The Vanishing Man by R. Austin Freeman
Chapter X. The New Alliance
The "Great Lexicographer"--tutelary deity of my adopted habitat--has handed down to shuddering posterity a definition of the act of eating which might have been framed by a dyspeptic ghoul. "Eat: to devour with the mouth." It is a shocking view to take of so genial a function: cynical, indelicate, and finally unforgivable by reason of its very accuracy. For, after all, that is what eating amounts to, if one must needs express it with such crude brutality. But if "the ingestion of alimentary substances"--to ring a modern change upon the older formula--is in itself a process material even unto carnality, it is undeniable that it forms a highly agreeable accompaniment to more psychic manifestations.
And so, as the lamplight, re-enforced by accessory candles, falls on the little table in the first-floor room looking on Fetter Lane--only now the curtains are drawn--the conversation is not the less friendly and bright for a running accompaniment executed with knives and forks, for clink of goblet and jovial gurgle of wine-flask. On the contrary, to one of us, at least--to wit, Godfrey Bellingham--the occasion is one of uncommon festivity, and his boyish enjoyment of the simple feast makes pathetic suggestions of hard times, faced uncomplainingly, but keenly felt nevertheless.
The talk flitted from topic to topic, mainly concerning itself with matters artistic, and never for one moment approaching the critical subject of John Bellingham's will. From the stepped pyramid of Sakkara with its encaustic tiles to mediaeval church floors; from Elizabethan woodwork to Mycaenaean pottery, and thence to the industrial arts of the Stone Age and the civilisation of the Aztecs. I began to suspect that my two legal friends were so carried away by the interest of the conversation that they had forgotten the secret purpose of the meeting, for the dessert had been placed on the table (by Mrs. Gummer with the manner of a bereaved dependant dispensing funeral bakemeats), and still no reference had been made to the "case." But it seemed that Thorndyke was but playing a waiting game; was only allowing the intimacy to ripen while he watched for the opportunity. And that opportunity came, even as Mrs. Gummer vanished spectrally with a tray of plates and glasses.
"So you had a visitor last night, Doctor," said Mr. Bellingham. "I mean my friend Jellicoe. He told us he had seen you, and mighty curious he was about you. I have never known Jellicoe to be so inquisitive before. What did you think of him?"
"A quaint old cock. I found him highly amusing. We entertained one another for quite a long time with cross questions and crooked answers; I affecting eager curiosity, he replying with a defensive attitude of universal ignorance. It was a most diverting encounter."
"He needn't have been so close," Miss Bellingham remarked, "seeing that all the world will be regaled with our affairs before long."
"They are proposing to take the case into Court, then?" said Thorndyke.
"Yes," said Mr. Bellingham. "Jellicoe came to tell me that my cousin, Hurst, has instructed his solicitors to make the application and to invite me to join him. Actually he came to deliver an ultimatum from Hurst--But, I mustn't disturb the harmony of this festive gathering with litigious discords."
"Now, why mustn't you?" asked Thorndyke. "Why is a subject in which we are all keenly interested to be tabu? You don't mind telling us about it, do you?"
"No, of course not. But what do you think of a man who buttonholes a doctor at a dinner-party to retail a list of his ailments?"
"It depends on what his ailments are," replied Thorndyke. "If he is a chronic dyspeptic and wishes to expound the virtues of Doctor Snaffler's Purple Pills for Pimply People, he is merely a bore. But if he chances to suffer from some rare and choice disease, such as Trypanosomiasis or Acromegaly, the doctor will be delighted to listen."
"Then are we to understand," Miss Bellingham asked, "that we are rare and choice products, in a legal sense?"
"Undoubtedly," replied Thorndyke. "The case of John Bellingham is, in many respects, unique. It will be followed with the deepest interest by the profession at large, and especially by medical jurists."
"How gratifying that should be to us!" said Miss Bellingham. "We may even attain undying fame in textbooks and treatises; and yet we are not so very much puffed up with our importance."
"No," said her father; "we could do without the fame quite well, and so, I think, could Hurst. Did Berkeley tell you of the proposal that he made?"
"Yes," said Thorndyke; "and I gather from what you say that he has repeated it."
"Yes. He sent Jellicoe to give me another chance, and I was tempted to take it; but my daughter was strongly against any compromise, and probably she is right. At any rate, she is more concerned than I am."
"What view did Mr. Jellicoe take?" Thorndyke asked.
"Oh, he was very cautious and reserved, but he didn't disguise his feeling that I should be wise to take a certainty in lieu of a very problematical fortune. He would certainly like me to agree, for he naturally wishes to get the affair settled and pocket his legacy."
"And have you definitely refused?"
"Yes; quite definitely. So Hurst will apply for permission to presume death and prove the will, and Jellicoe will support him; he says he has no choice."
"I suppose I shall oppose the application, though I don't quite know on what grounds."
"Before you take any definite steps," said Thorndyke, "you ought to give the matter very careful consideration. I take it that you have very little doubt that your brother is dead. And if he is dead, any benefit that you may receive under the will must be conditional on the previous assumption or proof of death. But perhaps you have taken advice?"
"No, I have not. As our friend the Doctor has probably told you, my means--or rather, the lack of them--do not admit of my getting professional advice. Hence my delicacy about discussing the case with you."
"Then do you propose to conduct your case in person?"
"Yes; if it is necessary for me to appear in Court, as I suppose it will be, if I oppose the application."
Thorndyke reflected for a few moments, and then said gravely:
"You had much better not appear in person to conduct your case, Mr. Bellingham, for several reasons. To begin with, Mr. Hurst is sure to be represented by a capable counsel, and you will find yourself quite unable to meet the sudden exigencies of a contest in Court. You will be out-manoeuvred. Then there is the judge to be considered."
"But surely one can rely on the judge dealing fairly with a man who is unable to afford a solicitor and counsel?"
"Undoubtedly, as a rule, a judge will give an unrepresented litigant every assistance and consideration. English judges in general are high-minded men with a deep sense of their great responsibilities. But you cannot afford to take any chances. You must consider the exceptions. A judge has been a counsel, and he may carry to the bench some of the professional prejudices of the bar. Indeed, if you consider the absurd licence permitted to counsel in their treatment of witnesses, and the hostile attitude adopted by some judges towards medical and other scientific men who have to give their evidence, you will see that the judicial mind is not always quite as judicial as one would wish, especially when the privileges and immunities of the profession are concerned. Now, your appearance in person to conduct your case must, unavoidably, cause some inconvenience to the Court. Your ignorance of procedure and legal details must occasion some delay; and if the judge should happen to be an irritable man he might resent the inconvenience and delay. I don't say that that would affect his decision--I don't think it would--but I am sure that it would be wise to avoid giving offence to the judge. And, above all, it is most desirable to be able to detect and reply to any manoeuvres on the part of the opposing counsel, which you certainly would not be able to do."
"This is excellent advice, Doctor Thorndyke," said Bellingham, with a grim smile; "but I am afraid I shall have to take my chance."
"Not necessarily," said Thorndyke. "I am going to make a little proposal, which I will ask you to consider without prejudice as a mutual accommodation. You see, your case is one of exceptional interest--it will become a textbook case, as Miss Bellingham has prophesied; and, since it lies within my specialty, it will be necessary for me, in any case, to follow it in the closest detail. Now, it would be much more satisfactory to me to study it from within than from without, to say nothing of the credit which would accrue to me if I should be able to conduct it to a successful issue. I am therefore going to ask you to put your case in my hands and let me see what can be done with it. I know this is an unusual course for a professional man to take, but I think it is not improper under the circumstances."
Mr. Bellingham pondered in silence for a few moments, and then, after a glance at his daughter, began rather hesitatingly: "It is exceedingly generous of you, Doctor Thorndyke--"
"Pardon me," interrupted Thorndyke, "it is not. My motives, as I have explained, are purely egoistic."
Mr. Bellingham laughed uneasily and again glanced at his daughter, who, however, pursued her occupation of peeling a pear with calm deliberation and without lifting her eyes. Getting no help from her, he asked: "Do you think that there is any possibility whatever of a successful issue?"
"Yes, a remote possibility--very remote, I fear, as things look at present; but if I thought the case absolutely hopeless I should advise you to stand aside and let events take their course."
"Supposing the case to come to a favourable termination, would you allow me to settle your fees in the ordinary way?"
"If the choice lay with me," replied Thorndyke, "I should say 'yes' with pleasure. But it does not. The attitude of the profession is very definitely unfavourable to 'speculative' practice. You may remember the well-known firm of Dodson and Fogg, who gained thereby much profit, but little credit. But why discuss contingencies of this kind? If I bring your case to a successful issue I shall have done very well for myself. We shall have benefited one another mutually. Come now, Miss Bellingham, I appeal to you. We have eaten salt together, to say nothing of pigeon pie and other cates. Won't you back me up, and at the same time do a kindness to Doctor Berkeley?"
"Why, is Doctor Berkeley interested in our decision?"
"Certainly he is, as you will appreciate when I tell you that he actually tried to bribe me secretly out of his own pocket."
"Did you?" she asked, looking at me with an expression that rather alarmed me.
"Well, not exactly," I replied, mighty hot and uncomfortable, and wishing Thorndyke at the devil with his confidences. "I merely mentioned that the--the--solicitor's costs, you know, and that sort of thing--but you needn't jump on me, Miss Bellingham; Doctor Thorndyke did all that was necessary in that way."
She continued to look at me thoughtfully as I stammered out my excuses, and then said: "I wasn't going to. I was only thinking that poverty has its compensations. You are all so very good to us; and, for my part, I should accept Doctor Thorndyke's generous offer most gratefully, and thank him for making it so easy for us."
"Very well, my dear," said Mr. Bellingham; "we will enjoy the sweets of poverty, as you say--we have sampled the other kind of thing pretty freely--and do ourselves the pleasure of accepting a great kindness, most delicately offered."
"Thank you," said Thorndyke. "You have justified my faith in you, Miss Bellingham, and in the power of Doctor Berkeley's salt. I understand that you place your affairs in my hands?"
"Entirely and thankfully," replied Mr. Bellingham. "Whatever you think best to be done we agree to beforehand."
"Then," said I, "let us drink success to the Cause. Port, if you please, Miss Bellingham; the vintage is not recorded, but it is quite wholesome, and a suitable medium for the sodium chloride of friendship." I filled her glass, and, when the bottle had made its circuit, we stood up and solemnly pledged the new alliance.
"There is just one thing that I would say before we dismiss the subject for the present," said Thorndyke. "It is a good thing to keep one's own counsel. When you get formal notice from Mr. Hurst's solicitors that proceedings are being commenced, you may refer them to Mr. Marchmont of Gray's Inn, who will nominally act for you. He will actually have nothing to do, but we must preserve the fiction that I am instructed by a solicitor. Meanwhile, and until the case goes into Court, I think it very necessary that neither Mr. Jellicoe nor anyone else should know that I am to be connected with it. We must keep the other side in the dark, if we can."
"We will be as secret as the grave," said Mr. Bellingham; "and, as a matter of fact, it will be quite easy, since it happens, by a curious coincidence, that I am already acquainted with Mr. Marchmont. He acted for Stephen Blackmore, you remember, in that case that you unravelled so wonderfully. I knew the Blackmores."
"Did you?" said Thorndyke. "What a small world it is! And what a remarkable affair that was! The intricacies and cross-issues made it quite absorbingly interesting; and it is noteworthy for me in another respect, for it was one of the first cases in which I was associated with Doctor Jervis."
"Yes, and a mighty useful associate I was," remarked Jervis, "though I did pick up one or two facts by accident. And, by the way, the Blackmore case had certain points in common with your case, Mr. Bellingham. There was a disappearance and a disputed will, and the man who vanished was a scholar and an antiquarian."
"Cases in our specialty are apt to have certain general resemblances," said Thorndyke; and as he spoke he directed a keen glance at his junior, the significance of which I partly understood when he abruptly changed the subject.
"The newspaper reports of your brother's disappearance, Mr. Bellingham, were remarkably full of detail. There were even plans of your house and that of Mr. Hurst. Do you know who supplied the information?"
"No, I don't," replied Mr. Bellingham. "I know that I didn't. Some newspaper men came to me for information, but I sent them packing. So, I understand, did Hurst; and as for Jellicoe, you might as well cross-examine an oyster."
"Well," said Thorndyke, "the Press-men have queer methods of getting 'copy'; but still, someone must have given them that description of your brother and those plans. It would be interesting to know who it was. However, we don't know; and now let us dismiss these legal topics, with suitable apologies for having introduced them."
"And perhaps," said I, "we may as well adjourn to what we will call the drawing-room--it is really Barnard's den--and leave the housekeeper to wrestle with the debris."
We migrated to the cheerfully shabby little apartment, and, when Mrs. Gummer had served coffee, with gloomy resignation (as who should say: "If you will drink this sort of stuff I suppose you must, but don't blame me for the consequences"), I settled Mr. Bellingham in Barnard's favourite lop-sided easy chair--the depressed seat of which suggested its customary use by an elephant of sedentary habits--and opened the diminutive piano.
"I wonder if Miss Bellingham would give us a little music?" I said.
"I wonder if she could?" was the smiling response. "Do you know," she continued, "I have not touched a piano for nearly two years? It will be quite an interesting experiment--to me; but if it fails, you will be the sufferers. So you must choose."
"My verdict," said Mr. Bellingham, "is fiat experimentum, though I won't complete the quotation, as that would seem to disparage Doctor Barnard's piano. But before you begin, Ruth, there is one rather disagreeable matter that I want to dispose of, so that I may not disturb the harmony with it later."
He paused, and we all looked at him expectantly.
"I suppose, Doctor Thorndyke," he said, "you read the newspapers?"
"I don't," replied Thorndyke. "But I ascertain, for purely business purposes, what they contain."
"Then," said Mr. Bellingham, "you have probably met with some accounts of the finding of certain human remains, apparently portions of a mutilated body?"
"Yes, I have seen those reports and filed them for future reference."
"Exactly. Well, now, it can hardly be necessary for me to tell you that those remains--the mutilated remains of some poor murdered creature, as there can be no doubt they are--have seemed to have a very dreadful significance for me. You will understand what I mean; and I want to ask you if--if they have made a similar suggestion to you."
Thorndyke paused before replying, with his eyes bent thoughtfully on the floor, and we all looked at him anxiously.
"It is very natural," he said at length, "that you should associate these remains with the mystery of your brother's disappearance. I should like to say that you are wrong in doing so, but if I did I should be uncandid. There are certain facts that do, undoubtedly, seem to suggest a connection, and, up to the present, there are no definite facts of a contrary significance."
Mr. Bellingham sighed deeply and shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
"It is a horrible affair!" he said huskily; "horrible! Would you mind, Doctor Thorndyke, telling us just how the matter stands in your opinion--what the probabilities are, for and against?"
Again Thorndyke reflected awhile, and it seemed to me that he was not very willing to discuss the subject. However, the question had been asked pointedly, and eventually he answered:
"At the present stage of the investigation it is not very easy to state the balance of probabilities. The matter is still quite speculative. The bones which have been found hitherto (for we are dealing with a skeleton, not with a body) have been exclusively those which are useless for personal identification; which is, in itself, a rather curious and striking fact. The general character and dimensions of the bones seem to suggest a middle-aged man of about your brother's height, and the date of deposition appears to be in agreement with the date of his disappearance."
"Is it known, then, when they were deposited?" Mr. Bellingham asked.
"In the case of those found at Sidcup it seems possible to deduce an approximate date. The watercress-bed was cleaned out about two years ago, so they could not have been lying there longer than that; and their condition suggests that they could not have been there much less than two years, as there is apparently not a vestige of the soft structures left. Of course, I am speaking from the newspaper reports only; I have no direct knowledge of the matter."
"Have they found any considerable part of the body yet? I haven't been reading the papers myself. My little friend, Miss Oman, brought a great bundle of 'em for me to read, but I couldn't stand it; I pitched the whole boiling of 'em out of the window."
I thought I detected a slight twinkle in Thorndyke's eye, but he answered quite gravely:
"I think I can give you the particulars from memory, though I won't guarantee the dates. The original discovery was made, apparently quite accidentally, at Sidcup on the fifteenth of July. It consisted of a complete left arm, minus the third finger and including the bones of the shoulder--the shoulder-blade and collar-bone. This discovery seems to have set the local population, especially the juvenile part of it, searching all the ponds and streams of the neighbourhood--"
"Cannibals!" interjected Mr. Bellingham.
"With the result that there was dredged up out of a pond near St. Mary Cray, in Kent, a right thigh-bone. There is a slight clue to identity in respect of this bone, since the head of it has a small patch of what is called 'eburnation'--that is a sort of porcelain-like polish that occurs on the parts of bones that form a joint when the natural covering of cartilage is destroyed by disease. It is produced by the unprotected surface of one bone grinding against the similarly unprotected surface of another."
"And how," Mr. Bellingham asked, "would that help the identification?"
"It would indicate," replied Thorndyke, "that the deceased had probably suffered from rheumatoid arthritis--what is commonly known as rheumatic gout--and he would probably have limped slightly and complained of some pain in the right hip."
"I am afraid that doesn't help us much," said Mr. Bellingham; "for, you see, John had a pretty pronounced limp from another cause, an old injury to his left ankle; and as to complaining of pain--well, he was a hardy old fellow and not much given to making complaints of any kind. But don't let me interrupt you."
"The next discovery," continued Thorndyke, "was made near Lee, by the police this time. They seem to have developed sudden activity in the matter, and in searching the neighbourhood of West Kent they dragged out of a pond near Lee the bones of a right foot. Now, if it had been the left instead of the right we might have had a clue, as I understand that your brother had fractured his left ankle, and there might have been some traces of the injury on the foot itself."
"Yes," said Mr. Bellingham, "I suppose there might. The injury was described as a Pott's fracture."
"Exactly. Well, now, after this discovery at Lee it seems that the police set on foot a systematic search of all the ponds and small pieces of water around London, and on the twenty-third, they found in the Cuckoo Pits in Epping Forest, not far from Woodford, the bones of a right arm (including those of the shoulder, as before), which seem to be part of the same body."
"Yes," said Mr. Bellingham, "I heard of that. Quite close to my old house. Horrible! horrible! It gave me the shudders to think of it--to think that poor old John may have been waylaid and murdered when he was actually coming to see me. He may even have got into the grounds by the back gate, if it was left unfastened, and been followed in there and murdered. You remember that a scarab from his watch-chain was found there? But is it clear that this arm was the fellow of the arm that was found at Sidcup?"
"It seems to agree in character and dimensions," said Thorndyke, "and the agreement is strongly supported by a discovery that was made two days later."
"What is that?" Mr. Bellingham demanded.
"It is the lower half of a trunk which the police dredged out of a rather deep pond on the skirts of the forest at Loughton--Staple's Pond, it is called. The bones found were the pelvis--that is, the two hipbones--and six vertebrae, or joints of the backbone. Having discovered these, the police dammed the stream and pumped the pond dry, but no other bones were found; which is rather odd, as there should have been a pair of ribs belonging to the upper vertebra--the twelfth dorsal vertebra. It suggests some curious questions as to the method of dismemberment; but I mustn't go into unpleasant details. The point is that the cavity of the right hip-joint showed a patch of eburnation corresponding to that on the head of the right thigh-bone that was found at St. Mary Cray. So there can be very little doubt that these bones are all part of the same body."
"I see," grunted Mr. Bellingham; and he added, after a moment's thought: "Now, the question is, Are these bones the remains of my brother John? What do you say, Doctor Thorndyke?"
"I say that the question cannot be answered on the facts at present known to us. It can only be said that they may be, and that some of the circumstances suggest that they are. But we can only wait for further discoveries. At any moment the police may light upon some portion of the skeleton which will settle the question definitely one way or the other."
"I suppose," said Mr. Bellingham, "I can't be of any service to you in the matter of identification?"
"Indeed you can," said Thorndyke, "and I was going to ask you to assist me. What I want you to do is this: Write down a full description of your brother, including every detail known to you, together with an account of every illness or injury from which you know him to have suffered; and also the names and, if possible, the addresses of any doctors, surgeons, or dentists who may have attended him at any time. The dentists are particularly important, as their information would be invaluable if the skull belonging to these bones should be discovered."
Mr. Bellingham shuddered.
"It's a shocking idea," he said; "but, of course, you are quite right. You must have the facts if you are to form an opinion. I will write out what you want and send it to you without delay. And now, for God's sake, let us throw off this nightmare, for a little while, at least! What is there, Ruth, among Doctor Barnard's music that you can manage?"
Barnard's collection in general inclined to the severely classical, but we disinterred from the heap a few lighter works of an old-fashioned kind, including a volume of Mendelssohn's Lieder ohne Worte, and with one of these Miss Bellingham made trial of her skill, playing it with excellent taste and quite adequate execution. That, at least, was her father's verdict; for, as to me, I found it the perfection of happiness merely to sit and look at her--a state of mind that would have been in no wise disturbed even by Silvery Waves or The Maiden's Prayer.
Thus with simple, homely music, and conversation always cheerful and sometimes brilliant, slipped away one of the pleasantest evenings of my life, and slipped away all too soon. St. Dunstan's clock was the fly in the ointment, for it boomed out intrusively the hour of eleven just as my guests were beginning thoroughly to appreciate one another; and thereby carried the sun (with a minor paternal satellite) out of the firmament of my heaven. For I had, in my professional capacity, given strict injunctions that Mr. Bellingham should on no account sit up late; and now, in my social capacity, I had smilingly to hear "the doctor's orders" quoted. It was a scurvy return for all my care.
When Mr. and Miss Bellingham departed, Thorndyke and Jervis would have gone too; but noting my bereaved condition, and being withal compassionate and tender of heart, they were persuaded to stay awhile and bear me company in a consolatory pipe.