"Oh, I shouldn't think that was likely," said Horace. "If I were you, I should go straight back and go on travelling till I did find Suleyman."
"Well was it said: 'Pass not any door without knocking, lest haply that which thou seekest should be behind it.'"
"Exactly," said Horace. "Do each city thoroughly, house by house, and don't neglect the smallest clue. 'If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try, again!' as one of our own poets teaches."
"'Try, try, try again,'" echoed the Jinnee, with an admiration that was almost fatuous. "Divinely gifted truly was he who composed such a verse!"
"He has a great reputation as a sage," said Horace, "and the maxim is considered one of his happiest efforts. Don't you think that, as the East is rather thickly populated, the less time you lose in following the poet's recommendation the better?"
"It may be as thou sayest. But know this, O my son, that wheresoever I may wander, I shall never cease to study how I may most fitly reward thee for thy kindness towards me. For nobly it was said: 'If I be possessed of wealth and be not liberal, may my head never be extended!'"
"My good sir," said Horace, "do please understand that if you were to offer me any reward for—for a very ordinary act of courtesy, I should be obliged to decline it."
"But didst thou not say that thou wast sorely in need of a client?"
"That was so at the time," said Horace; "but since I last had the pleasure of seeing you, I have met with one who is all I could possibly wish for."
"I am indeed rejoiced to hear it," returned the Jinnee, "for thou showest me that I have succeeded in performing the first service which thou hast demanded of me."
Horace staggered under this severe blow to his pride; for the moment he could only gasp: "You—you sent him to me?"
"I, and no other," said the Jinnee, beaming with satisfaction; "for while, unseen of men, I was circling in air, resolved to attend to thy affair before beginning my search for Suleyman (on whom be peace!), it chanced that I overheard a human being of prosperous appearance say aloud upon a bridge that he desired to erect for himself a palace if he could but find an architect. So, perceiving thee afar off seated at an open casement, I immediately transported him to the place and delivered him into thy hands."
"But he knew my name—he had my card in his pocket," said Horace.
"I furnished him with the paper containing thy names and abode, lest he should be ignorant of them."
"Well, look here, Mr. Fakrash," said the unfortunate Horace, "I know you meant well—but never do a thing like that again! If my brother-architects came to know of it I should be accused of most unprofessional behaviour. I'd no idea you would take that way of introducing a client to me, or I should have stopped it at once!"
"It was an error," said Fakrash. "No matter. I will undo this affair, and devise some other and better means of serving thee."
"No, no," he said, "for Heaven's sake, leave things alone—you'll only make them worse. Forgive me, my dear Mr. Fakrash, I'm afraid I must seem most ungrateful; but—but I was so taken by surprise. And really, I am extremely obliged to you. For, though the means you took were——were a little irregular, you have done me a very great service."
"It is naught," said the Jinnee, "compared to those I hope to render so great a benefactor."
"But, indeed, you mustn't think of trying to do any more for me," urged Horace, who felt the absolute necessity of expelling any scheme of further benevolence from the Jinnee's head once and for all. "You have done enough. Why, thanks to you, I am engaged to build a palace that will keep me hard at work and happy for ever so long."
"Are human beings, then, so enamoured of hard labour?" asked Fakrash, in wonder. "It is not thus with the Jinn."
"I love my work for its own sake," said Horace, "and then, when I have finished it, I shall have earned a very fair amount of money—which is particularly important to me just now."
"And why, my son, art thou so desirous of obtaining riches?"
"Because," said Horace, "unless a man is tolerably well off in these days he cannot hope to marry."
Fakrash smiled with indulgent compassion. "How excellent is the saying of one of old: 'He that adventureth upon matrimony is like unto one who thrusteth his hand into a sack containing many thousands of serpents and one eel. Yet, if Fate so decree, he may draw forth the eel.' And thou art comely, and of an age when it is natural to desire the love of a maiden. Therefore be of good heart and a cheerful eye, and it may be that, when I am more at leisure, I shall find thee a helpmate who shall rejoice thy soul."
"Please don't trouble to find me anything of the sort!" said Horace, hastily, with a mental vision of some helpless and scandalised stranger being shot into his dwelling like coals. "I assure you I would much rather win a wife for myself in the ordinary way—as, thanks to your kindness, I have every hope of doing before long."
"Is there already some damsel for whom thy heart pineth? If so, fear not to tell me her names and dwelling place, and I will assuredly obtain her for thee."
But Ventimore had seen enough of the Jinnee's Oriental methods to doubt his tact and discretion where Sylvia was concerned. "No, no; of course not. I spoke generally," he said. "It's exceedingly kind of you—but I do wish I could make you understand that I am overpaid as it is. You have put me in the way to make a name and fortune for myself. If I fail, it will be my own fault. And, at all events, I want nothing more from you. If you mean to find Suleyman (on whom be peace!) you must go and live in the East altogether—for he certainly isn't over here; you must give up your whole time to it, keep as quiet as possible, and don't be discouraged by any reports you may hear. Above all, never trouble your head about me or my affairs again!"
"O thou of wisdom and eloquence," said Fakrash, "this is most excellent advice. I will go, then; but may I drink the cup of perdition If I become unmindful of thy benevolence!"
And, raising his joined hands above his head as he spoke, he sank, feet foremost, through the carpet and was gone.
"Thank Heaven," thought Ventimore, "he's taken the hint at last. I don't think I'm likely to see any more of him. I feel an ungrateful brute for saying so, but I can't help it. I can not stand being under any obligation to a Jinnee who's been shut up in a beastly brass bottle ever since the days of Solomon, who probably had very good reasons for putting him there."
Horace next asked himself whether he was bound in honour to disclose the facts to Mr. Wackerbath, and give him the opportunity of withdrawing from the agreement if he thought fit.
On the whole, he saw no necessity for telling him anything; the only possible result would be to make his client suspect his sanity; and who would care to employ an insane architect? Then, if he retired from the undertaking without any explanations, what could he say to Sylvia? What would Sylvia's father say to him? There would certainly be an end to his engagement.
After all, he had not been to blame; the Wackerbaths were quite satisfied. He felt perfectly sure that he could justify their selection of him; he would wrong nobody by accepting the commission, while he would only offend them, injure himself irretrievably, and lose all hope of gaining Sylvia if he made any attempt to undeceive them.
And Fakrash was gone, never to return. So, on all these considerations, Horace decided that silence was his only possible policy, and, though some moralists may condemn his conduct as disingenuous and wanting in true moral courage, I venture to doubt whether any reader, however independent, straightforward, and indifferent to notoriety and ridicule, would have behaved otherwise in Ventimore's extremely delicate and difficult position.
Some days passed, every working hour of which was spent by Horace in the rapture of creation. To every man with the soul of an artist in him there comes at times—only too seldom in most cases—a revelation of latent power that he had not dared to hope for. And now with Ventimore years of study and theorising which he had often been tempted to think wasted began to bear golden fruit. He designed and drew with a rapidity and originality, a sense of perfect mastery of the various problems to be dealt with, and a delight in the working out of mass and detail, so intoxicating that he almost dreaded lest he should be the victim of some self-delusion.
His evenings were of course spent with the Futvoyes, in discovering Sylvia in some new and yet more adorable aspect. Altogether, he was very much in love, very happy, and very busy—three states not invariably found in combination.
And, as he had foreseen, he had effectually got rid of Fakrash, who was evidently too engrossed in the pursuit of Solomon to think of anything else. And there seemed no reason why he should abandon his search for a generation or two, for it would probably take all that time to convince him that that mighty monarch was no longer on the throne.
"It would have been too brutal to tell him myself," thought Horace, "when he was so keen on having his case reheard. And it gives him an object, poor old buffer, and keeps him from interfering in my affairs, so it's best for both of us."
Horace's little dinner-party had been twice postponed, till he had begun to have a superstitious fear that it would never come off; but at length the Professor had been induced to give an absolute promise for a certain evening.
On the day before, after breakfast, Horace had summoned his landlady to a consultation on the menu. "Nothing elaborate, you know, Mrs. Rapkin," said Horace, who, though he would have liked to provide a feast of all procurable delicacies for Sylvia's refection, was obliged to respect her father's prejudices. "Just a simple dinner, thoroughly well cooked, and nicely served—as you know so well how to do it."
"I suppose, sir, you would require Rapkin to wait?"
As the ex-butler was liable to trances on these occasions during which he could do nothing but smile and bow with speechless politeness as he dropped sauce-boats and plates, Horace replied that he thought of having someone in to avoid troubling Mr. Rapkin; but his wife expressed such confidence in her husband's proving equal to all emergencies, that Ventimore waived the point, and left it to her to hire extra help if she thought fit.
"Now, what soup can you give us?" he inquired, as Mrs. Rapkin stood at attention and quite unmollified.
After protracted mental conflict, she grudgingly suggested gravy soup—which Horace thought too unenterprising, and rejected in favour of mock turtle. "Well then, fish?" he continued; "how about fish?"
Mrs. Rapkin dragged the depths of her culinary resources for several seconds, and finally brought to the surface what she called "a nice fried sole." Horace would not hear of it, and urged her to aspire to salmon; she substituted smelts, which he opposed by a happy inspiration of turbot and lobster sauce. The sauce, however, presented insuperable difficulties to her mind, and she offered a compromise in the form of cod—which he finally accepted as a fish which the Professor could hardly censure for ostentation.
Next came the no less difficult questions of entree or no entree, of joint and bird. "What's in season just now?" said Horace; "let me see"—and glanced out of the window as he spoke, as though in search of some outside suggestion.... "Camels, by Jove!" he suddenly exclaimed.
"Camels, Mr. Ventimore, sir?" repeated Mrs. Rapkin, in some bewilderment; and then, remembering that he was given to untimely flippancy, she gave a tolerant little cough.
"I'll be shot if they aren't camels!" said Horace. "What do you make of 'em, Mrs. Rapkin?"
Out of the faint mist which hung over the farther end of the square advanced a procession of tall, dust-coloured animals, with long, delicately poised necks and a mincing gait. Even Mrs. Rapkin could not succeed in making anything of them except camels.
"What the deuce does a caravan of camels want in Vincent Square?" said Horace, with a sudden qualm for which he could not account.
"Most likely they belong to the Barnum Show, sir," suggested his landlady. "I did hear they were coming to Olympia again this year."
"Why, of course," cried Horace, intensely relieved. "It's on their way from the Docks—at least, it isn't out of their way. Or probably the main road's up for repairs. That's it—they'll turn off to the left at the corner. See, they've got Arab drivers with them. Wonderful how the fellows manage them."
"It seems to me, sir," said Mrs. Rapkin, "that they're coming our way—they seem to be stopping outside."
"Don't talk such infernal—— I beg your pardon, Mrs. Rapkin; but why on earth should Barnum and Bailey's camels come out of their way to call on me? It's ridiculous, you know!" said Horace, irritably.
"Ridicklous it may be, sir," she retorted, "but they're all layin' down on the road opposite our door, as you can see—and them niggers is making signs to you to come out and speak to 'em."
It was true enough. One by one the camels, which were apparently of the purest breed, folded themselves up in a row like campstools at a sign from their attendants, who were now making profound salaams towards the window where Ventimore was standing.
"I suppose I'd better go down and see what they want," he said, with rather a sickly smile. "They may have lost the way to Olympia.... I only hope Fakrash isn't at the bottom of this," he thought, as he went downstairs. "But he'd come himself—at all events, he wouldn't send me a message on such a lot of camels!" As he appeared on the doorstep, all the drivers flopped down and rubbed their flat, black noses on the curbstone.
"For Heaven's sake get up!" said Horace angrily. "This isn't Hammersmith. Turn to the left, into the Vauxhall Bridge Road, and ask a policeman the nearest way to Olympia."
"Be not angry with thy slaves!" said the head driver, in excellent English. "We are here by command of Fakrash-el-Aamash, our lord, whom we are bound to obey. And we have brought thee these as gifts."
"My compliments to your master," said Horace, between his teeth, "and tell him that a London architect has no sort of occasion for camels. Say that I am extremely obliged—but am compelled to decline them."
"O highly born one," explained the driver, "the camels are not a gift—but the loads which are upon the camels. Suffer us, therefore, since we dare not disobey our lord's commands, to carry these trifling tokens of his good will into thy dwelling and depart in peace."
Horace had not noticed till then that every camel bore a heavy burden, which the attendants were now unloading. "Oh, if you must!" he said, not too graciously; "only do look sharp about it—there's a crowd collecting already, and I don't want to have a constable here."
He returned to his rooms, where he found Mrs. Rapkin paralysed with amazement. "It's—it's all right," he said; "I'd forgotten—it's only a few Oriental things from the place where that brass bottle came from, you know. They've left them here—on approval."
"Seems funny their sending their goods 'ome on camels, sir, doesn't it?" said Mrs. Rapkin.
"Not at all funny!" said Horace; "they—they're an enterprising firm—their way of advertising."
One after another, a train of dusky attendants entered, each of whom deposited his load on the floor with a guttural grunt and returned backward, until the sitting-room was blocked with piles of sacks, and bales, and chests, whereupon the head driver appeared and intimated that the tale of gifts was complete.
"I wonder what sort of tip this fellow expects," thought Horace; "a sovereign seems shabby—but it's all I can run to. I'll try him with that."
But the overseer repudiated all idea of a gratuity with stately dignity, and as Horace saw him to the gate, he found a stolid constable by the railings.
"This won't do, you know," said the constable; "these 'ere camels must move on—or I shall 'ave to interfere."
"It's all right, constable," said Horace, pressing into his hand the sovereign the head driver had rejected; "they're going to move on now. They've brought me a few presents from—from a friend of mine in the East."
By this time the attendants had mounted the kneeling camels, which rose with them, and swung off round the square in a long, swaying trot that soon left the crowd far behind, staring blankly after the caravan as camel after camel disappeared into the haze.
"I shouldn't mind knowin' that friend o' yours, sir," said the constable; "open-hearted sort o' gentleman, I should think?"
"Very!" said Horace, savagely, and returned to his room, which Mrs. Rapkin had now left.
His hands shook, though not with joy, as he untied some of the sacks and bales and forced open the outlandish-looking chests, the contents of which almost took away his breath.
For in the bales were carpets and tissues which he saw at a glance must be of fabulous antiquity and beyond all price; the sacks held golden ewers and vessels of strange workmanship and pantomimic proportions; the chests were full of jewels—ropes of creamy-pink pearls as large as average onions, strings of uncut rubies and emeralds, the smallest of which would have been a tight fit in an ordinary collar-box, and diamonds, roughly facetted and polished, each the size of a coconut, in whose hearts quivered a liquid and prismatic radiance.
On the most moderate computation, the total value of these gifts could hardly be less than several hundred millions; never probably in the world's history had any treasury contained so rich a store.
It would have been difficult for anybody, on suddenly finding himself the possessor of this immense incalculable wealth, to make any comment quite worthy of the situation, but, surely, none could have been more inadequate and indeed inappropriate than Horace's—which, heartfelt as it was, was couched in the simple monosyllable—"Damn!"
"GRATITUDE—A LIVELY SENSE OF FAVOURS TO COME"
Most men on suddenly finding themselves in possession of such enormous wealth would have felt some elation. Ventimore, as we have seen, was merely exasperated. And, although this attitude of his may strike the reader as incomprehensible or absolutely wrong-headed, he had more reason on his side than might appear at a first view.
It was undoubtedly the fact that, with the money these treasures represented, he would be in a position to convulse the money markets of Europe and America, bring society to his feet, make and unmake kingdoms—dominate, in short, the entire world.
"But, then," as Horace told himself with a groan, "it wouldn't amuse me in the least to convulse money markets. Do I want to see the smartest people in London grovelling for anything they think they're likely to get out of me? As I should be perfectly well aware that their homage was not paid to any personal merit of mine, I could hardly consider it flattering. And why should I make kingdoms? The only thing I understand and care about is making houses. Then, am I likely to be a better hand at dominating the world than all the others who have tried the experiment? I doubt it."
He called to mind all the millionaires he had ever read or heard of; they didn't seem to get much fun out of their riches. The majority of them were martyrs to dyspepsia. They were often weighed down by the cares and responsibilities of their position; the only people who were unable to obtain an audience of them at any time were their friends; they lived in a glare of publicity, and every post brought them hundreds of begging letters, and a few threats; their children were in constant danger from kidnappers, and they themselves, after knowing no rest in life, could not be certain that even their tombs would be undisturbed. Whether they were extravagant or thrifty, they were equally maligned, and, whatever the fortune they left behind them, they could be absolutely certain that, in a couple of generations, it would be entirely dissipated.
"And the biggest millionaire living," concluded Horace, "is a pauper compared with me!"
But there was another consideration—how was he to realise all this wealth? He knew enough about precious stones to be aware that a ruby, for instance, of the true "pigeon's blood" colour and the size of a melon, as most of these rubies were, would be worth, even when cut, considerably over a million; but who would buy it?
"I think I see myself," he reflected grimly, "calling on some diamond merchant in Hatton Garden with half a dozen assorted jewels in a Gladstone bag. If he believed they were genuine, he'd probably have a fit; but most likely he'd think I'd invented some dodge for manufacturing them, and had been fool enough to overdo the size. Anyhow, he'd want to know how they came into my possession, and what could I say? That they were part of a little present made to me by a Jinnee in grateful acknowledgment of my having relieved him from a brass bottle in which he'd been shut up for nearly three thousand years? Look at it how you will, it's not convincing. I fancy I can guess what he'd say. And what an ass I should look! Then suppose the thing got into the papers?"
Got into the papers? Why, of course it would get into the papers. As if it were possible in these days for a young and hitherto unemployed architect suddenly to surround himself with wondrous carpets, and gold vessels, and gigantic jewels without attracting the notice of some enterprising journalist. He would be interviewed; the story of his curiously acquired riches would go the round of the papers; he would find himself the object of incredulity, suspicion, ridicule. In imagination he could already see the headlines on the news-sheets:
AMAZING ARABESQUES BY AN ARCHITECT
HE SAYS THE JAR CONTAINED A JINNEE
And so on, through every phrase of alliterative ingenuity. He ground his teeth at the mere thought of it. Then Sylvia would come to hear of it, and what would she think? She would naturally be repelled, as any nice-minded girl would be, by the idea that her lover was in secret alliance with a supernatural being. And her father and mother—would they allow her to marry a man, however rich, whose wealth came from such a questionable source? No one would believe that he had not made some unholy bargain before consenting to set this incarcerated spirit free—he, who had acted in absolute ignorance, who had persistently declined all reward after realising what he had done!
No, it was too much. Try as he might to do justice to the Jinnee's gratitude and generosity, he could not restrain a bitter resentment at the utter want of consideration shown in overloading him with gifts so useless and so compromising. No Jinnee—however old, however unfamiliar with the world as it is now—had any right to be such a fool!
And at this, above the ramparts of sacks and bales, which occupied all the available space in the room, appeared Mrs. Rapkin's face.
"I was going to ask you, sir, before them parcels came," she began, with a dry cough of disapproval, "what you would like in the way of ongtray to-morrow night. I thought if I could find a sweetbread at all reasonable——"
To Horace—surrounded as he was by incalculable riches—sweetbreads seemed incongruous just then; the transition of thought was too violent.
"I can't bother about that now, Mrs. Rapkin," he said; "we'll settle it to-morrow. I'm too busy."
"I suppose most of these things will have to go back, sir, if they're only sent on approval like?"
If he only knew where and how he could send them back! "I—I'm not sure," he said; "I may have to keep them."
"Well, sir, bargain or none, I wouldn't have 'em as a gift myself, being so dirty and fusty; they can't be no use to anybody, not to mention there being no room to move with them blocking up all the place. I'd better tell Rapkin to carry 'em all upstairs out of people's way."
"Certainly not," said Horace, sharply, by no means anxious for the Rapkins to discover the real nature of his treasures. "Don't touch them, either of you. Leave them exactly as they are, do you understand?"
"As you please, Mr. Ventimore, sir; only, if they're not to be interfered with, I don't see myself how you're going to set your friends down to dinner to-morrow, that's all."
And, indeed, considering that the table and every available chair, and even the floor, were heaped so high with valuables that Horace himself could only just squeeze his way between the piles, it seemed as if his guests might find themselves inconveniently cramped.
"It will be all right," he said, with an optimism he was very far from feeling; "we'll manage somehow—leave it to me."
Before he left for his office he took the precaution to baffle any inquisitiveness on the part of his landlady by locking his sitting-room door and carrying away the key, but it was in a very different mood from his former light-hearted confidence that he sat down to his drawing-board in Great Cloister Street that morning. He could not concentrate his mind; his enthusiasm and his ideas had alike deserted him.
He flung down the dividers he had been using and pushed away the nest of saucers of Indian ink and colours in a fit of petulance. "It's no good," he exclaimed aloud; "I feel a perfect duffer this morning. I couldn't even design a decent dog-kennel!"
Even as he spoke he became conscious of a presence in the room, and, looking round, saw Fakrash the Jinnee standing at his elbow, smiling down on him more benevolently than ever, and with a serene expectation of being warmly welcomed and thanked, which made Horace rather ashamed of his own inability to meet it.
"He's a thoroughly good-natured old chap," he thought, self-reproachfully. "He means well, and I'm a beast not to feel more glad to see him. And yet, hang it all! I can't have him popping in and out of the office like a rabbit whenever the fancy takes him!"
"Peace be upon thee," said Fakrash. "Moderate the trouble of thy heart, and impart thy difficulties to me."
"Oh, they're nothing, thanks," said Horace, feeling decidedly embarrassed. "I got stuck over my work for the moment, and it worried me a little—that's all."
"Then thou hast not yet received the gifts which I commanded should be delivered at thy dwelling-place?"
"Oh, indeed I have!" replied Horace; "and—and I really don't know how to thank you for them."
"A few trifling presents," answered the Jinnee, "and by no means suited to thy dignity—yet the best in my power to bestow upon thee for the time being."
"My dear sir, they simply overwhelm me with their magnificence! They're beyond all price, and—and I've no idea what to do with such a superabundance."
"A superfluity of good things is good," was the Jinnee's sententious reply.
"Not in my particular case. I—I quite feel your goodness and generosity; but, indeed, as I told you before, it's really impossible for me to accept any such reward."
Fakrash's brows contracted slightly. "How sayest thou that it is impossible—seeing that these things are already in thy possession?"
"I know," said Horace; "but—you won't be offended if I speak quite plainly?"
"Art thou not even as a son to me, and can I be angered at any words of thine?"
"Well," said Horace, with sudden hope, "honestly, then, I would very much rather—if you're sure you don't mind—that you would take them all back again."
"What? Dost thou demand that I, Fakrash-el-Aamash, should consent to receive back the gifts I have bestowed? Are they, then, of so little value in thy sight?"
"They're of too much value. If I took such a reward for—for a very ordinary service, I should never be able to respect myself again."
"This is not the reasoning of an intelligent person," said the Jinnee, coldly.
"If you think me a fool, I can't help it. I'm not an ungrateful fool, at all events. But I feel very strongly that I can't keep these gifts of yours."
"So thou wouldst have me break the oath which I swore to reward thee fitly for thy kind action?"
"But you have rewarded me already," said Horace, "by contriving that a wealthy merchant should engage me to build him a residence. And—forgive my plain speaking—if you truly desire my happiness (as I am sure you do) you will relieve me of all these precious gems and merchandise, because, to be frank, they will not make me happy. On the contrary, they are making me extremely uncomfortable."
"In the days of old," said Fakrash, "all men pursued wealth; nor could any amass enough to satisfy his desires. Have riches, then, become so contemptible in mortal eyes that thou findest them but an encumbrance? Explain the matter."
Horace felt a natural delicacy in giving his real reasons. "I can't answer for other men," he said. "All I know is that I've never been accustomed to being rich, and I'd rather get used to it gradually, and be able to feel that I owed it, as far as possible, to my own exertions. For, as I needn't tell you, Mr. Fakrash, riches alone don't make any fellow happy. You must have observed that they're apt to—well, to land him in all kinds of messes and worries.... I'm talking like a confounded copybook," he thought, "but I don't care how priggish I am if I can only get my way!"
Fakrash was deeply impressed. "O young man of marvellous moderation!" he cried. "Thy sentiments are not inferior to those of the Great Suleyman himself (on whom be peace!). Yet even he doth not utterly despise them, for he hath gold and ivory and precious stones in abundance. Nor hitherto have I ever met a human being capable of rejecting them when offered. But, since thou seemest sincere in holding that my poor and paltry gifts will not advance thy welfare, and since I would do thee good and not evil—be it even as thou wouldst. For excellently was it said: 'The worth of a present depends not on itself, nor on the giver, but on the receiver alone.'"
Horace could hardly believe that he had really prevailed. "It's extremely good of you, sir," he said, "to take it so well. And if you could let that caravan call for them as soon as possible, it would be a great convenience to me. I mean—er—the fact is, I'm expecting a few friends to dine with me to-morrow, and, as my rooms are rather small at the best of times, I don't quite know how I can manage to entertain them at all unless something is done."
"It will be the easiest of actions," replied Fakrash; "therefore, have no fear that, when the time cometh, thou wilt not be able to entertain thy friends in a fitting manner. And for the caravan, it shall set out without delay."
"By Jove, though, I'd forgotten one thing," said Horace: "I've locked up the room where your presents are—they won't be able to get in without the key."
"Against the servants of the Jinn neither bolts nor bars can prevail. They shall enter therein and remove all that they brought thee, since it is thy desire."
"Very many thanks," said Horace. "And you do really understand that I'm every bit as grateful as if I could keep the things? You see, I want all my time and all my energies to complete the designs for this building, which," he added gracefully, "I should never be in a position to do at all, but for your assistance."
"On my arrival," said Fakrash, "I heard thee lamenting the difficulties of the task; wherein do they consist?"
"Oh," said Horace, "it's a little difficult to please all the different people concerned, and myself too. I want to make something of it that I shall be proud of, and that will give me a reputation. It's a large house, and there will be a good deal of work in it; but I shall manage it all right."
"This is a great undertaking indeed," remarked the Jinnee, after he had asked various by no means unintelligent questions and received the answers. "But be persuaded that it shall all turn out most fortunately and thou shalt obtain great renown. And now," he concluded, "I am compelled to take leave of thee, for I am still without any certain tidings of Suleyman."
"You mustn't let me keep you," said Horace, who had been on thorns for some minutes lest Beevor should return and find him with his mysterious visitor. "You see," he added instructively, "so long as you will neglect your own much more important affairs to look after mine, you can hardly expect to make much progress, can you?"
"How excellent is the saying," replied the Jinnee: "'The time which is spent in doing kindnesses, call it not wasted.'"
"Yes, that's very good," said Horace, feeling driven to silence this maxim, if possible, with one of his own invention. "But we have a saying too—how does it go? Ah, I remember. 'It is possible for a kindness to be more inconvenient than an injury.'"
"Marvellously gifted was he who discovered such a saying!" cried Fakrash.
"I imagine," said Horace, "he learnt it from his own experience. By the way, what place were you thinking of drawing—I mean trying—next for Suleyman?"
"I purpose to repair to Nineveh, and inquire there."
"Capital," said Ventimore, with hearty approval, for he hoped that this would take the Jinnee some little time. "Wonderful city, Nineveh, from all I've heard—though not quite what it used to be, perhaps. Then there's Babylon—you might go on there. And if you shouldn't hear of him there, why not strike down into Central Africa, and do that thoroughly? Or South America; it's a pity to lose any chance—you've never been to South America yet?"
"I have not so much as heard of such a country, and how should Suleyman be there?"
"Pardon me, I didn't say he was there. All I meant to convey was, that he's quite as likely to be there as anywhere else. But if you're going to Nineveh first, you'd better lose no more time, for I've always understood that it's rather an awkward place to get at—though probably you won't find it very difficult."
"I care not," said Fakrash, "though the search be long, for in travel there are five advantages——"
"I know," interrupted Horace, "so don't stop to describe them now. I should like to see you fairly started, and you really mustn't think it necessary to break off your search again on my account, because, thanks to you, I shall get on splendidly alone for the future—if you'll kindly see that that merchandise is removed."
"Thine abode shall not be encumbered with it for another hour," said the Jinnee. "O thou judicious one, in whose estimation wealth is of no value, know that I have never encountered a mortal who pleased me as thou hast; and moreover, be assured that such magnanimity as thine shall not go without a recompense!"
"How often must I tell you," said Horace, in a glow of impatience, "that I am already much more than recompensed? Now, my kind, generous old friend," he added, with an emotion that was not wholly insincere, "the time has come to bid you farewell—for ever. Let me picture you as revisiting your former haunts, penetrating to quarters of the globe (for, whether you are aware of it or not, this earth of ours is a globe) hitherto unknown to you, refreshing your mind by foreign travel and the study of mankind—but never, never for a moment losing sight of your main object, the eventual discovery of and reconciliation with Suleyman (on whom be peace!). That is the greatest, the only happiness you can give me now. Good-bye, and bon voyage!"
"May Allah never deprive thy friends of thy presence!" returned the Jinnee, who was apparently touched by this exordium, "for truly thou art a most excellent young man!"
And stepping back into the fireplace, he was gone in an instant.
Ventimore sank back in his chair with a sigh of relief. He had begun to fear that the Jinnee never would take himself off, but he had gone at last—and for good.
He was half ashamed of himself for feeling so glad, for Fakrash was a good-natured old thing enough in his way. Only he would overdo things: he had no sense of proportion. "Why," thought Horace, "if a fellow expressed a modest wish for a canary in a cage he's just the sort of old Jinnee to bring him a whole covey of rocs in an aviary about ten times the size of the Crystal Palace. However, he does understand now that I can't take anything more from him, and he isn't offended either, so that's all settled. Now I can set to work and knock off these plans in peace and quietness."
But he had not done much before he heard sounds in the next room which told him that Beevor had returned at last. He had been expected back from the country for the last day or two, and it was fortunate that he had delayed so long, thought Ventimore, as he went in to see him and to tell him the unexpected piece of good fortune that he himself had met with since they last met. It is needless to say that, in giving his account, he abstained from any mention of the brass bottle or the Jinnee, as unessential elements in his story.
Beevor's congratulations were quite as cordial as could be expected, as soon as he fully understood that no hoax was intended. "Well, old man," he said, "I am glad. I really am, you know. To think of a prize like that coming to you the very first time! And you don't even know how this Mr. Wackerbath came to hear of you—just happened to see your name up outside and came in, I expect. Why, I dare say, if I hadn't chanced to go away as I did—and about a couple of paltry two thousand pound houses, too! Ah, well, I don't grudge you your luck, though it does seem rather—— It was worth waiting for; you'll be cutting me out before long—if you don't make a mess of this job. I mean, you know, old chap, if you don't go and give your City man a Gothic castle when what he wants is something with plenty of plate-glass windows and a Corinthian portico. That's the rock I see ahead of you. You mustn't mind my giving you a word of warning!"
"Oh no," said Ventimore; "but I shan't give him either a Gothic castle or plenty of plate-glass. I venture to think he'll be pleased with the general idea as I'm working it out."
"Let's hope so," said Beevor. "If you get into any difficulty, you know," he added, with a touch of patronage, "just you come to me."
"Thanks," said Horace, "I will. But I'm getting on very fairly at present."
"I should rather like to see what you've made of it. I might be able to give you a wrinkle here and there."
"It's awfully good of you, but I think I'd rather you didn't see the plans till they're quite finished," said Horace. The truth was that he was perfectly aware that the other would not be in sympathy with his ideas; and Horace, who had just been suffering from a cold fit of depression about his work, rather shrank from any kind of criticism.
"Oh, just as you please!" said Beevor, a little stiffly; "you always were an obstinate beggar. I've had a certain amount of experience, you know, in my poor little pottering way, and I thought I might possibly have saved you a cropper or two. But if you think you can manage better alone—only don't get bolted with by one of those architectural hobbies of yours, that's all."
"All right, old fellow. I'll ride my hobby on the curb," said Horace, laughing, as he went back to his own office, where he found that all his former certainty and enjoyment of his work had returned to him, and by the end of the day he had made so much progress that his designs needed only a few finishing touches to be complete enough for his client's inspection.
Better still, on returning to his rooms that evening to change before going to Kensington, he found that the admirable Fakrash had kept his promise—every chest, sack, and bale had been cleared away.
"Them camels come back for the things this afternoon, sir," said Mrs. Rapkin, "and it put me in a fluster at first, for I made sure you'd locked your door and took the key. But I must have been mistook—leastways, them Arabs got in somehow. I hope you meant everything to go back?"
"Quite," said Horace; "I saw the—the person who sent them this morning, and told him there was nothing I cared for enough to keep."
"And like his impidence sending you a lot o' rubbish like that on approval—and on camels, too!" declared Mrs. Rapkin. "I'm sure I don't know what them advertising firms will try next—pushing, I call it."
Now that everything was gone, Horace felt a little natural regret and doubt whether he need have been quite so uncompromising in his refusal of the treasures. "I might have kept some of those tissues and things for Sylvia," he thought; "and she loves pearls. And a prayer-carpet would have pleased the Professor tremendously. But no, after all, it wouldn't have done. Sylvia couldn't go about in pearls the size of new potatoes, and the Professor would only have ragged me for more reckless extravagance. Besides, if I'd taken any of the Jinnee's gifts, he might keep on pouring more in, till I should be just where I was before—or worse off, really, because I couldn't decently refuse them, then. So it's best as it is."
And really, considering his temperament and the peculiar nature of his position, it is not easy to see how he could have arrived at any other conclusion.
Horace was feeling particularly happy as he walked back the next evening to Vincent Square. He had the consciousness of having done a good day's work, for the sketch-plans for Mr. Wackerbath's mansion were actually completed and despatched to his business address, while Ventimore now felt a comfortable assurance that his designs would more than satisfy his client.
But it was not that which made him so light of heart. That night his rooms were to be honoured for the first time by Sylvia's presence. She would tread upon his carpet, sit in his chairs, comment upon, and perhaps even handle, his books and ornaments—and all of them would retain something of her charm for ever after. If she only came! For even now he could not quite believe that she really would; that some untoward event would not make a point of happening to prevent her, as he sometimes doubted whether his engagement was not too sweet and wonderful to be true—or, at all events, to last.
As to the dinner, his mind was tolerably easy, for he had settled the remaining details of the menu with his landlady that morning, and he could hope that without being so sumptuous as to excite the Professor's wrath, it would still be not altogether unworthy—and what goods could be rare and dainty enough?—to be set before Sylvia.
He would have liked to provide champagne, but he knew that wine would savour of ostentation in the Professor's judgment, so he had contented himself instead with claret, a sound vintage which he knew he could depend upon. Flowers, he thought, were clearly permissible, and he had called at a florist's on his way and got some chrysanthemums of palest yellow and deepest terra-cotta, the finest he could see. Some of them would look well on the centre of the table in an old Nankin blue-and-white bowl he had; the rest he could arrange about the room: there would just be time to see to all that before dressing.
Occupied with these thoughts, he turned into Vincent Square, which looked vaster than ever with the murky haze, enclosed by its high railings, and under a wide expanse of steel-blue sky, across which the clouds were driving fast like ships in full sail scudding for harbour before a storm. Against the mist below, the young and nearly leafless trees showed flat, black profiles as of pressed seaweed, and the sky immediately above the house-tops was tinged with a sullen red from miles of lighted streets; from the river came the long-drawn tooting of tugs, mingled with the more distant wail and hysterical shrieks of railway engines on the Lambeth lines.
And now he reached the old semi-detached house in which he lodged, and noticed for the first time how the trellis-work of the veranda made, with the bared creepers and hanging baskets, a kind of decorative pattern against the windows, which were suffused with a roseate glow that looked warm and comfortable and hospitable. He wondered whether Sylvia would notice it when she arrived.
He passed under the old wrought-iron arch that once held an oil-lamp, and up a short but rather steep flight of steps, which led to a brick porch built out at the side. Then he let himself in, and stood spellbound with perplexed amazement,—for he was in a strange house.
In place of the modest passage with the yellow marble wall-paper, the mahogany hat-stand, and the elderly barometer in a state of chronic depression which he knew so well, he found an arched octagonal entrance-hall with arabesques of blue, crimson, and gold, and richly-embroidered hangings; the floor was marble, and from a shallow basin of alabaster in the centre a perfumed fountain rose and fell with a lulling patter.
"I must have mistaken the number," he thought, quite forgetting that his latch-key had fitted, and he was just about to retreat before his intrusion was discovered, when the hangings parted, and Mrs. Rapkin presented herself, making so deplorably incongruous a figure in such surroundings, and looking so bewildered and woebegone, that Horace, in spite of his own increasing uneasiness, had some difficulty in keeping his gravity.
"Oh, Mr. Ventimore, sir," she lamented; "whatever will you go and do next, I wonder? To think of your going and having the whole place done up and altered out of knowledge like this, without a word of warning! If any halterations were required, I do think as me and Rapkin had the right to be consulted."
Horace let all his chrysanthemums drop unheeded into the fountain. He understood now: indeed, he seemed in some way to have understood almost from the first, only he would not admit it even to himself.
The irrepressible Jinnee was at the bottom of this, of course. He remembered now having made that unfortunate remark the day before about the limited accommodation his rooms afforded.
Clearly Fakrash must have taken a mental note of it, and, with that insatiable munificence which was one of his worst failings, had determined, by way of a pleasant surprise, to entirely refurnish and redecorate the apartments according to his own ideas.
It was extremely kind of him; it showed a truly grateful disposition—"but, oh!" as Horace thought, in the bitterness of his soul, "if he would only learn to let well alone and mind his own business!"
However, the thing was done now, and he must accept the responsibility for it, since he could hardly disclose the truth. "Didn't I mention I was having some alterations made?" he said carelessly. "They've got the work done rather sooner than I expected. Were—were they long over it?"
"I'm sure I can't tell you, sir, having stepped out to get some things I wanted in for to-night; and Rapkin, he was round the corner at his reading-room; and when I come back it was all done and the workmen gone 'ome; and how they could have finished such a job in the time beats me altogether, for when we 'ad the men in to do the back kitchen they took ten days over it."
"Well," said Horace, evading this point, "however they've done this, they've done it remarkably well—you'll admit that, Mrs. Rapkin?"
"That's as may be sir," said Mrs. Rapkin, with a sniff, "but it ain't my taste, nor yet I don't think it will be Rapkin's taste when he comes to see it."
It was not Ventimore's taste either, though he was not going to confess it. "Sorry for that, Mrs. Rapkin," he said, "but I've no time to talk about it now. I must rush upstairs and dress."
"Begging your pardon, sir, but that's a total unpossibility—for they've been and took away the staircase.'
"Taken away the staircase? Nonsense?" cried Horace.
"So I think, Mr. Ventimore—but it's what them men have done, and if you don't believe me, come and see for yourself!"
She drew the hangings aside, and revealed to Ventimore's astonished gaze a vast pillared hall with a lofty domed roof, from which hung several lamps, diffusing a subdued radiance. High up in the wall, on his left, were the two windows which he judged to have formerly belonged to his sitting-room (for either from delicacy or inability, or simply because it had not occurred to him, the Jinnee had not interfered with the external structure), but the windows were now masked by a perforated and gilded lattice, which accounted for the pattern Horace had noticed from without. The walls were covered with blue-and-white Oriental tiles, and a raised platform of alabaster on which were divans ran round two sides of the hall, while the side opposite to him was pierced with horseshoe-shaped arches, apparently leading to other apartments. The centre of the marble floor was spread with costly rugs and piles of cushions, their rich hues glowing through the gold with which they were intricately embroidered.
"Well," said the unhappy Horace, scarcely knowing what he was saying, "it—it all looks very cosy, Mrs. Rapkin."
"It's not for me to say, sir; but I should like to know where you thought of dining?"
"Where?" said Horace. "Why, here, of course. There's plenty of room."
"There isn't a table left in the house," said Mrs. Rapkin; "so, unless you'd wish the cloth laid on the floor——"
"Oh, there must be a table somewhere," said Horace, impatiently, "or you can borrow one. Don't make difficulties, Mrs. Rapkin. Rig up anything you like.... Now I must be off and dress."
He got rid of her, and, on entering one of the archways, discovered a smaller room, in cedar-wood encrusted with ivory and mother-o'-pearl, which was evidently his bedroom. A gorgeous robe, stiff with gold and glittering with ancient gems, was laid out for him—for the Jinnee had thought of everything—but Ventimore, naturally, preferred his own evening clothes.
"Mr. Rapkin!" he shouted, going to another arch that seemed to communicate with the basement.
"Sir?" replied his landlord, who had just returned from his "reading-room," and now appeared, without a tie and in his shirt-sleeves, looking pale and wild, as was, perhaps, intelligible in the circumstances. As he entered his unfamiliar marble halls he staggered, and his red eyes rolled and his mouth gaped in a cod-like fashion. "They've been at it 'ere, too, seemin'ly," he remarked huskily.
"There have been a few changes," said Horace, quietly, "as you can see. You don't happen to know where they've put my dress-clothes, do you?"
"I don't 'appen to know where they've put nothink. Your dress clothes? Why, I dunno where they've bin and put our little parler where me and Maria 'ave set of a hevenin' all these years regular. I dunno where they've put the pantry, nor yet the bath-room, with 'ot and cold water laid on at my own expense. And you arsk me to find your hevenin' soot! I consider, sir, I consider that a unwall—that a most unwarrant-terrible liberty have bin took at my expense."
"My good man, don't talk rubbish!" said Horace.
"I'm talking to you about what I know, and I assert that an Englishman's 'ome is his cashle, and nobody's got the right when his backsh turned to go and make a 'Ummums of it. Not nobody 'asn't!"
"Make a what of it?" cried Ventimore.
"A 'Ummums—that's English, ain't it? A bloomin' Turkish baths! Who do you suppose is goin' to take apartments furnished in this 'ere ridic'loush style? What am I goin' to say to my landlord? It'll about ruing me, this will; and after you bein' a lodger 'ere for five year and more, and regarded by me and Maria in the light of one of the family. It's 'ard—it's damned 'ard!"
"Now, look here," said Ventimore, sharply—for it was obvious that Mr. Rapkin's studies had been lightened by copious refreshment—"pull yourself together, man, and listen to me."
"I respeckfully decline to pull myshelf togerrer f'r anybody livin'," said Mr. Rapkin, with a noble air. "I shtan' 'ere upon my dignity as a man, sir. I shay, I shtand 'ere upon——" Here he waved his hand, and sat down suddenly upon the marble floor.
"You can stand on anything you like—or can," said Horace; "but hear what I've got to say. The—the people who made all these alterations went beyond my instructions. I never wanted the house interfered with like this. Still, if your landlord doesn't see that its value is immensely improved, he's a fool, that's all. Anyway, I'll take care you shan't suffer. If I have to put everything back in its former state, I will, at my own expense. So don't bother any more about that."
"You're a gen'l'man, Mr. Ventimore," said Rapkin, cautiously regaining his feet. "There's no mishtaking a gen'l'man. I'm a gen'l'man."
"Of course you are," said Horace genially, "and I'll tell you how you're going to show it. You're going straight downstairs to get your good wife to pour some cold water over your head; and then you will finish dressing, see what you can do to get a table of some sort and lay it for dinner, and be ready to announce my friends when they arrive, and wait afterwards. Do you see?"
"That will be all ri', Mr. Ventimore," said Rapkin, who was not far gone enough to be beyond understanding or obeying. "You leave it entirely to me. I'll unnertake that your friends shall be made comforrable, perfelly comforrable. I've lived as butler in the besht, the mosht ecxlu—most arishto—you know the sort o' fam'lies I'm tryin' to r'member—and—and everything was always all ri', and I shall be all ri' in a few minutes."
With this assurance he stumbled downstairs, leaving Horace relieved to some extent. Rapkin would be sober enough after his head had been under the tap for a few minutes, and in any case there would be the hired waiter to rely upon.
If he could only find out where his evening clothes were! He returned to his room and made another frantic search—but they were nowhere to be found; and as he could not bring himself to receive his guests in his ordinary morning costume—which the Professor would probably construe as a deliberate slight, and which would certainly seem a solecism in Mrs. Futvoye's eyes, if not in her daughter's—he decided to put on the Eastern robes, with the exception of a turban, which he could not manage to wind round his head.
Thus arrayed he re-entered the domed hall, where he was annoyed to find that no attempt had been made as yet to prepare a dinner-table, and he was just looking forlornly round for a bell when Rapkin appeared. He had apparently followed Horace's advice, for his hair looked wet and sleek, and he was comparatively sober.
"This is too bad!" cried Horace; "my friends may be here at any moment now—and nothing done. You don't propose to wait at table like that, do you?" he added, as he noted the man's overcoat and the comforter round his throat.
"I do not propose to wait in any garments whatsoever," said Rapkin; "I'm a-goin' out, I am."
"Very well," said Horace; "then send the waiter up—I suppose he's come?"
"He come—but he went away again—I told him as he wouldn't be required."
"You told him that!" Horace said angrily, and then controlled himself. "Come, Rapkin, be reasonable. You can't really mean to leave your wife to cook the dinner, and serve it too!"
"She ain't intending to do neither; she've left the house already."
"You must fetch her back," cried Horace. "Good heavens, man, can't you see what a fix you're leaving me in? My friends have started long ago—it's too late to wire to them, or make any other arrangements."
There was a knock, as he spoke, at the front door; and odd enough was the familiar sound of the cast-iron knocker in that Arabian hall.
"There they are!" he said, and the idea of meeting them at the door and proposing an instant adjournment to a restaurant occurred to him—till he suddenly recollected that he would have to change and try to find some money, even for that. "For the last time, Rapkin," he cried in despair, "do you mean to tell me there's no dinner ready?"
"Oh," said Rapkin, "there's dinner right enough, and a lot o' barbarious furriners downstairs a cookin' of it—that's what broke Maria's 'art—to see it all took out of her 'ands, after the trouble she'd gone to."
"But I must have somebody to wait," exclaimed Horace.
"You've got waiters enough, as far as that goes. But if you expect a hordinary Christian man to wait along of a lot o' narsty niggers, and be at their beck and call, you're mistook, sir, for I'm going to sleep the night at my brother-in-law's and take his advice, he bein' a doorkeeper at a solicitor's orfice and knowing the law, about this 'ere business, and so I wish you a good hevening, and 'oping your dinner will be to your liking and satisfaction."
He went out by the farther archway, while from the entrance-hall Horace could hear voices he knew only too well. The Futvoyes had come; well, at all events, it seemed that there would be something for them to eat, since Fakrash, in his anxiety to do the thing thoroughly, had furnished both the feast and attendance himself—but who was there to announce the guests? Where were these waiters Rapkin had spoken of? Ought he to go and bring in his visitors himself?
These questions answered themselves the next instant, for, as he stood there under the dome, the curtains of the central arch were drawn with a rattle, and disclosed a double line of tall slaves in rich raiment, their onyx eyes rolling and their teeth flashing in their chocolate-hued countenances, as they salaamed.
Between this double line stood Professor and Mrs. Futvoye and Sylvia, who had just removed their wraps and were gazing in undisguised astonishment on the splendours which met their view.
Horace advanced to receive them; he felt he was in for it now, and the only course left him was to put as good a face as he could on the matter, and trust to luck to pull him through without discovery or disaster.
"PERSICOS ODI, PUER, APPARATUS"
"So you've found your way here at last?" said Horace, as he shook hands heartily with the Professor and Mrs. Futvoye. "I can't tell you how delighted I am to see you."
As a matter of fact, he was very far from being at ease, which made him rather over-effusive, but he was determined that, if he could help it, he would not betray the slightest consciousness of anything bizarre or unusual in his domestic arrangements.
"And these," said Mrs. Futvoye, who was extremelly stately in black, with old lace and steel embroidery—"these are the bachelor lodgings you were so modest about! Really," she added, with a humorous twinkle in her shrewd eyes, "you young men seem to understand how to make yourselves comfortable—don't they, Anthony?"
"They do, indeed," said the Professor, dryly, though it manifestly cost him some effort to conceal his appreciation. "To produce such results as these must, if I mistake not, have entailed infinite research—and considerable expense."
"No," said Horace, "no. You—you'd be surprised if you knew how little."
"I should have imagined," retorted the Professor, "that any outlay on apartments which I presume you do not contemplate occupying for an extended period must be money thrown away. But, doubtless, you know best."
"But your rooms are quite wonderful, Horace!" cried Sylvia, her charming eyes dilating with admiration. "And where, where did you get that magnificent dressing-gown? I never saw anything so lovely in my life!"
She herself was lovely enough in a billowy, shimmering frock of a delicate apple-green hue, her only ornament a deep-blue Egyptian scarab with spread wings, which was suspended from her neck by a slender gold chain.
"I—I ought to apologise for receiving you in this costume," said Horace, with embarrassment; "but the fact is, I couldn't find my evening clothes anywhere, so—so I put on the first things that came to hand."
"It is hardly necessary," said the Professor, conscious of being correctly clad, and unconscious that his shirt-front was bulging and his long-eared white tie beginning to work up towards his left jaw—"hardly necessary to offer any apology for the simplicity of your costume—which is entirely in keeping with the—ah—strictly Oriental character of your interior."
"I feel dreadfully out of keeping!" said Sylvia, "for there's nothing in the least Oriental about me—unless it's my scarab—and he's I don't know how many centuries behind the time, poor dear!"
"If you said 'thousands of years,' my dear," corrected the Professor, "you would be more accurate. That scarab was taken out of a tomb of the thirteenth dynasty."
"Well, I'm sure he'd rather be where he is," said Sylvia, and Ventimore entirely agreed with her. "Horace, I must look at everything. How clever and original of you to transform an ordinary London house into this!"
"Oh, well, you see," explained Horace, "it—it wasn't exactly done by me."
"Whoever did it," said the Professor, "must have devoted considerable study to Eastern art and architecture. May I ask the name of the firm who executed the alterations?"
"I really couldn't tell you, sir," answered Horace, who was beginning to understand how very bad a mauvais quart d'heure can be.
"You can't tell me!" exclaimed the Professor. "You order these extensive, and I should say expensive, decorations, and you don't know the firm you selected to carry them out!"
"Of course I know," said Horace, "only I don't happen to remember at this moment. Let me see, now. Was it Liberty? No, I'm almost certain it wasn't Liberty. It might have been Maple, but I'm not sure. Whoever did do it, they were marvellously cheap."
"I am glad to hear it," said the Professor, in his most unpleasant tone. "Where is your dining-room?"
"Why, I rather think," said Horace, helplessly, as he saw a train of attendants laying a round cloth on the floor, "I rather think this is the dining-room."
"You appear to be in some doubt?" said the Professor.
"I leave it to them—it depends where they choose to lay the cloth," said Horace. "Sometimes in one place; sometimes in another. There's a great charm in uncertainty," he faltered.
"Doubtless," said the Professor.
By this time two of the slaves, under the direction of a tall and turbaned black, had set a low ebony stool, inlaid with silver and tortoiseshell in strange devices, on the round carpet, when other attendants followed with a circular silver tray containing covered dishes, which they placed on the stool and salaamed.
"Your—ah—groom of the chambers," said the Professor, "seems to have decided that we should dine here. I observe they are making signs to you that the food is on the table."
"So it is," said Ventimore. "Shall we sit down?"
"But, my dear Horace," said Mrs. Futvoye, "your butler has forgotten the chairs."
"You don't appear to realise, my dear," said the Professor, "that in such an interior as this chairs would be hopelessly incongruous."
"I'm afraid there aren't any," said Horace, for there was nothing but four fat cushions. "Let's sit down on these," he proposed. "It—it's more fun!"
"At my time of life," said the Professor, irritably, as he let himself down on the plumpest cushion, "such fun as may be derived from eating one's meals on the floor fails to appeal to my sense of humour. However, I admit that it is thoroughly Oriental."
"I think it's delightful," said Sylvia; "ever so much nicer than a stiff, conventional dinner-party."
"One may be unconventional," remarked her father, "without escaping the penalty of stiffness. Go away, sir! go away!" he added snappishly, to one of the slaves, who was attempting to pour water over his hands. "Your servant, Ventimore, appears to imagine that I go out to dinner without taking the trouble to wash my hands previously. This, I may mention, is not the case."
"It's only an Eastern ceremony, Professor," said Horace.
"I am perfectly well aware of what is customary in the East," retorted the Professor; "it does not follow that such—ah—hygienic precautions are either necessary or desirable at a Western table."
Horace made no reply; he was too much occupied in gazing blankly at the silver dish-covers and wondering what in the world might be underneath; nor was his perplexity relieved when the covers were removed, for he was quite at a loss to guess how he was supposed to help the contents without so much as a fork.
The chief attendant, however, solved that difficulty by intimating in pantomime that the guests were expected to use their fingers.
Sylvia accomplished this daintily and with intense amusement, but her father and mother made no secret of their repugnance. "If I were dining in the desert with a Sheik, sir," observed the Professor, "I should, I hope, know how to conform to his habits and prejudices. Here, in the heart of London, I confess all this strikes me as a piece of needless pedantry."
"I'm very sorry," said Horace; "I'd have some knives and forks if I could—but I'm afraid these fellows don't even understand what they are, so it's useless to order any. We—we must rough it a little, that's all. I hope that—er—fish is all right, Professor?"
He did not know precisely what kind of fish it was, but it was fried in oil of sesame and flavoured with a mixture of cinnamon and ginger, and the Professor did not appear to be making much progress with it. Ventimore himself would have infinitely preferred the original cod and oyster sauce, but that could not be helped now.
"Thank you," said the Professor, "it is curious—but characteristic. Not any more, thank you."
Horace could only trust that the next course would be more of a success. It was a dish of mutton, stewed with peaches, jujubes and sugar, which Sylvia declared was delicious. Her parents made no comment.
"Might I ask for something to drink?" said the Professor, presently; whereupon a cupbearer poured him a goblet of iced sherbet perfumed with conserve of violets.
"I'm very sorry, my dear fellow," he said, after sipping it, "but if I drink this I shall be ill all next day. If I might have a glass of wine——"
Another slave instantly handed him a cup of wine, which he tasted and set down with a wry face and a shudder. Horace tried some afterwards, and was not surprised. It was a strong, harsh wine, in which goatskin and resin struggled for predominance.
"It's an old and, I make no doubt, a fine wine," observed the Professor, with studied politeness, "but I fancy it must have suffered in transportation. I really think that, with my gouty tendency, a little whisky and Apollinaris would be better for me—if you keep such occidental fluids in the house?"
Horace felt convinced that it would be useless to order the slaves to bring whisky or Apollinaris, which were of course, unknown in the Jinnee's time, so he could do nothing but apologise for their absence.
"No matter," said the Professor; "I am not so thirsty that I cannot wait till I get home."
It was some consolation that both Sylvia and her mother commended the sherbet, and even appreciated—or were so obliging as to say they appreciated—the entree, which consisted of rice and mincemeat wrapped in vine-leaves, and certainly was not appetising in appearance, besides being difficult to dispose of gracefully.
It was followed by a whole lamb fried in oil, stuffed with pounded pistachio nuts, pepper, nutmeg, and coriander seeds, and liberally besprinkled with rose-water and musk.
Only Horace had sufficient courage to attack the lamb—and he found reason to regret it. Afterwards came fowls stuffed with raisins, parsley, and crumbled bread, and the banquet ended with pastry of weird forms and repellent aspect.
"I hope," said Horace, anxiously, "you don't find this Eastern cookery very—er—unpalatable?"—he himself was feeling distinctly unwell: "it's rather a change from the ordinary routine."
"I have made a truly wonderful dinner, thank you," replied the Professor, not, it is to be feared, without intention. "Even in the East I have eaten nothing approaching this."
"But where did your landlady pick up this extraordinary cooking, my dear Horace?" said Mrs. Futvoye. "I thought you said she was merely a plain cook. Has she ever lived in the East?"
"Not exactly in the East," exclaimed Horace; "not what you would call living there. The fact is," he continued, feeling that he was in danger of drivelling, and that he had better be as candid as he could, "this dinner wasn't cooked by her. She—she was obliged to go away quite suddenly. So the dinner was all sent in by—by a sort of contractor, you know. He supplies the whole thing, waiters and all."
"I was thinking," said the Professor, "that for a bachelor—an engaged bachelor—you seemed to maintain rather a large establishment."
"Oh, they're only here for the evening, sir," said Horace. "Capital fellows—more picturesque than the local greengrocer—and they don't breathe on the top of your head."
"They're perfect dears, Horace," remarked Sylvia; "only—well, just a little creepy-crawly to look at!"
"It would ill become me to criticise the style and method of our entertainment," put in the Professor, acidly, "otherwise I might be tempted to observe that it scarcely showed that regard for economy which I should have——"
"Now, Anthony," put in his wife, "don't let us have any fault-finding. I'm sure Horace has done it all delightfully—yes, delightfully; and even if he has been just a little extravagant, it's not as if he was obliged to be as economical now, you know!"
"My dear," said the Professor, "I have yet to learn that the prospect of an increased income in the remote future is any justification for reckless profusion in the present."
"If you only knew," said Horace, "you wouldn't call it profusion. It—it's not at all the dinner I meant it to be, and I'm afraid it wasn't particularly nice—but it's certainly not expensive."
"Expensive is, of course, a very relative term. But I think I have the right to ask whether this is the footing on which you propose to begin your married life?"
It was an extremely awkward question, as the reader will perceive. If Ventimore replied—as he might with truth—that he had no intention whatever of maintaining his wife in luxury such as that, he stood convicted of selfish indulgence as a bachelor; if, on the other hand, he declared that he did propose to maintain his wife in the same fantastic and exaggerated splendour as the present, it would certainly confirm her father's disbelief in his prudence and economy.
And it was that egregious old ass of a Jinnee, as Horace thought, with suppressed rage, who had let him in for all this, and who was now far beyond all remonstrance or reproach!
Before he could bring himself to answer the question, the attendants had noiselessly removed the tray and stool, and were handing round rosewater in a silver ewer and basin, the character of which, luckily or otherwise, turned the Professor's inquisitiveness into a different channel.
"These are not bad—really not bad at all," he said, inspecting the design. "Where did you manage to pick them up?"
"I didn't," said Horace; "they're provided by the—the person who supplies the dinner."
"Can you give me his address?" said the Professor, scenting a bargain; "because really, you know, these things are probably antiques—much too good to be used for business purposes."
"I'm wrong," said Horace, lamely; "these particular things are—are lent by an eccentric Oriental gentleman, as a great favour."
"Do I know him? Is he a collector of such things?"
"You wouldn't have met him; he—he's lived a very retired life of late."
"I should very much like to see his collection. If you could give me a letter of introduction——"
"No," said Horace, in a state of prickly heat; "it wouldn't be any use. His collection is never shown. He—he's a most peculiar man. And just now he's abroad."
"Ah! pardon me if I've been indiscreet; but I concluded from what you said that this—ah—banquet was furnished by a professional caterer."
"Oh, the banquet? Yes, that came from the Stores," said Horace, mendaciously. "The—the Oriental Cookery Department. They've just started it, you know; so—so I thought I'd give them a trial. But it's not what I call properly organised yet."
The slaves were now, with low obeisances, inviting them to seat themselves on the divan which lined part of the hall.
"Ha!" said the Professor, as he rose from his cushion, cracking audibly, "so we're to have our coffee and what not over there, hey?... Well, my boy, I shan't be sorry, I confess, to have something to lean my back against—and a cigar, a mild cigar, will—ah—aid digestion. You do smoke here?"
"Smoke?" said Horace, "Why, of course! All over the place. Here," he said, clapping his hands, which brought an obsequious slave instantly to his side; "just bring coffee and cigars, will you?"
The slave rolled his brandy-ball eyes in obvious perplexity.
"Coffee," said Horace; "you must know what coffee is. And cigarettes. Well, chibouks, then—'hubble-bubbles'—if that's what you call them."
But the slave clearly did not understand, and it suddenly struck Horace that, since 'tobacco and coffee were not introduced, even in the East, till long after the Jinnee's time, he, as the founder of the feast, would naturally be unaware how indispensable they had become at the present day.
"I'm really awfully sorry," he said; "but they don't seem to have provided any. I shall speak to the manager about it. And, unfortunately, I don't know where my own cigars are."
"It's of no consequence," said the Professor, with the sort of stoicism that minds very much. "I am a moderate smoker at best, and Turkish coffee, though delicious, is apt to keep me awake. But if you could let me have a look at that brass bottle you got at poor Collingham's sale, I should be obliged to you."
Horace had no idea where it was then, nor could he, until the Professor came to the rescue with a few words of Arabic, manage to make the slaves comprehend what he wished them to find.
At length, however, two of them appeared, bearing the brass bottle with every sign of awe, and depositing it at Ventimore's feet.
Professor Futvoye, after wiping and adjusting his glasses, proceeded to examine the vessel. "It certainly is a most unusual type of brassware," he said, "as unique in its way as the silver ewer and basin; and, as you thought, there does seem to be something resembling an inscription on the cap, though in this dim light it is almost impossible to be sure."
While he was poring over it, Horace seated himself on the divan by Sylvia's side, hoping for one of the whispered conversations permitted to affianced lovers; he had pulled through the banquet somehow, and on the whole he felt thankful things had not gone off worse. The noiseless and uncanny attendants, whom he did not know whether to regard as Efreets, or demons, or simply illusions, but whose services he had no wish to retain, had all withdrawn. Mrs. Futvoye was peacefully slumbering, and her husband was in a better humour than he had been all the evening.
Suddenly from behind the hangings of one of the archways came strange, discordant sounds, barbaric janglings and thumpings, varied by yowls as of impassioned cats.
Sylvia drew involuntarily closer to Horace; her mother woke with a start, and the Professor looked up from the brass bottle with returning irritation.
"What's this? What's this?" he demanded; "some fresh surprise in store for us?"
It was quite as much of a surprise for Horace, but he was spared the humiliation of owning it by the entrance of some half-dozen dusky musicians swathed in white and carrying various strangely fashioned instruments, with which they squatted down in a semi-circle by the opposite wall, and began to twang, and drub, and squall with the complacent cacophony of an Eastern orchestra. Clearly Fakrash was determined that nothing should be wanting to make the entertainment a complete success.
"What a very extraordinary noise!" said Mrs. Futvoye; "surely they can't mean it for music?"
"Yes, they do," said Horace; "it—it's really more harmonious than it sounds—you have to get accustomed to the—er—notation. When you do, it's rather soothing than otherwise."
"I dare say," said the poor lady. "And do they come from the Stores, too?"
"No," said Horace, with a fine assumption of candour, "they don't; they come from—the Arab Encampment at Earl's Court—parties and fetes attended, you know. But they play here for nothing; they—they want to get their name known, you see; very deserving and respectable set of fellows."
"My dear Horace!" remarked Mrs. Futvoye, "if they expect to get engagements for parties and so on, they really ought to try and learn a tune of some sort."
"I understand, Horace," whispered Sylvia, "it's very naughty of you to have gone to all this trouble and expense (for, of course, it has cost you a lot) just to please us; but, whatever, dad may say, I love you all the better for doing it!"
And her hand stole softly into his, and he felt that he could forgive Fakrash everything, even—even the orchestra.
But there was something unpleasantly spectral about their shadowy forms, which showed in grotesquely baggy and bulgy shapes in the uncertain light. Some of them wore immense and curious white head-dresses, which gave them the appearance of poulticed thumbs; and they all went on scraping and twiddling and caterwauling with a doleful monotony that Horace felt must be getting on his guests' nerves, as it certainly was on his own.
He did not know how to get rid of them, but he sketched a kind of gesture in the air, intended to intimate that, while their efforts had afforded the keenest pleasure to the company generally, they were unwilling to monopolise them any longer, and the artists were at liberty to retire.
Perhaps there is no art more liable to misconstruction than pantomime; certainly, Ventimore's efforts in this direction were misunderstood, for the music became wilder, louder, more aggressively and abominably out of tune—and then a worse thing happened.
For the curtains separated, and, heralded by sharp yelps from the performers, a female figure floated into the hall and began to dance with a slow and sinuous grace.
Her beauty, though of a pronounced Oriental type, was unmistakable, even in the subdued light which fell on her; her diaphanous robe indicated a faultless form; her dark tresses were braided with sequins; she had the long, lustrous eyes, the dusky cheeks artificially whitened, and the fixed scarlet smile of the Eastern dancing-girl of all time.
And she paced the floor with her tinkling feet, writhing and undulating like some beautiful cobra, while the players worked themselves up to yet higher and higher stages of frenzy.
Ventimore, as he sat there looking helplessly on, felt a return of his resentment against the Jinnee. It was really too bad of him; he ought, at his age, to have known better!
Not that there was anything objectionable in the performance itself; but still, it was not the kind of entertainment for such an occasion. Horace wished now he had mentioned to Fakrash who the guests were whom he expected, and then perhaps even the Jinnee would have exercised more tact in his arrangements.
"And does this girl come from Earl's Court?" inquired Mrs. Futvoye, who was now thoroughly awake.
"Oh dear, no," said Horace; "I engaged her at—at Harrod's—the Entertainment Bureau. They told me there she was rather good—struck out a line of her own, don't you know. But perfectly correct; she—she only does this to support an invalid aunt."
These statements were, as he felt even in making them, not only gratuitous, but utterly unconvincing, but he had arrived at that condition in which a man discovers with terror the unsuspected amount of mendacity latent in his system.
"I should have thought there were other ways of supporting invalid aunts," remarked Mrs. Futvoye. "What is this young lady's name?"
"Tinkler," said Horace, on the spur of the moment. "Miss Clementine Tinkler."
"But surely she is a foreigner?"
"Mademoiselle, I ought to have said. And Tinkla—with an 'a,' you know. I believe her mother was of Arabian extraction—but I really don't know," explained Horace, conscious that Sylvia had withdrawn her hand from his, and was regarding him with covert anxiety.
"I really must put a stop to this," he thought.
"You're getting bored by all this, darling," he said aloud; "so am I. I'll tell them to go." And he rose and held out his hand as a sign that the dance should cease.
It ceased at once; but, to his unspeakable horror, the dancer crossed the floor with a swift jingling rush, and sank in a gauzy heap at his feet, seizing his hand in both hers and covering it with kisses, while she murmured speeches in some tongue unknown to him.
"Is this a usual feature in Miss Tinkla's entertainments, may I ask?" said Mrs. Futvoye, bristling with not unnatural indignation.
"I really don't know," said the unhappy Horace; "I can't make out what she's saying."
"If I understand her rightly," said the Professor, "she is addressing you as the 'light of her eyes and the vital spirit of her heart.'"
"Oh!" said Horace, "she's quite mistaken, you know. It—it's the emotional artist temperament—they don't mean anything by it. My—my dear young lady," he added, "you've danced most delightfully, and I'm sure we're all most deeply indebted to you; but we won't detain you any longer. Professor," he added, as she made no offer to rise, "will you kindly explain to them in Arabic that I should be obliged by their going at once?"
The Professor said a few words, which had the desired effect. The girl gave a little scream and scudded through the archway, and the musicians seized their instruments and scuttled after her.
"I am so sorry," said Horace, whose evening seemed to him to have been chiefly spent in apologies; "it's not at all the kind of entertainment one would expect from a place like Whiteley's."
"By no means," agreed the Professor; "but I understood you to say Miss Tinkla was recommended to you by Harrod's?"
"Very likely, sir," said Horace; "but that doesn't affect the case. I shouldn't expect it from them."
"Probably they don't know how shamelessly that young person conducts herself," said Mrs. Futvoye. "And I think it only right that they should be told."
"I shall complain, of course," said Horace. "I shall put it very strongly."
"A protest would have more weight coming from a woman," said Mrs. Futvoye; "and, as a shareholder in the company, I shall feel bound——"
"No, I wouldn't," said Horace; "in fact, you mustn't. For, now I come to think of it, she didn't come from Harrod's, after all, or Whiteley's either."
"Then perhaps you will be good enough to inform us where she did come from?"
"I would if I knew," said Horace; "but I don't."
"What!" cried the Professor, sharply, "do you mean to say you can't account for the existence of a dancing-girl who—in my daughter's presence—kisses your hand and addresses you by endearing epithets?"
"Oriental metaphor!" said Horace. "She was a little overstrung. Of course, if I had had any idea she would make such a scene as that—— Sylvia," he broke off, "you don't doubt me?"
"No, Horace," said Sylvia, simply, "I'm sure you must have some explanation—only I do think it would be better if you gave it."
"If I told you the truth," said Horace, slowly, "you would none of you believe me!"
"Then you admit," put in the Professor, "that hitherto you have not been telling the truth?"
"Not as invariably as I could have wished," Horace confessed.
"So I suspected. Then, unless you can bring yourself to be perfectly candid, you can hardly wonder at our asking you to consider your engagement as broken off?"
"Broken off!" echoed Horace. "Sylvia, you won't give me up! You know I wouldn't do anything unworthy of you!"
"I'm certain that you can't have done anything which would make me love you one bit the less if I knew it. So why not be quite open with us?"
"Because, darling," said Horace, "I'm in such a fix that it would only make matters worse."
"In that case," said the Professor, "and as it is already rather late, perhaps you will allow one of your numerous retinue to call a four-wheeler?"
Horace clapped his hands, but no one answered the summons, and he could not find any of the slaves in the antechamber.
"I'm afraid all the servants have left," he explained; and it is to be feared he would have added that they were all obliged to return to the contractor by eleven, only he caught the Professor's eye and decided that he had better refrain. "If you will wait here, I'll go out and fetch a cab," he added.
"There is no occasion to trouble you," said the Professor; "my wife and daughter have already got their things on, and we will walk until we find a cab. Now, Mr. Ventimore, we will bid you good-night and good-bye. For, after what has happened, you will, I trust, have the good taste to discontinue your visits and make no attempt to see Sylvia again."
"Upon my honour," protested Horace, "I have done nothing to warrant you in shutting your doors against me."
"I am unable to agree with you. I have never thoroughly approved of your engagement, because, as I told you at the time, I suspected you of recklessness in money matters. Even in accepting your invitation to-night I warned you, as you may remember, not to make the occasion an excuse for foolish extravagance. I come here, and find you in apartments furnished and decorated (as you informed us) by yourself, and on a scale which would be prodigal in a millionaire. You have a suite of retainers which (except for their nationality and imperfect discipline) a prince might envy. You provide a banquet of—hem!—delicacies which must have cost you infinite trouble and unlimited expense—this, after I had expressly stipulated for a quiet family dinner! Not content with that, you procure for our diversion Arab music and dancing of a—of a highly recondite character. I should be unworthy of the name of father, sir, if I were to entrust my only daughter's happiness to a young man with so little common sense, so little self-restraint. And she will understand my motives and obey my wishes."