border risings against the Persian government in the province of Khorasan the announcement that, speculated upon, even smiled at, at the time, assumed such significance in the light of after events.
At eight o'clock the news spread through the House of Commons; but at nine men in the inner lobbies were gossiping, not so much upon how far Russia, while ostensibly upholding the Shah, had pulled the strings by which the insurgents danced, as upon the manner in which the 'St. Geotge's Gazette', the Tory evening newspaper, had seized upon the incident and shaken it in the faces of the government.
More than once before, Lakely—the owner and editor of the 'St. George's'—had stepped outside the decorous circle of tradition and taken a plunge into modern journalism, but to-night he essayed deeper waters than before, and under an almost sensational heading declared that in this apparently innocent border rising we had less an outcome of mere racial antagonism than a first faint index of a long-cherished Russian scheme, growing to a gradual maturity under the "drift" policy of the present British government.
The effect produced by this pronouncement, if strong, was varied. Members of the Opposition saw, or thought they saw, a reflection of it in the smiling unconcern on the Ministerial benches; and the government had an uneasy sense that behind the newly kindled interest on the other side of the House lay some mysterious scenting of battle from afar off. But though these impressions ran like electricity through the atmosphere, nothing tangible marked their passage, and the ordinary business of the House proceeded until half-past eleven, when an adjournment was moved.
The first man to hurry from his place was John Chilcote, member for East Wark. He passed out of the House quickly, with the half-furtive quickness that marks a self-absorbed man; and as he passed the policeman standing stolidly under the arched door-way of the big court-yard he swerved a little, as if startled out of his thoughts. He realized his swerve almost before it was accomplished, and pulled himself together with nervous irritability.
"Foggy night, constables," he said, with elaborate carelessness.
"Foggy night, sir, and thickening up west," responded the man.
"Ah, indeed!" Chilcote's answer was absent. The constable's cheery voice jarred on him, and for the second time he was conscious of senseless irritation.
Without a further glance at the man, he slipped out into the court-yard and turned towards the main gate.
At the gate-way two cab lamps showed through the mist of shifting fog like the eyes of a great cat, and the familiar "Hansom, sir?" came to him indistinctly.
He paused by force of custom; and, stepping forward, had almost touched the open door when a new impulse caused him to draw back.
"No," he said, hurriedly. "No. I'll walk."
The cabman muttered, lashed his horse, and with a clatter of hoofs and harness wheeled away; while Chilcote, still with uncertain hastiness, crossed the road in the direction of Whitehall.
About the Abbey the fog had partially lifted, and in the railed garden that faces the Houses of Parliament the statues were visible in a spectral way. But Chilcote's glance was unstable and indifferent; he skirted the railings heedlessly, and, crossing the road with the speed of long familiarity, gained Whitehall on the lefthand side.
There the fog had dropped, and, looking upward towards Trafalgar Square, it seemed that the chain of lamps extended little farther than the Horse Guards, and that beyond lay nothing.
Unconscious of this capricious alternation between darkness and light, Chilcote continued his course. To a close observer the manner of his going had both interest and suggestion; for though he walked on, apparently self-engrossed, yet at every dozen steps he started at some sound or some touch, like a man whose nervous system is painfully overstrung.
Maintaining his haste, he went deliberately forward, oblivious of the fact that at each step the curtain of darkness about him became closer, damper, more tangible; that at each second the passers-by jostled each other with greater frequency. Then, abruptly, with a sudden realization of what had happened, he stood quite still. Without anticipation or preparation he had walked full into the thickness of the fog—a thickness so dense that, as by an enchanter's wand, the figures of a moment before melted, the street lamps were sucked up into the night.
His first feeling was a sense of panic at the sudden isolation, his second a thrill of nervous apprehension at the oblivion that had allowed him to be so entrapped. The second feeling outweighed the first. He moved forward, then paused again, uncertain of himself. Finally, with the consciousness that inaction was unbearable, he moved on once more, his eyes wide open, one hand thrust out as a protection and guide.
The fog had closed in behind him as heavily as in front, shutting off all possibility of retreat; all about him in the darkness was a confusion of voices—cheerful, dubious, alarmed, or angry; now and then a sleeve brushed his or a hand touched him tentatively. It was a strange moment, a moment of possibilities, to which the crunching wheels, the oaths and laughter from the blocked traffic of the road-way, made a continuous accompaniment.
Keeping well to the left, Chilcote still beat on; there was a persistence in his movements that almost amounted to fear —a fear born of the solitude filled with innumerable sounds. For a space he groped about him without result, then his fingers touched the cold surface of a shuttered shop-front, and a thrill of reassurance passed through him. With renewed haste, and clinging to his landmark as a blind man might, he started forward with fresh impetus.
For a dozen paces he moved rapidly and unevenly, then the natural result occurred. He collided with a man coming in the opposite direction.
The shock was abrupt. Both men swore simultaneously, then both laughed. The whole thing was casual, but Chilcote was in that state of mind when even the commonplace becomes abnormal. The other man's exclamation, the other man's laugh, struck on his nerves; coming out of the darkness, they sounded like a repetition of his own.
Nine out of every ten men in London, given the same social position and the same education, might reasonably be expected to express annoyance or amusement in the same manner, possibly in the same tone of voice; and Chilcote remembered this almost at the moment of his nervous jar.
"Beastly fog!" he said, aloud. "I'm trying to find Grosvenor Square, but the chances seem rather small."
The other laughed again, and again the laugh upset Chilcote. He wondered uncomfortably if he was becoming a prey to illusions. But the stranger spoke before the question had solved itself.
"I'm afraid they are small," he said. "It would be almost hard to find one's way to the devil on a night like this."
Chilcote made a murmur of amusement and drew back against the shop.
"Yes. We can see now where the blind man scores in the matter of salvation. This is almost a repetition of the fog of six years ago. Were you out in that?"
It was a habit of his to jump from one sentence to another, a habit that had grown of late.
"No." The stranger had also groped his way to the shopfront. "No, I was out of England six years ago."
"You were lucky." Chilcote turned up the collar of his coat. "It was an atrocious fog, as black as this, but more universal. I remember it well. It was the night Lexington made his great sugar speech. Some of us were found on Lambeth Bridge at three in the morning, having left the House at twelve."
Chilcote seldom indulged in reminiscences, but this conversation with an unseen companion was more like a soliloquy than a dialogue. He was almost surprised into an exclamation when the other caught up his words.
"Ah! The sugar speech!" he said. "Odd that I should have been looking it up only yesterday. What a magnificent dressing-up of a dry subject it was! What a career Lexington promised in those days!"
Chilcote changed his position.
"You are interested in the muddle down at Westminster?" he asked, sarcastically.
"I—?" It was the turn of the stranger to draw back a step. "Oh, I read my newspaper with the other five million, that is all. I am an outsider." His voice sounded curt; the warmth that admiration had brought into it a moment before had frozen abruptly.
"An outsider!" Chilcote repeated. "What an enviable word!"
"Possibly, to those who are well inside the ring. But let us go back to Lexington. What a pinnacle the man reached, and what a drop he had! It has always seemed to me an extraordinary instance of the human leaven running through us all. What was the real cause of his collapse?" he asked, suddenly. "Was it drugs or drink? I have often wished to get at the truth."
Again Chilcote changed his attitude.
"Is truth ever worth getting at?" he asked, irrelevantly.
"In the case of a public man—yes. He exchanges his privacy for the interest of the masses. If he gives the masses the details of his success, why not the details of his failure? But was it drink that sucked him under?"
"No." Chilcote's response came after a pause.
Again Chilcote hesitated. And at the moment of his indecision a woman brushed past him, laughing boisterously. The sound jarred him.
"Was it drugs?" the stranger went on easily. "I have always had a theory that it was."
"Yes. It was morphia." The answer came before Chilcote had realized it. The woman's laugh at the stranger's quiet persistence had contrived to draw it from him. Instantly he had spoken he looked about him quickly, like one who has for a moment forgotten a necessary vigilance.
There was silence while the stranger thought over the information just given him. Then he spoke again, with a new touch of vehemence.
"So I imagined," he said. "Though, on my soul, I never really credited it. To have gained so much, and to have thrown it away for a common vice!" He made an exclamation of disgust.
Chilcote gave an unsteady laugh. "You judge hardly." he said.
The other repeated his sound of contempt. "Justly so. No man has the right to squander what another would give his soul for. It lessens the general respect for power."
"You are a believer in power?" The tone was sarcastic, but the sarcasm sounded thin.
"Yes. All power is the outcome of individuality, either past or present. I find no sentiment for the man who plays with it."
The quiet contempt of the tone stung Chilcote.
"Do you imagine that Lexington made no fight?" he asked, impulsively. "Can't you picture the man's struggle while the vice that had been slave gradually became master?" He stopped to take breath, and in the cold pause that followed it seemed to him that the other made a murmur of incredulity.
"Perhaps you think of morphia as a pleasure?" he added. "Think of it, instead, as a tyrant—that tortures the mind if held to, and the body if cast off." Urged by the darkness and the silence of his companion, the rein of his speech had loosened. In that moment he was not Chilcote the member for East Wark, whose moods and silences were proverbial, but Chilcote the man whose mind craved the relief of speech.
"You talk as the world talks—out of ignorance and self-righteousness," he went on. "Before you condemn Lexington you should put yourself in his place—"
"As you do?" the other laughed.
Unsuspecting and inoffensive as the laugh was, it startled Chilcote. With a sudden alarm he pulled himself up.
"I—?" He tried to echo the laugh, but the attempt fell flat. "Oh, I merely speak from—from De Quincey. But I believe this fog is shifting—I really believe it is shifting. Can you oblige me with a light? I had almost forgotten that a man may still smoke though he has been deprived of sight." He spoke fast and disjointedly. He was overwhelmed by the idea that he had let himself go, and possessed by the wish to obliterate the consequences. As he talked he fumbled; for his cigarette-case.
His bead was bent as he searched for it nervously. Without looking up, he was conscious that the cloud of fog that held him prisoner was lifting, rolling away, closing back again, preparatory to final disappearance. Having found the case, he put a cigarette between his lips and raised his hand at the moment that the stranger drew a match across his box.
For a second each stared blankly at the other's face, suddenly made visible by the lifting of the fog. The match in the stranger's hand burned down till it scorched his fingers, and, feeling the pain, he laughed and let it drop.
"Of all odd things!" he said. Then he broke off. The circumstance was too novel for ordinary remark.
By one of those rare occurrences, those chances that seem too wild for real life and yet belong to no other sphere, the two faces so strangely hidden and strangely revealed were identical, feature for feature. It seemed to each man that he looked not at the face of another, but at his own face reflected in a flawless looking-glass.
Of the two, the stranger was the first to regain self-possession. Seeing Chilcote's bewilderment, he came to his rescue with brusque tactfulness.
"The position is decidedly odd," he said. "But after all, why should we be so surprised? Nature can't be eternally original; she must dry up sometimes, and when she gets a good model why shouldn't she use it twice?" He drew back, surveying Chilcote whimsically. "But, pardon me, you are still waiting for that light!"
Chilcote still held the cigarette between his lips. The paper had become dry, and he moistened it as he leaned towards his companion.
"Don't mind me," he said. "I'm rather—rather unstrung to-night, and this thing gave me a jar. To be candid, my imagination took head in the fog, and I got to fancy I was talking to myself—"
"And pulled up to find the fancy in some way real?"
"Yes. Something like that."
Both were silent for a moment. Chilcote pulled hard at his cigarette, then, remembering his obligations, he turned quickly to the other.
"Won't you smoke?" he asked.
The stranger accepted a cigarette from the case held out to him; and as he did so the extraordinary likeness to himself struck Chilcote with added force. Involuntarily he put out his hand and touched the other's arm.
"It's my nerves!" he said, in explanation. "They make me want to feel that you are substantial. Nerves play such beastly tricks!" He laughed awkwardly.
The other glanced up. His expression on the moment was slightly surprised, slightly contemptuous, but he changed it instantly to conventional interest. "I am afraid I am not an authority on nerves," he said.
But Chilcote was preoccupied. His thoughts had turned into another channel.
"How old are you?" he asked, suddenly.
The other did not answer immediately. "My age?" he said at last, slowly. "Oh, I believe I shall be thirty-six to-morrow—to be quite accurate."
Chilcote lifted his head quickly.
"Why do you use that tone?" he asked. "I am six months older than you, and I only wish it was six years. Six years nearer oblivion—"
Again a slight incredulous contempt crossed the other's eyes. "Oblivion?" he said. "Where are your ambitions?"
"They don't exist."
"Don't exist? Yet you voice your country? I concluded that much in the fog."
Chilcote laughed sarcastically.
"When one has voiced one's country for six years one gets hoarse—it's a natural consequence."
The other smiled. "Ah, discontent!" he said. "The modern canker. But we must both be getting under way. Good-night! Shall we shake hands—to prove that we are genuinely material?"
Chilcote had been standing unusually still, following the stranger's words—caught by his self-reliance and impressed by his personality. Now, as he ceased to speak, he moved quickly forward, impelled by a nervous curiosity.
"Why should we just hail each other and pass—like the proverbial ships?" he said, impulsively. "If Nature was careless enough to let the reproduction meet the original, she must abide the consequences."
The other laughed, but his laugh was short. "Oh, I don't know. Our roads lie differently. You would get nothing out of me, and I—" He stopped and again laughed shortly. "No," he said; "I'd be content to pass, if I were you. The unsuccessful man is seldom a profitable study. Shall we say good-night?"
He took Chilcote's hand for an instant; then, crossing the footpath, he passed into the road-way towards the Strand.
It was done in a moment; but with his going a sense of loss fell upon Chilcote. He stood for a space, newly conscious of unfamiliar faces and unfamiliar voices in the stream of passersby; then, suddenly mastered by an impulse, he wheeled rapidly and darted after the tall, lean figure so ridiculously like his own.
Half-way across Trafalgar Square he overtook the stranger. He had paused on one of the small stone islands that break the current of traffic, and was waiting for an opportunity to cross the street. In the glare of light from the lamp above his head, Chilcote saw for the first time that, under a remarkable neatness of appearance, his clothes were well worn—almost shabby. The discovery struck him with something stronger than surprise. The idea of poverty seemed incongruous is connection with the reliance, the reserve, the personality of the man. With a certain embarrassed haste he stepped forward and touched his arm.
"Look here," he said, as the other turned quietly. "I have followed you to exchange cards. It can't injure either of us, and I—I have a wish to know my other self." He laughed nervously as he drew out his card-case.
The stranger watched him in silence. There was the same faint contempt, but also there was a reluctant interest in his glance, as it passed from the fingers fumbling with the case to the pale face with the square jaw, straight mouth, and level eyebrows drawn low over the gray eyes. When at last the card was held out to him he took it without remark and slipped it into his pocket.
Chilcote looked at him eagerly. "Now the exchange?" he said.
For a second the stranger did not respond. Then, almost unexpectedly, he smiled.
"After all, if it amuses you—" he said; and, searching in his waistcoat pocket, he drew out the required card.
"It will leave you quite unenlightened," he added. "The name of a failure never spells anything." With another smile, partly amused, partly ironical, he stepped from the little island and disappeared into the throng of traffic.
Chilcote stood for an instant gazing at the point where he had vanished; then, turning to the lamp, he lifted the card and read the name it bore: "Mr. John Loder, 13 Clifford's Inn."
On the morning following the night of fog Chilcote woke at nine. He woke at the moment that his man Allsopp tiptoed across the room and laid the salver with his early cup of tea on the table beside the bed.
For several seconds he lay with his eyes shut; the effort of opening them on a fresh day—the intimate certainty of what he would see on opening them—seemed to weight his lids. The heavy, half-closed curtains; the blinds severely drawn; the great room with its splendid furniture, its sober coloring, its scent of damp London winter; above all, Allsopp, silent, respectful, and respectable—were things to dread.
A full minute passed while he still feigned sleep. He heard Allsopp stir discreetly, then the inevitable information broke the silence:
"Nine o'clock, sir!"
He opened his eyes, murmured something, and closed them again.
The man moved to the window, quietly pulled back the curtains and half drew the blind.
"Better night, sir, I hope?" he ventured, softly.
Chilcote had drawn the bedclothes over his face to screen himself from the daylight, murky though it was.
"Yes," he responded. "Those beastly nightmares didn't trouble me, for once." He shivered a little as at some recollection. "But don't talk—don't remind me of them. I hate a man who has no originality." He spoke sharply. At times he showed an almost childish irritation over trivial things.
Allsopp took the remark in silence. Crossing the wide room, he began to lay out his master's clothes. The action affected Chilcote to fresh annoyance.
"Confound it!" he said. "I'm sick of that routine: I can see you laying out my winding-sheet the day of my burial. Leave those things. Come back in half an hour."
Allsopp allowed himself one glance at his master's figure huddled in the great bed; then, laying aside the coat he was holding, he moved to the door. With his: fingers on the handle he paused.
"Will you breakfast in your own room, sir—or down-stairs?"
Chilcote drew the clothes more tightly round his shoulders. "Oh, anywhere—nowhere!" he said. "I don't care."
Allsopp softly withdrew.
Left to himself, Chilcote sat up in bed and lifted the salver to his knees. The sudden movement jarred him physically; he drew a handkerchief from under the pillow and wiped his forehead; then he held his hand to the light and studied it. The hand looked sallow and unsteady. With a nervous gesture he thrust the salver back upon the table and slid out of bed.
Moving hastily across the room, he stopped before one of the tall wardrobes and swung the door open; then after a furtive glance around the room he thrust his hand into the recesses of a shelf and fumbled there.
The thing he sought was evidently not hard to find. for almost at once he withdrew his hand and moved from the wardrobe to a table beside the fireplace, carrying a small glass tube filled with tabloids.
On the table were a decanter, a siphon, and a water-jug. Mixing some whiskey, he uncorked the tube, again he glanced apprehensively towards the door, then with a very nervous hand dropped two tabloids into the glass.
While they dissolved he stood with his hand on the table and his eyes fixed on the floor, evidently restraining his impatience. Instantly they had disappeared he seized the glass and drained it at a draught, replaced the bottle in the wardrobe, and, shivering slightly in the raw air, slipped back into bed.
When Allsopp returned he was sitting up, a cigarette between his lips, the teacup standing empty on the salver. The nervous irritability had gone from his manner. He no longer moved jerkily, his eyes looked brighter, his pale skin more healthy.
"Ah, Allsopp," he said, "there are some moments in life, after all. It isn't all blank wall."
"I ordered breakfast in the small morning-room, sir," said Allsopp, without a change of expression.
Chilcote breakfasted at ten. His appetite, always fickle, was particularly uncertain in the early hours. He helped himself to some fish, but sent away his plate untouched; then, having drunk two cups of tea, he pushed back his chair, lighted a fresh cigarette, and shook out the morning's newspaper.
Twice he shook it out and twice turned it, but the reluctance to fix his mind upon it made him dally.
The effect of the morphia tabloids was still apparent in the greater steadiness of his hand and eye, the regained quiet of his susceptibilities, but the respite was temporary and lethargic. The early days—the days of six years ago, when these tabloids meant an even sweep of thought, lucidity of brain, a balance of judgment in thought and effort—were days of the past. As he had said of Lexington and his vice, the slave had become master.
As he folded the paper in a last attempt at interest, the door opened and his secretary came a step or two into the room.
"Good-morning, sir!" he said. "Forgive me for being so untimely."
He was a fresh-mannered, bright-eyed boy of twenty-three. His breezy alertness, his deference, as to a man who had attained what he aspired to, amused and depressed Chilcote by turns.
"Good-morning, Blessington. What is it now?" He sighed through habit, and, putting up his hand, warded off a ray of sun that had forced itself through the misty atmosphere as if by mistake.
The boy smiled. "It's that business of the Wark timber contract, sir," he said. "You promised you'd look into it to-day; you know you've shelved it for a week already, and Craig, Burnage are rather clamoring for an answer." He moved forward and laid the papers he was carrying on the table beside Chilcote. "I'm sorry to be such a nuisance," he added. "I hope your nerves aren't worrying you to-day?"
Chilcote was toying with the papers. At the word nerves he glanced up suspiciously. But Blessington's ingenuous face satisfied him.
"No," he said. "I settled my nerves last night with—with a bromide. I knew that fog would upset me unless I took precautions."
"I'm glad of that, sir—though I'd avoid bromides. Bad habit to set up. But this Wark business—I'd like to get it under way, if you have no objection."
Chilcote passed his fingers over the papers. "Were you out in that fog last night, Blessington?"
"No, sir. I supped with some people at the Savoy, and we just missed it. It was very partial, I believe."
"So I believe."
Blessington put his hand to his neat tie and pulled it. He was extremely polite, but he had an inordinate sense of duty.
"Forgive me, sir," he said, "but about that contract—I know I'm a frightful bore."
"Oh, the contract!" Chilcote looked about him absently. "By-the-way, did you see anything of my wife yesterday? What did she do last night?"
"Mrs. Chilcote gave me tea yesterday afternoon. She told me she was dining at Lady Sabinet's, and looking in at one or two places later." He eyed his papers in Chilcote's listless hand.
Chilcote smiled satirically. "Eve is very true to society," he said. "I couldn't dine at the Sabinets' if it was to make me premier. They have a butler who is an institution—a sort of heirloom in the family. He is fat, and breathes audibly. Last time I lunched there he haunted me for a whole night."
Blessington laughed gayly. "Mrs. Chilcote doesn't see ghosts, sir," he said; "but if I may suggest—"
Chilcote tapped his fingers on the table.
"No. Eve doesn't see ghosts. We rather miss sympathy there."
Blessington governed his impatience. He stood still for some seconds, then glanced down at his pointed boot.
"If you will be lenient to my persistency, sir, I would like to remind you—"
Chilcote lifted his head with a flash of irritability.
"Confound it, Blessington!" he exclaimed. "Am I never to be left in peace? Am I never to sit down to a meal without having work thrust upon me? Work—work—perpetually work? I have heard no other word in the last six years. I declare there are times"—he rose suddenly from his seat and turned to the window—"there are times when I feel that for sixpence I'd chuck it all—the whole beastly round—"
Startled by his vehemence, Blessington wheeled towards him.
"Not your political career, sir?"
There was a moment in which Chilcote hesitated, a moment in which the desire that had filled his mind for months rose to his lips and hung there; then the question, the incredulity in Blessington's face, chilled it and it fell back into silence.
"I—I didn't say that," he murmured. "You young men jump to conclusions, Blessington."
"Forgive me, sir. I never meant to imply retirement. Why, Rickshaw, Vale, Cressham, and the whole Wark crowd would be about your ears like flies if such a thing were even breathed —now more than ever, since these Persian rumors. By-the-way, is there anything real in this border business? The 'St. George's' came out rather strong last night."
Chilcote had moved back to the table. His face was pale from his outburst and his fingers toyed restlessly with the open newspaper.
"I haven't seen the 'St. George's'," he said, hastily. "Lakely is always ready to shake the red rag where Russia is concerned; whether we are to enter the arena is another matter. But what about Craig, Burnage? I think you mentioned something of a contract."
"Oh, don't worry about that, sir." Blessington had caught the twitching at the corners of Chilcote's mouth, the nervous sharpness of his voice. "I can put Craig, Burnage off. If they have an answer by Thursday it will be time enough." He began to collect his papers, but Chilcote stopped him.
"Wait," he said, veering suddenly. "Wait. I'll see to it now. I'll feel more myself when I've done something. I'll come with you to the study."
He walked hastily across the room; then, with his hand on the door, he paused.
"You go first, Blessington," he said. "I'll—I'll follow you in ten minutes. I must glance through the newspapers first."
Blessington looked uncertain. "You won't forget, sir?"
"Forget? Of course not."
Still doubtfully, Blessington left the room and closed the door.
Once alone, Chilcote walked slowly back to the table, drew up his chair, and sat down with his eyes on the white cloth, the paper lying unheeded beside him.
Time passed. A servant came into the room to remove the breakfast. Chilcote moved slightly when necessary, but otherwise retained his attitude. The servant, having finished his task, replenished the fire and left the room. Chilcote still sat on.
At last, feeling numbed, he rose and crossed to the fireplace. The clock on the mantel-piece stared him in the face. He looked at it, started slightly, then drew out his watch. Watch and clock corresponded. Each marked twelve o'clock. With a nervous motion he leaned forward and pressed the electric bell long and hard.
Instantly a servant answered.
"Is Mr. Blessington in the study?" Chilcote asked.
"He was there, sir, five minutes back."
Chilcote looked relieved.
"All right! Tell him I have gone out—had to go out. Something important. You understand?"
"I understand, sir."
But before the words had been properly spoken Chilcote had passed the man and walked into the hall.
Leaving his house, Chilcote walked forward quickly and aimlessly. With the sting of the outer air the recollection of last night's adventure came back upon him. Since the hour of his waking it had hung about with vague persistence, but now in the clear light of day it seemed to stand out with a fuller peculiarity.
The thing was preposterous, nevertheless it was genuine. He was wearing the overcoat he had worn, the night before, and, acting on impulse, he thrust his hand into the pocket and drew out the stranger's card.
"Mr. John Loder!" He read the name over as he walked along, and it mechanically repeated itself in his brain—falling into measure with his steps. Who was John Loder? What was he? The questions tantalized him till his pace unconsciously increased. The thought that two men so absurdly alike could inhabit the same, city and remain unknown to each other faced him as a problem: it tangled with his personal worries and aggravated them. There seemed to be almost a danger in such an extraordinary likeness. He began to regret his impetuosity in thrusting his card upon the man. Then, again, how he had let himself go on the subject of Lexington! How narrowly he had escaped compromise! He turned hot and cold at the recollection of what he had said and what he might have said. Then for the first time he paused in his walk and looked about him.
On leaving Grosvenor Square he had turned westward, moving rapidly till the Marble Arch was reached; there, still oblivious to his surroundings, he had crossed the roadway to the Edgware Road, passing along it to the labyrinth of shabby streets that lie behind Paddington. Now, as he glanced about him, he saw with some surprise how far he had come.
The damp remnants of the fog still hung about the house-tops in a filmy veil; there were no glimpses of green to break the monotony of tone; all was quiet, dingy, neglected. But to Chilcote the shabbiness was restful, the subdued atmosphere a satisfaction. Among these sad houses, these passers-by, each filled with his own concerns, he experienced a sense of respite and relief. In the fashionable streets that bounded his own horizon, if a man paused in his walk to work out an idea he instantly drew a crowd of inquisitive or contemptuous eyes; here, if a man halted for half an hour it was nobody's business but his own.
Enjoying this thought, he wandered on for close upon an hour, moving from one street to another with steps that were listless or rapid, as inclination prompted; then, still acting with vagrant aimlessness, he stopped in his wanderings and entered a small eating-house.
The place was low-ceiled and dirty, the air hot and steaming with the smell of food, but Chilcote passed through the door and moved to one of the tables with no expression of disgust, and with far less furtive watchfulness than he used in his own house. By a curious mental twist he felt greater freedom, larger opportunities in drab surroundings such as these than in the broad issues and weighty responsibilities of his own life. Choosing a corner seat, he called for coffee; and there, protected by shadow and wrapped in cigarette smoke, he set about imagining himself some vagrant unit who had slipped his moorings and was blissfully adrift.
The imagination was pleasant while it lasted, but with him nothing was permanent. Of late the greater part of his sufferings had been comprised in the irritable fickleness of all his aims—the distaste for and impossibility of sustained effort in any direction. He had barely lighted a second cigarette when the old restlessness fell upon him; he stirred nervously in his seat, and the cigarette was scarcely burned out when he rose, paid his small bill, and left the shop.
Outside on the pavement he halted, pulled out his watch, and saw that two hours stretched in front before any appointment claimed his attention. He wondered vaguely where he might go to—what he might do in those two hours? In the last few minutes a distaste for solitude had risen in his mind, giving the close street a loneliness that had escaped him before.
As he stood wavering a cab passed slowly down the street. The sight of a well-dressed man roused the cabman; flicking his whip, he passed Chilcote close, feigning to pull up.
The cab suggested civilization. Chilcote's mind veered suddenly and he raised his hand. The vehicle stopped and he climbed in.
"Where, sir?" The cabman peered down through the roof-door.
Chilcote raised his head. "Oh, anywhere near Pall Mall," he said. Then, as the horse started forward, he put up his hand and shook the trap-door. "Wait!" he called. "I've changed my mind. Drive to Cadogan Gardens—No. 33."
The distance to Cadogan Gardens was covered quickly. Chilcote had hardly realized that his destination was reached when the cab pulled up. Jumping out, he paid the fare and walked quickly to the hall-door of No. 33.
"Is Lady Astrupp at home?" he asked, sharply, as the door swung back in answer to his knock.
The servant drew back deferentially. "Her ladyship has almost finished lunch, sir," he said.
For answer Chilcote stepped through the door-way and walked half-way across the hall.
"All right," he said. "But don't disturb her on my account. I'll wait in the white room till she has finished." And, without taking further notice of the servant, he began to mount the stairs.
In the room where he had chosen to wait a pleasant wood-fire brightened the dull January afternoon and softened the thick, white curtains, the gilt furniture, and the Venetian vases filled with white roses. Moving straight forward, Chilcote paused by the grate and stretched his hands to the blaze; then, with his usual instability, he turned and passed to a couch that stood a yard or two away.
On the couch, tucked away between a novel and a crystal gazing-ball, was a white Persian kitten, fast asleep. Chilcote picked up the ball and held it between his eyes and the fire; then he laughed superciliously, tossed it back into its place, and caught the kitten's tail. The little animal stirred, stretched itself, and began to purr. At the same moment the door of the room opened.
Chilcote turned round. "I particularly said you were not to be disturbed," he began. "Have I merited displeasure?" He spoke fast, with the uneasy tone that so often underran his words.
Lady Astrupp took his hand with a confiding gesture and smiled.
"Never displeasure," she said, lingeringly, and again she smiled. The smile might have struck a close observer as faintly, artificial. But what man in Chilcote's frame of mind has time to be observant where women are concerned? The manner of the smile was very sweet and almost caressing —and that sufficed.
"What have you been doing?" she asked, after a moment. "I thought I was quite forgotten." She moved across to the couch, picked up the kitten, and kissed it. "Isn't this sweet?" she added.
She looked very graceful as she turned, holding the little animal up. She was a woman of twenty-seven, but she looked a girl. The outline of her face was pure, the pale gold of her hair almost ethereal, and her tall, slight figure still suggested the suppleness, the possibility of future development, that belongs to youth. She wore a lace-colored gown that harmonized with the room and with the delicacy of her skin.
"Now sit down and rest—or walk about the room. I sha'n't mind which." She nestled into the couch and picked up the crystal ball.
"What is the toy for?" Chilcote looked at her from the mantel-piece, against which he was resting. He had never defined the precise attraction that Lillian Astrupp held for him. Her shallowness soothed him; her inconsequent egotism helped him to forget himself. She never asked him how he was, she never expected impossibilities. She let him come and go and act as he pleased, never demanding reasons. Like the kitten, she was charming and graceful and easily amused; it was possible that, also like the kitten, she could scratch and be spiteful on occasion, but that did not weigh with him. He sometimes expressed a vague envy of the late Lord Astrupp; but, even had circumstances permitted, it is doubtful whether he would have chosen to be his successor. Lillian as a friend was delightful, but Lillian as a wife would have been a different consideration.
"What is the toy for?" he asked again.
She looked up slowly. "How cruel of you, Jack! It is my very latest hobby."
It was part of her attraction that she was never without a craze. Each new one was as fleeting as the last, but to each she brought the same delightfully insincere enthusiasm, the same picturesque devotion. Each was a pose, but she posed so sweetly that nobody lost patience.
"You mustn't laugh!" she protested, letting the kitten slip to the ground. "I've had lessons at five guineas each from the most fascinating person—a professional; and I'm becoming quite an adept. Of course I haven't been much beyond the milky appearance yet, but the milky appearance is everything, you know; the rest will come. I am trying to persuade Blanche to let me have a pavilion at her party in March, and gaze for all you dull political people." Again she smiled.
Chilcote smiled as well. "How is it done?" he asked, momentarily amused.
"Oh, the doing is quite delicious. You sit at a table with the ball in front of you; then you take the subject's hands, spread them out on the table, and stroke them very softly while you gaze into the crystal; that gets up the sympathy, you know." She looked up innocently. "Shall I show you?"
Chilcote moved a small table nearer to the couch and spread his hands upon it, palms downward. "Like this, eh?" he said. Then a ridiculous nervousness seized him and he moved away. "Some other day," he said, quickly. "You can show me some other day. I'm not very fit this afternoon."
If Lillian felt any disappointment, she showed none. "Poor old thing!" she said, softly. "Try to sit here by me and we won't bother about anything." She made a place for him beside her, and as he dropped into it she took his hand and patted it sympathetically.
The touch was soothing, and he bore it patiently enough. After a moment she lifted the hand with a little exclamation of reproof.
"You degenerate person! You have ceased to manicure. What has become of my excellent training?"
Chilcote laughed. "Run to seed," he said, lightly. Then his expression and tone changed. "When a man gets to my age," he added, "little social luxuries don't seem worth while; the social necessities are irksome enough. Personally, I envy the beggar in the street—exempt from shaving, exempt from washing—"
Lillian raised her delicate eyebrows. The sentiment was beyond her perception.
"But manicuring," she said, reproachfully, "when you have such nice hands. It was your hands and your eyes, you know, that first appealed to me." She sighed gently, with a touch of sentimental remembrance. "And I thought it so strong of you not to wear rings—it must be such a temptation." She looked down at her own fingers, glittering with jewels.
But the momentary pleasure of her touch was gone. Chilcote drew away his hand and picked up the book that lay between them.
"Other Men's Shoes!" he read. "A novel, of course?"
She smiled. "Of course. Such a fantastic story. Two men changing identities."
Chilcote rose and walked back to the mantel-piece.
"Changing identities?" he said, with a touch of interest.
"Yes. One man is an artist, the other a millionaire; one wants to know what fame is like, the other wants to know how it feels to be really sinfully rich. So they exchange experiences for a month." She laughed.
Chilcote laughed as well. "But how?" he asked.
"Oh, I told you the idea was absurd. Fancy two people so much alike that neither their friends nor their servants see any difference! Such a thing couldn't be, could it?"
Chilcote looked down at the fire. "No," he said, doubtfully. "No. I suppose not."
"Of course not. There are likenesses, but not freak likenesses like that."
Chilcote's head was bent as she spoke, but at the last words he lifted it.
"By Jove! I don't know about that!" he said. "Not so very long ago I saw two men so much alike that I—I—" He stopped.
He colored quickly. "You doubt me?" he asked.
"My dear Jack!" Her voice was delicately reproachful.
"Then you think that my—my imagination has been playing me tricks?"
"My dear boy! Nothing of the kind. Come back to your place and tell me the whole tale?" She smiled again, and patted the couch invitingly.
But Chilcote's balance had been upset. For the first time he saw Lillian as one of the watchful, suspecting crowd before which he was constantly on guard. Acting on the sensation, he moved suddenly towards the door.
"I—I have an appointment at the House," he said, quickly. "I'll look in another day when—when I'm better company. I know I'm a bear to-day. My nerves, you know." He came back to the couch and took her hand; then he touched her cheek for an instant with his fingers.
"Good-bye," he said. "Take care of yourself—and the kitten," he added, with forced gayety, as he crossed the room.
That afternoon Chilcote's nervous condition reached its height. All day he had avoided the climax, but no evasion can be eternal, and this he realized as he sat in his place on the Opposition benches during the half-hour of wintry twilight that precedes the turning-on of the lights. He realized it in that half-hour, but the application of the knowledge followed later, when the time came for him to question the government on some point relating to a proposed additional dry-dock at Talkley, the naval base. Then for the first time he knew that the sufferings of the past months could have a visible as well as a hidden side—could disorganize his daily routine as they had already demoralized his will and character.
The thing came upon him with extraordinary lack of preparation. He sat through the twilight with tolerable calm, his nervousness showing only in the occasional lifting of his hand to his collar and the frequent changing of his position; but when the lights were turned on, and he leaned back in his seat with closed eyes, he became conscious of a curious impression—a disturbing idea that through his closed lids he could see the faces on the opposite side of the House, see the rows of eyes, sleepy, interested, or vigilant. Never before had the sensation presented itself, but, once set up, it ran through all his susceptibilities. By an absurd freak of fancy those varying eyes seemed to pierce through his lids, almost through his eyeballs. The cold perspiration that was his daily horror broke out on his forehead; and at the same moment Fraide, his leader, turned, leaned over the back of his seat, and touched his knee.
Chilcote started and opened his eyes. "I—I believe I was dozing," he said, confusedly.
Fraide smiled his dry, kindly smile. "A fatal admission for a member of the Opposition," he said. "But I was looking for you earlier in the day, Chilcote. There is something behind this Persian affair. I believe it to be a mere first move on Russia's part. You big trading people will find it worth watching."
Chilcote shrugged his shoulders. "Oh, I don't know," he said. "I scarcely believe in it. Lakely put a match to the powder in the 'St. George's', but 'twill only be a noise and a puff of smoke."
But Fraide did not smile. "What is the feeling down at Wark?" he asked. "Has it awakened any interest?"
"At Wark? Oh, I—I don't quite know. I have been a little out of touch with Wark in the last few weeks. A man has so many private affairs to look to—" He was uneasy under his chief's scrutiny.
Fraide's lips parted as if to make reply, but with a certain dignified reticence he closed them again and turned away.
Chilcote leaned back in his place and furtively passed his hand over his forehead. His mind was possessed by one consideration—the consideration of himself. He glanced down the crowded, lighted House to the big glass doors; he glanced about him at his colleagues, indifferent or interested; then surreptitiously his fingers strayed to his waistcoat-pocket.
Usually he carried his morphia tabloids with him, but to-day by a lapse of memory he had left them at home. He knew this, nevertheless he continued to search, while the need of the drug rushed through him with a sense of physical sickness. He lost hold on the business of the House; unconsciously he half rose from his seat.
The man next him looked up. "Hold your ground, Chilcote," he said. "Rayforth is drying up."
With a wave of relief Chilcote dropped back into his place. Whatever the confusion in his mind, it was evidently not obvious in his face.
Rayforth resumed his seat, there was the usual slight stir and pause, then Salett, the member for Salchester, rose.
With Salett's first words Chilcote's hand again sought his pocket, and again his eyes strayed towards the doors, but Fraide's erect head and stiff back just in front of him held him quiet. With an effort he pulled out his notes and smoothed them nervously; but though his gaze was fixed on the pages, not a line of Blessington's clear writing reached his mind. He glanced at the face of the Speaker, then at the faces on the Treasury Bench, then once more he leaned back in his seat.
The man beside him saw the movement. "Funking the drydock?" he whispered, jestingly.
"No"—Chilcote turned to him suddenly—"but I feel beastly —have felt beastly for weeks."
The other looked at him more closely. "Anything wrong?" he asked. It was a novel experience to be confided in by Chilcote.
"Oh, it's the grind-the infernal grind." As he said it, it seemed to him suddenly that his strength gave way. He forgot his companion, his position, everything except the urgent instinct that filled mind and body. Scarcely knowing what he did, he rose and leaned forward to whisper in Fraide's ear.
Fraide was seen to turn, his thin face interested and concerned, then he was seen to nod once or twice in acquiescence, and a moment later Chilcote stepped quietly out of his place.
One or two men spoke to him as he hurried from the House, but he shook them off almost uncivilly, and, making for the nearest exit, hailed a cab.
The drive to Grosvenor Square was a misery. Time after time he changed from one corner of the cab to the other, his acute internal pains prolonged by every delay and increased by every motion. At last, weak in all his limbs, he stepped from the vehicle at his own door.
Entering the house, he instantly mounted the stairs and passed to his own rooms. Opening the bedroom door, he peered in cautiously, then pushed the door wide. The light had been switched on, but the room was empty. With a nervous excitement scarcely to be kept in check, he entered, shut and locked the door, then moved to the wardrobe, and, opening it, drew the tube of tabloids from the shelf.
His hand shook violently as he carried the tube to the table. The strain of the day, the anxiety of the past hours, with their final failure, had found sudden expression. Mixing a larger dose than any he had before allowed himself, he swallowed it hastily, and, walking across the room, threw himself, fully dressed, upon the bed.
To those whose sphere lies in the west of London, Fleet Street is little more than a name, and Clifford's Inn a mere dead letter. Yet Clifford's Inn lies as safely stowed away in the shadow of the Law Courts as any grave under a country church wall; it is as green of grass, as gray of stone, as irresponsive to the passing footstep.
Facing the railed-in grass-plot of its little court stood the house in which John Loder had his rooms. Taken at a first glance, the house had the deserted air of an office, inhabited only in the early hours; but, as night fell, lights would be seen to show out, first on one floor, then on another—faint, human beacons unconsciously signalling each other. The rooms Loder inhabited were on the highest floor; and from their windows one might gaze philosophically on the tree-tops, forgetting the uneven pavement and the worn railing that hemmed them round. In the landing outside the rooms his name appeared above his door, but the paint had been soiled by time, and the letters for the most part reduced to shadows; so that, taken in conjunction with the gaunt staircase and bare walls, the place had a cheerless look.
Inside, however, the effect was somewhat mitigated. The room on the right hand, as one entered the small passage that served as hall, was of fair size, though low-ceiled. The paint of the wall-panelling, like the name above the outer door, had long ago been worn to a dirty and nondescript hue, and the floor was innocent of carpet; yet in the middle of the room stood a fine old Cromwell table, and on the plain deal book-shelves and along the mantel-piece were some valuable books—political and historical. There were no curtains on the windows, and a common reading-lamp with a green shade stood on a desk. It was the room of a man with few hobbies and no pleasures—who existed because he was alive, and worked because he must.
Three nights after the great fog John Loder sat by his desk in the light of the green-shaded lamp. The remains of a very frugal supper stood on the centre-table, and in the grate a small and economical-looking fire was burning.
Having written for close on two hours, he pushed back his chair and stretched his cramped fingers; then he yawned, rose, and slowly walked across the room. Reaching the mantel-piece, he took a pipe from the pipe-rack and some tobacco from the jar that stood behind the books. His face looked tired and a little worn, as is common with men who have worked long at an uncongenial task. Shredding the tobacco between his hands, he slowly filled the pipe, then lighted it from the fire with a spill of twisted paper.
Almost at the moment that he applied the light the sound of steps mounting the uncarpeted stairs outside caught his attention, and he raised his head to listen.
Presently the steps halted and he heard a match struck. The stranger was evidently uncertain of his whereabouts. Then the steps moved forward again and paused.
An expression of surprise crossed Loder's face, and he laid down his pipe. As the visitor knocked, he walked quietly across the room and opened the door.
The passage outside was dark, and the new-comer drew back before the light from the room.
"Mr. Loder—?" he began, interrogatively. Then all at once he laughed in embarrassed apology. "Forgive me," he said. "The light rather dazzled me. I didn't realize who it was."
Loder recognized the voice as belonging to his acquaintance of the fog.
"Oh, it's you!" he said. "Won't you come in?" His voice was a little cold. This sudden resurrection left him surprised —and not quite pleasantly surprised. He walked back to the fireplace, followed by his guest.
The guest seemed nervous and agitated. "I must apologize for the hour of my visit," he said. "My—my time is not quite my own."
Loder waved his hand. "Whose time is his own?" he said.
Chilcote, encouraged by the remark, drew nearer to the fire. Until this moment he had refrained from looking directly at his host; now, however, he raised his eyes, and, despite his preparation, he recoiled unavoidably before the extraordinary resemblance. Seen here, in the casual surroundings of a badly furnished and crudely lighted room, it was even more astounding than it had been in the mystery of the fog.
"Forgive me," he said again. "It is physical—purely physical. I am bowled over against my will."
Loder smiled. The slight contempt that Chilcote had first inspired rose again, and with it a second feeling less easily defined. The man seemed so unstable, so incapable, yet so grotesquely suggestive to himself.
"The likeness is rather overwhelming," he said; "but not heavy enough to sink under. Come nearer the fire. What brought you here? Curiosity?" There was a wooden arm-chair by the fireplace. He indicated it with a wave of the hand; then turned and took up his smouldering pipe.
Chilcote, watching him furtively, obeyed the gesture and sat down.
"It is extraordinary!" he said, as if unable to dismiss the subject. "It—it is quite extraordinary!"
The other glanced round. "Let's drop it," he said. "It's so confoundedly obvious." Then his tone changed. "Won't you smoke?" he asked.
"Thanks." Chilcote began to fumble for his cigarettes.
But his host forestalled him. Taking a box from the mantel-piece, he held it out.
"My one extravagance!" he said, ironically. "My resources bind me to one; and I think I have made a wise selection. It is about the only vice we haven't to pay for six times over." He glanced sharply at the face so absurdly like his own, then, lighting a fresh spill, offered his guest a light.
Chilcote moistened his cigarette and leaned forward. In the flare of the paper his face looked set and anxious, but Loder saw that the lips did not twitch as they had done on the previous occasion that he had given him a light, and a look of comprehension crossed his eyes.
"What will you drink? Or, rather, will you have a whiskey? I keep nothing else. Hospitality is one of the debarred luxuries."
Chilcote shook his head. "I seldom drink. But don't let that deter you."
Loder smiled. "I have one drink in the twenty-four hours —generally at two o'clock, when my night's work is done. A solitary man has to look where he is going."
"You work till two?"
Chilcote's eyes wandered to the desk. "You write?" he asked.
The other nodded curtly.
"Books?" Chilcote's tone was anxious.
Loder laughed, and the bitter note showed in his voice.
"No—not books," he said.
Chilcote leaned back in his chair and passed his hand across his face. The strong wave of satisfaction that the words woke in him was difficult to conceal.
"What is your work?"
Loder turned aside. "You must not ask that," he said, shortly. "When a man has only one capacity, and the capacity has no outlet, he is apt to run to seed in a wrong direction. I cultivate weeds—at abominable labor and a very small reward." He stood with his back to the fire, facing his visitor; his attitude was a curious blending of pride, defiance, and despondency.
Chilcote leaned forward again. "Why speak of yourself like that? You are a man of intelligence and education." He spoke questioningly, anxiously.
"Intelligence and education!" Loder laughed shortly. "London is cemented with intelligence. And education! What is education? The court dress necessary to presentation, the wig and gown necessary to the barrister. But do the wig and gown necessarily mean briefs? Or the court dress royal favor? Education is the accessory; it is influence that is essential. You should know that."
Chilcote moved restlessly in his seat. "You talk bitterly," he said.
The other looked up. "I think bitterly, which is worse. I am one of the unlucky beggars who, in the expectation of money, has been denied a profession—even a trade, to which to cling in time of shipwreck; and who, when disaster comes, drift out to sea. I warned you the other night to steer clear of me. I come under the head of flotsam!"
Chilcote's face lighted. "You came a cropper?" he asked.
"No. It was some one else who came the cropper—I only dealt in results."
"A drop from a probable eighty thousand pounds to a certain eight hundred."
Chilcote glanced up. "How did you take it?" he asked.
"I? Oh, I was twenty-five then. I had a good many hopes and a lot of pride; but there is no place for either in a working world."
"But your people?"
"My last relation died with the fortune."
Loder laid down his pipe. "I told you I was twenty-five," he said, with the tinge of humor that sometimes crossed his manner. "Doesn't that explain things? I had never taken favors in prosperity; a change of fortune was not likely to alter my ways. As I have said, I was twenty-five." He smiled. "When I realized my position I sold all my belongings with the exception of a table and a few books—which I stored. I put on a walking-suit and let my beard grow; then, with my entire capital in my pocket, I left England without saying good-bye to any one."
"For how long?"
"Oh, for six years. I wandered half over Europe and through a good part of Asia in the time."
"Then? Oh, I shaved off the beard and came back to London!" He looked at Chilcote, partly contemptuous, partly amused at his curiosity.
But Chilcote sat staring in silence. The domination of the other's personality and the futility of his achievements baffled him.
Loder saw his bewilderment. "You wonder what the devil I came into the world for," he said. "I sometimes wonder the same myself."
At his words a change passed over Chilcote. He half rose, then dropped back into his seat.
"You have no friends?" he said. "Your life is worth nothing to you?"
Loder raised his head. "I thought I had conveyed that impression."
"You are an absolutely free man."
"No man is free who works for his bread. If things had been different I might have been in such shoes as yours, sauntering in legislative byways; my hopes turned that way once. But hopes, like more substantial things, belong to the past—" He stopped abruptly and looked at his companion.
The change in Chilcote had become more acute; he sat fingering his cigarette, his brows drawn down, his lips set nervously in a conflict of emotions. For a space he stayed very still, avoiding Loder's eyes; then, as if decision had suddenly come to him, he turned and met his gaze.
"How if there was a future," he said, "as well as a past?"
For the space of a minute there was silence in the room, then outside in the still night three clocks simultaneously chimed eleven, and their announcement was taken up and echoed by half a dozen others, loud and faint, hoarse and resonant; for all through the hours of darkness the neighborhood of Fleet Street is alive with chimes.
Chilcote, startled by the jangle, rose from his seat; then, as if driven by an uncontrollable impulse, he spoke again.
"You probably think I am mad—" he began.
Loder took his pipe out of his mouth. "I am not so presumptuous," he said, quietly.
For a space the other eyed him silently, as if trying to gauge his thoughts; then once more he broke into speech.
"Look here," he said. "I came to-night to make a proposition. When I have made it you'll first of all jeer at it—as I jeered when I made it to myself; then you'll see its possibilities—as I did; then,"—he paused and glanced round the room nervously—"then you'll accept it—as I did." In the uneasy haste of his speech his words broke off almost unintelligibly.
Involuntarily Loder lifted his head to retort, but Chilcote put up his hand. His face was set with the obstinate determination that weak men sometime exhibit.
"Before I begin I want to say that I am not druuk—that I am neither mad nor drunk." He looked fully at his companion with his restless glance. "I am quite sane—quite reasonable."
Again Loder essayed to speak, but again he put up his hand.
"No. Hear me out. You told me something of your story. I'll tell you something of mine. You'll be the first person, man or woman, that I have confided in for ten years. You say you have been treated shabbily. I have treated myself shabbily —which is harder to reconcile. I had every chance—and I chucked every chance away."
There was a strained pause, then again Loder lifted his head.
"Morphia?" he said, very quietly.
Chilcote wheeled round with a scared gesture. "How did you know that?" he asked, sharply.
The other smiled. "It wasn't guessing—it wasn't even deduction. You told me, or as good as told me, in the fog —when we talked of Lexington. You were unstrung that night, and I—Well, perhaps one gets over-observant from living alone." He smiled again.
Chilcote collapsed into his former seat and passed his handkerchief across his forehead.
Loder watched him for a space; then he spoke. "Why don't you pull up?" he said. "You are a young man still. Why don't you drop the thing before it gets too late?" His face was unsympathetic, and below the question in his voice lay a note of hard ness.
Chilcote returned his glance. The suggestion of reproof had accentuated his pallor. Under his excitement he looked ill and worn.
"You might talk till doomsday, but every word would be wasted," he said, irritably. "I'm past praying for, by something like six years."
"Then why come here?" Loder was pulling hard on his pipe. "I'm not a dealer in sympathy."
"I don't require sympathy." Chilcote rose again. He was still agitated, but the agitation was quieter. "I want a much more expensive thing than sympathy—and I am willing to pay for it."
The other turned and looked at him. "I have no possession in the world that would be worth a fiver to you," he said, coldly. "You're either under a delusion or you're wasting my time."
Chilcote laughed nervously. "Wait," he said. "Wait. I only ask you to wait. First let me sketch you my position —it won't take many words:
"My grandfather was a Chilcote of Westmoreland; he was one of the first of his day and his class to recognize that there was a future in trade, so, breaking his own little twig from the family tree, he went south to Wark and entered a ship-owning firm. In thirty years' time he died, the owner of one of the biggest trades in England, having married the daughter of his chief. My father was twenty-four and still at Oxford when he inherited. Almost his first act was to reverse my grandfather's early move by going north and piecing together the family friendship. He married his first cousin; and then, with the Chilcote prestige revived and the shipping money to back it, he entered on his ambition, which was to represent East Wark in the Conservative interest. It was a big fight, but he won —as much by personal influence as by any other. He was an aristocrat, but he was a keen business-man as well. The combination carries weight with your lower classes. He never did much in the House, but he was a power to his party in Wark. They still use his name there to conjure with."
Loder leaned forward interestedly.
"Robert Chilcote?" he said. "I have heard of him. One of those fine, unostentatious figures—strong in action, a little narrow in outlook, perhaps, but essential to a country's staying power. You have every reason to be proud of your father."
Chilcote laughed suddenly. "How easily we sum up, when a matter is impersonal! My father may have been a fine figure, but he shouldn't have left me to climb to his pedestal."
Loder's eyes questioned. In his newly awakened interest he had let his pipe go out.
"Don't you grasp my meaning?" Chilcote went on. "My father died and I was elected for East Wark. You may say that if I had no real inclination for the position I could have kicked. But I tell you I couldn't. Every local interest, political and commercial, hung upon the candidate being a Chilcote. I did what eight men out of ten would have done. I yielded to pressure."
"It was a fine opening!" The words escaped Loder.
"Most prisons have wide gates!" Chilcote laughed again unpleasantly. "That was six years ago. I had started on the morphia tack four years earlier, but up to my father's death I had it under my thumb—or believed I had; and in the realization of my new responsibilities and the excitement of the political fight I almost put it aside. For several months after I entered Parliament I worked. I believe I made one speech that marked me as a coming man." He laughed derisively. "I even married—"
"Yes. A girl of nineteen—the ward of a great statesman. It was a brilliant marriage—politically as well as socially. But it didn't work. I was born without the capacity for love. First the social life palled on me; then my work grew irksome. There was only one factor to make life endurable—morphia. Before six months were out I had fully admitted that."
"But your wife?"
"Oh, my wife knew nothing—knows nothing. It is the political business, the beastly routine of the political life, that is wearing me out." He stopped nervously, then hurried on, again. "I tell you it's hell to see the same faces, to sit in the same seat day in, day out, knowing all the time that you must hold yourself in hand, must keep your grip on the reins—"
"It is always possible to apply for the Chiltern Hundreds."
"To retire? Possible to retire?" Chilcote broke into a loud, sarcastic laugh. "You don't know what the local pressure of a place like Wark stands for. Twenty times I have been within an ace of chucking the whole thing. Once last year I wrote privately to Vale, one of our big men there, and hinted that my health was bad. Two hours after he had read my letter he was in my study. Had I been in Greenland the result would have been the same. No. Resignation is a meaningless word to a man like me."
Loder looked down. "I see," he said, slowly, "I see."
"Then you see everything—the difficulty, the isolation of the position. Five years ago—three—even two years ago—I was able to endure it; now it gets more unbearable with every month. The day is bound to come when—when"—he paused, hesitating nervously—"when it will be physically impossible for me to be at my post."
Loder remained silent.
"Physically impossible," Chilcote repeated, excitedly. "Until lately I was able to calculate—to count upon myself to some extent; but yesterday I received a shock—yesterday I discovered that—that"—again he hesitated painfully—"that I have passed the stage when one may calculate."
The situation was growing more embarrassing. To hide its awkwardness, Loder moved back to the grate and rebuilt the fire, which had fallen low.
Chilcote, still excited by his unusual vehemence, followed him, taking up a position by the mantelpiece.
"Well?" he said, looking down.
Very slowly Loder rose from his task. "Well?" he reiterated.
"Have you nothing to say?"
"Nothing, except that your story is unique, and that I suppose I am flattered by your confidence." His voice was intentionally brusque.
Chilcote paid no attention to the voice. Taking a step forward, he laid his fingers on the lapel of Loder's coat.
"I have passed the stage where I can count upon myself," he said, "and I want to count upon somebody else. I want to keep my place in the world's eyes and yet be free—"
Loder drew back involuntarily, contempt struggling with bewilderment in his expression.
Chilcote lifted his head. "By an extraordinary chance," he said, "you can do for me what no other man in creation could do. It was suggested to me unconsciously by the story of a book—a book in which men change identities. I saw nothing in it at the time, but this morning, as I lay in bed, sick with yesterday's fiasco, it came back to me—it rushed over my mind in an inspiration. It will save me—and make you. I'm not insulting you, though you'd like to think so."
Without remark Loder freed himself from the other's touch and walked back to his desk. His anger, his pride, and, against his will, his excitement were all aroused.
He sat down, leaned his elbow on the desk and took his face between his hands. The man behind him undoubtedly talked madness; but after five years of dreary sanity madness had a fascination. Against all reason it stirred and roused him. For one instant his pride and his anger faltered before it, then common-sense flowed back again and adjusted the balance.
"You propose," he said, slowly, "that for a consideration of money I should trade on the likeness between us—and become your dummy, when you are otherwise engaged?"
Chilcote colored. "You are unpleasantly blunt," he said.
"But I have caught your meaning?"
"In the rough, yes."
Loder nodded curtly. "Then take my advice and go home," he said. "You're unhinged."
The other returned his glance, and as their eyes met Loder was reluctantly compelled to admit that, though the face was disturbed, it had no traces of insanity.
"I make you a proposal," Chilcote repeated, nervously but with distinctness. "Do you accept?"
For an instant Loder was at a loss to find a reply sufficiently final. Chilcote broke in upon the pause.
"After all," he urged, "what I ask of you is a simple thing. Merely to carry through my routine duties for a week or two occasionally when I find my endurance giving way—when a respite becomes essential. The work would be nothing to a man in your state of mind, the pay anything you like to name." In his eagerness he had followed Loder to the desk. "Won't you give me an answer? I told you I am neither mad nor drunk."
Loder pushed back the scattered papers that lay under his arm.
"Only a lunatic would propose such a scheme." he said, brusquely and without feeling.
The other's lips parted for a quick retort; then in a surprising way the retort seemed to fail him. "Oh, because the thing isn't feasible, isn't practicable from any point of view."
Chilcote stepped closer. "Why?" he insisted.
"Because it couldn't work, man! Couldn't hold for a dozen hours."
Chilcote put out his hand and touched his arm. "But why?" he urged. "Why? Give me one unanswerable reason."
Loder shook off the hand and laughed, but below his laugh lay a suggestion of the other's excitement. Again the scene stirred him against his sounder judgment; though his reply, when it came, was firm enough.
"As for reasons—" he said. "There are a hundred, if I had time to name them. Take it, for the sake of supposition, that I were to accept your offer. I should take my place in your house at—let us say at dinnertime. Your man gets me into your evening-clothes, and there, at the very start, you have the first suspicion set up. He has probably known you for years—known you until every turn of your appearance, voice, and manner is far more familiar to him than it is to you. There are no eyes like a servant's."
"I have thought of that. My servant and my secretary can both be changed. I will do the thing thoroughly."
Loder glanced at him in surprise. The madness had more method than he had believed. Then, as he still looked, a fresh idea struck him, and he laughed.
"You have entirely forgotten one thing," he said. "You can hardly dismiss your wife."
"My wife doesn't count."
Again Loder laughed. "I'm afraid I scarcely agree. The complications would be slightly—slightly—" He paused.
Chilcote's latent irritability broke out suddenly. "Look here," he said, "this isn't a chaffing matter, It may be moonshine to you, but it's reality to me."
Again Loder took his face between his hands.
"Don't ridicule the idea. I'm in dead earnest."
Loder said nothing.
"Think—think it over before you refuse."
For a moment Loder remained motionless; then h rose suddenly, pushing back his chair.
"Tush, man! You don't know what you say. The fact of your being married bars it. Can't you see that?"
Again Chilcote caught his arm.
"You misunderstand," he said. "You mistake the position. I tell you my wife and I are nothing to each other. She goes her way; I go mine. We have our own friends, our own rooms. Marriage, actual marriage, doesn't enter the question. We meet occasionally at meals, and at other people's houses; sometimes we go out together for the sake of appearances; beyond that, nothing. If you take up my life, nobody in it will trouble you less than Eve—I can promise that." He laughed unsteadily.
Loder's face remained unmoved.
"Even granting that," he said, "the thing is still impossible."
"There is the House. The position there would be untenable. A man is known there as he is known in his own club." He drew away from Chilcote's touch.
"Very possibly. Very possibly." Chilcote laughed quickly and excitedly. "But what club is without its eccentric member? I am glad you spoke of that. I am glad you raised that point. It was a long time ago that I hit upon a reputation for moods as a shield for—for other things, and, the more useful it has become, the more I have let it grow. I tell you you might go down to the House to-morrow and spend the whole day without speaking to, even nodding to, a single man, and as long as you were I to outward appearances no one would raise an eyebrow. In the same way you might vote in my place ask a question, make a speech if you wanted to—"
At the word speech Loder turned involuntarily For a fleeting second the coldness of his manner dropped and his face changed.
Chilcote, with his nervous quickness of perception, saw the alteration, and a new look crossed his own face.
"Why not?" he said, quickly. "You once had ambitions in that direction. Why not renew the ambitions?"
"And drop back from the mountains into the gutter?" Loder smiled and slowly shook his head.
"Better to live for one day than to exist for a hundred!" Chilcote's voice trembled with anxiety. For the third time he extended his hand and touched the other.
This time Loder did not shake off the detaining; hand; he scarcely seemed to feel its pressure.
"Look here." Chilcote's fingers tightened. "A little while ago you talked of influence. Here you can step into a position built by influence. You might do all you once hoped to do—"
Loder suddenly lifted his head. "Absurd!" he said. "Absurd! Such a scheme was never carried through."
"Precisely why it will succeed. People never suspect until they have a precedent. Will you consider it? At least consider it. Remember, if there is a risk, it is I who am running it. On your own showing, you have no position to jeopardize."
The other laughed curtly.
"Before I go to-night will you promise me to consider it?"
"Then you will send me your decision by wire to-morrow. I won't take your answer now."
Loder freed his arm abruptly. "Why not?" he asked.
Chilcote smiled nervously. "Because I know men—and men's temptations. We are all very strong till the quick is touched; then we all wince. It's morphia with one man, ambitions with another. In each case it's only a matter of sooner or later." He laughed in his satirical, unstrung way, and held out his hand. "'You have my address," he said. "Au revoir."
Loder pressed the hand and dropped it. "Goodbye," he said, meaningly. Then he crossed the room quietly and held the door open. "Good-bye," he said again as the other passed him.
As he crossed the threshold, Chilcote paused. "Au revoir," he corrected, with emphasis.
Until the last echo of his visitor's steps had died away Loder stood with his hand on the door; then, closing it quietly, he turned and looked round the room. For a considerable space he stood there as if weighing the merits of each object; then very slowly he moved to one of the book-shelves, drew out May's Parliamentary Practice, and, carrying it to the desk, readjusted the lamp.
All the next day Chilcote moved in a fever of excitement. Hot with hope one moment, cold with fever the next, he rushed with restless energy into every task that presented itself—only to drop it as speedily. Twice during the morning he drove to the entrance of Clifford's Inn, but each time his courage failed him and he returned to Grosvenor Square—to learn that the expected message from Loder had not come.
It was a wearing condition of mind; but at worst it was scarcely more than an exaggeration of what his state had been for months, and made but little obvious difference in his bearing or manner.
In the afternoon he took his place in the House, but, though it was his first appearance since his failure of two days ago, he drew but small personal notice. When he chose, his manner could repel advances with extreme effect, and of late men had been prone to draw away from him.
In one of the lobbies he encountered Fraide surrounded by a group of friends. With his usual furtive haste he would have passed on; but, moving away from his party, the old man accosted him. He was always courteously particular in his treatment of Chilcote, as the husband of his ward and godchild.
"Better, Chilcote?" he said, holding out his hand.
At the sound of the low, rather formal tones, so characteristic of the old statesman, a hundred memories rose to Chilcote's mind, a hundred hours, distasteful in the living and unbearable in the recollection; and with them the new flash of hope, the new possibility of freedom. In a sudden rush of confidence he turned to his leader.
"I believe I've found a remedy for my nerves," he said. "I —I believe I'm going to be anew man." He laughed with a touch of excitement,
Fraide pressed his fingers kindly, "That is right," he said. "That is right. I called at Grosvenor Square this morning, but Eve told me your illness of the other day was not serious. She was very busy this morning—she could only spare me a quarter of an hour. She is indefatigable over the social side of your prospects. Chilcote. You owe her a large debt. A popular wife means a great deal to a politician."
The steady eyes of his companion disturbed Chilcote.
He drew away his hand.
"Eve is unique," he said, vaguely.
Fraide smiled. "That is right," he said again. "Admiration is too largely excluded from modern marriages." And with a courteous excuse he rejoined his friends.
It was dinner-time before Chilcote could desert the House, but the moment departure was possible he hurried to Grosvenor Square.
As he entered the house, the hall was empty. He swore irritably under his breath and pressed the nearest bell. Since his momentary exaltation in Fraide's presence, his spirits had steadily fallen, until now they hung at the lowest ebb.
As he waited in unconcealed impatience for an answer to his summons, he caught sight of his man Allsopp at the head of the stairs.
"Come here!" he called, pleased to find some one upon whom to vent his irritation. "Has that wire come for me?"
"No, sir. I inquired five minutes back."
"Yes, sir." Allsopp disappeared.
A second after his disappearance the bell of the hall door whizzed loudly.
Chileote started. All sudden sounds, like all strong lights, affected him. He half moved to the door, then stopped himself with a short exclamation. At the same instant Allsopp reappeared.
Chilcote turned on him excitedly.
"What the devil's the meaning of this?" he said. "A battery of servants in the house and nobody to open the hall door!"
Allsopp looked embarrassed. "Crapham is coming directly, sir. He only left the hall to ask Jeffries—"
Chilcote turned. "Confound Crapham!" he exclaimed. "Go and open the door yourself."
Allsopp hesitated, his dignity struggling with his obedience. As he waited, the bell sounded again.
"Did you hear me?" Chilcote said.
"Yes, sir." Allsopp crossed the hall.
As the door was opened Chilcote passed his handkerchief from one hand to the other in the tension of hope and fear; then, as the sound of his own name in the shrill tones of a telegraph-boy reached his ears, he let the handkerchief drop to the ground.
Allsopp took the yellow envelope and carried it to his master.
"A telegram, sir," he said. "And the boy wishes to know if there is an answer." Picking up Chilcote's handkerchief, he turned aside with elaborate dignity.
Chilcote's hands were so unsteady that he could scarcely insert his finger under the flap of the envelope. Tearing off a corner, he wrenched the covering apart and smoothed out the flimsy pink paper.
The message was very simple, consisting of but seven words:
"Shall expect you at eleven to-night.-LODER."
He read it two or three times, then he looked up. "No answer," he said, mechanically; and to his own ears the relief in his voice sounded harsh and unnatural.
Exactly as the clocks chimed eleven Chilcote mounted the stairs to Loder's rooms. But this time there was more of haste than of uncertainty in his steps, and, reaching the landing, he crossed it in a couple of strides and knocked feverishly on the door.
It opened at once, and Loder stood before him.
The occasion was peculiar. For a moment neither spoke; each involuntarily looked at the other with new eyes and under changed conditions. Each had assumed a fresh stand-point in the other's thought. The passing astonishment, the half-impersonal curiosity that had previously tinged their relationship, was cast aside, never to be reassumed. In each, the other saw himself —and something more.
As usual, Loder was the first to recover himself.
"I was expecting you," he said. "Won't you come in?"
The words were almost the same as his words of the night before, but his voice had a different ring; just as his face, when he drew back into the room, had a different expression—a suggestion of decision and energy that had been lacking before. Chilcote caught the difference as he crossed the threshold, and for a bare second a flicker of something like jealousy touched him. But the sensation was fleeting.
"I have to thank you!" he said, holding out his hand. He was too well bred to show by a hint that he understood the drop in the other's principles. But Loder broke down the artifice.
"Let's be straight with each other, since everybody else has to be deceived," he said, taking the other's hand. "You have nothing to thank me for, and you know it. It's a touch of the old Adam. You tempted me, and I fell." He laughed, but below the laugh ran a note of something like triumph—the curious triumph of a man who has known the tyranny of strength and suddenly appreciates the freedom of a weakness.
"You fully realize the thing you have proposed?" he added, in a different tone. "It's not too late to retract, even now."
Chilcote opened his lips, paused, then laughed in imitation of his companion; but the laugh sounded forced.
"My dear fellow," he said at last, "I never retract."
"Then the bargain's sealed."
Loder walked slowly across the room, and, taking up his position by the mantel-piece, looked at his companion. The similarity between them as they faced each other seemed abnormal, defying even the closest scrutiny. And yet, so mysterious is Nature even in her lapses, they were subtly, indefinably different. Chilcote was Loder deprived of one essential: Loder, Chilcote with that essential bestowed. The difference lay neither in feature, in coloring, nor in height, but in that baffling, illusive inner illumination that some call individuality, and others soul.
Something of this idea, misted and tangled by nervous imagination, crossed Chilcote's mind in that moment of scrutiny, but he shrank from it apprehensively.
"I—I came to discuss details," he said, quickly, crossing the space that divided him from his host. "Shall we—? Are you—?" He paused uneasily.
"I'm entirely in your hands." Loder spoke with abrupt decision. Moving to the table, he indicated a chair, and drew another forward for himself.
Both men sat down.
Chilcote leaned forward, resting elbows on the table. "There will be several things to consider—" he began, nervously, looking across at the other.
"Quite so." Loder glanced back appreciatively. "I thought about those things the better part of last night. To begin with, I must study your handwriting. I guarantee to get it right, but it will take a month."
"Well, perhaps three weeks. We mustn't make a mess of things."
Chilcote shifted his position.
"Three weeks!" he repeated. "Couldn't you—?"
"No; I couldn't." Loder spoke authoritatively. "I might never want to put pen to paper, but, on the other hand, I might have to sign a check one day." He laughed. "Have you ever thought of that?—that I might have to, or want to, sign a check?"
"No. I confess that escaped me."
"You risk your fortune that you, may keep the place it bought for you?" Loder laughed again. "How do you know that I am not a blackguard?" he added. "How do you know that I won't clear out one day and leave you high and dry? What is to prevent John Chilcote from realizing forty or fifty thousand pounds and then making himself scarce?"
"You won't do that," Chilcote said, with unusual decision. "I told you your weakness last night; and it wasn't money. Money isn't the rock you'll split over."
"Then you think I'll split upon some rock? But that's beyond the question. To get to business again. You'll risk my studying your signature?"
"Right! Now item two." Loder counted on his: fingers. "I must know the names and faces of your men friends as far as I can. Your woman friends don't count. While I'm you, you will be adamant." He laughed again pleasantly. "But the men are essential—the backbone of the whole business."
"I have no men friends. I don't trust the idea of friendship."
Chilcote looked up sharply. "I think we score there," he said. "I have a reputation for absent-mindedness that will carry you anywhere. They tell me I can look through the most substantial man in the House as if he were gossamer, though I may have lunched with him the same day."
Loder smiled. "By Jove!" he exclaimed. "Fate Must have been constructing this before either of us was born. It dovetails ridiculously. But I must know your colleagues—even if it's only to cut them. You'll have to take me to the House."
"Not at all!" Again the tone of authority fell to Loder. "I can pull my hat over my eyes and turn up my coat-collar. Nobody will notice me. We can choose the fall of the afternoon. I promise you 'twill be all right."
"Suppose the likeness should leak out? It's a risk."
Loder laughed confidently. "Tush, man! Risk is the salt of life. I must see you at your post, and I must see the men you work with." He rose, walked across the room, and took his pipe from the rack. "When I go in for a thing, I like to go in over head and ears," he added, as he opened his tobacco-jar.
His pipe filled, he resumed his seat, resting his elbows on the table in unconscious imitation of Chilcote.
"Got a match?" he said, laconically, holding out his band.
In response Chilcote drew his match-box from his pocket and struck a light. As their hands touched, an exclamation escaped him.
"By Jove!" he said, with a fretful mixture of disappointment and surprise. "I hadn't noticed that!" His eyes were fixed in annoyed interest on Loder's extended hand.
Loder, following his glance, smiled. "Odd that we should both have overlooked it! It clean escaped my mind. It's rather an ugly scar." He lifted his hand till the light fell more fully on it. Above the second joint of the third finger ran a jagged furrow, the reminder of a wound that had once laid bare the bone.