Part 3 out of 4
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 something."
"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 glory."
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 even drew his sword with a flourish
and waved it about as he did his walking stick. In the light
of after events there seemed to be something monstrous and ominous
about that exuberance, something of the spirit that is called fey.
At the time it merely crossed a few people's minds that he might
possibly be drunk.
As he strode toward his sister the first figure he passed
was that of Leonard Crane, clad in Lincoln green,
with the horn and baldrick and sword appropriate to Robin Hood;
for he was standing nearest to the lady, where, indeed, he might
have been found during a disproportionate part of the time.
He had displayed one of his buried talents in the matter of skating,
and now that the skating was over seemed disposed to prolong
the partnership. The boisterous Bulmer playfully made a pass
at him with his drawn sword, going forward with the lunge in
the proper fencing fashion, and making a somewhat too familiar
Shakespearean quotation about a rodent and a Venetian coin.
Probably in Crane also there was a subdued excitement just then;
anyhow, in one flash he had drawn his own sword and parried;
and then suddenly, to the surprise of everyone, Bulmer's weapon
seemed to spring out of his hand into the air and rolled away
on the ringing ice.
"Well, I never!" said the lady, as if with justifiable indignation.
"You never told me you could fence, too."
Bulmer put up his sword with an air rather bewildered than annoyed,
which increased the impression of something irresponsible in his mood
at the moment; then he turned rather abruptly to his lawyer, saying:
"We can settle up about the estate after dinner; I've missed
nearly all the skating as it is, and I doubt if the ice will hold
till to-morrow night. I think I shall get up early and have
a spin by myself."
"You won't be disturbed with my company," said Horne Fisher,
in his weary fashion. "If I have to begin the day with ice,
in the American fashion, I prefer it in smaller quantities.
But no early hours for me in December. The early bird
catches the cold."
"Oh, I sha'n't die of catching a cold," answered Bulmer, and laughed.
A considerable group of the skating party had consisted of the guests
staying at the house, and the rest had tailed off in twos and threes
some time before most of the guests began to retire for the night.
Neighbors, always invited to Prior's Park on such occasions,
went back to their own houses in motors or on foot; the legal
and archeoological gentleman had returned to the Inns of Court
by a late train, to get a paper called for during his consultation
with his client; and most of the other guests were drifting
and lingering at various stages on their way up to bed.
Horne Fisher, as if to deprive himself of any excuse for
his refusal of early rising, had been the first to retire
to his room; but, sleepy as he looked, he could not sleep.
He had picked up from a table the book of antiquarian topography,
in which Haddow had found his first hints about the origin of
the local name, and, being a man with a quiet and quaint capacity
for being interested in anything, he began to read it steadily,
making notes now and then of details on which his previous reading
left him with a certain doubt about his present conclusions.
His room was the one nearest to the lake in the center
of the woods, and was therefore the quietest, and none of
the last echoes of the evening's festivity could reach him.
He had followed carefully the argument which established
the derivation from Mr. Prior's farm and the hole in the wall,
and disposed of any fashionable fancy about monks and magic wells,
when he began to be conscious of a noise audible in the frozen
silence of the night. It was not a particularly loud noise,
but it seemed to consist of a series of thuds or heavy blows,
such as might be struck on a wooden door by a man seeking to enter.
They were followed by something like a faint creak or crack,
as if the obstacle had either been opened or had given way.
He opened his own bedroom door and listened, but as he heard
talk and laughter all over the lower floors, he had no reason
to fear that a summons would be neglected or the house left
without protection. He went to his open window, looking out
over the frozen pond and the moonlit statue in the middle
of their circle of darkling woods, and listened again.
But silence had returned to that silent place, and, after
straining his ears for a considerable time, he could hear
nothing but the solitary hoot of a distant departing train.
Then he reminded himself how many nameless noises can be heard
by the wakeful during the most ordinary night, and shrugging
his shoulders, went wearily to bed.
He awoke suddenly and sat up in bed with his ears filled,
as with thunder, with the throbbing echoes of a rending cry.
He remained rigid for a moment, and then sprang out of bed,
throwing on the loose gown of sacking he had worn all day.
He went first to the window, which was open, but covered with
a thick curtain, so that his room was still completely dark;
but when he tossed the curtain aside and put his head out,
he saw that a gray and silver daybreak had already appeared
behind the black woods that surrounded the little lake,
and that was all that he did see. Though the sound had
certainly come in through the open window from this direction,
the whole scene was still and empty under the morning light
as under the moonlight. Then the long, rather lackadaisical hand
he had laid on a window sill gripped it tighter, as if to master
a tremor, and his peering blue eyes grew bleak with fear.
It may seem that his emotion was exaggerated and needless,
considering the effort of common sense by which he had conquered
his nervousness about the noise on the previous night.
But that had been a very different sort of noise.
It might have been made by half a hundred things,
from the chopping of wood to the breaking of bottles.
There was only one thing in nature from which could come
the sound that echoed through the dark house at daybreak.
It was the awful articulate voice of man; and it was something worse,
for he knew what man.
He knew also that it had been a shout for help.
It seemed to him that he had heard the very word; but the word,
short as it was, had been swallowed up, as if the man
had been stifled or snatched away even as he spoke.
Only the mocking reverberations of it remained even in his memory,
but he had no doubt of the original voice. He had no doubt
that the great bull's voice of Francis Bray, Baron Bulmer,
had been heard for the last time between the darkness and
the lifting dawn.
How long he stood there he never knew, but he was startled
into life by the first living thing that he saw stirring
in that half-frozen landscape. Along the path beside the lake,
and immediately under his window, a figure was walking slowly
and softly, but with great composure--a stately figure in robes
of a splendid scarlet; it was the Italian prince, still in his
cardinal's costume. Most of the company had indeed lived
in their costumes for the last day or two, and Fisher himself
had assumed his frock of sacking as a convenient dressing gown;
but there seemed, nevertheless, something unusually finished and formal,
in the way of an early bird, about this magnificent red cockatoo.
It was as if the early bird had been up all night.
"What is the matter?" he called, sharply, leaning out of the window,
and the Italian turned up his great yellow face like a mask of brass.
"We had better discuss it downstairs," said Prince Borodino.
Fisher ran downstairs, and encountered the great, red-robed figure
entering the doorway and blocking the entrance with his bulk.
"Did you hear that cry?" demanded Fisher.
"I heard a noise and I came out," answered the diplomatist,
and his face was too dark in the shadow for its expression
to be read.
"It was Bulmer's voice," insisted Fisher. "I'll swear it
was Bulmer's voice."
"Did you know him well?" asked the other.
The question seemed irrelevant, though it was not illogical,
and Fisher could only answer in a, random fashion that he knew
Lord Bulmer only slightly.
"Nobody seems to have known him well," continued the Italian,
in level tones. "Nobody except that man Brain. Brain is rather
older than Bulmer, but I fancy they shared a good many secrets."
Fisher moved abruptly, as if waking from a momentary trance,
and said, in a new and more vigorous voice, "But look here,
hadn't we better get outside and see if anything has happened."
"The ice seems to be thawing," said the other, almost with indifference.
When they emerged from the house, dark stains and stars in the gray
field of ice did indeed indicate that the frost was breaking up,
as their host had prophesied the day before, and the very memory
of yesterday brought back the mystery of to-day.
"He knew there would be a thaw," observed the prince.
"He went out skating quite early on purpose. Did he call out
because he landed in the water, do you think?"
Fisher looked puzzled. "Bulmer was the last man to bellow like that
because he got his boots wet. And that's all he could do here;
the water would hardly come up to the calf of a man of his size.
You can see the flat weeds on the floor of the lake, as if it were through
a thin pane of glass. No, if Bulmer had only broken the ice he wouldn't
have said much at the moment, though possibly a good deal afterward.
We should have found him stamping and damning up and down this path,
and calling for clean boots."
"Let us hope we shall find him as happily employed,"
remarked the diplomatist. "In that case the voice must have
come out of the wood."
"I'll swear it didn't come out of the house," said Fisher;
and the two disappeared together into the twilight of wintry trees.
The plantation stood dark against the fiery colors of sunrise,
a black fringe having that feathery appearance which makes
trees when they are bare the very reverse of rugged.
Hours and hours afterward, when the same dense, but delicate,
margin was dark against the greenish colors opposite the sunset,
the search thus begun at sunrise had not come to an end.
By successive stages, and to slowly gathering groups of the company,
it became apparent that the most extraordinary of all gaps
had appeared in the party; the guests could find no trace
of their host anywhere. The servants reported that his bed had
been slept in and his skates and his fancy costume were gone,
as if he had risen early for the purpose he had himself avowed.
But from the top of the house to the bottom, from the walls round
the park to the pond in the center, there was no trace of Lord Bulmer,
dead or alive. Horne Fisher realized that a chilling premonition
had already prevented him from expecting to find the man alive.
But his bald brow was wrinkled over an entirely new and
unnatural problem, in not finding the man at all.
He considered the possibility of Bulmer having gone off of his own accord,
for some reason; but after fully weighing it he finally dismissed it.
It was inconsistent with the unmistakable voice heard at daybreak,
and with many other practical obstacles. There was only one
gateway in the ancient and lofty wall round the small park;
the lodge keeper kept it locked till late in the morning,
and the lodge keeper had seen no one pass. Fisher was fairly sure
that he had before him a mathematical problem in an inclosed space.
His instinct had been from the first so attuned to the tragedy
that it would have been almost a relief to him to find the corpse.
He would have been grieved, but not horrified, to come on
the nobleman's body dangling from one of his own trees as from
a gibbet, or floating in his own pool like a pallid weed.
What horrified him was to find nothing.
He soon become conscious that he was not alone even in his most
individual and isolated experiments. He often found a figure
following him like his shadow, in silent and almost secret clearings
in the plantation or outlying nooks and corners of the old wall.
The dark-mustached mouth was as mute as the deep eyes were mobile,
darting incessantly hither and thither, but it was clear that Brain of the
Indian police had taken up the trail like an old hunter after a tiger.
Seeing that he was the only personal friend of the vanished man,
this seemed natural enough, and Fisher resolved to deal frankly with him.
"This silence is rather a social strain," he said. "May I
break the ice by talking about the weather?--which, by the way,
has already broken the ice. I know that breaking the ice
might be a rather melancholy metaphor in this case."
"I don't think so," replied Brain, shortly. "I don't fancy the ice
had much to do with it. I don't see how it could."
"What would you propose doing?" asked Fisher.
"Well, we've sent for the authorities, of course, but I hope to find
something out before they come," replied the Anglo-Indian. "I
can't say I have much hope from police methods in this country.
Too much red tape, habeas corpus and that sort of thing.
What we want is to see that nobody bolts; the nearest we could get
to it would be to collect the company and count them, so to speak.
Nobody's left lately, except that lawyer who was poking
about for antiquities."
"Oh, he's out of it; he left last night," answered the other.
"Eight hours after Bulmer's chauffeur saw his lawyer off by the train
I heard Bulmer's own voice as plain as I hear yours now."
"I suppose you don't believe in spirits?" said the man
from India. After a pause he added: "There's somebody else I
should like to find, before we go after a fellow with an alibi
in the Inner Temple. What's become of that fellow in green--
the architect dressed up as a forester? I haven't seem him about."
Mr. Brain managed to secure his assembly of all the distracted company
before the arrival of the police. But when he first began to coment
once more on the young architect's delay in putting in an appearance,
he found himself in the presence of a minor mystery, and a psychological
development of an entirely unexpected kind.
Juliet Bray had confronted the catastrophe of her brother's disappearance
with a somber stoicism in which there was, perhaps, more paralysis
than pain; but when the other question came to the surface she was both
agitated and angry.
"We don't want to jump to any conclusions about anybody," Brain was saying
in his staccato style. "But we should like to know a little more about
Mr. Crane. Nobody seems to know much about him, or where he comes from.
And it seems a sort of coincidence that yesterday he actually
crossed swords with poor Bulmer, and could have stuck him, too,
since he showed himself the better swordsman. Of course, that may be
an accident and couldn't possibly be called a case against anybody;
but then we haven't the means to make a real case against anybody.
Till the police come we are only a pack of very amateur sleuthhounds."
"And I think you're a pack of snobs," said Juliet. "Because Mr. Crane
is a genius who's made his own way, you try to suggest he's
a murderer without daring to say so. Because he wore a toy
sword and happened to know how to use it, you want us to believe
he used it like a bloodthirsty maniac for no reason in the world.
And because he could have hit my brother and didn't, you
deduce that he did. That's the sort of way you argue.
And as for his having disappeared, you're wrong in that as you
are in everything else, for here he comes."
And, indeed, the green figure of the fictitious Robin Hood
slowly detached itself from the gray background of the trees,
and came toward them as she spoke.
He approached the group slowly, but with composure; but he was
decidedly pale, and the eyes of Brain and Fisher had already taken
in one detail of the green-clad figure more clearly than all the rest.
The horn still swung from his baldrick, but the sword was gone.
Rather to the surprise of the company, Brain did not follow up
the question thus suggested; but, while retaining an air of leading
the inquiry, had also an appearance of changing the subject.
"Now we're all assembled," he observed, quietly, "there is a
question I want to ask to begin with. Did anybody here actually
see Lord Bulmer this morning?"
Leonard Crane turned his pale face round the circle of faces till
he came to Juliet's; then he compressed his lips a little and said:
"Yes, I saw him."
"Was he alive and well?" asked Brain, quickly. "How was he dressed?"
"He appeared exceedingly well," replied Crane, with a curious intonation.
"He was dressed as he was yesterday, in that purple costume copied
from the portrait of his ancestor in the sixteenth century.
He had his skates in his hand."
"And his sword at his side, I suppose," added the questioner.
"Where is your own sword, Mr. Crane?"
"I threw it away."
In the singular silence that ensued, the train of thought in many minds
became involuntarily a series of colored pictures.
They had grown used to their fanciful garments looking more gay
and gorgeous against the dark gray and streaky silver of the forest,
so that the moving figures glowed like stained-glass saints walking.
The effect had been more fitting because so many of them had idly
parodied pontifical or monastic dress. But the most arresting attitude
that remained in their memories had been anything but merely monastic;
that of the moment when the figure in bright green and the other in vivid
violet had for a moment made a silver cross of their crossing swords.
Even when it was a jest it had been something of a drama; and it was
a strange and sinister thought that in the gray daybreak the same figures
in the same posture might have been repeated as a tragedy.
"Did you quarrel with him?" asked Brain, suddenly.
"Yes," replied the immovable man in green. "Or he quarreled with me."
"Why did he quarrel with you?" asked the investigator;
and Leonard Crane made no reply.
Horne Fisher, curiously enough, had only given half his attention to this
crucial cross-examination. His heavy-lidded eyes had languidly followed
the figure of Prince Borodino, who at this stage had strolled away
toward the fringe of the wood; and, after a pause, as of meditation,
had disappeared into the darkness of the trees.
He was recalled from his irrelevance by the voice of Juliet Bray,
which rang out with an altogether new note of decision:
"If that is the difficulty, it had best be cleared up.
I am engaged to Mr. Crane, and when we told my brother he did
not approve of it; that is all."
Neither Brain nor Fisher exhibited any surprise, but the
former added, quietly:
"Except, I suppose, that he and your brother went off into
the wood to discuss it, where Mr. Crane mislaid his sword,
not to mention his companion."
"And may I ask," inquired Crane, with a certain flicker of mockery
passing over his pallid features, "what I am supposed to have done
with either of them? Let us adopt the cheerful thesis that I am
a murderer; it has yet to be shown that I am a magician. If I ran
your unfortunate friend through the body, what did I do with the body?
Did I have it carried away by seven flying dragons, or was it merely
a trifling matter of turning it into a milk-white hind?"
"It is no occasion for sneering," said the Anglo-Indian judge,
with abrupt authority. "It doesn't make it look better for you
that you can joke about the loss."
Fisher's dreamy, and even dreary, eye was still on the edge
of the wood behind, and he became conscious of masses of dark red,
like a stormy sunset cloud, glowing through the gray network
of the thin trees, and the prince in his cardinal's robes
reemerged on to the pathway. Brain had had half a notion
that the prince might have gone to look for the lost rapier.
But when he reappeared he was carrying in his hand, not a sword,
but an ax.
The incongruity between the masquerade and the mystery had created
a curious psychological atmosphere. At first they had all felt horribly
ashamed at being caught in the foolish disguises of a festival,
by an event that had only too much the character of a funeral.
Many of them would have already gone back and dressed
in clothes that were more funereal or at least more formal.
But somehow at the moment this seemed like a second masquerade,
more artificial and frivolous than the first. And as they reconciled
themselves to their ridiculous trappings, a curious sensation had
come over some of them, notably over the more sensitive, like Crane
and Fisher and Juliet, but in some degree over everybody except
the practical Mr. Brain. It was almost as if they were the ghosts
of their own ancestors haunting that dark wood and dismal lake,
and playing some old part that they only half remembered.
The movements of those colored figures seemed to mean something
that had been settled long before, like a silent heraldry.
Acts, attitudes, external objects, were accepted as an allegory
even without the key; and they knew when a crisis had come,
when they did not know what it was. And somehow they knew
subconsciously that the whole tale had taken a new and terrible turn,
when they saw the prince stand in the gap of the gaunt trees,
in his robes of angry crimson and with his lowering face of bronze,
bearing in his hand a new shape of death. They could not have named
a reason, but the two swords seemed indeed to have become toy swords
and the whole tale of them broken and tossed away like a toy.
Borodino looked like the Old World headsman, clad in terrible red,
and carrying the ax for the execution of the criminal.
And the criminal was not Crane.
Mr. Brain of the Indian police was glaring at the new object, and it
was a moment or two before he spoke, harshly and almost hoarsely.
"What are you doing with that?" he asked. "Seems to be
a woodman's chopper."
"A natural association of ideas," observed Horne Fisher. "If you meet
a cat in a wood you think it's a wildcat, though it may have just strolled
from the drawing-room sofa. As a matter of fact, I happen to know
that is not the woodman's chopper. It's the kitchen chopper, or meat ax,
or something like that, that somebody has thrown away in the wood.
I saw it in the kitchen myself when I was getting the potato sacks
with which I reconstructed a mediaeval hermit."
"All the same, it is not without interest," remarked the prince, holding
out the instrument to Fisher, who took it and examined it carefully.
"A butcher's cleaver that has done butcher's work."
"It was certainly the instrument of the crime," assented Fisher,
in a low voice.
Brain was staring at the dull blue gleam of the ax head with
fierce and fascinated eyes. "I don't understand you," he said.
"There is no--there are no marks on it."
"It has shed no blood," answered Fisher, "but for all that it
has committed a crime. This is as near as the criminal came
to the crime when he committed it."
"What do you mean?"
"He was not there when he did it," explained Fisher. "It's a poor
sort of murderer who can't murder people when he isn't there."
"You seem to be talking merely for the sake of mystification,"
said Brain. "If you have any practical advice to give you
might as well make it intelligible."
"The only practical advice I can suggest," said Fisher, thoughtfully,
"is a little research into local topography and nomenclature. They say
there used to be a Mr. Prior, who had a farm in this neighborhood.
I think some details about the domestic life of the late Mr. Prior
would throw a light on this terrible business."
"And you have nothing more immediate than your topography to offer,"
said Brain, with a sneer, "to help me avenge my friend?"
"Well," said Fisher, "I should find out the truth about the Hole
in the Wall."
That night, at the close of a stormy twilight and under a strong
west wind that followed the breaking of the frost, Leonard Crane
was wending his way in a wild rotatory walk round and round
the high, continuous wall that inclosed the little wood.
He was driven by a desperate idea of solving for himself
the riddle that had clouded his reputation and already even
threatened his liberty. The police authorities, now in charge
of the inquiry, had not arrested him, but he knew well enough
that if he tried to move far afield he would be instantly arrested.
Horne Fisher's fragmentary hints, though he had refused to expand
them as yet, had stirred the artistic temperament of the architect
to a sort of wild analysis, and he was resolved to read
the hieroglyph upside down and every way until it made sense.
If it was something connected with a hole in the wall
he would find the hole in the wall; but, as a matter of fact,
he was unable to find the faintest crack in the wall.
His professional knowledge told him that the masonry was all of one
workmanship and one date, and, except for the regular entrance,
which threw no light on the mystery, he found nothing
suggesting any sort of hiding place or means of escape.
Walking a narrow path between the winding wall and the wild
eastward bend and sweep of the gray and feathery trees,
seeing shifting gleams of a lost sunset winking almost like lightning
as the clouds of tempest scudded across the sky and mingling
with the first faint blue light from a slowly strengthened
moon behind him, he began to feel his head going round as his
heels were going round and round the blind recurrent barrier.
He had thoughts on the border of thought; fancies about a fourth
dimension which was itself a hole to hide anything, of seeing
everything from a new angle out of a new window in the senses;
or of some mystical light and transparency, like the new rays
of chemistry, in which he could see Bulmer's body, horrible and
glaring, floating in a lurid halo over the woods and the wall.
He was haunted also with the hint, which somehow seemed
to be equally horrifying, that it all had something to do with
Mr. Prior. There seemed even to be something creepy in the fact
that he was always respectfully referred to as Mr. Prior,
and that it was in the domestic life of the dead farmer that
he had been bidden to seek the seed of these dreadful things.
As a matter of fact, he had found that no local inquiries had
revealed anything at all about the Prior family.
The moonlight had broadened and brightened, the wind had driven
off the clouds and itself died fitfully away, when he came
round again to the artificial lake in front of the house.
For some reason it looked a very artificial lake; indeed, the whole
scene was like a classical landscape with a touch of Watteau;
the Palladian facade of the house pale in the moon,
and the same silver touching the very pagan and naked marble
nymph in the middle of the pond. Rather to his surprise,
he found another figure there beside the statue, sitting almost
equally motionless; and the same silver pencil traced the wrinkled
brow and patient face of Horne Fisher, still dressed as a hermit
and apparently practicing something of the solitude of a hermit.
Nevertheless, he looked up at Leonard Crane and smiled,
almost as if he had expected him.
"Look here," said Crane, planting himself in front of him,
"can you tell me anything about this business?"
"I shall soon have to tell everybody everything about it,"
replied Fisher, "but I've no objection to telling you
something first. But, to begin with, will you tell me something?
What really happened when you met Bulmer this morning?
You did throw away your sword, but you didn't kill him."
"I didn't kill him because I threw away my sword," said the other.
"I did it on purpose--or I'm not sure what might have happened."
After a pause he went on, quietly: "The late Lord Bulmer was
a very breezy gentleman, extremely breezy. He was very genial
with his inferiors, and would have his lawyer and his architect
staying in his house for all sorts of holidays and amusements.
But there was another side to him, which they found out when
they tried to be his equals. When I told him that his sister
and I were engaged, something happened which I simply can't
and won't describe. It seemed to me like some monstrous upheaval
of madness. But I suppose the truth is painfully simple.
There is such a thing as the coarseness of a gentleman.
And it is the most horrible thing in humanity."
"I know," said Fisher. "The Renaissance nobles of the Tudor time
were like that."
"It is odd that you should say that," Crane went on.
"For while we were talking there came on me a curious feeling
that we were repeating some scene of the past, and that I
was really some outlaw, found in the woods like Robin Hood,
and that he had really stepped in all his plumes and purple
out of the picture frame of the ancestral portrait.
Anyhow, he was the man in possession, and he neither feared God
nor regarded man. I defied him, of course, and walked away.
I might really have killed him if I had not walked away."
"Yes," said Fisher, nodding, "his ancestor was in possession
and he was in possession, and this is the end of the story.
It all fits in."
"Fits in with what?" cried his companion, with sudden impatience.
"I can't make head or tail of it. You tell me to look for the secret
in the hole in the wall, but I can't find any hole in the wall."
"There isn't any," said Fisher. "That's the secret."
After reflecting a moment, he added: "Unless you call it
a hole in the wall of the world. Look here; I'll tell you
if you like, but I'm afraid it involves an introduction.
You've got to understand one of the tricks of the modern mind,
a tendency that most people obey without noticing it.
In the village or suburb outside there's an inn with the sign
of St. George and the Dragon. Now suppose I went about telling
everybody that this was only a corruption of King George and
the Dragoon. Scores of people would believe it, without any inquiry,
from a vague feeling that it's probable because it's prosaic.
It turns something romantic and legendary into something recent
and ordinary. And that somehow makes it sound rational, though it
is unsupported by reason. Of course some people would have the sense
to remember having seen St. George in old Italian pictures and
French romances, but a good many wouldn't think about it at all.
They would just swallow the skepticism because it was skepticism.
Modern intelligence won't accept anything on authority.
But it will accept anything without authority. That's exactly
what has happened here.
"When some critic or other chose to say that Prior's Park
was not a priory, but was named after some quite modern
man named Prior, nobody really tested the theory at all.
It never occurred to anybody repeating the story to ask if there
WAS any Mr. Prior, if anybody had ever seen him or heard of him.
As a matter of fact, it was a priory, and shared the fate
of most priories--that is, the Tudor gentleman with the plumes
simply stole it by brute force and turned it into his own
private house; he did worse things, as you shall hear.
But the point here is that this is how the trick works,
and the trick works in the same way in the other part of the tale.
The name of this district is printed Holinwall in all the best
maps produced by the scholars; and they allude lightly,
not without a smile, to the fact that it was pronounced
Holiwell by the most ignorant and old-fashioned of the poor.
But it is spelled wrong and pronounced right."
"Do you mean to say," asked Crane, quickly, "that there really
was a well?"
"There is a well," said Fisher, "and the truth lies at the bottom of it."
As he spoke he stretched out his hand and pointed toward the sheet
of water in front of him.
"The well is under that water somewhere," he said,
"and this is not the first tragedy connected with it.
The founder of this house did something which his fellow
ruffians very seldom did; something that had to be hushed
up even in the anarchy of the pillage of the monasteries.
The well was connected with the miracles of some saint,
and the last prior that guarded it was something like a
saint himself; certainly he was something very like a martyr.
He defied the new owner and dared him to pollute the place,
till the noble, in a fury, stabbed him and flung his body
into the well, whither, after four hundred years, it has been
followed by an heir of the usurper, clad in the same purple
and walking the world with the same pride."
"But how did it happen," demanded Crane, "that for the first time
Bulmer fell in at that particular spot?"
"Because the ice was only loosened at that particular spot,
by the only man who knew it," answered Horne Fisher. "It was
cracked deliberately, with the kitchen chopper, at that special place;
and I myself heard the hammering and did not understand it.
The place had been covered with an artificial lake, if only because
the whole truth had to be covered with an artificial legend. But don't
you see that it is exactly what those pagan nobles would have done,
to desecrate it with a sort of heathen goddess, as the Roman Emperor
built a temple to Venus on the Holy Sepulchre. But the truth could
still be traced out, by any scholarly man determined to trace it.
And this man was determined to trace it."
"What man?" asked the other, with a shadow of the answer in his mind.
"The only man who has an alibi," replied Fisher. "James Haddow,
the antiquarian lawyer, left the night before the fatality,
but he left that black star of death on the ice. He left abruptly,
having previously proposed to stay; probably, I think,
after an ugly scene with Bulmer, at their legal interview.
As you know yourself, Bulmer could make a man feel pretty murderous,
and I rather fancy the lawyer had himself irregularities
to confess, and was in danger of exposure by his client.
But it's my reading of human nature that a man will cheat
in his trade, but not in his hobby. Haddow may have been a
dishonest lawyer, but he couldn't help being an honest antiquary.
When he got on the track of the truth about the Holy Well
he had to follow it up; he was not to be bamboozled with
newspaper anecdotes about Mr. Prior and a hole in the wall;
he found out everything, even to the exact location of the well,
and he was rewarded, if being a successful assassin can be
regarded as a reward."
"And how did you get on the track of all this hidden history?"
asked the young architect.
A cloud came across the brow of Horne Fisher. "I knew only too much
about it already," he said, "and, after all, it's shameful for me
to be speaking lightly of poor Bulmer, who has paid his penalty;
but the rest of us haven't. I dare say every cigar I smoke and every
liqueur I drink comes directly or indirectly from the harrying
of the holy places and the persecution of the poor. After all,
it needs very little poking about in the past to find that hole
in the wall, that great breach in the defenses of English history.
It lies just under the surface of a thin sheet of sham information
and instruction, just as the black and blood-stained well
lies just under that floor of shallow water and flat weeds.
Oh, the ice is thin, but it bears; it is strong enough to support us
when we dress up as monks and dance on it, in mockery of the dear,
quaint old Middle Ages. They told me I must put on fancy dress;
so I did put on fancy dress, according to my own taste and fancy.
I put on the only costume I think fit for a man who has inherited
the position of a gentleman, and yet has not entirely lost
the feelings of one."
In answer to a look of inquiry, he rose with a sweeping
and downward gesture.
"Sackcloth," he said; "and I would wear the ashes as well if they
would stay on my bald head."
VII. THE TEMPLE OF SILENCE
Harold March and the few who cultivated the friendship of Horne Fisher,
especially if they saw something of him in his own social setting,
were conscious of a certain solitude in his very sociability. They seemed
to be always meeting his relations and never meeting his family.
Perhaps it would be truer to say that they saw much of his family
and nothing of his home. His cousins and connections ramified like a
labyrinth all over the governing class of Great Britain, and he seemed
to be on good, or at least on good-humored, terms with most of them.
For Horne Fisher was remarkable for a curious impersonal information
and interest touching all sorts of topics, so that one could sometimes
fancy that his culture, like his colorless, fair mustache and pale,
drooping features, had the neutral nature of a chameleon.
Anyhow, he could always get on with viceroys and Cabinet Ministers
and all the great men responsible for great departments, and talk
to each of them on his own subject, on the branch of study with
which he was most seriously concerned. Thus he could converse with
the Minister for War about silkworms, with the Minister of Education
about detective stories, with the Minister of Labor about Limoges enamel,
and with the Minister of Missions and Moral Progress (if that be his
correct title) about the pantomime boys of the last four decades.
And as the first was his first cousin, the second his second cousin,
the third his brother-in-law, and the fourth his uncle by marriage,
this conversational versatility certainly served in one sense to create
a happy family. But March never seemed to get a glimpse of that
domestic interior to which men of the middle classes are accustomed
in their friendships, and which is indeed the foundation of friendship
and love and everything else in any sane and stable society.
He wondered whether Horne Fisher was both an orphan and an only child.
It was, therefore, with something like a start that he found
that Fisher had a brother, much more prosperous and powerful
than himself, though hardly, March thought, so entertaining.
Sir Henry Harland Fisher, with half the alphabet after his name,
was something at the Foreign Office far more tremendous than
the Foreign Secretary. Apparently, it ran in the family, after all;
for it seemed there was another brother, Ashton Fisher, in India,
rather more tremendous than the Viceroy. Sir Henry Fisher was a heavier,
but handsomer edition of his brother, with a brow equally bald,
but much more smooth. He was very courteous, but a shade patronizing,
not only to March, but even, as March fancied, to Horne Fisher as well.
The latter gentleman, who had many intuitions about the half-formed
thoughts of others, glanced at the topic himself as they came away
from the great house in Berkeley Square.
"Why, don't you know," he observed quietly, "that I am the fool
of the family?"
"It must be a clever family," said Harold March, with a smile.
"Very gracefully expressed," replied Fisher; "that is
the best of having a literary training. Well, perhaps it
is an exaggeration to say I am the fool of the family.
It's enough to say I am the failure of the family."
"It seems queer to me that you should fail especially,"
remarked the journalist. "As they say in the examinations,
what did you fail in?"
"Politics," replied his friend. "I stood for Parliament when I
was quite a young man and got in by an enormous majority,
with loud cheers and chairing round the town. Since then,
of course, I've been rather under a cloud."
"I'm afraid I don't quite understand the 'of course,'"
answered March, laughing.
"That part of it isn't worth understanding," said Fisher. "But as
a matter of fact, old chap, the other part of it was rather odd
and interesting. Quite a detective story in its way, as well
as the first lesson I had in what modern politics are made of.
If you like, I'll tell you all about it." And the following,
recast in a less allusive and conversational manner, is the story
that he told.
Nobody privileged of late years to meet Sir Henry Harland Fisher
would believe that he had ever been called Harry. But, indeed,
he had been boyish enough when a boy, and that serenity
which shone on him through life, and which now took the form
of gravity, had once taken the form of gayety. His friends
would have said that he was all the more ripe in his maturity
for having been young in his youth. His enemies would have said
that he was still light minded, but no longer light hearted.
But in any case, the whole of the story Horne Fisher had to tell
arose out of the accident which had made young Harry Fisher
private secretary to Lord Saltoun. Hence his later connection
with the Foreign Office, which had, indeed, come to him as a sort
of legacy from his lordship when that great man was the power behind
the throne. This is not the place to say much about Saltoun,
little as was known of him and much as there was worth knowing.
England has had at least three or four such secret statesmen.
An aristocratic polity produces every now and then an aristocrat
who is also an accident, a man of intellectual independence
and insight, a Napoleon born in the purple. His vast work
was mostly invisible, and very little could be got out of him
in private life except a crusty and rather cynical sense of humor.
But it was certainly the accident of his presence at a family
dinner of the Fishers, and the unexpected opinion he expressed,
which turned what might have been a dinner-table joke into a sort
of small sensational novel.
Save for Lord Saltoun, it was a family party of Fishers,
for the only other distinguished stranger had just departed
after dinner, leaving the rest to their coffee and cigars.
This had been a figure of some interest--a young Cambridge
man named Eric Hughes who was the rising hope of the party
of Reform, to which the Fisher family, along with their
friend Saltoun, had long been at least formally attached.
The personality of Hughes was substantially summed up in the fact
that he talked eloquently and earnestly through the whole dinner,
but left immediately after to be in time for an appointment.
All his actions had something at once ambitious and conscientious;
he drank no wine, but was slightly intoxicated with words.
And his face and phrases were on the front page of all the
newspapers just then, because he was contesting the safe seat
of Sir Francis Verner in the great by-election in the west.
Everybody was talking about the powerful speech against squirarchy
which he had just delivered; even in the Fisher circle everybody
talked about it except Horne Fisher himself who sat in a corner,
lowering over the fire.
"We jolly well have to thank him for putting some new life into the
old party," Ashton Fisher was saying. "This campaign against the old
squires just hits the degree of democracy there is in this county.
This act for extending county council control is practically his bill;
so you may say he's in the government even before he's in the House."
"One's easier than the other," said Harry, carelessly. "I bet
the squire's a bigger pot than the county council in that county.
Verner is pretty well rooted; all these rural places are what you
call reactionary. Damning aristocrats won't alter it."
"He damns them rather well," observed Ashton. "We never had
a better meeting than the one in Barkington, which generally
goes Constitutional. And when he said, 'Sir Francis may boast
of blue blood; let us show we have red blood,' and went on to talk
about manhood and liberty, the room simply rose at him."
"Speaks very well," said Lord Saltoun, gruffly, making his only
contribution to the conversation so far.
Then the almost equally silent Horne Fisher suddenly spoke, without,
taking his brooding eyes off the fire.
"What I can't understand," he said, "is why nobody is ever slanged
for the real reason."
"Hullo!" remarked Harry, humorously, "you beginning to take notice?"
"Well, take Verner," continued Horne Fisher. "If we want to attack
Verner, why not attack him? Why compliment him on being a romantic
reactionary aristocrat? Who is Verner? Where does he come from?
His name sounds old, but I never heard of it before, as the man
said of the Crucifixion. Why talk about his blue blood?
His blood may be gamboge yellow with green spots, for all anybody knows.
All we know is that the old squire, Hawker, somehow ran through his money
(and his second wife's, I suppose, for she was rich enough),
and sold the estate to a man named Verner. What did he make his
money in? Oil? Army contracts?"
"I don't know," said Saltoun, looking at him thoughtfully.
"First thing I ever knew you didn't know," cried the exuberant Harry.
"And there's more, besides," went on Horne Fisher, who seemed
to have suddenly found his tongue. "If we want country people
to vote for us, why don't we get somebody with some notion about
the country? We don't talk to people in Threadneedle Street
about nothing but turnips and pigsties. Why do we talk
to people in Somerset about nothing but slums and socialism?
Why don't we give the squire's land to the squire's tenants,
instead of dragging in the county council?"
"Three acres and a cow," cried Harry, emitting what the Parliamentary
reports call an ironical cheer.
"Yes," replied his brother, stubbornly. "Don't you think
agricultural laborers would rather have three acres and a
cow than three acres of printed forms and a committee?
Why doesn't somebody start a yeoman party in politics,
appealing to the old traditions of the small landowner?
And why don't they attack men like Verner for what they are,
which is something about as old and traditional as an
American oil trust?"
"You'd better lead the yeoman party yourself," laughed Harry. "Don't you
think it would be a joke, Lord Saltoun, to see my brother and his
merry men, with their bows and bills, marching down to Somerset all
in Lincoln green instead of Lincoln and Bennet hats?"
"No," answered Old Saltoun, "I don't think it would be a joke.
I think it would be an exceedingly serious and sensible idea."
"Well, I'm jiggered!" cried Harry Fisher, staring at him.
"I said just now it was the first fact you didn't know,
and I should say this is the first joke you didn't see."
"I've seen a good many things in my time," said the old man,
in his rather sour fashion. "I've told a good many lies
in my time, too, and perhaps I've got rather sick of them.
But there are lies and lies, for all that. Gentlemen used to lie
just as schoolboys lie, because they hung together and partly
to help one another out. But I'm damned if I can see why we
should lie for these cosmopolitan cads who only help themselves.
They're not backing us up any more; they're simply crowding us out.
If a man like your brother likes to go into Parliament as a yeoman
or a gentleman or a Jacobite or an Ancient Briton, I should say
it would be a jolly good thing."
In the rather startled silence that followed Horne Fisher sprang
to his feet and all his dreary manner dropped off him.
"I'm ready to do it to-morrow," he cried. "I suppose none of you
fellows would back me up."
Then Harry Fisher showed the finer side of his impetuosity.
He made a sudden movement as if to shake hands.
"You're a sport," he said, "and I'll back you up,
if nobody else will. But we can all back you up, can't we?
I see what Lord Saltoun means, and, of course, he's right.
He's always right."
"So I will go down to Somerset," said Horne Fisher.
"Yes, it is on the way to Westminster," said Lord Saltoun,
with a smile.
And so it happened that Horne Fisher arrived some days later
at the little station of a rather remote market town in the west,
accompanied by a light suitcase and a lively brother.
It must not be supposed, however, that the brother's cheerful tone
consisted entirely of chaff. He supported the new candidate with hope
as well as hilarity; and at the back of his boisterous partnership
there was an increasing sympathy and encouragement. Harry Fisher
had always had an affection for his more quiet and eccentric brother,
and was now coming more and more to have a respect for him.
As the campaign proceeded the respect increased to ardent admiration.
For Harry was still young, and could feel the sort of enthusiasm
for his captain in electioneering that a schoolboy can feel for his
captain in cricket.
Nor was the admiration undeserved. As the new three-cornered contest
developed it became apparent to others besides his devoted kinsman
that there was more in Horne Fisher than had ever met the eye.
It was clear that his outbreak by the family fireside had been but the
culmination of a long course of brooding and studying on the question.
The talent he retained through life for studying his subject,
and even somebodys else's subject, had long been concentrated on
this idea of championing a new peasantry against a new plutocracy.
He spoke to a crowd with eloquence and replied to an individual
with humor, two political arts that seemed to come to him naturally.
He certainly knew much more about rural problems than either Hughes,
the Reform candidate, or Verner, the Constitutional candidate.
And he probed those problems with a human curiosity, and went
below the surface in a way that neither of them dreamed of doing.
He soon became the voice of popular feelings that are never found
in the popular press. New angles of criticism, arguments that had
never before been uttered by an educated voice, tests and comparisons
that had been made only in dialect by men drinking in the little
local public houses, crafts half forgotten that had come down
by sign of hand and tongue from remote ages when their fathers
were free all this created a curious and double excitement.
It startled the well informed by being a new and fantastic idea
they had never encountered. It startled the ignorant by being
an old and familiar idea they never thought to have seen revived.
Men saw things in a new light, and knew not even whether it was
the sunset or the dawn.
Practical grievances were there to make the movement formidable.
As Fisher went to and fro among the cottages and country inns,
it was borne in on him without difficulty that Sir Francis Verner
was a very bad landlord. Nor was the story of his acquisition
of the land any more ancient and dignified than he had supposed;
the story was well known in the county and in most respects
was obvious enough. Hawker, the old squire, had been a loose,
unsatisfactory sort of person, had been on bad terms with his
first wife (who died, as some said, of neglect), and had then
married a flashy South American Jewess with a fortune.
But he must have worked his way through this fortune also with
marvelous rapidity, for he had been compelled to sell the estate
to Verner and had gone to live in South America, possibly on his
wife's estates. But Fisher noticed that the laxity of the old
squire was far less hated than the efficiency of the new squire.
Verner's history seemed to be full of smart bargains and financial
flutters that left other people short of money and temper.
But though he heard a great deal about Verner, there was one
thing that continually eluded him; something that nobody knew,
that even Saltoun had not known. He could not find out how Verner
had originally made his money.
"He must have kept it specially dark," said Horne Fisher to himself.
"It must be something he's really ashamed of. Hang it all! what IS
a man ashamed of nowadays?"
And as he pondered on the possibilities they grew darker
and more distorted in his mind; he thought vaguely of things
remote and repulsive, strange forms of slavery or sorcery,
and then of ugly things yet more unnatural but nearer home.
The figure of Verner seemed to be blackened and transfigured
in his imagination, and to stand against varied backgrounds
and strange skies.
As he strode up a village street, brooding thus, his eyes encountered
a complete contrast in the face of his other rival, the Reform candidate.
Eric Hughes, with his blown blond hair and eager undergraduate face,
was just getting into his motor car and saying a few final words
to his agent, a sturdy, grizzled man named Gryce. Eric Hughes waved
his hand in a friendly fashion; but Gryce eyed him with some hostility.
Eric Hughes was a young man with genuine political enthusiasms,, but
he knew that political opponents are people with whom one may have to dine
any day. But Mr. Gryce was a grim little local Radical, a champion of
the chapel, and one of those happy people whose work is also their hobby.
He turned his back as the motor car drove away, and walked briskly up
the sunlit high street of the little town, whistling, with political
papers sticking out of his pocket.
Fisher looked pensively after the resolute figure for a moment,
and then, as if by an impulse, began to follow it.
Through the busy market place, amid the baskets and barrows
of market day, under the painted wooden sign of the Green Dragon,
up a dark side entry, under an arch, and through a tangle
of crooked cobbled streets the two threaded their way,
the square, strutting figure in front and the lean,
lounging figure behind him, like his shadow in the sunshine.
At length they came to a brown brick house with a brass plate,
on which was Mr. Gryce's name, and that individual turned
and beheld his pursuer with a stare.
"Could I have a word with you, sir?" asked Horne Fisher, politely.
The agent stared still more, but assented civilly, and led the other
into an office littered with leaflets and hung all round with highly
colored posters which linked the name of Hughes with all the higher
interests of humanity.
"Mr. Horne Fisher, I believe," said Mr. Gryce. "Much honored
by the call, of course. Can't pretend to congratulate you
on entering the contest, I'm afraid; you won't expect that.
Here we've been keeping the old flag flying for freedom and reform,
and you come in and break the battle line."
For Mr. Elijah Gryce abounded in military metaphors and
in denunciations of militarism. He was a square-jawed,
blunt-featured man with a pugnacious cock of the eyebrow.
He had been pickled in the politics of that countryside from boyhood,
he knew everybody's secrets, and electioneering was the romance
of his life.
"I suppose you think I'm devoured with ambition," said Horne Fisher,
in his rather listless voice, "aiming at a dictatorship and all that.
Well, I think I can clear myself of the charge of mere selfish ambition.
I only want certain things done. I don't want to do them.
I very seldom want to do anything. And I've come here to say that I'm
quite willing to retire from the contest if you can convince me that we
really want to do the same thing."
The agent of the Reform party looked at him with an odd
and slightly puzzled expression, and before he could reply,
Fisher went on in the same level tones:
"You'd hardly believe it, but I keep a conscience concealed
about me; and I am in doubt about several things.
For instance, we both want to turn Verner out of Parliament,
but what weapon are we to use? I've heard a lot of gossip
against him, but is it right to act on mere gossip?
Just as I want to be fair to you, so I want to be fair to him.
If some of the things I've heard are true he ought to be turned
out of Parliament and every other club in London. But I don't
want to turn him out of Parliament if they aren't true."
At this point the light of battle sprang into Mr. Gryce's eyes
and he became voluble, not to say violent. He, at any rate,
had no doubt that the stories were true; he could testify,
to his own knowledge, that they were true. Verner was not only a
hard landlord, but a mean landlord, a robber as well as a rackrenter;
any gentleman would be justified in hounding him out.
He had cheated old Wilkins out of his freehold by a trick fit
for a pickpocket; he had driven old Mother Biddle to the workhouse;
he had stretched the law against Long Adam, the poacher,
till all the magistrates were ashamed of him.
"So if you'll serve under the old banner," concluded Mr. Gryce,
more genially, "and turn out a swindling tyrant like that,
I'm sure you'll never regret it."
"And if that is the truth," said Horne Fisher, "are you going
to tell it?"
"What do you mean? Tell the truth?" demanded Gryce.
"I mean you are going to tell the truth as you have just told it,"
replied Fisher. "You are going to placard this town with
the wickedness done to old Wilkins. You are going to fill
the newspapers with the infamous story of Mrs. Biddle. You are
going to denounce Verner from a public platform, naming him
for what he did and naming the poacher he did it to.
And you're going to find out by what trade this man made the money
with which he bought the estate; and when you know the truth,
as I said before, of course you are going to tell it.
Upon those terms I come under the old flag, as you call it,
and haul down my little pennon."
The agent was eying him with a curious expression, surly but not
entirely unsympathetic. "Well," he said, slowly, "you have to do
these things in a regular way, you know, or people don't understand.
I've had a lot of experience, and I'm afraid what you say wouldn't do.
People understand slanging squires in a general way, but those
personalities aren't considered fair play. Looks like hitting
below the belt."
"Old Wilkins hasn't got a belt, I suppose," replied Horne Fisher.
"Verner can hit him anyhow, and nobody must say a word.
It's evidently very important to have a belt. But apparently you
have to be rather high up in society to have one. Possibly," he added,
thoughtfully--"possibly the explanation of the phrase 'a belted earl,'
the meaning of which has always escaped me."
"I mean those personalities won't do," returned Gryce,
frowning at the table.
"And Mother Biddle and Long Adam, the poacher, are not personalities,"
said Fisher, "and suppose we mustn't ask how Verner made all the money
that enabled him to become--a personality."
Gryce was still looking at him under lowering brows,
but the singular light in his eyes had brightened.
At last he said, in another and much quieter voice:
"Look here, sir. I like you, if you don't mind my saying so.
I think you are really on the side of the people and I'm sure
you're a brave man. A lot braver than you know, perhaps.
We daren't touch what you propose with a barge pole;
and so far from wanting you in the old party, we'd rather
you ran your own risk by yourself. But because I like you
and respect your pluck, I'll do you a good turn before we part.
I don't want you to waste time barking up the wrong tree.
You talk about how the new squire got the money to buy,
and the ruin of the old squire, and all the rest of it.
Well, I'll give you a hint about that, a hint about something
precious few people know."
"I am very grateful," said Fisher, gravely. "What is it?"
"It's in two words," said the other. "The new squire was quite poor
when he bought. The old squire was quite rich when he sold."
Horne Fisher looked at him thoughtfully as he turned away
abruptly and busied himself with the papers on his desk.
Then Fisher uttered a short phrase of thanks and farewell,
and went out into the street, still very thoughtful.
His reflection seemed to end in resolution, and, falling into
a more rapid stride, he passed out of the little town along
a road leading toward the gate of the great park, the country
seat of Sir Francis Verner. A glitter of sunlight made the early
winter more like a late autumn, and the dark woods were touched
here and there with red and golden leaves, like the last rays of a
lost sunset. From a higher part of the road he had seen the long,
classical facade of the great house with its many windows,
almost immediately beneath him, but when the road ran down under
the wall of the estate, topped with towering trees behind,
he realized that it was half a mile round to the lodge gates,
After walking for a few minutes along the lane, however, he came
to a place where the wall had cracked and was in process of repair.
As it was, there was a great gap in the gray masonry
that looked at first as black as a cavern and only showed
at a second glance the twilight of the twinkling trees.
There was something fascinating about that unexpected gate,
like the opening of a fairy tale.
Horne Fisher had in him something of the aristocrat, which is very near
to the anarchist. It was characteristic of him that he turned into
this dark and irregular entry as casually as into his own front door,
merely thinking that it would be a short cut to the house.
He made his way through the dim wood for some distance and with
some difficulty, until there began to shine through the trees a
level light, in lines of silver, which he did not at first understand.
The next moment he had come out into the daylight at the top of a
steep bank, at the bottom of which a path ran round the rim of a large
ornamental lake. The sheet of water which he had seen shimmering
through the trees was of considerable extent, but was walled in on
every side with woods which were not only dark, but decidedly dismal.
At one end of the path was a classical statue of some nameless nymph,
and at the other end it was flanked by two classical urns;
but the marble was weather-stained and streaked with green and gray.
A hundred other signs, smaller but more significant, told him that he had
come on some outlying corner of the grounds neglected and seldom visited.
In the middle of the lake was what appeared to be an island,
and on the island what appeared to be meant for a classical temple,
not open like a temple of the winds, but with a blank wall between
its Doric pillars. We may say it only seemed like an island,
because a second glance revealed a low causeway of flat stones
running up to it from the shore and turning it into a peninsula.
And certainly it only seemed like a temple, for nobody knew better
than Horne Fisher that no god had ever dwelt in that shrine.
"That's what makes all this classical landscape gardening
so desolate," he said to himself. "More desolate than Stonehenge
or the Pyramids. We don't believe in Egyptian mythology,
but the Egyptians did; and I suppose even the Druids believed
in Druidism. But the eighteenth-century gentleman who built these
temples didn't believe in Venus or Mercury any more than we do;
that's why the reflection of those pale pillars in the lake
is truly only the shadow of a shade. They were men of the age
of Reason; they, who filled their gardens with these stone nymphs,
had less hope than any men in all history of really meeting
a nymph in the forest."
His monologue stopped aruptly with a sharp noise like a
thundercrack that rolled in dreary echoes round the dismal mere.
He knew at once what it was--somebody had fired off a gun.
But as to the meaning of it he was momentarily staggered,
and strange thoughts thronged into his mind. The next moment
he laughed; for he saw lying a little way along the path below
him the dead bird that the shot had brought down.
At the same moment, however, he saw something else,
which interested him more. A ring of dense trees ran round the back
of the island temple, framing the facade of it in dark foliage,
and he could have sworn he saw a stir as of something moving
among the leaves. The next moment his suspicion was confirmed,
for a rather ragged figure came from under the shadow of the temple
and began to move along the causeway that led to the bank.
Even at that distance the figure was conspicuous by its great height
and Fisher could see that the man carried a gun under his arm.
There came back into his memory at once the name Long Adam, the poacher.
With a rapid sense of strategy he sometimes showed, Fisher sprang from the
bank and raced round the lake to the head of the little pier of stones.
If once a man reached the mainland he could easily vanish into the woods.
But when Fisher began to advance along the stones toward the island,
the man was cornered in a blind alley and could only back
toward the temple. Putting his broad shoulders against it,
he stood as if at bay; he was a comparatively young man, with fine
lines in his lean face and figure and a mop of ragged red hair.
The look in his eyes might well have been disquieting to anyone left
alone with him on an island in the middle of a lake.
"Good morning," said Horne Fisher, pleasantly. "I thought
at first you were a murderer. But it seems unlikely, somehow,
that the partridge rushed between us and died for love of me,
like the heroines in the romances; so I suppose you are a poacher."
"I suppose you would call me a poacher," answered the man;
and his voice was something of a surprise coming from such a scarecrow;
it had that hard fastidiousness to be found in those who have
made a fight for their own refinement among rough surroundings.
"I consider I have a perfect right to shoot game in this place.
But I am well aware that people of your sort take me for a thief,
and I suppose you will try to land me in jail."
"There are preliminary difficulties," replied Fisher. "To begin with,
the mistake is flattering, but I am not a gamekeeper. Still less am I
three gamekeepers, who would be, I imagine, about your fighting weight.
But I confess I have another reason for not wanting to jail you."
"And what is that?" asked the other.
"Only that I quite agree with you," answered Fisher. "I don't
exactly say you have a right to poach, but I never could
see that it was as wrong as being a thief. It seems to me
against the whole normal notion of property that a man
should own something because it flies across his garden.
He might as well own the wind, or think he could write his
name on a morning cloud. Besides, if we want poor people
to respect property we must give them some property to respect.
You ought to have land of your own; and I'm going to give you
some if I can."
"Going to give me some land!" repeated Long Adam.
"I apologize for addressing you as if you were a public meeting,"
said Fisher, "but I am an entirely new kind of public
man who says the same thing in public and in private.
I've said this to a hundred huge meetings throughout the country,
and I say it to you on this queer little island in this dismal pond.
I would cut up a big estate like this into small estates for everybody,
even for poachers. I would do in England as they did in Ireland--
buy the big men out, if possible; get them out, anyhow.
A man like you ought to have a little place of his own.
I don't say you could keep pheasants, but you might keep chickens."
The man stiffened suddenly and he seemed at once to blanch and flame
at the promise as if it were a threat.
"Chickens!" he repeated, with a passion of contempt.
"Why do you object?" asked the placid candidate.
"Because keeping hens is rather a mild amusement for a poacher?
What about poaching eggs?"
"Because I am not a poacher," cried Adam, in a rending voice that rang
round the hollow shrines and urns like the echoes of his gun.
"Because the partridge lying dead over there is my partridge.
Because the land you are standing on is my land. Because my own land
was only taken from me by a crime, and a worse crime than poaching.
This has been a single estate for hundreds and hundreds of years,
and if you or any meddlesome mountebank comes here and talks
of cutting it up like a cake, if I ever hear a word more of you
and your leveling lies--"
"You seem to be a rather turbulent public," observed Horne Fisher,
"but do go on. What will happen if I try to divide this estate
decently among decent people?"
The poacher had recovered a grim composure as he replied.
"There will be no partridge to rush in between."
With that he turned his back, evidently resolved to say no more,
and walked past the temple to the extreme end of the islet,
where he stood staring into the water. Fisher followed him,
but, when his repeated questions evoked no answer, turned back
toward the shore. In doing so he took a second and closer look
at the artificial temple, and noted some curious things about it.
Most of these theatrical things were as thin as theatrical scenery,
and he expected the classic shrine to be a shallow thing, a mere
shell or mask. But there was some substantial bulk of it behind,
buried in the trees, which had a gray, labyrinthian look,
like serpents of stone, and lifted a load of leafy towers to the sky.
But what arrested Fisher's eye was that in this bulk of gray-white
stone behind there was a single door with great, rusty bolts outside;
the bolts, however, were not shot across so as to secure it.
Then he walked round the small building, and found no other opening
except one small grating like a ventilator, high up in the wall.
He retraced his steps thoughtfully along the causeway to the banks
of the lake, and sat down on the stone steps between the two sculptured
funeral urns. Then he lit a cigarette and smoked it in ruminant manner;
eventually he took out a notebook and wrote down various phrases,
numbering and renumbering them till they stood in the following order:
"(1) Squire Hawker disliked his first wife. (2) He married his second
wife for her money. (3) Long Adam says the estate is really his.
(4) Long Adam hangs round the island temple, which looks like a prison.
(5) Squire Hawker was not poor when he gave up the estate.
(6) Verner was poor when he got the estate."
He gazed at these notes with a gravity which gradually
turned to a hard smile, threw away his cigarette,
and resumed his search for a short cut to the great house.
He soon picked up the path which, winding among clipped hedges
and flower beds, brought him in front of its long Palladian facade.
It had the usual appearance of being, not a private house,
but a sort of public building sent into exile in the provinces.
He first found himself in the presence of the butler, who really
looked much older than the building, for the architecture was
dated as Georgian; but the man's face, under a highly unnatural
brown wig, was wrinkled with what might have been centuries.
Only his prominent eyes were alive and alert, as if with protest.
Fisher glanced at him, and then stopped and said:
"Excuse me. Weren't you with the late squire, Mr. Hawker?"
'Yes, sir, said the man, gravely. "Usher is my name.
What can I do for you?"
"Only take me into Sir Francis Verner," replied the visitor.
Sir Francis Verner was sitting in an easy chair beside a small table
in a large room hung with tapestries. On the table were a small flask
and glass, with the green glimmer of a liqueur and a cup of black coffee.
He was clad in a quiet gray suit with a moderately harmonious purple tie;
but Fisher saw something about the turn of his fair mustache and the lie
of his flat hair--it suddenly revealed that his name was Franz Werner.
"You are Mr. Horne Fisher," he said. "Won't you sit down?"
"No, thank you," replied Fisher. "I fear this is not a friendly
occasion, and I shall remain standing. Possibly you know that I
am already standing--standing for Parliament, in fact--"
"I am aware we are political opponents," replied Verner,
raising his eyebrows. "But I think it would be better if we
fought in a sporting spirit; in a spirit of English fair play."
"Much better," assented Fisher. "It would be much better if you
were English and very much better if you had ever played fair.
But what I've come to say can be said very shortly. I don't quite know
how we stand with the law about that old Hawker story, but my chief
object is to prevent England being entirely ruled by people like you.
So whatever the law would say, I will say no more if you will retire
from the election at once."
"You are evidently a lunatic," said Verner.
"My psychology may be a little abnormal," replied Horne Fisher,
in a rather hazy manner. "I am subject to dreams, especially day-dreams.
Sometimes what is happening to me grows vivid in a curious double way,
as if it had happened before. Have you ever had that mystical feeling
that things have happened before?"
"I hope you are a harmless lunatic," said Verner.
But Fisher was still staring in an absent fashion at the golden
gigantic figures and traceries of brown and red in the tapestries
on the walls; then he looked again at Verner and resumed:
"I have a feeling that this interview has happened before, here in this
tapestried room, and we are two ghosts revisiting a haunted chamber.
But it was Squire Hawker who sat where you sit and it was you
who stood where I stand." He paused a moment and then added,
with simplicity, "I suppose I am a blackmailer, too."
"If you are," said Sir Francis, "I promise you you shall go to jail."
But his face had a shade on it that looked like the reflection
of the green wine gleaming on the table. Horne Fisher regarded him
steadily and answered, quietly enough:
"Blackmailers do not always go to jail. Sometimes they
go to Parliament. But, though Parliament is rotten
enough already, you shall not go there if I can help it.
I am not so criminal as you were in bargaining with crime.
You made a squire give up his country seat. I only ask you
to give up your Parliamentary seat."
Sir Francis Verner sprang to his feet and looked about for one
of the bell ropes of the old-fashioned, curtained room.
"Where is Usher?" he cried, with a livid face.
"And who is Usher?" said Fisher, softly. "I wonder how much
Usher knows of the truth."
Verner's hand fell from the bell rope and, after standing for
a moment with rolling eyes, he strode abruptly from the room.
Fisher went but by the other door, by which he had entered, and,
seeing no sign of Usher, let himself out and betook himself again
toward the town.
That night he put an electric torch in his pocket and set out
alone in the darkness to add the last links to his argument.
There was much that he did not know yet; but he thought he knew
where he could find the knowledge. The night closed dark and
stormy and the black gap in the wall looked blacker than ever;
the wood seemed to have grown thicker and darker in a day.
If the deserted lake with its black woods and gray urns and images
looked desolate even by daylight, under the night and the growing
storm it seemed still more kke the pool of Acheron in the land
of lost souls. As he stepped carefully along the jetty stones
he seemed to be traveling farther and farther into the abyss
of night, and to have left behind him the last points from
which it would be possible to signal to the land of the living.
The lake seemed to have grown larger than a sea, but a sea
of black and slimy waters that slept with abominable serenity,
as if they had washed out the world. There was so much
of this nightmare sense of extension and expansion that he was
strangely surprised to come to his desert island so soon.
But he knew it for a place of inhuman silence and solitude;
and he felt as if he had been walking for years.
Nerving himself to a more normal mood, he paused under one of the dark
dragon trees that branched out above him, and, taking out his torch,
turned in the direction of the door at the back of the temple.
It was unbolted as before, and the thought stirred faintly
in him that it was slightly open, though only by a crack.
The more he thought of it, however, the more certain he grew
that this was but one of the common illusions of light coming from
a different angle. He studied in a more scientific spirit the details
of the door, with its rusty bolts and hinges, when he became
conscious of something very near him--indeed, nearly above his head.
Something was dangling from the tree that was not a broken branch.
For some seconds he stood as still as a stone, and as cold.
What he saw above him were the legs of a man hanging,
presumably a dead man hanged. But the next moment he knew better.
The man was literally alive and kicking; and an instant after he had
dropped to the ground and turned on the intruder. Simultaneously three
or four other trees seemed to come to life in the same fashion.
Five or six other figures had fallen on their feet from these
unnatural nests. It was as if the place were an island of monkeys.
But a moment after they had made a stampede toward him, and when they
laid their hands on him he knew that they were men.
With the electric torch in his hand he struck the foremost of them
so furiously in the face that the man stumbled and rolled over
on the slimy grass; but the torch was broken and extinguished,
leaving everything in a denser obscurity. He flung another man
flat against the temple wall, so that he slid to the ground;
but a third and fourth carried Fisher off his feet and began to
bear him, struggling, toward the doorway. Even in the bewilderment
of the battle he was conscious that the door was standing open.
Somebody was summoning the roughs from inside.
The moment they were within they hurled him upon a sort of bench
or bed with violence, but no damage; for the settee, or whatever
it was, seemed to be comfortably cushioned for his reception.
Their violence had in it a great element of haste, and before
he could rise they had all rushed for the door to escape.
Whatever bandits they were that infested this desert island, they were
obviously uneasy about their job and very anxious to be quit of it.
He had the flying fancy that regular criminals would hardly be
in such a panic. The next moment the great door crashed to and
he could hear the bolts shriek as they shot into their place,
and the feet of the retreating men scampering and stumbling
along the causeway. But rapidly as it happened, it did not
happen before Fisher had done something that he wanted to to.
Unable to rise from his sprawling attitude in that flash of time,
he had shot out one of his long legs and hooked it round
the ankle of the last man disappearing through the door.
The man swayed and toppled over inside the prison chamber,
and the door closed between him and his fleeing companions.
Clearly they were in too much haste to realize that they had
left one of their company behind.
The man sprang to his feet again and hammered and kicked furiously at
the door. Fisher's sense of humor began to recover from the struggle
and he sat up on his sofa with something of his native nonchalance.
But as he listened to the captive captor beating on the door of
the prison, a new and curious reflection came to him.
The natural course for a man thus wishing to attract his friends'
attention would be to call out, to shout as well as kick.
This man was making as much noise as he could with his feet and hands,
but not a sound came from his throat. Why couldn't he speak?
At first he thought the man might be gagged, which was manifestly absurd.
Then his fancy fell back on the ugly idea that the man was dumb.
He hardly knew why it was so ugly an idea, but it affected his
imagination in a dark and disproportionate fashion. There seemed
to be something creepy about the idea of being left in a dark room
with a deaf mute. It was almost as if such a defect were a deformity.
It was almost as if it went with other and worse deformities.
It was as if the shape he could not trace in the darkness were some
shape that should not see the sun.
Then he had a flash of sanity and also of insight.
The explanation was very simple, but rather interesting.
Obviously the man did not use his voice because he did not wish
his voice to be recognized. He hoped to escape from that dark
place before Fisher found out who he was. And who was he?
One thing at least was clear. He was one or other of the four
or five men with whom Fisher had already talked in these parts,
and in the development of that strange story.
"Now I wonder who you are," he said, aloud, with all his old
lazy urbanity. "I suppose it's no use trying to throttle you
in order to find out; it would be displeasing to pass the night
with a corpse. Besides I might be the corpse. I've got no
matches and I've smashed my torch, so I can only speculate.
Who could you be, now? Let us think."
The man thus genially addressed had desisted from drumming on the door
and retreated sullenly into a corner as Fisher continued to address
him in a flowing monologue.
"Probably you are the poacher who says he isn't a poacher.
He says he's a landed proprietor; but he will permit
me to inform him that, whatever he is, he's a fool.
What hope can there ever be of a free peasantry in England if
the peasants themselves are such snobs as to want to be gentlemen?
How can we make a democracy with no democrats? As it is,
you want to be a landlord and so you consent to be a criminal.
And in that, you know, you are rather like somebody else.
And, now I think of it, perhaps you are somebody else."
There was a silence broken by breathing from the corner and the murmur
of the rising storm, that came in through the small grating above
the man's head. Horne Fisher continued:
"Are you only a servant, perhaps, that rather sinister
old servant who was butler to Hawker and Verner? If so,
you are certainly the only link between the two periods.
But if so, why do you degrade yourself to serve this dirty foreigner,
when you at least saw the last of a genuine national gentry?
People like you are generally at least patriotic.
Doesn't England mean anything to you, Mr. Usher? All of which
eloquence is possibly wasted, as perhaps you are not Mr. Usher.
"More likely you are Verner himself; and it's no good
wasting eloquence to make you ashamed of yourself.
Nor is it any good to curse you for corrupting England; nor are
you the right person to curse. It is the English who deserve
to be cursed, and are cursed, because they allowed such vermin
to crawl into the high places of their heroes and their kings.
I won't dwell on the idea that you're Verner, or the throttling
might begin, after all. Is there anyone else you could be?
Surely you're not some servant of the other rival organization.
I can't believe you're Gryce, the agent; and yet Gryce
had a spark of the fanatic in his eye, too; and men will do
extraordinary things in these paltry feuds of politics.
Or if not the servant, is it the . . . No, I can't believe
it . . . not the red blood of manhood and liberty . . . not
the democratic ideal . . ."
He sprang up in excitement, and at the same moment
a growl of thunder came through the grating beyond.
The storm had broken, and with it a new light broke on his mind.
There was something else that might happen in a moment.
"Do you know what that means?" he cried. "It means that God
himself may hold a candle to show me your infernal face."
Then next moment came a crash of thunder; but before the thunder
a white light had filled the whole room for a single split second.
Fisher had seen two things in front of him. One was the black-and-white
pattern of the iron grating against the sky; the other was the face
in the corner. It was the face of his brother.
Nothing came from Horne Fisher's lips except a Christian name,
which was followed by a silence more dreadful than the dark.
At last the other figure stirred and sprang up, and the voice
of Harry Fisher was heard for the first time in that horrible room.
"You've seen me, I suppose," he said, "and we may as well
have a light now. You could have turned it on at any time,
if you'd found the switch."
He pressed a button in the wall and all the details of that room
sprang into something stronger than daylight. Indeed, the details
were so unexpected that for a moment they turned the captive's
rocking mind from the last personal revelation. The room,
so far from being a dungeon cell, was more like a drawing-room, even
a lady's drawing-room, except for some boxes of cigars and bottles
of wine that were stacked with books and magazines on a side table.
A second glance showed him that the more masculine fittings were
quite recent, and that the more feminine background was quite old.
His eye caught a strip of faded tapestry, which startled him into speech,
to the momentary oblivion of bigger matters.
"This place was furnished from the great house," he said.
"Yes," replied the other, "and I think you know why."
"I think I do," said Horne Fisher, "and before I go on to more
extraordinary things I will, say what I think. Squire Hawker played
both the bigamist and the bandit. His first wife was not dead
when he married the Jewess; she was imprisoned on this island.
She bore him a child here, who now haunts his birthplace under
the name of Long Adam. A bankruptcy company promoter named
Werner discovered the secret and blackmailed the squire into
surrendering the estate. That's all quite clear and very easy.
And now let me go on to something more difficult.
And that is for you to explain what the devil you are doing
kidnaping your born brother."
After a pause Henry Fisher answered:
"I suppose you didn't expect to see me," he said. "But, after all,
what could you expect?"'
"I'm afraid I don't follow," said Horne Fisher.
"I mean what else could you expect, after making such a muck of it?"
said his brother, sulkily. "We all thought you were so clever.
How could we know you were going to be--well, really, such
a rotten failure?"
"This is rather curious," said the candidate, frowning. "Without vanity,
I was not under the impression that my candidature was a failure.
All the big meetings were successful and crowds of people have
promised me votes."
"I should jolly well think they had," said' Henry, grimly.
"You've made a landslide with your confounded acres and a cow,
and Verner can hardly get a vote anywhere. Oh, it's too
rotten for anything!"
"What on earth do you mean?"
"Why, you lunatic," cried Henry, in tones of ringing sincerity,
"you don't suppose you were meant to WIN the seat, did you?
Oh, it's too childish! I tell you Verner's got to get in.
Of course he's got to get in. He's to have the Exchequer next session,
and there's the Egyptian loan and Lord knows what else.
We only wanted you to split the Reform vote because accidents
might happen after Hughes had made a score at Barkington."
"I see," said Fisher, "and you, I think, are a pillar and ornament
of the Reform party. As you say, I am not clever."
The appeal to party loyalty fell on deaf ears; for the pillar
of Reform was brooding on other things. At last he said,
in a more troubled voice:
"I didn't want you to catch me; I knew it would be a shock.
But I tell you what, you never would have caught me if I
hadn't come here myself, to see they didn't ill treat you
and to make sure everything was as comfortable as it could be."
There was even a sort of break in his voice as he added,
"I got those cigars because I knew you liked them."
Emotions are queer things, and the idiocy of this concession suddenly
softened Horne Fisher like an unfathomable pathos.
"Never mind, old chap," he said; "we'll say no more about it.
I'll admit that you're really as kind-hearted and affectionate
a scoundrel and hypocrite as ever sold himself to ruin his country.
There, I can't say handsomer than that. Thank you for the cigars,
old man. I'll have one if you don't mind."
By the time that Horne Fisher had ended his telling of this story
to Harold March they had come out into one of the public parks
and taken a seat on a rise of ground overlooking wide green spaces
under a blue and empty sky; and there was something incongruous
in the words with which the narration ended.
"I have been in that room ever since," said Horne Fisher. "I am
in it now. I won the election, but I never went to the House. My life
has been a life in that little room on that lonely island.
Plenty of books and cigars and luxuries, plenty of knowledge
and interest and information, but never a voice out of that tomb
to reach the world outside. I shall probably die there."
And he smiled as he looked across the vast green park to
the gray horizon.
VIII. THE VENGEANCE OF THE STATUE
It was on the sunny veranda of a seaside hotel, overlooking a pattern
of flower beds and a strip of blue sea, that Horne Fisher and Harold March
had their final explanation, which might be called an explosion.
Harold March had come to the little table and sat down at it with
a subdued excitement smoldering in his somewhat cloudy and dreamy
blue eyes. In the newspapers which he tossed from him on to the table
there was enough to explain some if not all of his emotion.
Public affairs in every department had reached a crisis.
The government which had stood so long that men were used
to it, as they are used to a hereditary despotism, had begun
to be accused Of blunders and even of financial abuses.
Some said that the experiment of attempting to establish
a peasantry in the west of England, on the lines of an
early fancy of Horne Fisher's, had resulted in nothing
but dangerous quarrels with more industrial neighbors.
There had been particular complaints of the ill treatment
of harmless foreigners, chiefly Asiatics, who happened to be
employed in the new scientific works constructed on the coast.
Indeed, the new Power which had arisen in Siberia,
backed by Japan and other powerful allies, was inclined
to take the matter up in the interests of its exiled subjects;
and there had been wild talk about ambassadors and ultimatums.
But something much more serious, in its personal interest
for March himself, seemed to fill his meeting with his friend
with a mixture of embarrassment and indignation.
Perhaps it increased his annoyance that there was a certain unusual
liveliness about the usually languid figure of Fisher. The ordinary image
of him in March's mind was that of a pallid and bald-browed gentleman,
who seemed to be prematurely old as well as prematurely bald.
He was remembered as a man who expressed the opinions of a pessimist
in the language of a lounger. Even now March could not be certain
whether the change was merely a sort of masquerade of sunshine, or that
effect of clear colors and clean-cut outlines that is always visible on
the parade of a marine resort, relieved against the blue dado of the sea.
But Fisher had a flower in his buttonhole, and his friend could have sworn
he carried his cane with something almost like the swagger of a fighter.
With such clouds gathering over England, the pessimist seemed to be
the only man who carried his own sunshine.
"Look here," said Harold March, abruptly, "you've been no end
of a friend to me, and I never was so proud of a friendship before;
but there's something I must get off my chest. The more I
found out, the less I understood how y ou could stand it.
And I tell you I'm going to stand it no longer."
Horne Fisher gazed across at him gravely and attentively,
but rather as if he were a long way off.
"You know I always liked you," said Fisher, quietly, "but I
also respect you, which is not always the same thing.
You may possibly guess that I like a good many people I
don't respect. Perhaps it is my tragedy, perhaps it is my fault.
But you are very different, and I promise you this:
that I will never try to keep you as somebody to be liked,
at the price of your not being respected."
"I know you are magnanimous," said March after a silence,
"and yet you tolerate and perpetuate everything that is mean."
Then after another silence he added: "Do you remember when we first met,
when you were fishing in that brook in the affair of the target?
And do you remember you said that, after all, it might do no harm if I
could blow the whole tangle of this society to hell with dynamite."
"Yes, and what of that?" asked Fisher.
"Only that I'm going to blow it to hell with dynamite," said Harold March,
"and I think it right to give you fair warning. For a long time
I didn't believe things were as bad as you said they were.
But I never felt as if I could have bottled up what you knew,
supposing you really knew it. Well, the long and the short of it is
that I've got a conscience; and now, at last, I've also got a chance.
I've been put in charge of a big independent paper, with a free hand,
and we're going to open a cannonade on corruption."
"That will be--Attwood, I suppose," said Fisher, reflectively.
"Timber merchant. Knows a lot about China."
"He knows a lot about England," said March, doggedly, "and now
I know it, too, we're not going to hush it up any longer.
The people of this country have a right to know how they're ruled--
or, rather, ruined. The Chancellor is in the pocket of the money lenders
and has to do as he is told; otherwise he's bankrupt, and a bad sort
of bankruptcy, too, with nothing but cards and actresses behind it.
The Prime Minister was in the petrol-contract business; and deep
in it, too. The Foreign Minister is a wreck of drink and drugs.
When you say that plainly about a man who may send thousands
of Englishmen to die for nothing, you're called personal.
If a poor engine driver gets drunk and sends thirty or forty
people to death, nobody complains of the exposure being personal.
The engine driver is not a person."
"I quite agree with you," said Fisher, calmly. "You are perfectly right."
"If you agree with us,, why the devil don't you act with us?"
demanded his friend. "If you think it's right, why don't you
do what's right? It's awful to think of a man of your abilities
simply blocking the road to reform."
"We have often talked about that," replied Fisher,
with the same composure. "The Prime Minister is my
father's friend. The Foreign Minister married my sister.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer is my first cousin. I mention
the genealogy in some detail just now for a particular reason.
The truth is I have a curious kind of cheerfulness at the moment.
It isn't altogether the sun and the sea, sir. I am enjoying
an emotion that is entirely new to me; a happy sensation I
never remember having had before."
"What the devil do you mean?"
"I am feeling proud of my family," said Horne Fisher.
Harold March stared at him with round blue eyes, and seemed too much
mystified even to ask a question. Fisher leaned back in his chair
in his lazy fashion, and smiled as he continued.
"Look here, my dear fellow. Let me ask a question in turn. You imply
that I have always known these things about my unfortunate kinsmen.
So I have. Do you suppose that Attwood hasn't always known them?
Do you suppose he hasn't always known you as an honest man who
would say these things when he got a chance? Why does Attwood
unmuzzle you like a dog at this moment, after all these years?
I know why he does; I know a good many things, far too many things.
And therefore, as I have the honor to remark, I am proud of my
family at last."
"But why?" repeated March, rather feebly.
"I am proud of the Chancellor because he gambled and the Foreign Minister
because he drank and the Prime Minister because he took a commission
on a contract," said Fisher, firmly. "I am proud of them because they
did these things, and can be denounced for them, and know they can
be denounced for them, and are STANDING FIRM FOR ALL THAT. I take off
my hat to them because they are defying blackmail, and refusing to smash
their country to save themselves. I salute them as if they were going
to die on the battlefield."
After a pause he continued: "And it will be a battlefield,
too, and not a metaphorical one. We have yielded to foreign
financiers so long that now it is war or ruin, Even the people,
even the country people, are beginning to suspect that they
are being ruined. That is the meaning of the regrettable,
incidents in the newspapers."
"The meaning of the outrages on Orientals?" asked March.
"The meaning of the outrages on Orientals," replied Fisher,
"is that the financiers have introduced Chinese labor into this
country with the deliberate intention of reducing workmen
and peasants to starvation. Our unhappy politicians have made
concession after concession; and now they are asking concessions
which amount to our ordering a massacre of our own poor.
If we do not fight now we shall never fight again. They will
have put England in an economic position of starving in a week.
But we are going to fight now; I shouldn't wonder if there
were an ultimatum in a week and an.invasion in a fortnight.
All the past corruption and cowardice is hampering us,
of course; the West country is pretty stormy and doubtful
even in a military sense; and the Irish regiments there,
that are supposed to support us by the new treaty, are pretty
well in mutiny; for, of course, this infernal coolie capitalism
is being pushed in Ireland, too. But it's to stop now;
and if the government message of reassurance gets through to them
in time, they may turn up after all by the time the enemy lands.
For my poor old gang is going to stand to its guns at last.
Of course it's only natural that when they have been whitewashed
for half a century as paragons, their sins should come back
on them at the very moment when they are behaving like men for
the first time in their lives. Well, I tell you, March, I know
them inside out; and I know they are behaving like heroes.
Every man of them ought to have a statue, and on the pedestal words
like those of the noblest ruffian of the Revolution: 'Que mon
nom soit fletri; que la France soit libre.'"
"Good God!" cried March, "shall we never get to the bottom
of your mines and countermines?"
After a silence Fisher answered in a lower voice, looking his friend
in the eyes.
"Did you think there was nothing but evil at the bottom of them?"
he asked, gently. "Did you think I had found nothing but filth
in the deep seas into which fate has thrown me? Believe me,
you never know the best about men till you know the worst about them.
It does not dispose of their strange human souls to know that they
were exhibited to the world as impossibly impeccable wax works,
who never looked after a woman or knew the meaning of a bribe.
Even in a palace, life can be lived well; and even in a Parliament,
life can be lived with occasional efforts to live it well.
I tell you it is as true of these rich fools and rascals as it
is true of every poor footpad and pickpocket; that only God knows
how good they have tried to be. God alone knows what the conscience
can survive, or how a man who has lost his honor will still try
to save his soul."
There was another silence, and March sat staring at the table
and Fisher at the sea. Then Fisher suddenly sprang to his feet
and caught up his hat and stick with all his new alertness
and even pugnacity.
"Look here, old fellow," he cried, "let us make a bargain.
Before you open your campaign for Attwood come down and stay
with us for one week, to hear what we're really doing.
I mean with the Faithful Few, formerly known as the Old Gang,
occasionally to be described as the Low Lot. There are
really only five of us that are quite fixed, and organizing
the national defense; and we're living like a garrison in a
sort of broken-down hotel in Kent. Come and see what we're
really doing and what there is to be done, and do us justice.
And after that, with unalterable love and affection for you,
publish and be damned."
Thus it came about that in the last week before war, when events
moved most rapidly, Harold March found himself one of a sort
of small house party of the people he was proposing to denounce.
They were living simply enough, for people with their tastes,
in an old brown-brick inn faced with ivy and surrounded by rather
dismal gardens. At the back of the building the garden ran
up very steeply to a road along the ridge above; and a zigzag
path scaled the slope in sharp angles, turning to and fro amid
evergreens so somber that they might rather be called everblack.
Here and there up the slope were statues having all the cold
monstrosity of such minor ornaments of the eighteenth century;
and a whole row of them ran as on a terrace along the last bank
at the bottom, opposite the back door. This detail fixed itself
first in March's mind merely because it figured in the first
conversation he had with one of the cabinet ministers.
The cabinet ministers were rather older than he had expected
to find them. The Prime Minister no longer looked like a boy,