The face, from its indecent expression, had particularly animated the zeal of our iconoclast; and it was against the face that he began his operations. The great height of the demigod—for he stood a fathom and half in his stocking-feet—offered a preliminary obstacle to this attack. But here, in the first skirmish of the battle, intellect already began to triumph over matter. By means of a pair of library steps, the injured householder gained a posture of advantage; and, with great swipes of the coal-axe, proceeded to decapitate the brute.
Two hours later, what had been the erect image of a gigantic coal-porter turned miraculously white, was now no more than a medley of disjected members; the quadragenarian torso prone against the pedestal; the lascivious countenance leering down the kitchen stair; the legs, the arms, the hands, and even the fingers, scattered broadcast on the lobby floor. Half an hour more, and all the debris had been laboriously carted to the kitchen; and Morris, with a gentle sentiment of triumph, looked round upon the scene of his achievements. Yes, he could deny all knowledge of it now: the lobby, beyond the fact that it was partly ruinous, betrayed no trace of the passage of Hercules. But it was a weary Morris that crept up to bed; his arms and shoulders ached, the palms of his hands burned from the rough kisses of the coal-axe, and there was one smarting finger that stole continually to his mouth. Sleep long delayed to visit the dilapidated hero, and with the first peep of day it had again deserted him.
The morning, as though to accord with his disastrous fortunes, dawned inclemently. An easterly gale was shouting in the streets; flaws of rain angrily assailed the windows; and as Morris dressed, the draught from the fireplace vividly played about his legs.
"I think," he could not help observing bitterly, "that with all I have to bear, they might have given me decent weather."
There was no bread in the house, for Miss Hazeltine (like all women left to themselves) had subsisted entirely upon cake. But some of this was found, and (along with what the poets call a glass of fair, cold water) made up a semblance of a morning meal, and then down he sat undauntedly to his delicate task.
Nothing can be more interesting than the study of signatures, written (as they are) before meals and after, during indigestion and intoxication; written when the signer is trembling for the life of his child or has come from winning the Derby, in his lawyer's office, or under the bright eyes of his sweetheart. To the vulgar, these seem never the same; but to the expert, the bank clerk, or the lithographer, they are constant quantities, and as recognisable as the North Star to the night-watch on deck.
To all this Morris was alive. In the theory of that graceful art in which he was now embarking, our spirited leather-merchant was beyond all reproach. But, happily for the investor, forgery is an affair of practice. And as Morris sat surrounded by examples of his uncle's signature and of his own incompetence, insidious depression stole upon his spirits. From time to time the wind wuthered in the chimney at his back; from time to time there swept over Bloomsbury a squall so dark that he must rise and light the gas; about him was the chill and the mean disorder of a house out of commission—the floor bare, the sofa heaped with books and accounts enveloped in a dirty table-cloth, the pens rusted, the paper glazed with a thick film of dust; and yet these were but adminicles of misery, and the true root of his depression lay round him on the table in the shape of misbegotten forgeries.
"It's one of the strangest things I ever heard of," he complained. "It almost seems as if it was a talent that I didn't possess." He went once more minutely through his proofs. "A clerk would simply gibe at them," said he. "Well, there's nothing else but tracing possible."
He waited till a squall had passed and there came a blink of scowling daylight. Then he went to the window, and in the face of all John Street traced his uncle's signature. It was a poor thing at the best. "But it must do," said he, as he stood gazing woefully on his handiwork. "He's dead, anyway." And he filled up the cheque for a couple of hundred and sallied forth for the Anglo-Patagonian Bank.
There, at the desk at which he was accustomed to transact business, and with as much indifference as he could assume, Morris presented the forged cheque to the big, red-bearded Scots teller. The teller seemed to view it with surprise; and as he turned it this way and that, and even scrutinised the signature with a magnifying-glass, his surprise appeared to warm into disfavour. Begging to be excused for a moment, he passed away into the rearmost quarters of the bank; whence, after an appreciable interval, he returned again in earnest talk with a superior, an oldish and a baldish, but a very gentlemanly man.
"Mr. Morris Finsbury, I believe," said the gentlemanly man, fixing Morris with a pair of double eye-glasses.
"That is my name," said Morris, quavering. "Is there anything wrong?"
"Well, the fact is, Mr. Finsbury, you see we are rather surprised at receiving this," said the other, flicking at the cheque. "There are no effects."
"No effects?" cried Morris. "Why, I know myself there must be eight-and-twenty hundred pounds, if there's a penny."
"Two seven six four, I think," replied the gentlemanly man; "but it was drawn yesterday."
"Drawn!" cried Morris.
"By your uncle himself, sir," continued the other. "Not only that, but we discounted a bill for him for—let me see—how much was it for, Mr. Bell?"
"Eight hundred, Mr. Judkin," replied the teller.
"Dent Pitman!" cried Morris, staggering back.
"I beg your pardon," said Mr. Judkin.
"It's—it's only an expletive," said Morris.
"I hope there's nothing wrong, Mr. Finsbury," said Mr. Bell.
"All I can tell you," said Morris, with a harsh laugh, "is that the whole thing's impossible. My uncle is at Bournemouth, unable to move."
"Really!" cried Mr. Bell, and he recovered the cheque from Mr. Judkin. "But this cheque is dated in London, and to-day," he observed. "How d'ye account for that, sir?"
"O, that was a mistake," said Morris, and a deep tide of colour dyed his face and neck.
"No doubt, no doubt," said Mr. Judkin, but he looked at his customer inquiringly.
"And—and—" resumed Morris, "even if there were no effects—this is a very trifling sum to overdraw—our firm—the name of Finsbury, is surely good enough for such a wretched sum as this."
"No doubt, Mr. Finsbury," returned Mr. Judkin; "and if you insist I will take it into consideration; but I hardly think—in short, Mr. Finsbury, if there had been nothing else, the signature seems hardly all that we could wish."
"That's of no consequence," replied Morris nervously. "I'll get my uncle to sign another. The fact is," he went on, with a bold stroke, "my uncle is so far from well at present that he was unable to sign this cheque without assistance, and I fear that my holding the pen for him may have made the difference in the signature."
Mr. Judkin shot a keen glance into Morris's face; and then turned and looked at Mr. Bell.
"Well," he said, "it seems as if we had been victimised by a swindler. Pray tell Mr. Finsbury we shall put detectives on at once. As for this cheque of yours, I regret that, owing to the way it was signed, the bank can hardly consider it—what shall I say?—business-like," and he returned the cheque across the counter.
Morris took it up mechanically; he was thinking of something very different.
"In a case of this kind," he began, "I believe the loss falls on us; I mean upon my uncle and myself."
"It does not, sir," replied Mr. Bell; "the bank is responsible, and the bank will either recover the money or refund it, you may depend on that."
Morris's face fell; then it was visited by another gleam of hope.
"I'll tell you what," he said, "you leave this entirely in my hands. I'll sift the matter. I've an idea, at any rate; and detectives," he added appealingly, "are so expensive."
"The bank would not hear of it," returned Mr. Judkin. "The bank stands to lose between three and four thousand pounds; it will spend as much more if necessary. An undiscovered forger is a permanent danger. We shall clear it up to the bottom, Mr. Finsbury; set your mind at rest on that."
"Then I'll stand the loss," said Morris boldly. "I order you to abandon the search." He was determined that no inquiry should be made.
"I beg your pardon," returned Mr. Judkin, "but we have nothing to do with you in this matter, which is one between your uncle and ourselves. If he should take this opinion, and will either come here himself or let me see him in his sick-room——"
"Quite impossible," cried Morris.
"Well, then, you see," said Mr. Judkin, "how my hands are tied. The whole affair must go at once into the hands of the police."
Morris mechanically folded the cheque and restored it to his pocket-book.
"Good-morning," said he, and scrambled somehow out of the bank.
"I don't know what they suspect," he reflected; "I can't make them out, their whole behaviour is thoroughly unbusiness-like. But it doesn't matter; all's up with everything. The money has been paid; the police are on the scent; in two hours that idiot Pitman will be nabbed—and the whole story of the dead body in the evening papers."
If he could have heard what passed in the bank after his departure he would have been less alarmed, perhaps more mortified.
"That was a curious affair, Mr. Bell," said Mr. Judkin.
"Yes, sir," said Mr. Bell, "but I think we have given him a fright."
"O, we shall hear no more of Mr. Morris Finsbury," returned the other; "it was a first attempt, and the house have dealt with us so long that I was anxious to deal gently. But I suppose, Mr. Bell, there can be no mistake about yesterday? It was old Mr. Finsbury himself?"
"There could be no possible doubt of that," said Mr. Bell with a chuckle. "He explained to me the principles of banking."
"Well, well," said Mr. Judkin. "The next time he calls ask him to step into my room. It is only proper he should be warned."
IN WHICH WILLIAM DENT PITMAN TAKES LEGAL ADVICE
Norfolk Street, King's Road—jocularly known among Mr. Pitman's lodgers as "Norfolk Island"—is neither a long, a handsome, nor a pleasing thoroughfare. Dirty, undersized maids-of-all-work issue from it in pursuit of beer, or linger on its sidewalk listening to the voice of love. The cat's-meat man passes twice a day. An occasional organ-grinder wanders in and wanders out again, disgusted. In holiday-time the street is the arena of the young bloods of the neighbourhood, and the house-holders have an opportunity of studying the manly art of self-defence. And yet Norfolk Street has one claim to be respectable, for it contains not a single shop—unless you count the public-house at the corner, which is really in the King's Road.
The door of No. 7 bore a brass plate inscribed with the legend "W.D. Pitman, Artist." It was not a particularly clean brass plate, nor was No. 7 itself a particularly inviting place of residence. And yet it had a character of its own, such as may well quicken the pulse of the reader's curiosity. For here was the home of an artist—and a distinguished artist too, highly distinguished by his ill-success—which had never been made the subject of an article in the illustrated magazines. No wood-engraver had ever reproduced "a corner in the back drawing-room" or "the studio mantelpiece" of No. 7; no young lady author had ever commented on "the unaffected simplicity" with which Mr. Pitman received her in the midst of his "treasures." It is an omission I would gladly supply, but our business is only with the backward parts and "abject rear" of this aesthetic dwelling.
Here was a garden, boasting a dwarf fountain (that never played) in the centre, a few grimy-looking flowers in pots, two or three newly-planted trees which the spring of Chelsea visited without noticeable consequence, and two or three statues after the antique, representing satyrs and nymphs in the worst possible style of sculptured art. On one side the garden was overshadowed by a pair of crazy studios, usually hired out to the more obscure and youthful practitioners of British art. Opposite these another lofty out-building, somewhat more carefully finished, and boasting of a communication with the house and a private door on the back lane, enshrined the multifarious industry of Mr. Pitman. All day, it is true, he was engaged in the work of education at a seminary for young ladies; but the evenings at least were his own, and these he would prolong far into the night, now dashing off "A landscape with waterfall" in oil, now a volunteer bust ("in marble," as he would gently but proudly observe) of some public character, now stooping his chisel to a mere "nymph" ("for a gas-bracket on a stair, sir "), or a life-size "Infant Samuel" for a religious nursery. Mr. Pitman had studied in Paris, and he had studied in Rome, supplied with funds by a fond parent who went subsequently bankrupt in consequence of a fall in corsets; and though he was never thought to have the smallest modicum of talent, it was at one time supposed that he had learned his business. Eighteen years of what is called "tuition" had relieved him of the dangerous knowledge. His artist lodgers would sometimes reason with him; they would point out to him how impossible it was to paint by gas-light, or to sculpture life-sized nymphs without a model.
"I know that," he would reply. "No one in Norfolk Street knows it better; and if I were rich I should certainly employ the best models in London; but, being poor, I have taught myself to do without them. An occasional model would only disturb my ideal conception of the figure, and be a positive impediment in my career. As for painting by an artificial light," he would continue, "that is simply a knack I have found it necessary to acquire, my days being engrossed in the work of tuition."
At the moment when we must present him to our readers, Pitman was in his studio alone, by the dying light of the October day. He sat (sure enough with "unaffected simplicity") in a Windsor chair, his low-crowned black felt hat by his side; a dark, weak, harmless, pathetic little man, clad in the hue of mourning, his coat longer than is usual with the laity, his neck enclosed in a collar without a parting, his neckcloth pale in hue and simply tied; the whole outward man, except for a pointed beard, tentatively clerical. There was a thinning on the top of Pitman's head, there were silver hairs at Pitman's temple. Poor gentleman, he was no longer young; and years, and poverty, and humble ambition thwarted, make a cheerless lot.
In front of him, in the corner by the door, there stood a portly barrel; and let him turn them where he might, it was always to the barrel that his eyes and his thoughts returned.
"Should I open it? Should I return it? Should I communicate with Mr. Semitopolis at once?" he wondered. "No," he concluded finally, "nothing without Mr. Finsbury's advice." And he arose and produced a shabby leathern desk. It opened without the formality of unlocking, and displayed the thick cream-coloured note-paper on which Mr. Pitman was in the habit of communicating with the proprietors of schools and the parents of his pupils. He placed the desk on the table by the window, and taking a saucer of Indian ink from the chimney-piece, laboriously composed the following letter:
"My dear Mr. Finsbury," it ran, "would it be presuming on your kindness if I asked you to pay me a visit here this evening? It is in no trifling matter that I invoke your valuable assistance, for need I say more than it concerns the welfare of Mr. Semitopolis's statue of Hercules? I write you in great agitation of mind; for I have made all inquiries, and greatly fear that this work of ancient art has been mislaid. I labour besides under another perplexity, not unconnected with the first. Pray excuse the inelegance of this scrawl, and believe me yours in haste, William D. Pitman."
Armed with this he set forth and rang the bell of No. 233 King's Road, the private residence of Michael Finsbury. He had met the lawyer at a time of great public excitement in Chelsea; Michael, who had a sense of humour and a great deal of careless kindness in his nature, followed the acquaintance up, and, having come to laugh, remained to drop into a contemptuous kind of friendship. By this time, which was four years after the first meeting, Pitman was the lawyer's dog.
"No," said the elderly housekeeper, who opened the door in person, "Mr. Michael's not in yet. But ye're looking terribly poorly, Mr. Pitman. Take a glass of sherry, sir, to cheer ye up."
"No, I thank you, ma'am," replied the artist. "It is very good in you, but I scarcely feel in sufficient spirits for sherry. Just give Mr. Finsbury this note, and ask him to look round—to the door in the lane, you will please tell him; I shall be in the studio all evening."
And he turned again into the street and walked slowly homeward. A hair-dresser's window caught his attention, and he stared long and earnestly at the proud, high-born, waxen lady in evening dress, who circulated in the centre of the show. The artist woke in him, in spite of his troubles.
"It is all very well to run down the men who make these things," he cried, "but there's a something—there's a haughty, indefinable something about that figure. It's what I tried for in my 'Empress Eugenie,'" he added, with a sigh.
And he went home reflecting on the quality. "They don't teach you that direct appeal in Paris," he thought. "It's British. Come, I am going to sleep, I must wake up, I must aim higher—aim higher," cried the little artist to himself. All through his tea and afterward, as he was giving his eldest boy a lesson on the fiddle, his mind dwelt no longer on his troubles, but he was rapt into the better land; and no sooner was he at liberty than he hastened with positive exhilaration to his studio.
Not even the sight of the barrel could entirely cast him down. He flung himself with rising zest into his work—a bust of Mr. Gladstone from a photograph; turned (with extraordinary success) the difficulty of the back of the head, for which he had no documents beyond a hazy recollection of a public meeting; delighted himself by his treatment of the collar; and was only recalled to the cares of life by Michael Finsbury's rattle at the door.
"Well, what's wrong?" said Michael, advancing to the grate, where, knowing his friend's delight in a bright fire, Mr. Pitman had not spared the fuel. "I suppose you have come to grief somehow."
"There is no expression strong enough," said the artist. "Mr. Semitopolis's statue has not turned up, and I am afraid I shall be answerable for the money; but I think nothing of that—what I fear, my dear Mr. Finsbury, what I fear—alas that I should have to say it!—is exposure. The Hercules was to be smuggled out of Italy; a thing positively wrong, a thing of which a man of my principles and in my responsible position should have taken (as I now see too late) no part whatever."
"This sounds like very serious work," said the lawyer. "It will require a great deal of drink, Pitman."
"I took the liberty of—in short, of being prepared for you," replied the artist, pointing to a kettle, a bottle of gin, a lemon, and glasses.
Michael mixed himself a grog, and offered the artist a cigar.
"No, thank you," said Pitman. "I used occasionally to be rather partial to it, but the smell is so disagreeable about the clothes."
"All right," said the lawyer. "I am comfortable now. Unfold your tale."
At some length Pitman set forth his sorrows. He had gone to-day to Waterloo, expecting to receive the colossal Hercules, and he had received instead a barrel not big enough to hold Discobolus; yet the barrel was addressed in the hand (with which he was perfectly acquainted) of his Roman correspondent. What was stranger still, a case had arrived by the same train, large enough and heavy enough to contain the Hercules; and this case had been taken to an address now undiscoverable. "The vanman (I regret to say it) had been drinking, and his language was such as I could never bring myself to repeat. He was at once discharged by the superintendent of the line, who behaved most properly throughout, and is to make inquiries at Southampton. In the meanwhile, what was I to do? I left my address and brought the barrel home; but, remembering an old adage, I determined not to open it except in the presence of my lawyer."
"Is that all?" asked Michael. "I don't see any cause to worry. The Hercules has stuck upon the road. It will drop in to-morrow or the day after; and as for the barrel, depend upon it, it's a testimonial from one of your young ladies, and probably contains oysters."
"O, don't speak so loud!" cried the little artist. "It would cost me my place if I were heard to speak lightly of the young ladies; and besides, why oysters from Italy? and why should they come to me addressed in Signor Ricardi's hand?"
"Well, let's have a look at it," said Michael. "Let's roll it forward to the light."
The two men rolled the barrel from the corner, and stood it on end before the fire.
"It's heavy enough to be oysters," remarked Michael judiciously.
"Shall we open it at once?" inquired the artist, who had grown decidedly cheerful under the combined effects of company and gin; and without waiting for a reply, he began to strip as if for a prize-fight, tossed his clerical collar in the waste-paper basket, hung his clerical coat upon a nail, and with a chisel in one hand and a hammer in the other, struck the first blow of the evening.
"That's the style, William Dent!" cried Michael. "There's fire for your money! It may be a romantic visit from one of the young ladies—a sort of Cleopatra business. Have a care and don't stave in Cleopatra's head."
But the sight of Pitman's alacrity was infectious. The lawyer could sit still no longer. Tossing his cigar into the fire, he snatched the instrument from the unwilling hands of the artist, and fell to himself. Soon the sweat stood in beads upon his large, fair brow; his stylish trousers were defaced with iron rust, and the state of his chisel testified to misdirected energies.
A cask is not an easy thing to open, even when you set about it in the right way; when you set about it wrongly, the whole structure must be resolved into its elements. Such was the course pursued alike by the artist and the lawyer. Presently the last hoop had been removed—a couple of smart blows tumbled the staves upon the ground—and what had once been a barrel was no more than a confused heap of broken and distorted boards.
In the midst of these, a certain dismal something, swathed in blankets, remained for an instant upright, and then toppled to one side and heavily collapsed before the fire. Even as the thing subsided, an eye-glass tingled to the floor and rolled toward the screaming Pitman.
"Hold your tongue!" said Michael. He dashed to the house door and locked it; then, with a pale face and bitten lip, he drew near, pulled aside a corner of the swathing blanket, and recoiled, shuddering.
There was a long silence in the studio.
"Now tell me," said Michael, in a low voice: "Had you any hand in it?" and he pointed to the body.
The little artist could only utter broken and disjointed sounds.
Michael poured some gin into a glass. "Drink that," he said. "Don't be afraid of me. I'm your friend through thick and thin."
Pitman put the liquor down untasted.
"I swear before God," he said, "this is another mystery to me. In my worst fears I never dreamed of such a thing. I would not lay a finger on a sucking infant."
"That's all square," said Michael, with a sigh of huge relief. "I believe you, old boy." And he shook the artist warmly by the hand. "I thought for a moment," he added with rather a ghastly smile, "I thought for a moment you might have made away with Mr. Semitopolis."
"It would make no difference if I had," groaned Pitman. "All is at an end for me. There's the writing on the wall."
"To begin with," said Michael, "let's get him out of sight; for to be quite plain with you, Pitman, I don't like your friend's appearance." And with that the lawyer shuddered. "Where can we put it?"
"You might put it in the closet there—if you could bear to touch it," answered the artist.
"Somebody has to do it, Pitman," returned the lawyer; "and it seems as if it had to be me. You go over to the table, turn your back, and mix me a grog; that's a fair division of labour."
About ninety seconds later the closet-door was heard to shut.
"There," observed Michael, "that's more home-like. You can turn now, my pallid Pitman. Is this the grog?" he ran on. "Heaven forgive you, it's a lemonade."
"But, O, Finsbury, what are we to do with it?" wailed the artist, laying a clutching hand upon the lawyer's arm.
"Do with it?" repeated Michael. "Bury it in one of your flower-beds, and erect one of your own statues for a monument. I tell you we should look devilish romantic shovelling out the sod by the moon's pale ray. Here, put some gin in this."
"I beg of you, Mr. Finsbury, do not trifle with my misery," cried Pitman. "You see before you a man who has been all his life—I do not hesitate to say it—eminently respectable. Even in this solemn hour I can lay my hand upon my heart without a blush. Except on the really trifling point of the smuggling of the Hercules (and even of that I now humbly repent), my life has been entirely fit for publication. I never feared the light," cried the little man; "and now—now——!"
"Cheer up, old boy," said Michael. "I assure you we should count this little contretemps a trifle at the office; it's the sort of thing that may occur to any one; and if you're perfectly sure you had no hand in it——"
"What language am I to find——" began Pitman.
"O, I'll do that part of it," interrupted Michael, "you have no experience. But the point is this: If—or rather since—you know nothing of the crime, since the—the party in the closet—is neither your father, nor your brother, nor your creditor, nor your mother-in-law, nor what they call an injured husband——"
"O, my dear sir!" interjected Pitman, horrified.
"Since, in short," continued the lawyer, "you had no possible interest in the crime, we have a perfectly free field before us and a safe game to play. Indeed the problem is really entertaining; it is one I have long contemplated in the light of an A. B. case; here it is at last under my hand in specie; and I mean to pull you through. Do you hear that?—I mean to pull you through. Let me see: it's a long time since I have had what I call a genuine holiday; I'll send an excuse to-morrow to the office. We had best be lively," he added significantly; "for we must not spoil the market for the other man."
"What do you mean?" inquired Pitman. "What other man? The inspector of police?"
"Damn the inspector of police!" remarked his companion. "If you won't take the short cut and bury this in your back garden, we must find some one who will bury it in his. We must place the affair, in short, in the hands of some one with fewer scruples and more resources."
"A private detective, perhaps?" suggested Pitman.
"There are times when you fill me with pity," observed the lawyer. "By the way, Pitman," he added in another key, "I have always regretted that you have no piano in this den of yours. Even if you don't play yourself, your friends might like to entertain themselves with a little music while you were mudding."
"I shall get one at once if you like," said Pitman nervously, anxious to please. "I play the fiddle a little as it is."
"I know you do," said Michael; "but what's the fiddle—above all as you play it? What you want is polyphonic music. And I'll tell you what it is—since it's too late for you to buy a piano I'll give you mine."
"Thank you," said the artist blankly. "You will give me yours? I am sure it's very good in you."
"Yes, I'll give you mine," continued Michael, "for the inspector of police to play on while his men are digging up your back garden."
Pitman stared at him in pained amazement.
"No, I'm not insane," Michael went on. "I'm playful, but quite coherent. See here, Pitman: follow me one half minute. I mean to profit by the refreshing fact that we are really and truly innocent; nothing but the presence of the—you know what—connects us with the crime; once let us get rid of it, no matter how, and there is no possible clue to trace us by. Well, I give you my piano; we'll bring it round this very night. To-morrow we rip the fittings out, deposit the—our friend—inside, plump the whole on a cart, and carry it to the chambers of a young gentleman whom I know by sight."
"Whom do you know by sight?" repeated Pitman.
"And what is more to the purpose," continued Michael, "whose chambers I know better than he does himself. A friend of mine—I call him my friend for brevity; he is now, I understand, in Demerara and (most likely) in gaol—was the previous occupant. I defended him, and I got him off too—all saved but honour; his assets were nil, but he gave me what he had, poor gentleman, and along with the rest—the key of his chambers. It's there that I propose to leave the piano and, shall we say, Cleopatra?"
"It seems very wild," said Pitman. "And what will become of the poor young gentleman whom you know by sight?"
"It will do him good," said Michael cheerily. "Just what he wants to steady him."
"But, my dear sir, he might be involved in a charge of—a charge of murder," gulped the artist.
"Well, he'll be just where we are," returned the lawyer. "He's innocent, you see. What hangs people, my dear Pitman, is the unfortunate circumstance of guilt."
"But indeed, indeed," pleaded Pitman, "the whole scheme appears to me so wild. Would it not be safer, after all, just to send for the police?"
"And make a scandal?" inquired Michael. "'The Chelsea Mystery; alleged innocence of Pitman'? How would that do at the Seminary?"
"It would imply my discharge," admitted the drawing-master. "I cannot deny that."
"And besides," said Michael, "I am not going to embark in such a business and have no fun for my money."
"O my dear sir, is that a proper spirit?" cried Pitman.
"O, I only said that to cheer you up," said the unabashed Michael. "Nothing like a little judicious levity. But it's quite needless to discuss. If you mean to follow my advice, come on, and let us get the piano at once. If you don't, just drop me the word, and I'll leave you to deal with the whole thing according to your better judgment."
"You know perfectly well that I depend on you entirely," returned Pitman. "But O, what a night is before me with that—horror in my studio! How am I to think of it on my pillow?"
"Well, you know, my piano will be there too," said Michael. "That'll raise the average."
An hour later a cart came up the lane, and the lawyer's piano—a momentous Broadwood grand—was deposited in Mr. Pitman's studio.
IN WHICH MICHAEL FINSBURY ENJOYS A HOLIDAY
Punctually at eight o'clock next morning the lawyer rattled (according to previous appointment) on the studio door. He found the artist sadly altered for the worse—bleached, bloodshot, and chalky—a man upon wires, the tail of his haggard eye still wandering to the closet. Nor was the professor of drawing less inclined to wonder at his friend. Michael was usually attired in the height of fashion, with a certain mercantile brilliancy best described perhaps as stylish; nor could anything be said against him, as a rule, but that he looked a trifle too like a wedding guest to be quite a gentleman. To-day he had fallen altogether from these heights. He wore a flannel shirt of washed-out shepherd's tartan, and a suit of reddish tweeds, of the colour known to tailors as "heather mixture"; his neckcloth was black, and tied loosely in a sailor's knot; a rusty ulster partly concealed these advantages; and his feet were shod with rough walking boots. His hat was an old soft felt, which he removed with a flourish as he entered.
"Here I am, William Dent!" he cried, and drawing from his pocket two little wisps of reddish hair, he held them to his cheeks like side-whiskers and danced about the studio with the filmy graces of a ballet-girl.
Pitman laughed sadly. "I should never have known you," said he.
"Nor were you intended to," returned Michael, replacing his false whiskers in his pocket. "Now we must overhaul you and your wardrobe, and disguise you up to the nines."
"Disguise!" cried the artist. "Must I indeed disguise myself? Has it come to that?"
"My dear creature," returned his companion, "disguise is the spice of life. What is life, passionately exclaimed a French philosopher, without the pleasures of disguise? I don't say it's always good taste, and I know it's unprofessional; but what's the odds, downhearted drawing-master? It has to be. We have to leave a false impression on the minds of many persons, and in particular on the mind of Mr. Gideon Forsyth—the young gentleman I know by sight—if he should have the bad taste to be at home."
"If he be at home?" faltered the artist. "That would be the end of all."
"Won't matter a d——," returned Michael airily. "Let me see your clothes, and I'll make a new man of you in a jiffy."
In the bedroom, to which he was at once conducted, Michael examined Pitman's poor and scanty wardrobe with a humorous eye, picked out a short jacket of black alpaca, and presently added to that a pair of summer trousers which somehow took his fancy as incongruous. Then, with the garments in his hand, he scrutinised the artist closely.
"I don't like that clerical collar," he remarked. "Have you nothing else?"
The professor of drawing pondered for a moment, and then brightened; "I have a pair of low-necked shirts," he said, "that I used to wear in Paris as a student. They are rather loud."
"The very thing!" ejaculated Michael. "You'll look perfectly beastly. Here are spats, too," he continued, drawing forth a pair of those offensive little gaiters. "Must have spats! And now you jump into these, and whistle a tune at the window for (say) three-quarters of an hour. After that you can rejoin me on the field of glory."
So saying, Michael returned to the studio. It was the morning of the easterly gale; the wind blew shrilly among the statues in the garden, and drove the rain upon the skylight in the studio ceiling; and at about the same moment of the time when Morris attacked the hundredth version of his uncle's signature in Bloomsbury, Michael, in Chelsea, began to rip the wires out of the Broadwood grand.
Three-quarters of an hour later Pitman was admitted, to find the closet-door standing open, the closet untenanted, and the piano discreetly shut.
"It's a remarkably heavy instrument," observed Michael, and turned to consider his friend's disguise. "You must shave off that beard of yours," he said.
"My beard!" cried Pitman. "I cannot shave my beard. I cannot tamper with my appearance—my principals would object. They hold very strong views as to the appearance of the professors—young ladies are considered so romantic. My beard was regarded as quite a feature when I went about the place. It was regarded," said the artist, with rising colour, "it was regarded as unbecoming."
"You can let it grow again," returned Michael, "and then you'll be so precious ugly that they'll raise your salary."
"But I don't want to be ugly," cried the artist.
"Don't be an ass," said Michael, who hated beards and was delighted to destroy one. "Off with it like a man!"
"Of course, if you insist," said Pitman; and then he sighed, fetched some hot water from the kitchen, and setting a glass upon his easel, first clipped his beard with scissors and then shaved his chin. He could not conceal from himself, as he regarded the result, that his last claims to manhood had been sacrificed, but Michael seemed delighted.
"A new man, I declare!" he cried. "When I give you the window-glass spectacles I have in my pocket, you'll be the beau-ideal of a French commercial traveller."
Pitman did not reply, but continued to gaze disconsolately on his image in the glass.
"Do you know," asked Michael, "what the Governor of South Carolina said to the Governor of North Carolina? 'It's a long time between drinks,' observed that powerful thinker; and if you will put your hand into the top left-hand pocket of my ulster, I have an impression you will find a flask of brandy. Thank you, Pitman," he added, as he filled out a glass for each. "Now you will give me news of this."
The artist reached out his hand for the water-jug, but Michael arrested the movement.
"Not if you went upon your knees!" he cried. "This is the finest liqueur brandy in Great Britain."
Pitman put his lips to it, set it down again, and sighed.
"Well, I must say you're the poorest companion for a holiday!" cried Michael. "If that's all you know of brandy, you shall have no more of it; and while I finish the flask, you may as well begin business. Come to think of it," he broke off, "I have made an abominable error: you should have ordered the cart before you were disguised. Why, Pitman, what the devil's the use of you? why couldn't you have reminded me of that?"
"I never even knew there was a cart to be ordered," said the artist. "But I can take off the disguise again," he suggested eagerly.
"You would find it rather a bother to put on your beard," observed the lawyer. "No, it's a false step; the sort of thing that hangs people," he continued, with eminent cheerfulness, as he sipped his brandy; "and it can't be retraced now. Off to the mews with you, make all the arrangements; they're to take the piano from here, cart it to Victoria, and despatch it thence by rail to Cannon Street, to lie till called for in the name of Fortune du Boisgobey."
"Isn't that rather an awkward name?" pleaded Pitman.
"Awkward?" cried Michael scornfully. "It would hang us both! Brown is both safer and easier to pronounce. Call it Brown."
"I wish," said Pitman, "for my sake, I wish you wouldn't talk so much of hanging."
"Talking about it's nothing, my boy!" returned Michael. "But take your hat and be off, and mind and pay everything beforehand."
Left to himself, the lawyer turned his attention for some time exclusively to the liqueur brandy, and his spirits, which had been pretty fair all morning, now prodigiously rose. He proceeded to adjust his whiskers finally before the glass. "Devilish rich," he remarked, as he contemplated his reflection. "I look like a purser's mate." And at that moment the window-glass spectacles (which he had hitherto destined for Pitman) flashed into his mind; he put them on, and fell in love with the effect. "Just what I required," he said. "I wonder what I look like now? A humorous novelist, I should think," and he began to practise divers characters of walk, naming them to himself as he proceeded. "Walk of a humorous novelist—but that would require an umbrella. Walk of a purser's mate. Walk of an Australian colonist revisiting the scenes of childhood. Walk of Sepoy colonel, ditto, ditto." And in the midst of the Sepoy colonel (which was an excellent assumption, although inconsistent with the style of his make-up), his eye lighted on the piano. This instrument was made to lock both at the top and at the keyboard, but the key of the latter had been mislaid. Michael opened it and ran his fingers over the dumb keys. "Fine instrument—full, rich tone," he observed, and he drew in a seat.
When Mr. Pitman returned to the studio, he was appalled to observe his guide, philosopher, and friend performing miracles of execution on the silent grand.
"Heaven help me!" thought the little man, "I fear he has been drinking! Mr. Finsbury," he said aloud; and Michael, without rising, turned upon him a countenance somewhat flushed, encircled with the bush of the red whiskers, and bestridden by the spectacles. "Capriccio in B-flat on the departure of a friend," said he, continuing his noiseless evolutions.
Indignation awoke in the mind of Pitman. "Those spectacles were to be mine," he cried. "They are an essential part of my disguise."
"I am going to wear them myself," replied Michael; and he added, with some show of truth, "There would be a devil of a lot of suspicion aroused if we both wore spectacles."
"O, well," said the assenting Pitman, "I rather counted on them; but of course, if you insist. And at any rate, here is the cart at the door."
While the men were at work, Michael concealed himself in the closet among the debris of the barrel and the wires of the piano; and as soon as the coast was clear the pair sallied forth by the lane, jumped into a hansom in the King's Road, and were driven rapidly toward town. It was still cold and raw and boisterous; the rain beat strongly in their faces, but Michael refused to have the glass let down; he had now suddenly donned the character of cicerone, and pointed out and lucidly commented on the sights of London, as they drove. "My dear fellow," he said, "you don't seem to know anything of your native city. Suppose we visited the Tower? No? Well, perhaps it's a trifle out of our way. But, anyway—Here, cabby, drive round by Trafalgar Square!" And on that historic battle-field he insisted on drawing up, while he criticised the statues and gave the artist many curious details (quite new to history) of the lives of the celebrated men they represented.
It would be difficult to express what Pitman suffered in the cab: cold, wet, terror in the capital degree, a grounded distrust of the commander under whom he served, a sense of imprudency in the matter of the low-necked shirt, a bitter sense of the decline and fall involved in the deprivation of his beard, all these were among the ingredients of the bowl. To reach the restaurant, for which they were deviously steering, was the first relief. To hear Michael bespeak a private room was a second and a still greater. Nor, as they mounted the stair under the guidance of an unintelligible alien, did he fail to note with gratitude the fewness of the persons present, or the still more cheering fact that the greater part of these were exiles from the land of France. It was thus a blessed thought that none of them would be connected with the Seminary; for even the French professor, though admittedly a Papist, he could scarce imagine frequenting so rakish an establishment.
The alien introduced them into a small bare room with a single table, a sofa, and a dwarfish fire; and Michael called promptly for more coals and a couple of brandies and sodas.
"O, no," said Pitman, "surely not—no more to drink."
"I don't know what you would be at," said Michael plaintively. "It's positively necessary to do something; and one shouldn't smoke before meals—I thought that was understood. You seem to have no idea of hygiene." And he compared his watch with the clock upon the chimney-piece.
Pitman fell into bitter musing; here he was, ridiculously shorn, absurdly disguised, in the company of a drunken man in spectacles, and waiting for a champagne luncheon in a restaurant painfully foreign. What would his principals think, if they could see him? What if they knew his tragic and deceitful errand?
From these reflections he was aroused by the entrance of the alien with the brandies and sodas. Michael took one and bade the waiter pass the other to his friend.
Pitman waved it from him with his hand. "Don't let me lose all self-respect," he said.
"Anything to oblige a friend," returned Michael. "But I'm not going to drink alone. Here," he added to the waiter, "you take it." And, then, touching glasses, "The health of Mr. Gideon Forsyth," said he.
"Meestare Gidden Borsye," replied the waiter, and he tossed off the liquor in four gulps.
"Have another?" said Michael, with undisguised interest. "I never saw a man drink faster. It restores one's confidence in the human race."
But the waiter excused himself politely, and, assisted by some one from without, began to bring in lunch.
Michael made an excellent meal, which he washed down with a bottle of Heidsieck's dry monopole. As for the artist, he was far too uneasy to eat, and his companion flatly refused to let him share in the champagne unless he did.
"One of us must stay sober," remarked the lawyer, "and I won't give you champagne on the strength of a leg of grouse. I have to be cautious," he added confidentially. "One drunken man, excellent business—two drunken men, all my eye."
On the production of coffee and departure of the waiter, Michael might have been observed to make portentous efforts after gravity of mien. He looked his friend in the face (one eye perhaps a trifle off), and addressed him thickly but severely.
"Enough of this fooling," was his not inappropriate exordium. "To business. Mark me closely. I am an Australian. My name is John Dickson, though you mightn't think it from my unassuming appearance. You will be relieved to hear that I am rich, sir, very rich. You can't go into this sort of thing too thoroughly, Pitman; the whole secret is preparation, and I can get up my biography from the beginning, and I could tell it you now, only I have forgotten it."
"Perhaps I'm stupid——" began Pitman.
"That's it!" cried Michael. "Very stupid; but rich too—richer than I am. I thought you would enjoy it, Pitman, so I've arranged that you were to be literally wallowing in wealth. But then, on the other hand, you're only an American, and a maker of india-rubber overshoes at that. And the worst of it is—why should I conceal it from you?—the worst of it is that you're called Ezra Thomas. Now," said Michael, with a really appalling seriousness of manner, "tell me who we are."
The unfortunate little man was cross-examined till he knew these facts by heart.
"There!" cried the lawyer. "Our plans are laid. Thoroughly consistent—that's the great thing."
"But I don't understand," objected Pitman.
"O, you'll understand right enough when it comes to the point," said Michael, rising.
"There doesn't seem any story to it," said the artist.
"We can invent one as we go along," returned the lawyer.
"But I can't invent," protested Pitman. "I never could invent in all my life."
"You'll find you'll have to, my boy," was Michael's easy comment, and he began calling for the waiter, with whom he at once resumed a sparkling conversation.
It was a downcast little man that followed him. "Of course he is very clever, but can I trust him in such a state?" he asked himself. And when they were once more in a hansom, he took heart of grace.
"Don't you think," he faltered, "it would be wiser, considering all things, to put this business off?"
"Put off till to-morrow what can be done to-day?" cried Michael, with indignation. "Never heard of such a thing! Cheer up, it's all right, go in and win—there's a lion-hearted Pitman!"
At Cannon Street they inquired for Mr. Brown's piano, which had duly arrived, drove thence to a neighbouring mews, where they contracted for a cart, and while that was being got ready, took shelter in the harness-room beside the stove. Here the lawyer presently toppled against the wall and fell into a gentle slumber; so that Pitman found himself launched on his own resources in the midst of several staring loafers, such as love to spend unprofitable days about a stable.
"Rough day, sir," observed one. "Do you go far?"
"Yes, it's a—rather a rough day," said the artist; and then, feeling that he must change the conversation, "My friend is an Australian; he is very impulsive," he added.
"An Australian?" said another. "I've a brother myself in Melbourne. Does your friend come from that way at all?"
"No, not exactly," replied the artist, whose ideas of the geography of New Holland were a little scattered. "He lives immensely far inland, and is very rich."
The loafers gazed with great respect upon the slumbering colonist.
"Well," remarked the second speaker, "it's a mighty big place, is Australia. Do you come from thereaway too?"
"No, I do not," said Pitman. "I do not, and I don't want to," he added irritably. And then, feeling some diversion needful, he fell upon Michael and shook him up.
"Hullo," said the lawyer, "what's wrong?"
"The cart is nearly ready," said Pitman sternly. "I will not allow you to sleep."
"All right—no offence, old man," replied Michael, yawning. "A little sleep never did anybody any harm; I feel comparatively sober now. But what's all the hurry?" he added, looking round him glassily. "I don't see the cart, and I've forgotten where we left the piano."
What more the lawyer might have said, in the confidence of the moment, is with Pitman a matter of tremulous conjecture to this day; but by the most blessed circumstance the cart was then announced, and Michael must bend the forces of his mind to the more difficult task of rising.
"Of course you'll drive," he remarked to his companion, as he clambered on the vehicle.
"I drive!" cried Pitman. "I never did such a thing in my life. I cannot drive."
"Very well," responded Michael with entire composure, "neither can I see. But just as you like. Anything to oblige a friend."
A glimpse of the ostler's darkening countenance decided Pitman. "All right," he said desperately, "you drive. I'll tell you where to go."
On Michael in the character of charioteer (since this is not intended to be a novel of adventure) it would be superfluous to dwell at length. Pitman, as he sat holding on and gasping counsels, sole witness of this singular feat, knew not whether most to admire the driver's valour or his undeserved good fortune. But the latter at least prevailed, the cart reached Cannon Street without disaster; and Mr. Brown's piano was speedily and cleverly got on board.
"Well, sir," said the leading porter, smiling as he mentally reckoned up a handful of loose silver, "that's a mortal heavy piano."
"It's the richness of the tone," returned Michael, as he drove away.
It was but a little distance in the rain, which now fell thick and quiet, to the neighbourhood of Mr. Gideon Forsyth's chambers in the Temple. There, in a deserted by-street, Michael drew up the horses and gave them in charge to a blighted shoe-black; and the pair descending from the cart, whereon they had figured so incongruously, set forth on foot for the decisive scene of their adventure. For the first time Michael displayed a shadow of uneasiness.
"Are my whiskers right?" he asked. "It would be the devil and all if I was spotted."
"They are perfectly in their place," returned Pitman, with scant attention. "But is my disguise equally effective? There is nothing more likely than that I should meet some of my patrons."
"O, nobody could tell you without your beard," said Michael. "All you have to do is to remember to speak slow; you speak through your nose already."
"I only hope the young man won't be at home," sighed Pitman.
"And I only hope he'll be alone," returned the lawyer. "It will save a precious sight of manoeuvring."
And sure enough, when they had knocked at the door, Gideon admitted them in person to a room, warmed by a moderate fire, framed nearly to the roof in works connected with the bench of British Themis, and offering, except in one particular, eloquent testimony to the legal zeal of the proprietor. The one particular was the chimney-piece, which displayed a varied assortment of pipes, tobacco, cigar-boxes, and yellow-backed French novels.
"Mr. Forsyth, I believe?" It was Michael who thus opened the engagement. "We have come to trouble you with a piece of business. I fear it's scarcely professional——"
"I am afraid I ought to be instructed through a solicitor," replied Gideon.
"Well, well, you shall name your own, and the whole affair can be put on a more regular footing to-morrow," replied Michael, taking a chair and motioning Pitman to do the same. "But you see we didn't know any solicitors; we did happen to know of you, and time presses."
"May I inquire, gentlemen," asked Gideon, "to whom it was I am indebted for a recommendation?"
"You may inquire," returned the lawyer, with a foolish laugh; "but I was invited not to tell you—till the thing was done."
"My uncle, no doubt," was the barrister's conclusion.
"My name is John Dickson," continued Michael; "a pretty well-known name in Ballarat; and my friend here is Mr. Ezra Thomas, of the United States of America, a wealthy manufacturer of india-rubber overshoes."
"Stop one moment till I make a note of that," said Gideon; any one might have supposed he was an old practitioner.
"Perhaps you wouldn't mind my smoking a cigar?" asked Michael. He had pulled himself together for the entrance; now again there began to settle on his mind clouds of irresponsible humour and incipient slumber; and he hoped (as so many have hoped in the like case) that a cigar would clear him.
"Oh, certainly," cried Gideon blandly. "Try one of mine; I can confidently recommend them." And he handed the box to his client.
"In case I don't make myself perfectly clear," observed the Australian, "it's perhaps best to tell you candidly that I've been lunching. It's a thing that may happen to any one."
"O, certainly," replied the affable barrister. "But please be under no sense of hurry. I can give you," he added, thoughtfully consulting his watch—"yes, I can give you the whole afternoon."
"The business that brings me here," resumed the Australian with gusto, "is devilish delicate, I can tell you. My friend Mr. Thomas, being an American of Portuguese extraction, unacquainted with our habits, and a wealthy manufacturer of Broadwood pianos—"
"Broadwood pianos?" cried Gideon, with some surprise. "Dear me, do I understand Mr. Thomas to be a member of the firm?"
"O, pirated Broadwoods," returned Michael. "My friend's the American Broadwood."
"But I understood you to say," objected Gideon, "I certainly have it so in my notes—that your friend was a manufacturer of india-rubber overshoes."
"I know it's confusing at first," said the Australian, with a beaming smile. "But he—in short, he combines the two professions. And many others besides—many, many, many others," repeated Mr. Dickson, with drunken solemnity. "Mr. Thomas's cotton-mills are one of the sights of Tallahassee; Mr. Thomas's tobacco-mills are the pride of Richmond, Va.; in short, he's one of my oldest friends, Mr. Forsyth, and I lay his case before you with emotion."
The barrister looked at Mr. Thomas and was agreeably prepossessed by his open although nervous countenance, and the simplicity and timidity of his manner. "What a people are these Americans!" he thought. "Look at this nervous, weedy, simple little bird in a low-necked shirt, and think of him wielding and directing interests so extended and seemingly incongruous! But had we not better," he observed aloud, "had we not perhaps better approach the facts?"
"Man of business, I perceive, sir!" said the Australian. "Let's approach the facts. It's a breach of promise case."
The unhappy artist was so unprepared for this view of his position that he could scarce suppress a cry.
"Dear me," said Gideon, "they are apt to be very troublesome. Tell me everything about it," he added kindly; "if you require my assistance, conceal nothing."
"You tell him," said Michael, feeling, apparently, that he had done his share. "My friend will tell you all about it," he added to Gideon, with a yawn. "Excuse my closing my eyes a moment; I've been sitting up with a sick friend."
Pitman gazed blankly about the room; rage and despair seethed in his innocent spirit; thoughts of flight, thoughts even of suicide, came and went before him; and still the barrister patiently waited, and still the artist groped in vain for any form of words, however insignificant.
"It's a breach of promise case," he said at last, in a low voice. "I—I am threatened with a breach of promise case." Here, in desperate quest of inspiration, he made a clutch at his beard; his fingers closed upon the unfamiliar smoothness of a shaven chin; and with that, hope and courage (if such expressions could ever have been appropriate in the case of Pitman) conjointly fled. He shook Michael roughly. "Wake up!" he cried, with genuine irritation in his tones. "I cannot do it, and you know I can't."
"You must excuse my friend," said Michael; "he's no hand as a narrator of stirring incident. The case is simple," he went on. "My friend is a man of very strong passions, and accustomed to a simple, patriarchal style of life. You see the thing from here: unfortunate visit to Europe, followed by unfortunate acquaintance with sham foreign count, who has a lovely daughter. Mr. Thomas was quite carried away; he proposed, he was accepted, and he wrote—wrote in a style which I am sure he must regret to-day. If these letters are produced in court, sir, Mr. Thomas's character is gone."
"Am I to understand——" began Gideon.
"My dear sir," said the Australian emphatically, "it isn't possible to understand unless you saw them."
"That is a painful circumstance," said Gideon; he glanced pityingly in the direction of the culprit, and, observing on his countenance every mark of confusion, pityingly withdrew his eyes.
"And that would be nothing," continued Mr. Dickson sternly, "but I wish—I wish from my heart, sir, I could say that Mr. Thomas's hands were clean. He has no excuse; for he was engaged at the time—and is still engaged—to the belle of Constantinople, Ga. My friend's conduct was unworthy of the brutes that perish."
"Ga.?" repeated Gideon inquiringly.
"A contraction in current use," said Michael. "Ga. for Georgia, in the same way as Co. for Company."
"I was aware it was sometimes so written," returned the barrister, "but not that it was so pronounced."
"Fact, I assure you," said Michael. "You now see for yourself, sir, that if this unhappy person is to be saved, some devilish sharp practice will be needed. There's money, and no desire to spare it. Mr. Thomas could write a cheque to-morrow for a hundred thousand. And, Mr. Forsyth, there's better than money. The foreign count—Count Tarnow, he calls himself—was formerly a tobacconist in Bayswater, and passed under the humble but expressive name of Schmidt; his daughter—if she is his daughter—there's another point—make a note of that, Mr. Forsyth—his daughter at that time actually served in the shop—and she now proposes to marry a man of the eminence of Mr. Thomas! Now do you see our game? We know they contemplate a move; and we wish to forestall 'em. Down you go to Hampton Court, where they live, and threaten, or bribe, or both, until you get the letters; if you can't, God help us, we must go to court and Thomas must be exposed. I'll be done with him for one," added the unchivalrous friend.
"There seem some elements of success," said Gideon. "Was Schmidt at all known to the police?"
"We hope so," said Michael. "We have every ground to think so. Mark the neighbourhood—Bayswater! Doesn't Bayswater occur to you as very suggestive?"
For perhaps the sixth time during this remarkable interview, Gideon wondered if he were not becoming light-headed. "I suppose it's just because he has been lunching," he thought; and then added aloud, "To what figure may I go?"
"Perhaps five thousand would be enough for to-day," said Michael. "And now, sir, do not let me detain you any longer; the afternoon wears on; there are plenty of trains to Hampton Court; and I needn't try to describe to you the impatience of my friend. Here is a five-pound note for current expenses; and here is the address." And Michael began to write, paused, tore up the paper, and put the pieces in his pocket. "I will dictate," he said, "my writing is so uncertain."
Gideon took down the address, "Count Tarnow, Kurnaul Villa, Hampton Court." Then he wrote something else on a sheet of paper. "You said you had not chosen a solicitor," he said. "For a case of this sort, here is the best man in London." And he handed the paper to Michael.
"God bless me!" ejaculated Michael, as he read his own address.
"O, I daresay you have seen his name connected with some rather painful cases," said Gideon. "But he is himself a perfectly honest man, and his capacity is recognised. And now, gentlemen, it only remains for me to ask where I shall communicate with you."
"The Langham, of course," returned Michael. "Till to-night."
"Till to-night," replied Gideon, smiling. "I suppose I may knock you up at a late hour?"
"Any hour, any hour," cried the vanishing solicitor.
"Now there's a young fellow with a head upon his shoulders," he said to Pitman, as soon as they were in the street.
Pitman was indistinctly heard to murmur, "Perfect fool."
"Not a bit of him," returned Michael. "He knows who's the best solicitor in London, and it's not every man can say the same. But, I say, didn't I pitch it in hot?"
Pitman returned no answer.
"Hullo!" said the lawyer, pausing, "what's wrong with the long-suffering Pitman?"
"You had no right to speak of me as you did," the artist broke out; "your language was perfectly unjustifiable; you have wounded me deeply."
"I never said a word about you," replied Michael. "I spoke of Ezra Thomas; and do please remember that there's no such party."
"It's just as hard to bear," said the artist.
But by this time they had reached the corner of the by-street; and there was the faithful shoeblack, standing by the horses' heads with a splendid assumption of dignity; and there was the piano, figuring forlorn upon the cart, while the rain beat upon its unprotected sides and trickled down its elegantly varnished legs.
The shoeblack was again put in requisition to bring five or six strong fellows from the neighbouring public-house; and the last battle of the campaign opened. It is probable that Mr. Gideon Forsyth had not yet taken his seat in the train for Hampton Court, before Michael opened the door of the chambers, and the grunting porters deposited the Broadwood grand in the middle of the floor.
"And now," said the lawyer, after he had sent the men about their business, "one more precaution. We must leave him the key of the piano, and we must contrive that he shall find it. Let me see." And he built a square tower of cigars upon the top of the instrument, and dropped the key into the middle.
"Poor young man," said the artist, as they descended the stairs.
"He is in a devil of a position," assented Michael drily. "It'll brace him up."
"And that reminds me," observed the excellent Pitman, "that I fear I displayed a most ungrateful temper. I had no right, I see, to resent expressions, wounding as they were, which were in no sense directed."
"That's all right," cried Michael, getting on the cart. "Not a word more, Pitman. Very proper feeling on your part; no man of self-respect can stand by and hear his alias insulted."
The rain had now ceased, Michael was fairly sober, the body had been disposed of, and the friends were reconciled. The return to the mews was therefore (in comparison with previous stages of the day's adventures) quite a holiday outing; and when they had returned the cart and walked forth again from the stable-yard, unchallenged, and even unsuspected, Pitman drew a deep breath of joy.
"And now," he said, "we can go home."
"Pitman," said the lawyer, stopping short, "your recklessness fills me with concern. What! we have been wet through the greater part of the day, and you propose, in cold blood, to go home! No, sir—hot Scotch."
And taking his friend's arm he led him sternly towards the nearest public-house. Nor was Pitman (I regret to say) wholly unwilling. Now that peace was restored and the body gone, a certain innocent skittishness began to appear in the manners of the artist; and when he touched his steaming glass to Michael's, he giggled aloud like a venturesome school-girl at a picnic.
GLORIOUS CONCLUSION OF MICHAEL FINSBURY'S HOLIDAY
I know Michael Finsbury personally; my business—I know the awkwardness of having such a man for a lawyer—still it's an old story now, and there is such a thing as gratitude, and, in short, my legal business, although now (I am thankful to say) of quite a placid character, remains entirely in Michael's hands. But the trouble is I have no natural talent for addresses; I learn one for every man—that is friendship's offering; and the friend who subsequently changes his residence is dead to me, memory refusing to pursue him. Thus it comes about that, as I always write to Michael at his office, I cannot swear to his number in the King's Road. Of course (like my neighbours), I have been to dinner there. Of late years, since his accession to wealth, neglect of business, and election to the club, these little festivals have become common. He picks up a few fellows in the smoking-room—all men of Attic wit—myself, for instance, if he has the luck to find me disengaged; a string of hansoms may be observed (by Her Majesty) bowling gaily through St. James's Park; and in a quarter of an hour the party surrounds one of the best appointed boards in London.
But at the time of which we write the house in the King's Road (let us still continue to call it No. 233) was kept very quiet; when Michael entertained guests it was at the halls of Nichol or Verrey that he would convene them, and the door of his private residence remained closed against his friends. The upper story, which was sunny, was set apart for his father; the drawing-room was never opened; the dining-room was the scene of Michael's life. It is in this pleasant apartment, sheltered from the curiosity of King's Road by wire blinds, and entirely surrounded by the lawyer's unrivalled library of poetry and criminal trials, that we find him sitting down to his dinner after his holiday with Pitman. A spare old lady, with very bright eyes and a mouth humorously compressed, waited upon the lawyer's needs; in every line of her countenance she betrayed the fact that she was an old retainer; in every word that fell from her lips she flaunted the glorious circumstance of a Scottish origin; and the fear with which this powerful combination fills the boldest was obviously no stranger to the bosom of our friend. The hot Scotch having somewhat warmed up the embers of the Heidsieck, it was touching to observe the master's eagerness to pull himself together under the servant's eye; and when he remarked, "I think, Teena, I'll take a brandy and soda," he spoke like a man doubtful of his elocution, and not half certain of obedience.
"No such a thing, Mr. Michael," was the prompt return. "Clar't and water."
"Well, well, Teena, I daresay you know best," said the master. "Very fatiguing day at the office, though."
"What?" said the retainer, "ye never were near the office!"
"O yes, I was though; I was repeatedly along Fleet Street," returned Michael.
"Pretty pliskies ye've been at this day!" cried the old lady, with humorous alacrity; and then, "Take care—don't break my crystal!" she cried, as the lawyer came within an ace of knocking the glasses off the table.
"And how is he keeping?" asked Michael.
"O, just the same, Mr. Michael, just the way he'll be till the end, worthy man!" was the reply. "But ye'll not be the first that's asked me that the day."
"No?" said the lawyer. "Who else?"
"Ay, that's a joke, too," said Teena grimly. "A friend of yours: Mr. Morris."
"Morris! What was the little beggar wanting here?" inquired Michael.
"Wantin'? To see him," replied the housekeeper, completing her meaning by a movement of the thumb toward the upper story. "That's by his way of it; but I've an idee of my own. He tried to bribe me, Mr. Michael. Bribe—me!" she repeated, with inimitable scorn. "That's no' kind of a young gentleman."
"Did he so?" said Michael. "I bet he didn't offer much."
"No more he did," replied Teena; nor could any subsequent questioning elicit from her the sum with which the thrifty leather merchant had attempted to corrupt her. "But I sent him about his business," she said gallantly. "He'll not come here again in a hurry."
"He mustn't see my father, you know; mind that!" said Michael. "I'm not going to have any public exhibition to a little beast like him."
"No fear of me lettin' him," replied the trusty one. "But the joke is this, Mr. Michael—see, ye're upsettin' the sauce, that's a clean table-cloth—the best of the joke is that he thinks your father's dead and you're keepin' it dark."
Michael whistled. "Set a thief to catch a thief," said he.
"Exac'ly what I told him!" cried the delighted dame.
"I'll make him dance for that," said Michael.
"Couldn't ye get the law of him some way?" suggested Teena truculently.
"No, I don't think I could, and I'm quite sure I don't want to," replied Michael. "But I say, Teena, I really don't believe this claret's wholesome; it's not a sound, reliable wine. Give us a brandy and soda, there's a good soul." Teena's face became like adamant. "Well, then," said the lawyer fretfully, "I won't eat any more dinner."
"Ye can please yourself about that, Mr. Michael," said Teena, and began composedly to take away.
"I do wish Teena wasn't a faithful servant!" sighed the lawyer, as he issued into King's Road.
The rain had ceased; the wind still blew, but only with a pleasant freshness; the town, in the clear darkness of the night, glittered with street-lamps and shone with glancing rain-pools. "Come, this is better," thought the lawyer to himself, and he walked on eastward, lending a pleased ear to the wheels and the million footfalls of the city.
Near the end of the King's Road he remembered his brandy and soda, and entered a flaunting public-house. A good many persons were present, a waterman from a cab-stand, half a dozen of the chronically unemployed, a gentleman (in one corner) trying to sell aesthetic photographs out of a leather case to another and very youthful gentleman with a yellow goatee, and a pair of lovers debating some fine shade (in the other). But the centrepiece and great attraction was a little old man, in a black, ready-made surtout, which was obviously a recent purchase. On the marble table in front of him, beside a sandwich and a glass of beer, there lay a battered forage-cap. His hand fluttered abroad with oratorical gestures; his voice, naturally shrill, was plainly tuned to the pitch of the lecture-room; and by arts, comparable to those of the Ancient Mariner, he was now holding spell-bound the barmaid, the waterman, and four of the unemployed.
"I have examined all the theatres in London," he was saying; "and pacing the principal entrances, I have ascertained them to be ridiculously disproportionate to the requirements of their audiences. The doors opened the wrong way—I forget at this moment which it is, but have a note of it at home; they were frequently locked during the performance, and when the auditorium was literally thronged with English people. You have probably not had my opportunities of comparing distant lands; but I can assure you this has been long ago recognised as a mark of aristocratic government. Do you suppose, in a country really self-governed, such abuses could exist? Your own intelligence, however uncultivated, tells you they could not. Take Austria, a country even possibly more enslaved than England. I have myself conversed with one of the survivors of the Ring Theatre, and though his colloquial German was not very good, I succeeded in gathering a pretty clear idea of his opinion of the case. But, what will perhaps interest you still more, here is a cutting on the subject from a Vienna newspaper, which I will now read to you, translating as I go. You can see for yourselves; it is printed in the German character." And he held the cutting out for verification, much as a conjurer passes a trick orange along the front bench.
"Hullo, old gentleman! Is this you?" said Michael, laying his hand upon the orator's shoulder.
The figure turned with a convulsion of alarm, and showed the countenance of Mr. Joseph Finsbury.
"You, Michael!" he cried. "There's no one with you, is there?"
"No," replied Michael, ordering a brandy and soda, "there's nobody with me; whom do you expect?"
"I thought of Morris or John," said the old gentleman, evidently greatly relieved.
"What the devil would I be doing with Morris or John?" cried the nephew.
"There is something in that," returned Joseph. "And I believe I can trust you. I believe you will stand by me."
"I hardly know what you mean," said the lawyer, "but if you are in need of money I am flush."
"It's not that, my dear boy," said the uncle, shaking him by the hand. "I'll tell you all about it afterwards."
"All right," responded the nephew. "I stand treat, Uncle Joseph; what will you have?"
"In that case," replied the old gentleman, "I'll take another sandwich. I daresay I surprise you," he went on, "with my presence in a public-house; but the fact is, I act on a sound but little-known principle of my own—"
"O, it's better known than you suppose," said Michael sipping his brandy and soda. "I always act on it myself when I want a drink."
The old gentleman, who was anxious to propitiate Michael, laughed a cheerless laugh. "You have such a flow of spirits," said he, "I am sure I often find it quite amusing. But regarding this principle of which I was about to speak. It is that of accommodating one's-self to the manners of any land (however humble) in which our lot may be cast. Now, in France, for instance, every one goes to a cafe for his meals; in America, to what is called a 'two-bit house'; in England the people resort to such an institution as the present for refreshment. With sandwiches, tea, and an occasional glass of bitter beer, a man can live luxuriously in London for fourteen pounds twelve shillings per annum."
"Yes, I know," returned Michael, "but that's not including clothes, washing, or boots. The whole thing, with cigars and occasional sprees, costs me over seven hundred a year."
But this was Michael's last interruption. He listened in good-humoured silence to the remainder of his uncle's lecture, which speedily branched to political reform, thence to the theory of the weather-glass, with an illustrative account of a bora in the Adriatic; thence again to the best manner of teaching arithmetic to the deaf-and-dumb; and with that, the sandwich being then no more, explicuit valde feliciter. A moment later the pair issued forth on the King's Road.
"Michael," said his uncle, "the reason that I am here is because I cannot endure those nephews of mine. I find them intolerable."
"I daresay you do," assented Michael, "I never could stand them for a moment."
"They wouldn't let me speak," continued the old gentleman bitterly; "I never was allowed to get a word in edgewise; I was shut up at once with some impertinent remark. They kept me on short allowance of pencils, when I wished to make notes of the most absorbing interest; the daily newspaper was guarded from me like a young baby from a gorilla. Now, you know me, Michael. I live for my calculations; I live for my manifold and ever-changing views of life; pens and paper and the productions of the popular press are to me as important as food and drink; and my life was growing quite intolerable when, in the confusion of that fortunate railway accident at Browndean, I made my escape. They must think me dead, and are trying to deceive the world for the chance of the tontine."
"By the way, how do you stand for money?" asked Michael kindly.
"Pecuniarily speaking, I am rich," returned the old man with cheerfulness. "I am living at present at the rate of one hundred a year, with unlimited pens and paper; the British Museum at which to get books; and all the newspapers I choose to read. But it's extraordinary how little a man of intellectual interest requires to bother with books in a progressive age. The newspapers supply all the conclusions."
"I'll tell you what," said Michael, "come and stay with me."
"Michael," said the old gentleman, "it's very kind of you, but you scarcely understand what a peculiar position I occupy. There are some little financial complications; as a guardian, my efforts were not altogether blessed; and not to put too fine a point upon the matter, I am absolutely in the power of that vile fellow, Morris."
"You should be disguised," cried Michael eagerly; "I will lend you a pair of window-glass spectacles and some red side-whiskers."
"I had already canvassed that idea," replied the old gentleman, "but feared to awaken remark in my unpretentious lodgings. The aristocracy, I am well aware——"
"But see here," interrupted Michael, "how do you come to have any money at all? Don't make a stranger of me, Uncle Joseph; I know all about the trust, and the hash you made of it, and the assignment you were forced to make to Morris."
Joseph narrated his dealings with the bank.
"O, but I say, this won't do," cried the lawyer. "You've put your foot in it. You had no right to do what you did."
"The whole thing is mine, Michael," protested the old gentleman. "I founded and nursed that business on principles entirely of my own."
"That's all very fine," said the lawyer; "but you made an assignment, you were forced to make it, too; even then your position was extremely shaky; but now, my dear sir, it means the dock."
"It isn't possible," cried Joseph; "the law cannot be so unjust as that?"
"And the cream of the thing," interrupted Michael, with a sudden shout of laughter, "the cream of the thing is this, that of course you've downed the leather business! I must say, Uncle Joseph, you have strange ideas of law, but I like your taste in humour."
"I see nothing to laugh at," observed Mr. Finsbury tartly.
"And talking of that, has Morris any power to sign for the firm?" asked Michael.
"No one but myself," replied Joseph.
"Poor devil of a Morris! O, poor devil of a Morris!" cried the lawyer in delight. "And his keeping up the farce that you're at home! O, Morris, the Lord has delivered you into my hands! Let me see, Uncle Joseph, what do you suppose the leather business worth?"
"It was worth a hundred thousand," said Joseph bitterly, "when it was in my hands. But then there came a Scotsman—it is supposed he had a certain talent—it was entirely directed to book-keeping—no accountant in London could understand a word of any of his books; and then there was Morris, who is perfectly incompetent. And now it is worth very little. Morris tried to sell it last year; and Pogram and Jarris offered only four thousand."
"I shall turn my attention to leather," said Michael with decision.
"You?" asked Joseph. "I advise you not. There is nothing in the whole field of commerce more surprising than the fluctuations of the leather market. Its sensitiveness may be described as morbid."
"And now, Uncle Joseph, what have you done with all that money?" asked the lawyer.
"Paid it into a bank and drew twenty pounds," answered Mr. Finsbury promptly. "Why?"
"Very well," said Michael. "To-morrow I shall send down a clerk with a cheque for a hundred, and he'll draw out the original sum and return it to the Anglo-Patagonian, with some sort of explanation which I will try to invent for you. That will clear your feet, and as Morris can't touch a penny of it without forgery, it will do no harm to my little scheme."
"But what am I to do?" asked Joseph; "I cannot live upon nothing."
"Don't you hear?" returned Michael. "I send you a cheque for a hundred; which leaves you eighty to go along upon; and when that's done, apply to me again."
"I would rather not be beholden to your bounty all the same," said Joseph, biting at his white moustache. "I would rather live on my own money, since I have it."
Michael grasped his arm. "Will nothing make you believe," he cried, "that I am trying to save you from Dartmoor?"
His earnestness staggered the old man. "I must turn my attention to law," he said; "it will be a new field; for though, of course, I understand its general principles, I have never really applied my mind to the details, and this view of yours, for example, comes on me entirely by surprise. But you may be right, and of course at my time of life—for I am no longer young—any really long term of imprisonment would be highly prejudicial. But, my dear nephew, I have no claim on you; you have no call to support me."
"That's all right," said Michael; "I'll probably get it out of the leather business."
And having taken down the old gentleman's address, Michael left him at the corner of a street.
"What a wonderful old muddler!" he reflected, "and what a singular thing is life! I seem to be condemned to be the instrument of Providence. Let me see; what have I done to-day? Disposed of a dead body, saved Pitman, saved my Uncle Joseph, brightened up Forsyth, and drunk a devil of a lot of most indifferent liquor. Let's top off with a visit to my cousins, and be the instrument of Providence in earnest. To-morrow I can turn my attention to leather; to-night I'll just make it lively for 'em in a friendly spirit."
About a quarter of an hour later, as the clocks were striking eleven, the instrument of Providence descended from a hansom, and, bidding the driver wait, rapped at the door of No. 16 John Street.
It was promptly opened by Morris.
"O, it's you, Michael," he said, carefully blocking up the narrow opening: "it's very late."
Michael without a word reached forth, grasped Morris warmly by the hand, and gave it so extreme a squeeze that the sullen householder fell back. Profiting by this movement, the lawyer obtained a footing in the lobby and marched into the dining-room, with Morris at his heels.
"Where's my Uncle Joseph?" demanded Michael, sitting down in the most comfortable chair.
"He's not been very well lately," replied Morris; "he's staying at Browndean; John is nursing him; and I am alone, as you see."
Michael smiled to himself. "I want to see him on particular business," he said.
"You can't expect to see my uncle when you won't let me see your father," returned Morris.
"Fiddlestick," said Michael. "My father is my father; but Joseph is just as much my uncle as he's yours; and you have no right to sequestrate his person."
"I do no such thing," said Morris doggedly. "He is not well, he is dangerously ill and nobody can see him."
"I'll tell you what, then," said Michael. "I'll make a clean breast of it. I have come down like the opossum, Morris; I have come to compromise."
Poor Morris turned as pale as death, and then a flush of wrath against the injustice of man's destiny dyed his very temples. "What do you mean?" he cried, "I don't believe a word of it!" And when Michael had assured him of his seriousness, "Well, then," he cried, with another deep flush, "I won't; so you can put that in your pipe and smoke it."
"Oho!" said Michael queerly. "You say your uncle is dangerously ill, and you won't compromise? There's something very fishy about that."
"What do you mean?" cried Morris hoarsely.
"I only say it's fishy," returned Michael, "that is, pertaining to the finny tribe."
"Do you mean to insinuate anything?" cried Morris stormily, trying the high hand.
"Insinuate?" repeated Michael. "O, don't let's begin to use awkward expressions! Let us drown our differences in a bottle, like two affable kinsmen. The Two Affable Kinsmen, sometimes attributed to Shakespeare," he added.
Morris's mind was labouring like a mill. "Does he suspect? or is this chance and stuff? Should I soap, or should I bully? Soap," he concluded. "It gains time. Well," said he aloud, and with rather a painful affectation of heartiness, "it's long since we have had an evening together, Michael; and though my habits (as you know) are very temperate, I may as well make an exception. Excuse me one moment till I fetch a bottle of whisky from the cellar."
"No whisky for me," said Michael; "a little of the old still champagne or nothing."
For a moment Morris stood irresolute, for the wine was very valuable: the next he had quitted the room without a word. His quick mind had perceived his advantage; in thus dunning him for the cream of the cellar, Michael was playing into his hand. "One bottle?" he thought. "By George, I'll give him two! this is no moment for economy; and once the beast is drunk, it's strange if I don't wring his secret out of him."
With two bottles, accordingly, he returned. Glasses were produced, and Morris filled them with hospitable grace.
"I drink to you, cousin!" he cried gaily. "Don't spare the wine-cup in my house."
Michael drank his glass deliberately, standing at the table; filled it again, and returned to his chair, carrying the bottle along with him.
"The spoils of war!" he said apologetically. "The weakest goes to the wall. Science, Morris, science." Morris could think of no reply, and for an appreciable interval silence reigned. But two glasses of the still champagne produced a rapid change in Michael.
"There's a want of vivacity about you, Morris," he observed. "You may be deep; but I'll be hanged if you're vivacious!"
"What makes you think me deep?" asked Morris with an air of pleased simplicity.
"Because you won't compromise," said the lawyer. "You're deep dog, Morris, very deep dog, not t' compromise—remarkable deep dog. And a very good glass of wine; it's the only respectable feature in the Finsbury family, this wine; rarer thing than a title—much rarer. Now a man with glass wine like this in cellar, I wonder why won't compromise?"
"Well, you wouldn't compromise before, you know," said the smiling Morris. "Turn about is fair play."
"I wonder why I wouldn' compromise? I wonder why you wouldn'?" inquired Michael. "I wonder why we each think the other wouldn'? 'S quite a remarrable—remarkable problem," he added, triumphing over oral obstacles, not without obvious pride. "Wonder what we each think—don't you?"
"What do you suppose to have been my reason?" asked Morris adroitly.
Michael looked at him and winked. "That's cool," said he. "Next thing, you'll ask me to help you out of the muddle. I know I'm emissary of Providence, but not that kind! You get out of it yourself, like AEsop and the other fellow. Must be dreadful muddle for young orphan o' forty; leather business and all!"
"I am sure I don't know what you mean," said Morris.
"Not sure I know myself," said Michael. "This is exc'lent vintage, sir—exc'lent vintage. Nothing against the tipple. Only thing: here's a valuable uncle disappeared. Now, what I want to know: where's valuable uncle?"
"I have told you: he is at Browndean," answered Morris, furtively wiping his brow, for these repeated hints began to tell upon him cruelly.
"Very easy say Brown—Browndee—no' so easy after all!" cried Michael. "Easy say; anything's easy say, when you can say it. What I don' like's total disappearance of an uncle. Not business-like." And he wagged his head.
"It is all perfectly simple," returned Morris, with laborious calm. "There is no mystery. He stays at Browndean, where he got a shake in the accident."
"Ah!" said Michael, "got devil of a shake!"
"Why do you say that?" cried Morris sharply.
"Best possible authority. Told me so yourself," said the lawyer. "But if you tell me contrary now, of course I'm bound to believe either the one story or the other. Point is—I've upset this bottle, still champagne's exc'lent thing carpet—point is, is valuable uncle dead—an'—bury?"
Morris sprang from his seat. "What's that you say?" he gasped.
"I say it's exc'lent thing carpet," replied Michael, rising. "Exc'lent thing promote healthy action of the skin. Well, it's all one, anyway. Give my love to Uncle Champagne."