Part 2 out of 4
and he received news of him in a way that at once puzzled and
reassured him. On the floor above lay one of those large paper darts
which boys throw at each other when the schoolmaster is out of the
room. It had evidently been thrown in at the window, and on being
unfolded displayed a scrawl of bad handwriting which ran: "Dear
Uncle; I am all right. Meet you at the hotel later on," and then the
Insensibly comforted by this, the clergyman found his thoughts
reverting voluntarily to his favorite relic, which came a good
second in his sympathies to his favorite nephew, and before he knew
where he was he found himself encircled by the group discussing its
loss, and more or less carried away on the current of their
excitement. But an undercurrent of query continued to run in his
mind, as to what had really happened to the boy, and what was the
boy's exact definition of being all right.
Meanwhile Horne Fisher had considerably puzzled everybody with his
new tone and attitude. He had talked to the colonel about the
military and mechanical arrangements, and displayed a remarkable
knowledge both of the details of discipline and the technicalities
of electricity. He had talked to the clergyman, and shown an equally
surprising knowledge of the religious and historical interests
involved in the relic. He had talked to the man who called himself a
magician, and not only surprised but scandalized the company by an
equally sympathetic familiarity with the most fantastic forms of
Oriental occultism and psychic experiment. And in this last and
least respectable line of inquiry he was evidently prepared to go
farthest; he openly encouraged the magician, and was plainly
prepared to follow the wildest ways of investigation in which that
magus might lead him.
"How would you begin now?" he inquired, with an anxious politeness
that reduced the colonel to a congestion of rage.
"It is all a question of a force; of establishing communications for
a force," replied that adept, affably, ignoring some military
mutterings about the police force. "It is what you in the West used
to call animal magnetism, but it is much more than that. I had
better not say how much more. As to setting about it, the usual
method is to throw some susceptible person into a trance, which
serves as a sort of bridge or cord of communication, by which the
force beyond can give him, as it were, an electric shock, and awaken
his higher senses. It opens the sleeping eye of the mind."
"I'm suspectible," said Fisher, either with simplicity or with a
baffling irony. "Why not open my mind's eye for me? My friend Harold
March here will tell you I sometimes see things, even in the dark."
"Nobody sees anything except in the dark," said the magician.
Heavy clouds of sunset were closing round the wooden hut, enormous
clouds, of which only the corners could be seen in the little
window, like purple horns and tails, almost as if some huge monsters
were prowling round the place. But the purple was already deepening
to dark gray; it would soon be night.
"Do not light the lamp," said the magus with quiet authority,
arresting a movement in that direction. "I told you before that
things happen only in the dark."
How such a topsy-turvy scene ever came to be tolerated in the
colonel's office, of all places, was afterward a puzzle in the
memory of many, including the colonel. They recalled it like a sort
of nightmare, like something they could not control. Perhaps there
was really a magnetism about the mesmerist; perhaps there was even
more magnetism about the man mesmerized. Anyhow, the man was being
mesmerized, for Horne Fisher had collapsed into a chair with his
long limbs loose and sprawling and his eyes staring at vacancy; and
the other man was mesmerizing him, making sweeping movements with
his darkly draped arms as if with black wings. The colonel had
passed the point of explosion, and he dimly realized that eccentric
aristocrats are allowed their fling. He comforted himself with the
knowledge that he had already sent for the police, who would break
up any such masquerade, and with lighting a cigar, the red end of
which, in the gathering darkness, glowed with protest.
"Yes, I see pockets," the man in the trance was saying. "I see many
pockets, but they are all empty. No; I see one pocket that is not
There was a faint stir in the stillness, and the magician said, "Can
you see what is in the pocket?"
"Yes," answered the other; "there are two bright things. I think
they are two bits of steel. One of the pieces of steel is bent or
"Have they been used in the removal of the relic from downstairs?"
There was another pause and the inquirer added, "Do you see anything
of the relic itself?"
"I see something shining on the floor, like the shadow or the ghost
of it. It is over there in the corner beyond the desk."
There was a movement of men turning and then a sudden stillness, as
of their stiffening, for over in the corner on the wooden floor
there was really a round spot of pale light. It was the only spot of
light in the room. The cigar had gone out.
"It points the way," came the voice of the oracle. "The spirits are
pointing the way to penitence, and urging the thief to restitution.
I can see nothing more." His voice trailed off into a silence that
lasted solidly for many minutes, like the long silence below when
the theft had been committed. Then it was broken by the ring of
metal on the floor, and the sound of something spinning and falling
like a tossed halfpenny.
"Light the lamp!" cried Fisher in a loud and even jovial voice,
leaping to his feet with far less languor than usual. "I must be
going now, but I should like to see it before I go. Why, I came on
purpose to see it."
The lamp was lit, and he did see it, for St. Paul's Penny was lying
on the floor at his feet.
"Oh, as for that," explained Fisher, when he was entertaining March
and Twyford at lunch about a month later, "I merely wanted to play
with the magician at his own game."
"I thought you meant to catch him in his own trap," said Twyford.
"I can't make head or tail of anything yet, but to my mind he was
always the suspect. I don't think he was necessarily a thief in the
vulgar sense. The police always seem to think that silver is stolen
for the sake of silver, but a thing like that might well be stolen
out of some religious mania. A runaway monk turned mystic might well
want it for some mystical purpose."
"No," replied Fisher, "the runaway monk is not a thief. At any rate
he is not the thief. And he's not altogether a liar, either. He said
one true thing at least that night."
"And what was that?" inquired March.
"He said it was all magnetism. As a matter of fact, it was done by
means of a magnet." Then, seeing they still looked puzzled, he
added, "It was that toy magnet belonging to your nephew, Mr.
"But I don't understand," objected March. "If it was done with the
schoolboy's magnet, I suppose it was done by the schoolboy."
"Well," replied Fisher, reflectively, "it rather depends which
"What on earth do you mean?"
"The soul of a schoolboy is a curious thing," Fisher continued, in a
meditative manner. "It can survive a great many things besides
climbing out of a chimney. A man can grow gray in great campaigns,
and still have the soul of a schoolboy. A man can return with a
great reputation from India and be put in charge of a great public
treasure, and still have the soul of a schoolboy, waiting to be
awakened by an accident. And it is ten times more so when to the
schoolboy you add the skeptic, who is generally a sort of stunted
schoolboy. You said just now that things might be done by religious
mania. Have you ever heard of irreligious mania? I assure you it
exists very violently, especially in men who like showing up
magicians in India. But here the skeptic had the temptation of
showing up a much more tremendous sham nearer home."
A light came into Harold March's eyes as he suddenly saw, as if afar
off, the wider implication of the suggestion. But Twyford was still
wrestling with one problem at a time.
"Do you really mean," he said, "that Colonel Morris took the relic?"
"He was the only person who could use the magnet," replied Fisher.
"In fact, your obliging nephew left him a number of things he could
use. He had a ball of string, and an instrument for making a hole in
the wooden floor--I made a little play with that hole in the floor
in my trance, by the way; with the lights left on below, it shone
like a new shilling." Twyford suddenly bounded on his chair. "But in
that case," he cried, in a new and altered voice, "why then of
course-- You said a piece of steel--?"
"I said there were two pieces of steel," said Fisher. "The bent
piece of steel was the boy's magnet. The other was the relic in the
"But that is silver," answered the archaeologist, in a voice now
"Oh," replied Fisher, soothingly, "I dare say it was painted with
silver a little."
There was a heavy silence, and at last Harold March said, "But where
is the real relic?"
"Where it has been for five years," replied Horne Fisher, "in the
possession of a mad millionaire named Vandam, in Nebraska. There was
a playful little photograph about him in a society paper the other
day, mentioning his delusion, and saying he was always being taken
in about relics."
Harold March frowned at the tablecloth; then, after an interval, he
said: "I think I understand your notion of how the thing was
actually done; according to that, Morris just made a hole and fished
it up with a magnet at the end of a string. Such a monkey trick
looks like mere madness, but I suppose he was mad, partly with the
boredom of watching over what he felt was a fraud, though he
couldn't prove it. Then came a chance to prove it, to himself at
least, and he had what he called 'fun' with it. Yes, I think I see a
lot of details now. But it's just the whole thing that knocks me.
How did it all come to be like that?"
Fisher was looking at him with level lids and an immovable manner.
"Every precaution was taken," he said. "The Duke carried the relic
on his own person, and locked it up in the case with his own hands."
March was silent; but Twyford stammered. "I don't understand you.
You give me the creeps. Why don't you speak plainer?"
"If I spoke plainer you would understand me less," said Horne
"All the same I should try," said March, still without lifting his
"Oh, very well," replied Fisher, with a sigh; "the plain truth is,
of course, that it's a bad business. Everybody knows it's a bad
business who knows anything about it. But it's always happening, and
in one way one can hardly blame them. They get stuck on to a foreign
princess that's as stiff as a Dutch doll, and they have their fling.
In this case it was a pretty big fling."
The face of the Rev. Thomas Twyford certainly suggested that he was
a little out of his depth in the seas of truth, but as the other
went on speaking vaguely the old gentleman's features sharpened and
"If it were some decent morganatic affair I wouldn't say; but he
must have been a fool to throw away thousands on a woman like that.
At the end it was sheer blackmail; but it's something that the old
ass didn't get it out of the taxpayers. He could only get it out of
the Yank, and there you are."
The Rev. Thomas Twyford had risen to his feet.
"Well, I'm glad my nephew had nothing to do with it," he said. "And
if that's what the world is like, I hope he will never have anything
to do with it."
"I hope not," answered Horne Fisher. "No one knows so well as I do
that one can have far too much to do with it."
For Summers Minor had indeed nothing to do with it; and it is part
of his higher significance that he has really nothing to do with the
story, or with any such stories. The boy went like a bullet through
the tangle of this tale of crooked politics and crazy mockery and
came out on the other side, pursuing his own unspoiled purposes.
From the top of the chimney he climbed he had caught sight of a new
omnibus, whose color and name he had never known, as a naturalist
might see a new bird or a botanist a new flower. And he had been
sufficiently enraptured in rushing after it, and riding away upon
that fairy ship.
IV. THE BOTTOMLESS WELL
In an oasis, or green island, in the red and yellow seas of sand
that stretch beyond Europe toward the sunrise, there can be found a
rather fantastic contrast, which is none the less typical of such a
place, since international treaties have made it an outpost of the
British occupation. The site is famous among archaeologists for
something that is hardly a monument, but merely a hole in the
ground. But it is a round shaft, like that of a well, and probably a
part of some great irrigation works of remote and disputed date,
perhaps more ancient than anything in that ancient land. There is a
green fringe of palm and prickly pear round the black mouth of the
well; but nothing of the upper masonry remains except two bulky and
battered stones standing like the pillars of a gateway of nowhere,
in which some of the more transcendental archaeologists, in certain
moods at moonrise or sunset, think they can trace the faint lines of
figures or features of more than Babylonian monstrosity; while the
more rationalistic archaeologists, in the more rational hours of
daylight, see nothing but two shapeless rocks. It may have been
noticed, however, that all Englishmen are not archaeologists. Many
of those assembled in such a place for official and military
purposes have hobbies other than archaeology. And it is a solemn
fact that the English in this Eastern exile have contrived to make a
small golf links out of the green scrub and sand; with a comfortable
clubhouse at one end of it and this primeval monument at the other.
They did not actually use this archaic abyss as a bunker, because it
was by tradition unfathomable, and even for practical purposes
unfathomed. Any sporting projectile sent into it might be counted
most literally as a lost ball. But they often sauntered round it in
their interludes of talking and smoking cigarettes, and one of them
had just come down from the clubhouse to find another gazing
somewhat moodily into the well.
Both the Englishmen wore light clothes and white pith helmets and
puggrees, but there, for the most part, their resemblance ended. And
they both almost simultaneously said the same word, but they said it
on two totally different notes of the voice.
"Have you heard the news?" asked the man from the club. "Splendid."
"Splendid," replied the man by the well. But the first man
pronounced the word as a young man might say it about a woman, and
the second as an old man might say it about the weather, not without
sincerity, but certainly without fervor.
And in this the tone of the two men was sufficiently typical of
them. The first, who was a certain Captain Boyle, was of a bold and
boyish type, dark, and with a sort of native heat in his face that
did not belong to the atmosphere of the East, but rather to the
ardors and ambitions of the West. The other was an older man and
certainly an older resident, a civilian official--Horne Fisher; and
his drooping eyelids and drooping light mustache expressed all the
paradox of the Englishman in the East. He was much too hot to be
anything but cool.
Neither of them thought it necessary to mention what it was that was
splendid. That would indeed have been superfluous conversation about
something that everybody knew. The striking victory over a menacing
combination of Turks and Arabs in the north, won by troops under the
command of Lord Hastings, the veteran of so many striking victories,
was already spread by the newspapers all over the Empire, let alone
to this small garrison so near to the battlefield.
"Now, no other nation in the world could have done a thing like
that," cried Captain Boyle, emphatically.
Horne Fisher was still looking silently into the well; a moment
later he answered: "We certainly have the art of unmaking mistakes.
That's where the poor old Prussians went wrong. They could only make
mistakes and stick to them. There is really a certain talent in
unmaking a mistake."
"What do you mean," asked Boyle, "what mistakes?"
"Well, everybody knows it looked like biting off more than he could
chew," replied Horne Fisher. It was a peculiarity of Mr. Fisher that
he always said that everybody knew things which about one person in
two million was ever allowed to hear of. "And it was certainly jolly
lucky that Travers turned up so well in the nick of time. Odd how
often the right thing's been done for us by the second in command,
even when a great man was first in command. Like Colborne at
"It ought to add a whole province to the Empire," observed the
"Well, I suppose the Zimmernes would have insisted on it as far as
the canal," observed Fisher, thoughtfully, "though everybody knows
adding provinces doesn't always pay much nowadays."
Captain Boyle frowned in a slightly puzzled fashion. Being cloudily
conscious of never having heard of the Zimmernes in his life, he
could only remark, stolidly:
"Well, one can't be a Little Englander."
Horne Fisher smiled, and he had a pleasant smile.
"Every man out here is a Little Englander," he said. "He wishes he
were back in Little England."
"I don't know what you're talking about, I'm afraid," said the
younger man, rather suspiciously. "One would think you didn't really
admire Hastings or--or--anything."
"I admire him no end," replied Fisher. "He's by far the best man
for this post; he understands the Moslems and can do anything with
them. That's why I'm all against pushing Travers against him, merely
because of this last affair."
"I really don't understand what you're driving at," said the other,
"Perhaps it isn't worth understanding," answered Fisher, lightly,
"and, anyhow, we needn't talk politics. Do you know the Arab legend
about that well?"
"I'm afraid I don't know much about Arab legends," said Boyle,
"That's rather a mistake," replied Fisher, "especially from your
point of view. Lord Hastings himself is an Arab legend. That is
perhaps the very greatest thing he really is. If his reputation went
it would weaken us all over Asia and Africa. Well, the story about
that hole in the ground, that goes down nobody knows where, has
always fascinated me, rather. It's Mohammedan in form now, but I
shouldn't wonder if the tale is a long way older than Mohammed. It's
all about somebody they call the Sultan Aladdin, not our friend of
the lamp, of course, but rather like him in having to do with genii
or giants or something of that sort. They say he commanded the
giants to build him a sort of pagoda, rising higher and higher above
all the stars. The Utmost for the Highest, as the people said when
they built the Tower of Babel. But the builders of the Tower of
Babel were quite modest and domestic people, like mice, compared
with old Aladdin. They only wanted a tower that would reach heaven--
a mere trifle. He wanted a tower that would pass heaven and rise
above it, and go on rising for ever and ever. And Allah cast him
down to earth with a thunderbolt, which sank into the earth, boring
a hole deeper and deeper, till it made a well that was without a
bottom as the tower was to have been without a top. And down that
inverted tower of darkness the soul of the proud Sultan is falling
forever and ever."
"What a queer chap you are," said Boyle. "You talk as if a fellow
could believe those fables."
"Perhaps I believe the moral and not the fable," answered Fisher.
"But here comes Lady Hastings. You know her, I think."
The clubhouse on the golf links was used, of course, for many other
purposes besides that of golf. It was the only social center of the
garrison beside the strictly military headquarters; it had a
billiard room and a bar, and even an excellent reference library for
those officers who were so perverse as to take their profession
seriously. Among these was the great general himself, whose head of
silver and face of bronze, like that of a brazen eagle, were often
to be found bent over the charts and folios of the library. The
great Lord Hastings believed in science and study, as in other
severe ideals of life, and had given much paternal advice on the
point to young Boyle, whose appearances in that place of research
were rather more intermittent. It was from one of these snatches of
study that the young man had just come out through the glass doors
of the library on to the golf links. But, above all, the club was so
appointed as to serve the social conveniences of ladies at least as
much as gentlemen, and Lady Hastings was able to play the queen in
such a society almost as much as in her own ballroom. She was
eminently calculated and, as some said, eminently inclined to play
such a part. She was much younger than her husband, an attractive
and sometimes dangerously attractive lady; and Mr. Horne Fisher
looked after her a little sardonically as she swept away with the
young soldier. Then his rather dreary eye strayed to the green and
prickly growths round the well, growths of that curious cactus
formation in which one thick leaf grows directly out of the other
without stalk or twig. It gave his fanciful mind a sinister feeling
of a blind growth without shape or purpose. A flower or shrub in the
West grows to the blossom which is its crown, and is content. But
this was as if hands could grow out of hands or legs grow out of
legs in a nightmare. "Always adding a province to the Empire," he
said, with a smile, and then added, more sadly, "but I doubt if I
was right, after all!"
A strong but genial voice broke in on his meditations and he looked
up and smiled, seeing the face of an old friend. The voice was,
indeed, rather more genial than the face, which was at the first
glance decidedly grim. It was a typically legal face, with angular
jaws and heavy, grizzled eyebrows; and it belonged to an eminently
legal character, though he was now attached in a semimilitary
capacity to the police of that wild district. Cuthbert Grayne was
perhaps more of a criminologist than either a lawyer or a policeman,
but in his more barbarous surroundings he had proved successful in
turning himself into a practical combination of all three. The
discovery of a whole series of strange Oriental crimes stood to his
credit. But as few people were acquainted with, or attracted to,
such a hobby or branch of knowledge, his intellectual life was
somewhat solitary. Among the few exceptions was Horne Fisher, who
had a curious capacity for talking to almost anybody about almost
"Studying botany, or is it archaeology?" inquired Grayne. "I shall
never come to the end of your interests, Fisher. I should say that
what you don't know isn't worth knowing."
"You are wrong," replied Fisher, with a very unusual abruptness, and
even bitterness. "It's what I do know that isn't worth knowing. All
the seamy side of things, all the secret reasons and rotten motives
and bribery and blackmail they call politics. I needn't be so proud
of having been down all these sewers that I should brag about it to
the little boys in the street."
"What do you mean? What's the matter with you?" asked his friend.
"I never knew you taken like this before."
"I'm ashamed of myself," replied Fisher. "I've just been throwing
cold water on the enthusiasms of a boy."
"Even that explanation is hardly exhaustive," observed the criminal
"Damned newspaper nonsense the enthusiasms were, of course,"
continued Fisher, "but I ought to know that at that age illusions
can be ideals. And they're better than the reality, anyhow. But
there is one very ugly responsibility about jolting a young man out
of the rut of the most rotten ideal."
"And what may that be?" inquired his friend.
"It's very apt to set him off with the same energy in a much worse
direction," answered Fisher; "a pretty endless sort of direction, a
bottomless pit as deep as the bottomless well."
Fisher did not see his friend until a fortnight later, when he found
himself in the garden at the back of the clubhouse on the opposite
side from the links, a garden heavily colored and scented with sweet
semitropical plants in the glow of a desert sunset. Two other men
were with him, the third being the now celebrated second in command,
familiar to everybody as Tom Travers, a lean, dark man, who looked
older than his years, with a furrow in his brow and something morose
about the very shape of his black mustache. They had just been
served with black coffee by the Arab now officiating as the
temporary servant of the club, though he was a figure already
familiar, and even famous, as the old servant of the general. He
went by the name of Said, and was notable among other Semites for
that unnatural length of his yellow face and height of his narrow
forehead which is sometimes seen among them, and gave an irrational
impression of something sinister, in spite of his agreeable smile.
"I never feel as if I could quite trust that fellow," said Grayne,
when the man had gone away. "It's very unjust, I take it, for he was
certainly devoted to Hastings, and saved his life, they say. But
Arabs are often like that, loyal to one man. I can't help feeling he
might cut anybody else's throat, and even do it treacherously."
"Well," said Travers, with a rather sour smile, "so long as he
leaves Hastings alone the world won't mind much."
There was a rather embarrassing silence, full of memories of the
great battle, and then Horne Fisher said, quietly:
"The newspapers aren't the world, Tom. Don't you worry about them.
Everybody in your world knows the truth well enough."
"I think we'd better not talk about the general just now," remarked
Grayne, "for he's just coming out of the club."
"He's not coming here," said Fisher. "He's only seeing his wife to
As he spoke, indeed, the lady came out on the steps of the club,
followed by her husband, who then went swiftly in front of her to
open the garden gate. As he did so she turned back and spoke for a
moment to a solitary man still sitting in a cane chair in the shadow
of the doorway, the only man left in the deserted club save for the
three that lingered in the garden. Fisher peered for a moment into
the shadow, and saw that it was Captain Boyle.
The next moment, rather to their surprise, the general reappeared
and, remounting the steps, spoke a word or two to Boyle in his turn.
Then he signaled to Said, who hurried up with two cups of coffee,
and the two men re-entered the club, each carrying his cup in his
hand. The next moment a gleam of white light in the growing darkness
showed that the electric lamps had been turned on in the library
"Coffee and scientific researches," said Travers, grimly. "All the
luxuries of learning and theoretical research. Well, I must be
going, for I have my work to do as well." And he got up rather
stiffly, saluted his companions, and strode away into the dusk.
"I only hope Boyle is sticking to scientific researches," said Horne
Fisher. "I'm not very comfortable about him myself. But let's talk
about something else."
They talked about something else longer than they probably imagined,
until the tropical night had come and a splendid moon painted the
whole scene with silver; but before it was bright enough to see by
Fisher had already noted that the lights in the library had been
abruptly extinguished. He waited for the two men to come out by the
garden entrance, but nobody came.
"They must have gone for a stroll on the links," he said.
"Very possibly," replied Grayne. "It's going to be a beautiful
A moment or two after he had spoken they heard a voice hailing them
out of the shadow of the clubhouse, and were astonished to perceive
Travers hurrying toward them, calling out as he came:
"I shall want your help, you fellows," he cried. "There's something
pretty bad out on the links."
They found themselves plunging through the club smoking room and the
library beyond, in complete darkness, mental as well as material.
But Horne Fisher, in spite of his affectation of indifference, was a
person of a curious and almost transcendental sensibility to
atmospheres, and he already felt the presence of something more than
an accident. He collided with a piece of furniture in the library,
and almost shuddered with the shock, for the thing moved as he could
never have fancied a piece of furniture moving. It seemed to move
like a living thing, yielding and yet striking back. The next moment
Grayne had turned on the lights, and he saw he had only stumbled
against one of the revolving bookstands that had swung round and
struck him; but his involuntary recoil had revealed to him his own
subconscious sense of something mysterious and monstrous. There were
several of these revolving bookcases standing here and there about
the library; on one of them stood the two cups of coffee, and on
another a large open book. It was Budge's book on Egyptian
hieroglyphics, with colored plates of strange birds and gods, and
even as he rushed past, he was conscious of something odd about the
fact that this, and not any work of military science, should be open
in that place at that moment. He was even conscious of the gap in
the well-lined bookshelf from which it had been taken, and it seemed
almost to gape at him in an ugly fashion, like a gap in the teeth of
some sinister face.
A run brought them in a few minutes to the other side of the ground
in front of the bottomless well, and a few yards from it, in a
moonlight almost as broad as daylight, they saw what they had come
The great Lord Hastings lay prone on his face, in a posture in which
there was a touch of something strange and stiff, with one elbow
erect above his body, the arm being doubled, and his big, bony hand
clutching the rank and ragged grass. A few feet away was Boyle,
almost as motionless, but supported on his hands and knees, and
staring at the body. It might have been no more than shock and
accident; but there was something ungainly and unnatural about the
quadrupedal posture and the gaping face. It was as if his reason had
fled from him. Behind, there was nothing but the clear blue southern
sky, and the beginning of the desert, except for the two great
broken stones in front of the well. And it was in such a light and
atmosphere that men could fancy they traced in them enormous and
evil faces, looking down.
Horne Fisher stooped and touched the strong hand that was still
clutching the grass, and it was as cold as a stone. He knelt by the
body and was busy for a moment applying other tests; then he rose
again, and said, with a sort of confident despair:
"Lord Hastings is dead."
There was a stony silence, and then Travers remarked, gruffly: "This
is your department, Grayne; I will leave you to question Captain
Boyle. I can make no sense of what he says."
Boyle had pulled himself together and risen to his feet, but his
face still wore an awful expression, making it like a new mask or
the face of another man.
"I was looking at the well," he said, "and when I turned he had
Grayne's face was very dark. "As you say, this is my affair," he
said. "I must first ask you to help me carry him to the library and
let me examine things thoroughly."
When they had deposited the body in the library, Grayne turned to
Fisher and said, in a voice that had recovered its fullness and
confidence, "I am going to lock myself in and make a thorough
examination first. I look to you to keep in touch with the others
and make a preliminary examination of Boyle. I will talk to him
later. And just telephone to headquarters for a policeman, and let
him come here at once and stand by till I want him."
Without more words the great criminal investigator went into the
lighted library, shutting the door behind him, and Fisher, without
replying, turned and began to talk quietly to Travers. "It is
curious," he said, "that the thing should happen just in front of
"It would certainly be very curious," replied Travers, "if the place
played any part in it."
"I think," replied Fisher, "that the part it didn't play is more
And with these apparently meaningless words he turned to the shaken
Boyle and, taking his arm, began to walk him up and down in the
moonlight, talking in low tones.
Dawn had begun to break abrupt and white when Cuthbert Grayne turned
out the lights in the library and came out on to the links. Fisher
was lounging about alone, in his listless fashion; but the police
messenger for whom he had sent was standing at attention in the
"I sent Boyle off with Travers," observed Fisher, carelessly; "he'll
look after him, and he'd better have some sleep, anyhow."
"Did you get anything out of him?" asked Grayne. "Did he tell you
what he and Hastings were doing?"
"Yes," answered Fisher, "he gave me a pretty clear account, after
all. He said that after Lady Hastings went off in the car the
general asked him to take coffee with him in the library and look up
a point about local antiquities. He himself was beginning to look
for Budge's book in one of the revolving bookstands when the general
found it in one of the bookshelves on the wall. After looking at
some of the plates they went out, it would seem, rather abruptly, on
to the links, and walked toward the old well; and while Boyle was
looking into it he heard a thud behind him, and turned round to find
the general lying as we found him. He himself dropped on his knees
to examine the body, and then was paralyzed with a sort of terror
and could not come nearer to it or touch it. But I think very little
of that; people caught in a real shock of surprise are sometimes
found in the queerest postures."
Grayne wore a grim smile of attention, and said, after a short
"Well, he hasn't told you many lies. It's really a creditably clear
and consistent account of what happened, with everything of
importance left out."
"Have you discovered anything in there?" asked Fisher.
"I have discovered everything," answered Grayne.
Fisher maintained a somewhat gloomy silence, as the other resumed
his explanation in quiet and assured tones.
"You were quite right, Fisher, when you said that young fellow was
in danger of going down dark ways toward the pit. Whether or no, as
you fancied, the jolt you gave to his view of the general had
anything to do with it, he has not been treating the general well
for some time. It's an unpleasant business, and I don't want to
dwell on it; but it's pretty plain that his wife was not treating
him well, either. I don't know how far it went, but it went as far
as concealment, anyhow; for when Lady Hastings spoke to Boyle it was
to tell him she had hidden a note in the Budge book in the library.
The general overheard, or came somehow to know, and he went straight
to the book and found it. He confronted Boyle with it, and they had
a scene, of course. And Boyle was confronted with something else; he
was confronted with an awful alternative, in which the life of one
old man meant ruin and his death meant triumph and even happiness."
"Well," observed Fisher, at last, "I don't blame him for not telling
you the woman's part of the story. But how do you know about the
"I found it on the general's body," answered Grayne, "but I found
worse things than that. The body had stiffened in the way rather
peculiar to poisons of a certain Asiatic sort. Then I examined the
coffee cups, and I knew enough chemistry to find poison in the dregs
of one of them. Now, the General went straight to the bookcase,
leaving his cup of coffee on the bookstand in the middle of the
room. While his back was turned, and Boyle was pretending to examine
the bookstand, he was left alone with the coffee cup. The poison
takes about ten minutes to act, and ten minutes' walk would bring
them to the bottomless well."
"Yes," remarked Fisher, "and what about the bottomless well?"
"What has the bottomless well got to do with it?" asked his friend.
"It has nothing to do with it," replied Fisher. "That is what I
find utterly confounding and incredible."
"And why should that particular hole in the ground have anything to
do with it?"
"It is a particular hole in your case," said Fisher. "But I won't
insist on that just now. By the way, there is another thing I ought
to tell you. I said I sent Boyle away in charge of Travers. It would
be just as true to say I sent Travers in charge of Boyle."
"You don't mean to say you suspect Tom Travers?" cried the other.
"He was a deal bitterer against the general than Boyle ever was,"
observed Horne Fisher, with a curious indifference.
"Man, you're not saying what you mean," cried Grayne. "I tell you I
found the poison in one of the coffee cups."
"There was always Said, of course," added Fisher, "either for hatred
or hire. We agreed he was capable of almost anything."
"And we agreed he was incapable of hurting his master," retorted
"Well, well," said Fisher, amiably, "I dare say you are right; but I
should just like to have a look at the library and the coffee cups."
He passed inside, while Grayne turned to the policeman in attendance
and handed him a scribbled note, to be telegraphed from
headquarters. The man saluted and hurried off; and Grayne, following
his friend into the library, found him beside the bookstand in the
middle of the room, on which were the empty cups.
"This is where Boyle looked for Budge, or pretended to look for him,
according to your account," he said.
As Fisher spoke he bent down in a half-crouching attitude, to look
at the volumes in the low, revolving shelf, for the whole bookstand
was not much higher than an ordinary table. The next moment he
sprang up as if he had been stung.
"Oh, my God!" he cried.
Very few people, if any, had ever seen Mr. Horne Fisher behave as he
behaved just then. He flashed a glance at the door, saw that the
open window was nearer, went out of it with a flying leap, as if
over a hurdle, and went racing across the turf, in the track of the
disappearing policeman. Grayne, who stood staring after him, soon
saw his tall, loose figure, returning, restored to all its normal
limpness and air of leisure. He was fanning himself slowly with a
piece of paper, the telegram he had so violently intercepted.
"Lucky I stopped that," he observed. "We must keep this affair as
quiet as death. Hastings must die of apoplexy or heart disease."
"What on earth is the trouble?" demanded the other investigator.
"The trouble is," said Fisher, "that in a few days we should have
had a very agreeable alternative--of hanging an innocent man or
knocking the British Empire to hell."
"Do you mean to say," asked Grayne, "that this infernal crime is not
to be punished?"
Fisher looked at him steadily.
"It is already punished," he said.
After a moment's pause he went on. "You reconstructed the crime
with admirable skill, old chap, and nearly all you said was true.
Two men with two coffee cups did go into the library and did put
their cups on the bookstand and did go together to the well, and one
of them was a murderer and had put poison in the other's cup. But it
was not done while Boyle was looking at the revolving bookcase. He
did look at it, though, searching for the Budge book with the note
in it, but I fancy that Hastings had already moved it to the shelves
on the wall. It was part of that grim game that he should find it
"Now, how does a man search a revolving bookcase? He does not
generally hop all round it in a squatting attitude, like a frog. He
simply gives it a touch and makes it revolve."
He was frowning at the floor as he spoke, and there was a light
under his heavy lids that was not often seen there. The mysticism
that was buried deep under all the cynicism of his experience was
awake and moving in the depths. His voice took unexpected turns and
inflections, almost as if two men were speaking.
"That was what Boyle did; he barely touched the thing, and it went
round as easily as the world goes round. Yes, very much as the
world goes round, for the hand that turned it was not his. God, who
turns the wheel of all the stars, touched that wheel and brought it
full circle, that His dreadful justice might return."
"I am beginning," said Grayne, slowly, "to have some hazy and
horrible idea of what you mean."
"It is very simple," said Fisher, "when Boyle straightened himself
from his stooping posture, something had happened which he had not
noticed, which his enemy had not noticed, which nobody had noticed.
The two coffee cups had exactly changed places."
The rocky face of Grayne seemed to have sustained a shock in
silence; not a line of it altered, but his voice when it came was
"I see what you mean," he said, "and, as you say, the less said
about it the better. It was not the lover who tried to get rid of
the husband, but--the other thing. And a tale like that about a man
like that would ruin us here. Had you any guess of this at the
"The bottomless well, as I told you," answered Fisher, quietly;
"that was what stumped me from the start. Not because it had
anything to do with it, because it had nothing to do with it."
He paused a moment, as if choosing an approach, and then went on:
"When a man knows his enemy will be dead in ten minutes, and takes
him to the edge of an unfathomable pit, he means to throw his body
into it. What else should he do? A born fool would have the sense to
do it, and Boyle is not a born fool. Well, why did not Boyle do it?
The more I thought of it the more I suspected there was some mistake
in the murder, so to speak. Somebody had taken somebody there to
throw him in, and yet he was not thrown in. I had already an ugly,
unformed idea of some substitution or reversal of parts; then I
stooped to turn the bookstand myself, by accident, and I instantly
knew everything, for I saw the two cups revolve once more, like
moons in the sky."
After a pause, Cuthbert Grayne said, "And what are we to say to the
"My friend, Harold March, is coming along from Cairo to-day," said
Fisher. "He is a very brilliant and successful journalist. But for
all that he's a thoroughly honorable man, so you must not tell him
Half an hour later Fisher was again walking to and fro in front of
the clubhouse, with Captain Boyle, the latter by this time with a
very buffeted and bewildered air; perhaps a sadder and a wiser man.
"What about me, then?" he was saying. "Am I cleared? Am I not going
to be cleared?"
"I believe and hope," answered Fisher, "that you are not going to be
suspected. But you are certainly not going to be cleared. There must
be no suspicion against him, and therefore no suspicion against you.
Any suspicion against him, let alone such a story against him, would
knock us endways from Malta to Mandalay. He was a hero as well as a
holy terror among the Moslems. Indeed, you might almost call him a
Moslem hero in the English service. Of course he got on with them
partly because of his own little dose of Eastern blood; he got it
from his mother, the dancer from Damascus; everybody knows that."
"Oh," repeated Boyle, mechanically, staring at him with round eyes,
"everybody knows that."
"I dare say there was a touch of it in his jealousy and ferocious
vengeance," went on Fisher. "But, for all that, the crime would ruin
us among the Arabs, all the more because it was something like a
crime against hospitality. It's been hateful for you and it's pretty
horrid for me. But there are some things that damned well can't be
done, and while I'm alive that's one of them."
"What do you mean?" asked Boyle, glancing at him curiously. "Why
should you, of all people, be so passionate about it?"
Horne Fisher looked at the young man with a baffling expression.
"I suppose," he said, "it's because I'm a Little Englander."
"I can never make out what you mean by that sort of thing," answered
"Do you think England is so little as all that?" said Fisher, with a
warmth in his cold voice, "that it can't hold a man across a few
thousand miles. You lectured me with a lot of ideal patriotism, my
young friend; but it's practical patriotism now for you and me, and
with no lies to help it. You talked as if everything always went
right with us all over the world, in a triumphant crescendo
culminating in Hastings. I tell you everything has gone wrong with
us here, except Hastings. He was the one name we had left to conjure
with, and that mustn't go as well, no, by God! It's bad enough that
a gang of infernal Jews should plant us here, where there's no
earthly English interest to serve, and all hell beating up against
us, simply because Nosey Zimmern has lent money to half the Cabinet.
It's bad enough that an old pawnbroker from Bagdad should make us
fight his battles; we can't fight with our right hand cut off. Our
one score was Hastings and his victory, which was really somebody
else's victory. Tom Travers has to suffer, and so have you."
Then, after a moment's silence, he pointed toward the bottomless
well and said, in a quieter tone:
"I told you that I didn't believe in the philosophy of the Tower of
Aladdin. I don't believe in the Empire growing until it reaches the
sky; I don't believe in the Union Jack going up and up eternally
like the Tower. But if you think I am going to let the Union Jack go
down and down eternally, like the bottomless well, down into the
blackness of the bottomless pit, down in defeat and derision, amid
the jeers of the very Jews who have sucked us dry--no I won't, and
that's flat; not if the Chancellor were blackmailed by twenty
millionaires with their gutter rags, not if the Prime Minister
married twenty Yankee Jewesses, not if Woodville and Carstairs had
shares in twenty swindling mines. If the thing is really tottering,
God help it, it mustn't be we who tip it over."
Boyle was regarding him with a bewilderment that was almost fear,
and had even a touch of distaste.
"Somehow," he said, "there seems to be something rather horrid about
the things you know."
"There is," replied Horne Fisher. "I am not at all pleased with my
small stock of knowledge and reflection. But as it is partly
responsible for your not being hanged, I don't know that you need
complain of it."
And, as if a little ashamed of his first boast, he turned and
strolled away toward the bottomless well.
V. THE FAD OF THE FISHERMAN
A thing can sometimes be too extraordinary to be remembered. If it
is clean out of the course of things, and has apparently no causes
and no consequences, subsequent events do not recall it, and it
remains only a subconscious thing, to be stirred by some accident
long after. It drifts apart like a forgotten dream; and it was in
the hour of many dreams, at daybreak and very soon after the end of
dark, that such a strange sight was given to a man sculling a boat
down a river in the West country. The man was awake; indeed, he
considered himself rather wide awake, being the political
journalist, Harold March, on his way to interview various political
celebrities in their country seats. But the thing he saw was so
inconsequent that it might have been imaginary. It simply slipped
past his mind and was lost in later and utterly different events;
nor did he even recover the memory till he had long afterward
discovered the meaning.
Pale mists of morning lay on the fields and the rushes along one
margin of the river; along the other side ran a wall of tawny brick
almost overhanging the water. He had shipped his oars and was
drifting for a moment with the stream, when he turned his head and
saw that the monotony of the long brick wall was broken by a bridge;
rather an elegant eighteenth-century sort of bridge with little
columns of white stone turning gray. There had been floods and the
river still stood very high, with dwarfish trees waist deep in it,
and rather a narrow arc of white dawn gleamed under the curve of the
As his own boat went under the dark archway he saw another boat
coming toward him, rowed by a man as solitary as himself. His
posture prevented much being seen of him, but as he neared the
bridge he stood up in the boat and turned round. He was already so
close to the dark entry, however, that his whole figure was black
against the morning light, and March could see nothing of his face
except the end of two long whiskers or mustaches that gave something
sinister to the silhouette, like horns in the wrong place. Even
these details March would never have noticed but for what happened
in the same instant. As the man came under the low bridge he made a
leap at it and hung, with his legs dangling, letting the boat float
away from under him. March had a momentary vision of two black
kicking legs; then of one black kicking leg; and then of nothing
except the eddying stream and the long perspective of the wall. But
whenever he thought of it again, long afterward, when he understood
the story in which it figured, it was always fixed in that one
fantastic shape--as if those wild legs were a grotesque graven
ornament of the bridge itself, in the manner of a gargoyle. At the
moment he merely passed, staring, down the stream. He could see no
flying figure on the bridge, so it must have already fled; but he
was half conscious of some faint significance in the fact that among
the trees round the bridgehead opposite the wall he saw a lamp-post;
and, beside the lamp-post, the broad blue back of an unconscious
Even before reaching the shrine of his political pilgrimage he had
many other things to think of besides the odd incident of the
bridge; for the management of a boat by a solitary man was not
always easy even on such a solitary stream. And indeed it was only
by an unforeseen accident that he was solitary. The boat had been
purchased and the whole expedition planned in conjunction with a
friend, who had at the last moment been forced to alter all his
arrangements. Harold March was to have traveled with his friend
Horne Fisher on that inland voyage to Willowood Place, where the
Prime Minister was a guest at the moment. More and more people were
hearing of Harold March, for his striking political articles were
opening to him the doors of larger and larger salons; but he had
never met the Prime Minister yet. Scarcely anybody among the general
public had ever heard of Horne Fisher; but he had known the Prime
Minister all his life. For these reasons, had the two taken the
projected journey together, March might have been slightly disposed
to hasten it and Fisher vaguely content to lengthen it out. For
Fisher was one of those people who are born knowing the Prime
Minister. The knowledge seemed to have no very exhilarant effect,
and in his case bore some resemblance to being born tired. But he
was distinctly annoyed to receive, just as he was doing a little
light packing of fishing tackle and cigars for the journey, a
telegram from Willowood asking him to come down at once by train, as
the Prime Minister had to leave that night. Fisher knew that his
friend the journalist could not possibly start till the next day,
and he liked his friend the journalist, and had looked forward to a
few days on the river. He did not particularly like or dislike the
Prime Minister, but he intensely disliked the alternative of a few
hours in the train. Nevertheless, he accepted Prime Ministers as he
accepted railway trains--as part of a system which he, at least, was
not the revolutionist sent on earth to destroy. So he telephoned to
March, asking him, with many apologetic curses and faint damns, to
take the boat down the river as arranged, that they might meet at
Willowood by the time settled; then he went outside and hailed a
taxicab to take him to the railway station. There he paused at the
bookstall to add to his light luggage a number of cheap murder
stories, which he read with great pleasure, and without any
premonition that he was about to walk into as strange a story in
A little before sunset he arrived, with his light suitcase in hand,
before the gate of the long riverside gardens of Willowood Place,
one of the smaller seats of Sir Isaac Hook, the master of much
shipping and many newspapers. He entered by the gate giving on the
road, at the opposite side to the river, but there was a mixed
quality in all that watery landscape which perpetually reminded a
traveler that the river was near. White gleams of water would shine
suddenly like swords or spears in the green thickets. And even in
the garden itself, divided into courts and curtained with hedges and
high garden trees, there hung everywhere in the air the music of
water. The first of the green courts which he entered appeared to be
a somewhat neglected croquet lawn, in which was a solitary young man
playing croquet against himself. Yet he was not an enthusiast for
the game, or even for the garden; and his sallow but well-featured
face looked rather sullen than otherwise. He was only one of those
young men who cannot support the burden of consciousness unless they
are doing something, and whose conceptions of doing something are
limited to a game of some kind. He was dark and well. dressed in a
light holiday fashion, and Fisher recognized him at once as a young
man named James Bullen, called, for some unknown reason, Bunker. He
was the nephew of Sir Isaac; but, what was much more important at
the moment, he was also the private secretary of the Prime Minister.
"Hullo, Bunker!" observed Horne Fisher. "You're the sort of man I
wanted to see. Has your chief come down yet?"
"He's only staying for dinner," replied Bullen, with his eye on the
yellow ball. "He's got a great speech to-morrow at Birmingham and
he's going straight through to-night. He's motoring himself there;
driving the car, I mean. It's the one thing he's really proud of."
"You mean you're staying here with your uncle, like a good boy?"
replied Fisher. "But what will the Chief do at Birmingham without
the epigrams whispered to him by his brilliant secretary?"
"Don't you start ragging me," said the young man called Bunker.
"I'm only too glad not to go trailing after him. He doesn't know a
thing about maps or money or hotels or anything, and I have to dance
about like a courier. As for my uncle, as I'm supposed to come into
the estate, it's only decent to be here sometimes."
"Very proper," replied the other. "Well, I shall see you later on,"
and, crossing the lawn, he passed out through a gap in the hedge.
He was walking across the lawn toward the landing stage on the
river, and still felt all around him, under the dome of golden
evening, an Old World savor and reverberation in that riverhaunted
garden. The next square of turf which he crossed seemed at first
sight quite deserted, till he saw in the twilight of trees in one
corner of it a hammock and in the hammock a man, reading a newspaper
and swinging one leg over the edge of the net.
Him also he hailed by name, and the man slipped to the ground and
strolled forward. It seemed fated that he should feel something of
the past in the accidents of that place, for the figure might well
have been an early-Victorian ghost revisiting the ghosts of the
croquet hoops and mallets. It was the figure of an elderly man with
long whiskers that looked almost fantastic, and a quaint and careful
cut of collar and cravat. Having been a fashionable dandy forty
years ago, he had managed to preserve the dandyism while ignoring
the fashions. A white top-hat lay beside the Morning Post in the
hammock behind him. This was the Duke of Westmoreland, the relic of
a family really some centuries old; and the antiquity was not
heraldry but history. Nobody knew better than Fisher how rare such
noblemen are in fact, and how numerous in fiction. But whether the
duke owed the general respect he enjoyed to the genuineness of his
pedigree or to the fact that he owned a vast amount of very valuable
property was a point about which Mr. Fisher's opinion might have
been more interesting to discover.
"You were looking so comfortable," said Fisher, "that I thought you
must be one of the servants. I'm looking for somebody to take this
bag of mine; I haven't brought a man down, as I came away in a
"Nor have I, for that matter," replied the duke, with some pride. "I
never do. If there's one animal alive I loathe it's a valet. I
learned to dress myself at an early age and was supposed to do it
decently. I may be in my second childhood, but I've not go so far as
being dressed like a child."
"The Prime Minister hasn't brought a valet; he's brought a secretary
instead," observed Fisher. "Devilish inferior job. Didn't I hear
that Harker was down here?"
"He's over there on the landing stage," replied the duke,
indifferently, and resumed the study of the Morning Post.
Fisher made his way beyond the last green wall of the garden on to a
sort of towing path looking on the river and a wooden island
opposite. There, indeed, he saw a lean, dark figure with a stoop
almost like that of a vulture, a posture well known in the law
courts as that of Sir John Harker, the Attorney-General. His face
was lined with headwork, for alone among the three idlers in the
garden he was a man who had made his own way; and round his bald
brow and hollow temples clung dull red hair, quite flat, like plates
"I haven't seen my host yet," said Horne Fisher, in a slightly more
serious tone than he had used to the others, "but I suppose I shall
meet him at dinner."
"You can see him now; but you can't meet him," answered Harker.
He nodded his head toward one end of the island opposite, and,
looking steadily in the same direction, the other guest could see
the dome of a bald head and the top of a fishing rod, both equally
motionless, rising out of the tall undergrowth against the
background of the stream beyond. The fisherman seemed to be seated
against the stump of a tree and facing toward the other bank, so
that his face could not be seen, but the shape of his head was
"He doesn't like to be disturbed when he's fishing," continued
Harker. "It's a sort of fad of his to eat nothing but fish, and he's
very proud of catching his own. Of course he's all for simplicity,
like so many of these millionaires. He likes to come in saying he's
worked for his daily bread like a laborer."
"Does he explain how he blows all the glass and stuffs all the
upholstery," asked Fisher, "and makes all the silver forks, and
grows all the grapes and peaches, and designs all the patterns on
the carpets? I've always heard he was a busy man."
"I don't think he mentioned it," answered the lawyer. "What is the
meaning of this social satire?"
"Well, I am a trifle tired," said Fisher, "of the Simple Life and
the Strenuous Life as lived by our little set. We're all really
dependent in nearly everything, and we all make a fuss about being
independent in something. The Prime Minister prides himself on doing
without a chauffeur, but he can't do without a factotum and
Jack-of-all-trades; and poor old Bunker has to play the part of a
universal genius, which God knows he was never meant for. The duke
prides himself on doing without a valet, but, for all that, he must
give a lot of people an infernal lot of trouble to collect such
extraordinary old clothes as he wears. He must have them looked up
in the British Museum or excavated out of the tombs. That white hat
alone must require a sort of expedition fitted out to find it, like
the North Pole. And here we have old Hook pretending to produce his
own fish when he couldn't produce his own fish knives or fish forks
to eat it with. He may be simple about simple things like food, but
you bet he's luxurious about luxurious things, especially little
things. I don't include you; you've worked too hard to enjoy playing
"I sometimes think," said Harker, "that you conceal a horrid secret
of being useful sometimes. Haven't you come down here to see Number
One before he goes on to Birmingham?"
Horne Fisher answered, in a lower voice: "Yes; and I hope to be
lucky enough to catch him before dinner. He's got to see Sir Isaac
about something just afterward."
"Hullo!" exclaimed Harker. "Sir Isaac's finished his fishing. I
know he prides himself on getting up at sunrise and going in at
The old man on the island had indeed risen to his feet, facing round
and showing a bush of gray beard with rather small, sunken features,
but fierce eyebrows and keen, choleric eyes. Carefully carrying his
fishing tackle, he was already making his way back to the mainland
across a bridge of flat stepping-stones a little way down the
shallow stream; then he veered round, coming toward his guests and
civilly saluting them. There were several fish in his basket and he
was in a good temper.
"Yes," he said, acknowledging Fisher's polite expression of
surprise, "I get up before anybody else in the house, I think. The
early bird catches the worm."
"Unfortunately," said Harker, "it is the early fish that catches the
"But the early man catches the fish," replied the old man, gruffly.
"But from what I hear, Sir Isaac, you are the late man, too,"
interposed Fisher. "You must do with very little sleep."
"I never had much time for sleeping," answered Hook, "and I shall
have to be the late man to-night, anyhow. The Prime Minister wants
to have a talk, he tells me, and, all things considered, I think
we'd better be dressing for dinner."
Dinner passed off that evening without a word of politics and little
enough but ceremonial trifles. The Prime Minister, Lord Merivale,
who was a long, slim man with curly gray hair, was gravely
complimentary to his host about his success as a fisherman and the
skill and patience he displayed; the conversation flowed like the
shallow stream through the stepping-stones.
"It wants patience to wait for them, no doubt," said Sir Isaac, "and
skill to play them, but I'm generally pretty lucky at it."
"Does a big fish ever break the line and get away?" inquired the
politician, with respectful interest.
"Not the sort of line I use," answered Hook, with satisfaction. "I
rather specialize in tackle, as a matter of fact. If he were strong
enough to do that, he'd be strong enough to pull me into the river."
"A great loss to the community," said the Prime Minister, bowing.
Fisher had listened to all these futilities with inward impatience,
waiting for his own opportunity, and when the host rose he sprang to
his feet with an alertness he rarely showed. He managed to catch
Lord Merivale before Sir Isaac bore him off for the final interview.
He had only a few words to say, but he wanted to get them said.
He said, in a low voice as he opened the door for the Premier, "I
have seen Montmirail; he says that unless we protest immediately on
behalf of Denmark, Sweden will certainly seize the ports."
Lord Merivale nodded. "I'm just going to hear what Hook has to say
about it," he said.
"I imagine," said Fisher, with a faint smile, "that there is very
little doubt what he will say about it."
Merivale did not answer, but lounged gracefully toward the library,
whither his host had already preceded him. The rest drifted toward
the billiard room, Fisher merely remarking to the lawyer: "They
won't be long. We know they're practically in agreement."
"Hook entirely supports the Prime Minister," assented Harker.
"Or the Prime Minister entirely supports Hook," said Horne Fisher,
and began idly to knock the balls about on the billiard table.
Horne Fisher came down next morning in a late and leisurely fashion,
as was his reprehensible habit; he had evidently no appetite for
catching worms. But the other guests seemed to have felt a similar
indifference, and they helped themselves to breakfast from the
sideboard at intervals during the hours verging upon lunch. So that
it was not many hours later when the first sensation of that strange
day came upon them. It came in the form of a young man with light
hair and a candid expression, who came sculling down the river and
disembarked at the landing stage. It was, in fact, no other than Mr.
Harold March, whose journey had begun far away up the river in the
earliest hours of that day. He arrived late in the afternoon, having
stopped for tea in a large riverside town, and he had a pink evening
paper sticking out of his pocket. He fell on the riverside garden
like a quiet and well-behaved thunderbolt, but he was a thunderbolt
without knowing it.
The first exchange of salutations and introductions was commonplace
enough, and consisted, indeed, of the inevitable repetition of
excuses for the eccentric seclusion of the host. He had gone fishing
again, of course, and must not be disturbed till the appointed hour,
though he sat within a stone's throw of where they stood.
"You see it's his only hobby," observed Harker, apologetically,
"and, after all, it's his own house; and he's very hospitable in
"I'm rather afraid," said Fisher, in a lower voice, "that it's
becoming more of a mania than a hobby. I know how it is when a man
of that age begins to collect things, if it's only collecting those
rotten little river fish. You remember Talbot's uncle with his
toothpicks, and poor old Buzzy and the waste of cigar ashes. Hook
has done a lot of big things in his time--the great deal in the
Swedish timber trade and the Peace Conference at Chicago--but I
doubt whether he cares now for any of those big things as he cares
for those little fish."
"Oh, come, come," protested the Attorney-General. "You'll make Mr.
March think he has come to call on a lunatic. Believe me, Hook only
does it for fun, like any other sport, only he's of the kind that
takes his fun sadly. But I bet if there were big news about timber
or shipping, he would drop his fun and his fish all right."
"Well, I wonder," said Horne Fisher, looking sleepily at the island
in the river.
"By the way, is there any news of anything?" asked Harker of Harold
March. "I see you've got an evening paper; one of those enterprising
evening papers that come out in the morning."
"The beginning of Lord Merivale's Birmingham speech," replied March,
handing him the paper. "It's only a paragraph, but it seems to me
Harker took the paper, flapped and refolded it, and looked at the
"Stop Press" news. It was, as March had said, only a paragraph. But
it was a paragraph that had a peculiar effect on Sir John Harker.
His lowering brows lifted with a flicker and his eyes blinked, and
for a moment his leathery jaw was loosened. He looked in some odd
fashion like a very old man. Then, hardening his voice and handing
the paper to Fisher without a tremor, he simply said:
"Well, here's a chance for the bet. You've got your big news to
disturb the old man's fishing."
Horne Fisher was looking at the paper, and over his more languid and
less expressive features a change also seemed to pass. Even that
little paragraph had two or three large headlines, and his eye
encountered, "Sensational Warning to Sweden," and, "We Shall
"What the devil--" he said, and his words softened first to a
whisper and then a whistle.
"We must tell old Hook at once, or he'll never forgive us," said
Harker. "He'll probably want to see Number One instantly, though it
may be too late now. I'm going across to him at once. I bet I'll
make him forget his fish, anyhow." And, turning his back, he made
his way hurriedly along the riverside to the causeway of flat
March was staring at Fisher, in amazement at the effect his pink
paper had produced.
"What does it all mean?" he cried. "I always supposed we should
protest in defense of the Danish ports, for their sakes and our own.
What is all this botheration about Sir Isaac and the rest of you? Do
you think it bad news?"
"Bad news!" repeated Fisher, with a sort of soft emphasis beyond
"Is it as bad as all that?" asked his friend, at last.
"As bad as all that?" repeated Fisher. "Why of course it's as good
as it can be. It's great news. It's glorious news! That's where the
devil of it comes in, to knock us all silly. It's admirable. It's
inestimable. It is also quite incredible."
He gazed again at the gray and green colors of the island and the
river, and his rather dreary eye traveled slowly round to the hedges
and the lawns.
"I felt this garden was a sort of dream," he said, "and I suppose I
must be dreaming. But there is grass growing and water moving; and
something impossible has happened."
Even as he spoke the dark figure with a stoop like a vulture
appeared in the gap of the hedge just above him.
"You have won your bet," said Harker, in a harsh and almost croaking
voice. "The old fool cares for nothing but fishing. He cursed me and
told me he would talk no politics."
"I thought it might be so," said Fisher, modestly. "What are you
going to do next?"
"I shall use the old idiot's telephone, anyhow," replied the lawyer.
"I must find out exactly what has happened. I've got to speak for
the Government myself to-morrow." And he hurried away toward the
In the silence that followed, a very bewildering silence so far as
March was concerned, they saw the quaint figure of the Duke of
Westmoreland, with his white hat and whiskers, approaching them
across the garden. Fisher instantly stepped toward him with the pink
paper in his hand, and, with a few words, pointed out the
apocalyptic paragraph. The duke, who had been walking slowly, stood
quite still, and for some seconds he looked like a tailor's dummy
standing and staring outside some antiquated shop. Then March heard
his voice, and it was high and almost hysterical:
"But he must see it; he must be made to understand. It cannot have
been put to him properly." Then, with a certain recovery of fullness
and even pomposity in the voice, "I shall go and tell him myself."
Among the queer incidents of that afternoon, March always remembered
something almost comical about the clear picture of the old
gentleman in his wonderful white hat carefully stepping from stone
to stone across the river, like a figure crossing the traffic in
Piccadilly. Then he disappeared behind the trees of the island, and
March and Fisher turned to meet the Attorney-General, who was coming
out of the house with a visage of grim assurance.
"Everybody is saying," he said, "that the Prime Minister has made
the greatest speech of his life. Peroration and loud and prolonged
cheers. Corrupt financiers and heroic peasants. We will not desert
Fisher nodded and turned away toward the towing path, where he saw
the duke returning with a rather dazed expression. In answer to
question, he said, in a husky and confidential voice:
"I really think our poor friend cannot be himself. He refused to
listen; he--ah--suggested that I might frighten the fish."
A keen ear might have detected a murmur from Mr. Fisher on the
subject of a white hat, but Sir John Harker struck it more
"Fisher was quite right. I didn't believe it myself, but it's quite
clear that the old fellow is fixed on this fishing notion by now. If
the house caught fire behind him he would hardly move till sunset."
Fisher had continued his stroll toward the higher embanked ground of
the towing path, and he now swept a long and searching gaze, not
toward the island, but toward the distant wooded heights that were
the walls of the valley. An evening sky as clear as that of the
previous day was settling down all over the dim landscape, but
toward the west it was now red rather than gold; there was scarcely
any sound but the monotonous music of the river. Then came the sound
of a half-stifled exclamation from Horne Fisher, and Harold March
looked up at him in wonder.
"You spoke of bad news," said Fisher. "Well, there is really bad
news now. I am afraid this is a bad business."
"What bad news do you mean?" asked his friend, conscious of
something strange and sinister in his voice.
"The sun has set," answered Fisher.
He went on with the air of one conscious of having said something
fatal. "We must get somebody to go across whom he will really listen
to. He may be mad, but there's method in his madness. There nearly
always is method in madness. It's what drives men mad, being
methodical. And he never goes on sitting there after sunset, with
the whole place getting dark. Where's his nephew? I believe he's
really fond of his nephew."
"Look!" cried March, abruptly. "Why, he's been across already.
There he is coming back."
And, looking up the river once more, they saw, dark against the
sunset reflections, the figure of James Bullen stepping hastily and
rather clumsily from stone to stone. Once he slipped on a stone with
a slight splash. When he rejoined the group on the bank his olive
face was unnaturally pale.
The other four men had already gathered on the same spot and almost
simultaneously were calling out to him, "What does he say now?"
"Nothing. He says--nothing."
Fisher looked at the young man steadily for a moment; then he
started from his immobility. and, making a motion to March to follow
him, himself strode down to the river crossing. In a few moments
they were on the little beaten track that ran round the wooded
island, to the other side of it where the fisherman sat. Then they
stood and looked at him, without a word.
Sir Isaac Hook was still sitting propped up against the stump of the
tree, and that for the best of reasons. A length of his own
infallible fishing line was twisted and tightened twice round his
throat and then twice round the wooden prop behind him. The leading
investigator ran forward and touched the fisherman's hand, and it
was as cold as a fish.
"The sun has set," said Horne Fisher, in the same terrible tones,
"and he will never see it rise again."
Ten minutes afterward the five men, shaken by such a shock, were
again together in the garden, looking at one another with white but
watchful faces. The lawyer seemed the most alert of the group; he
was articulate if somewhat abrupt.
"We must leave the body as it is and telephone for the police," he
said. "I think my own authority will stretch to examining the
servants and the poor fellow's papers, to see if there is anything
that concerns them. Of course, none of you gentlemen must leave this
Perhaps there was something in his rapid and rigorous legality that
suggested the closing of a net or trap. Anyhow, young Bullen
suddenly broke down, or perhaps blew up, for his voice was like an
explosion in the silent garden.
"I never touched him," he cried. "I swear I had nothing to do with
"Who said you had?" demanded Harker, with a hard eye. "Why do you
cry out before you're hurt?"
"Because you all look at me like that," cried the young man,
angrily. "Do you think I don't know you're always talking about my
damned debts and expectations?"
Rather to March's surprise, Fisher had drawn away from this first
collision, leading the duke with him to another part of the garden.
When he was out of earshot of the others he said, with a curious
simplicity of manner:
"Westmoreland, I am going straight to the point."
"Well?" said the other, staring at him stolidly.
"You have a motive for killing him," said Fisher.
The duke continued to stare, but he seemed unable to speak.
"I hope you had a motive for killing him," continued Fisher, mildly.
"You see, it's rather a curious situation. If you have a motive for
murdering, you probably didn't murder. But if you hadn't any motive,
why, then perhaps, you did."
"What on earth are you talking about?" demanded the duke, violently.
"It's quite simple," said Fisher. "When you went across he was
either alive or dead. If he was alive, it might be you who killed
him, or why should you have held your tongue about his death? But if
he was dead, and you had a reason for killing him, you might have
held your tongue for fear of being accused." Then after a silence he
added, abstractedly: "Cyprus is a beautiful place, I believe.
Romantic scenery and romantic people. Very intoxicating for a young
The duke suddenly clenched his hands and said, thickly, "Well, I had
"Then you're all right," said Fisher, holding out his hand with an
air of huge relief. "I was pretty sure you wouldn't really do it;
you had a fright when you saw it done, as was only natural. Like a
bad dream come true, wasn't it?"
While this curious conversation was passing, Harker had gone into
the house, disregarding the demonstrations of the sulky nephew, and
came back presently with a new air of animation and a sheaf of
papers in his hand.
"I've telephoned for the police," he said, stopping to speak to
Fisher, "but I think I've done most of their work for them. I
believe I've found out the truth. There's a paper here--" He
stopped, for Fisher was looking at him with a singular expression;
and it was Fisher who spoke next:
"Are there any papers that are not there, I wonder? I mean that are
not there now?" After a pause he added: "Let us have the cards on
the table. When you went through his papers in such a hurry, Harker,
weren't you looking for something to--to make sure it shouldn't be
Harker did not turn a red hair on his hard head, but he looked at
the other out of the corners of his eyes.
"And I suppose," went on Fisher, smoothly, "that is why you, too,
told us lies about having found Hook alive. You knew there was
something to show that you might have killed him, and you didn't
dare tell us he was killed. But, believe me, it's much better to be
Harker's haggard face suddenly lit up as if with infernal flames.
"Honest," he cried, "it's not so damned fine of you fellows to be
honest. You're all born with silver spoons in your mouths, and then
you swagger about with everlasting virtue because you haven't got
other people's spoons in your pockets. But I was born in a Pimlico
lodging house and I had to make my spoon, and there'd be plenty to
say I only spoiled a horn or an honest man. And if a struggling man
staggers a bit over the line in his youth, in the lower parts of the
law which are pretty dingy, anyhow, there's always some old vampire
to hang on to him all his life for it."
"Guatemalan Golcondas, wasn't it?" said Fisher, sympathetically.
Harker suddenly shuddered. Then he said, "I believe you must know
everything, like God Almighty."
"I know too much," said Horne Fisher, "and all the wrong things."
The other three men were drawing nearer to them, but before they
came too near, Harker said, in a voice that had recovered all its
"Yes, I did destroy a paper, but I really did find a paper, too; and
I believe that it clears us all."
"Very well," said Fisher, in a louder and more cheerful tone; "let
us all have the benefit of it."
"On the very top of Sir Isaac's papers," explained Harker, "there
was a threatening letter from a man named Hugo. It threatens to kill
our unfortunate friend very much in the way that he was actually
killed. It is a wild letter, full of taunts; you can see it for
yourselves; but it makes a particular point of poor Hook's habit of
fishing from the island. Above all, the man professes to be writing
from a boat. And, since we alone went across to him," and he smiled
in a rather ugly fashion, "the crime must have been committed by a
man passing in a boat."
"Why, dear me!" cried the duke, with something almost amounting to
animation. "Why, I remember the man called Hugo quite well! He was a
sort of body servant and bodyguard of Sir Isaac. You see, Sir Isaac
was in some fear of assault. He was--he was not very popular with
several people. Hugo was discharged after some row or other; but I
remember him well. He was a great big Hungarian fellow with great
mustaches that stood out on each side of his face."
A door opened in the darkness of Harold March's memory, or, rather,
oblivion, and showed a shining landscape, like that of a lost dream.
It was rather a waterscape than a landscape, a thing of flooded
meadows and low trees and the dark archway of a bridge. And for one
instant he saw again the man with mustaches like dark horns leap up
on to the bridge and disappear.
"Good heavens!" he cried. "Why, I met the murderer this morning!"
* * *
Horne Fisher and Harold March had their day on the river, after all,
for the little group broke up when the police arrived. They declared
that the coincidence of March's evidence had cleared the whole
company, and clinched the case against the flying Hugo. Whether that
Hungarian fugitive would ever be caught appeared to Horne Fisher to
be highly doubtful; nor can it be pretended that he displayed any
very demoniac detective energy in the matter as he leaned back in
the boat cushions, smoking, and watching the swaying reeds slide
"It was a very good notion to hop up on to the bridge," he said. "An
empty boat means very little; he hasn't been seen to land on either
bank, and he's walked off the bridge without walking on to it, so to
speak. He's got twenty-four hours' start; his mustaches will
disappear, and then he will disappear. I think there is every hope
of his escape."
"Hope?" repeated March, and stopped sculling for an instant.
"Yes, hope," repeated the other. "To begin with, I'm not going to
be exactly consumed with Corsican revenge because somebody has
killed Hook. Perhaps you may guess by this time what Hook was. A
damned blood-sucking blackmailer was that simple, strenuous,
self-made captain of industry. He had secrets against nearly
everybody; one against poor old Westmoreland about an early marriage
in Cyprus that might have put the duchess in a queer position; and
one against Harker about some flutter with his client's money when
he was a young solicitor. That's why they went to pieces when they
found him murdered, of course. They felt as if they'd done it in a
dream. But I admit I have another reason for not wanting our
Hungarian friend actually hanged for the murder."
"And what is that?" asked his friend.
"Only that he didn't commit the murder," answered Fisher.
Harold March laid down the oars and let the boat drift for a moment.
"Do you know, I was half expecting something like that," he said.
"It was quite irrational, but it was hanging about in the
atmosphere, like thunder in the air."
"On the contrary, it's finding Hugo guilty that's irrational,"
replied Fisher. "Don't you see that they're condemning him for the
very reason for which they acquit everybody else? Harker and
Westmoreland were silent because they found him murdered, and knew
there were papers that made them look like the murderers. Well, so
did Hugo find him murdered, and so did Hugo know there was a paper
that would make him look like the murderer. He had written it
himself the day before."
"But in that case," said March, frowning, "at what sort of unearthly
hour in the morning was the murder really committed? It was barely
daylight when I met him at the bridge, and that's some way above the
"The answer is very simple," replied Fisher. "The crime was not
committed in the morning. The crime was not committed on the
March stared at the shining water without replying, but Fisher
resumed like one who had been asked a question:
"Every intelligent murder involves taking advantage of some one
uncommon feature in a common situation. The feature here was the
fancy of old Hook for being the first man up every morning, his
fixed routine as an angler, and his annoyance at being disturbed.
The murderer strangled him in his own house after dinner on the
night before, carried his corpse, with all his fishing tackle,
across the stream in the dead of night, tied him to the tree, and
left him there under the stars. It was a dead man who sat fishing
there all day. Then the murderer went back to the house, or, rather,
to the garage, and went off in his motor car. The murderer drove his
own motor car."
Fisher glanced at his friend's face and went on. "You look
horrified, and the thing is horrible. But other things are horrible,
too. If some obscure man had been hag-ridden by a blackmailer and
had his family life ruined, you wouldn't think the murder of his
persecutor the most inexcusable of murders. Is it any worse when a
whole great nation is set free as well as a family? By this warning
to Sweden we shall probably prevent war and not precipitate it, and
save many thousand lives rather more valuable than the life of that
viper. Oh, I'm not talking sophistry or seriously justifying the
thing, but the slavery that held him and his country was a thousand
times less justifiable. If I'd really been sharp I should have
guessed it from his smooth, deadly smiling at dinner that night. Do
you remember that silly talk about how old Isaac could always play
his fish? In a pretty hellish sense he was a fisher of men."
Harold March took the oars and began to row again.
"I remember," he said, "and about how a big fish might break the
line and get away."
VI. THE HOLE IN THE WALL
Two men, the one an architect and the other an archaeologist, met on
the steps of the great house at Prior's Park; and their host, Lord
Bulmer, in his breezy way, thought it natural to introduce them. It
must be confessed that he was hazy as well as breezy, and had no
very clear connection in his mind, beyond the sense that an
architect and an archaeologist begin with the same series of
letters. The world must remain in a reverent doubt as to whether he
would, on the same principles, have presented a diplomatist to a
dipsomaniac or a ratiocinator to a rat catcher. He was a big, fair,
bull-necked young man, abounding in outward gestures, unconsciously
flapping his gloves and flourishing his stick.
"You two ought to have something to talk about," he said,
cheerfully. "Old buildings and all that sort of thing; this is
rather an old building, by the way, though I say it who shouldn't. I
must ask you to excuse me a moment; I've got to go and see about the
cards for this Christmas romp my sister's arranging. We hope to see
you all there, of course. Juliet wants it to be a fancy-dress
affair--abbots and crusaders and all that. My ancestors, I suppose,
"I trust the abbot was not an ancestor," said the archaeological
gentleman, with a smile.
"Only a sort of great-uncle, I imagine," answered the other,
laughing; then his rather rambling eye rolled round the ordered
landscape in front of the house; an artificial sheet of water
ornamented with an antiquated nymph in the center and surrounded by
a park of tall trees now gray and black and frosty, for it was in
the depth of a severe winter.
"It's getting jolly cold," his lordship continued. "My sister hopes
we shall have some skating as well as dancing."
"If the crusaders come in full armor," said the other, "you must be
careful not to drown your ancestors."
"Oh, there's no fear of that," answered Bulmer; "this precious lake
of ours is not two feet deep anywhere." And with one of his
flourishing gestures he stuck his stick into the water to
demonstrate its shallowness. They could see the short end bent in
the water, so that he seemed for a moment to lean his large weight
on a breaking staff.
"The worst you can expect is to see an abbot sit down rather
suddenly," he added, turning away. "Well, au revoir; I'll let you
know about it later."
The archaeologist and the architect were left on the great stone
steps smiling at each other; but whatever their common interests,
they presented a considerable personal contrast, and the fanciful
might even have found some contradiction in each considered
individually. The former, a Mr. James Haddow, came from a drowsy den
in the Inns of Court, full of leather and parchment, for the law was
his profession and history only his hobby; he was indeed, among
other things, the solicitor and agent of the Prior's Park estate.
But he himself was far from drowsy and seemed remarkably wide awake,
with shrewd and prominent blue eyes, and red hair brushed as neatly
as his very neat costume. The latter, whose name was Leonard Crane,
came straight from a crude and almost cockney office of builders and
house agents in the neighboring suburb, sunning itself at the end of
a new row of jerry-built houses with plans in very bright colors and
notices in very large letters. But a serious observer, at a second
glance, might have seen in his eyes something of that shining sleep
that is called vision; and his yellow hair, while not affectedly
long, was unaffectedly untidy. It was a manifest if melancholy truth
that the architect was an artist. But the artistic temperament was
far from explaining him; there was something else about him that was
not definable, but which some even felt to be dangerous. Despite his
dreaminess, he would sometimes surprise his friends with arts and
even sports apart from his ordinary life, like memories of some
previous existence. On this occasion, nevertheless, he hastened to
disclaim any authority on the other man's hobby.
"I mustn't appear on false pretences," he said, with a smile. "I
hardly even know what an archaeologist is, except that a rather
rusty remnant of Greek suggests that he is a man who studies old
"Yes," replied Haddow, grimly. "An archaeologist is a man who
studies old things and finds they are new."
Crane looked at him steadily for a moment and then smiled again.
"Dare one suggest," he said, "that some of the things we have been
talking about are among the old things that turn out not to be old?"
His companion also was silent for a moment, and the smile on his
rugged face was fainter as he replied, quietly:
"The wall round the park is really old. The one gate in it is
Gothic, and I cannot find any trace of destruction or restoration.
But the house and the estate generally--well the romantic ideas read
into these things are often rather recent romances, things almost
like fashionable novels. For instance, the very name of this place,
Prior's Park, makes everybody think of it as a moonlit mediaeval
abbey; I dare say the spiritualists by this time have discovered the
ghost of a monk there. But, according to the only authoritative
study of the matter I can find, the place was simply called Prior's
as any rural place is called Podger's. It was the house of a Mr.
Prior, a farmhouse, probably, that stood here at some time or other
and was a local landmark. Oh, there are a great many examples of the
same thing, here and everywhere else. This suburb of ours used to be
a village, and because some of the people slurred the name and
pronounced it Holliwell, many a minor poet indulged in fancies about
a Holy Well, with spells and fairies and all the rest of it, filling
the suburban drawing-rooms with the Celtic twilight. Whereas anyone
acquainted with the facts knows that 'Hollinwall' simply means 'the
hole in the wall,' and probably referred to some quite trivial
accident. That's what I mean when I say that we don't so much find
old things as we find new ones."
Crane seemed to have grown somewhat inattentive to the little
lecture on antiquities and novelties, and the cause of his
restlessness was soon apparent, and indeed approaching. Lord
Bulmer's sister, Juliet Bray, was coming slowly across the lawn,
accompanied by one gentleman and followed by two others. The young
architect was in the illogical condition of mind in which he
preferred three to one.
The man walking with the lady was no other than the eminent Prince
Borodino, who was at least as famous as a distinguished diplomatist
ought to be, in the interests of what is called secret diplomacy. He
had been paying a round of visits at various English country houses,
and exactly what he was doing for diplomacy at Prior's Park was as
much a secret as any diplomatist could desire. The obvious thing to
say of his appearance was that he would have been extremely handsome
if he had not been entirely bald. But, indeed, that would itself be
a rather bald way of putting it. Fantastic as it sounds, it would
fit the case better to say that people would have been surprised to
see hair growing on him; as surprised as if they had found hair
growing on the bust of a Roman emperor. His tall figure was buttoned
up in a tight-waisted fashion that rather accentuated his potential
bulk, and he wore a red flower in his buttonhole. Of the two men
walking behind one was also bald, but in a more partial and also a
more premature fashion, for his drooping mustache was still yellow,
and if his eyes were somewhat heavy it was with languor and not with
age. It was Horne Fisher, and he was talking as easily and idly
about everything as he always did. His always did. His companion was
a more striking, and even more sinister, figure, and he had the added
importance of being Lord Bulmer's oldest and most intimate friend. He
was generally known with a severe simplicity as Mr. Brain; but it was
understood that he had been a judge and police official in India, and
that he had enemies, who had represented his measures against crime as
themselves almost criminal. He was a brown skeleton of a man with dark,
deep, sunken eyes and a black mustache that hid the meaning of his
mouth. Though he had the look of one wasted by some tropical disease,
his movements were much more alert than those of his lounging companion.
"It's all settled," announced the lady, with great animation, when
they came within hailing distance. "You've all got to put on
masquerade things and very likely skates as well, though the prince
says they don't go with it; but we don't care about that. It's
freezing already, and we don't often get such a chance in England."
"Even in India we don't exactly skate all the year round," observed
"And even Italy is not primarily associated with ice," said the
"Italy is primarily associated with ices," remarked Mr. Horne
Fisher. "I mean with ice cream men. Most people in this country
imagine that Italy is entirely populated with ice cream men and
organ grinders. There certainly are a lot of them; perhaps they're
an invading army in disguise."
"How do you know they are not the secret emissaries of our
diplomacy?" asked the prince, with a slightly scornful smile. "An
army of organ grinders might pick up hints, and their monkeys might
pick up all sort of things."
"The organs are organized in fact," said the flippant Mr. Fisher.
"Well, I've known it pretty cold before now in Italy and even in
India, up on the Himalayan slopes. The ice on our own little round
pond will be quite cozy by comparison."
Juliet Bray was an attractive lady with dark hair and eyebrows and
dancing eyes, and there was a geniality and even generosity in her
rather imperious ways. In most matters she could command her
brother, though that nobleman, like many other men of vague ideas,
was not without a touch of the bully when he was at bay. She could
certainly command her guests, even to the extent of decking out the
most respectable and reluctant of them with her mediaeval
masquerade. And it really seemed as if she could command the
elements also, like a witch. For the weather steadily hardened and
sharpened; that night the ice of the lake, glimmering in the
moonlight, was like a marble floor, and they had begun to dance and
skate on it before it was dark.
Prior's Park, or, more properly, the surrounding district of
Holinwall, was a country seat that had become a suburb; having once
had only a dependent village at its doors, it now found outside all
its doors the signals of the expansion of London. Mr. Haddow, who
was engaged in historical researches both in the library and the
locality, could find little assistance in the latter. He had already
realized, from the documents, that Prior's Park had originally been
something like Prior's Farm, named after some local figure, but the
new social conditions were all against his tracing the story by its
traditions. Had any of the real rustics remained, he would probably
have found some lingering legend of Mr. Prior, however remote he
might be. But the new nomadic population of clerks and artisans,
constantly shifting their homes from one suburb to another, or their
children from one school to another, could have no corporate
continuity. They had all that forgetfulness of history that goes
everywhere with the extension of education.
Nevertheless, when he came out of the library next morning and saw
the wintry trees standing round the frozen pond like a black forest,
he felt he might well have been far in the depths of the country.
The old wall running round the park kept that inclosure itself still
entirely rural and romantic, and one could easily imagine that the
depths of that dark forest faded away indefinitely into distant
vales and hills. The gray and black and silver of the wintry wood
were all the more severe or somber as a contrast to the colored
carnival groups that already stood on and around the frozen pool.
For the house party had already flung themselves impatiently into
fancy dress, and the lawyer, with his neat black suit and red hair,
was the only modern figure among them.
"Aren't you going to dress up?" asked Juliet, indignantly shaking at
him a horned and towering blue headdress of the fourteenth century
which framed her face very becomingly, fantastic as it was.
"Everybody here has to be in the Middle Ages. Even Mr. Brain has put
on a sort of brown dressing gown and says he's a monk; and Mr.
Fisher got hold of some old potato sacks in the kitchen and sewed
them together; he's supposed to be a monk, too. As to the prince,
he's perfectly glorious, in great crimson robes as a cardinal. He
looks as if he could poison everybody. You simply must be
"I will be something later in the day," he replied. "At present I am
nothing but an antiquary and an attorney. I have to see your brother
presently, about some legal business and also some local
investigations he asked me to make. I must look a little like a
steward when I give an account of my stewardship."
"Oh, but my brother has dressed up!" cried the girl. "Very much so.
No end, if I may say so. Why he's bearing down on you now in all his
The noble lord was indeed marching toward them in a magnificent
sixteenth-century costume of purple and gold, with a gold-hilted
sword and a plumed cap, and manners to match. Indeed, there was
something more than his usual expansiveness of bodily action in his
appearance at that moment. It almost seemed, so to speak, that the
plumes on his hat had gone to his head. He flapped his great,
gold-lined cloak like the wings of a fairy king in a pantomime; he