The Vanishing Man by R. Austin Freeman
Chapter XVI. "O! Artemidorus, Farewell!"
Whether or not Mr. Jellicoe was surprised to see us, it is impossible to say. His countenance (which served the ordinary purposes of a face, inasmuch as it contained the principal organs of special sense, with the inlets to the alimentary and respiratory tracts) was, as an apparatus for the expression of the emotions, a total failure. To a thought-reader it would have been about as helpful as the face carved upon the handle of an umbrella; a comparison suggested, perhaps, by a certain resemblance to such an object. He advanced, holding his open note-book and pencil, and having saluted us with a stiff bow and an old-fashioned flourish of his hat, shook hands rheumatically and waited for us to speak.
"This is an unexpected pleasure, Mr. Jellicoe," said Miss Bellingham.
"It is very good of you to say so," he replied.
"And quite a coincidence--that we should all happen to come here on the same day."
"A coincidence, certainly," he admitted; "and if we had all happened not to come--which must have occurred frequently--that also would have been a coincidence."
"I suppose it would," said she, "but I hope we are not interrupting you."
"Thank you, no. I had just finished when I had the pleasure of perceiving you."
"You were making some notes in reference to the case, I imagine," said I. It was an impertinent question, put with malice aforethought for the mere pleasure of hearing him evade it.
"The case?" he repeated. "You are referring, perhaps, to Stevens versus the Parish Council?"
"I think Doctor Berkeley was referring to the case of my uncle's will," Miss Bellingham said quite gravely, though with a suspicious dimpling about the corners of her mouth.
"Indeed," said Mr. Jellicoe. "There is a case, is there; a suit?"
"I mean the proceedings instituted by Mr. Hurst."
"Oh, but that was merely an application to the Court, and is, moreover, finished and done with. At least, so I understand. I speak, of course, subject to correction; I am not acting for Mr. Hurst, you will be pleased to remember. As a matter of fact," he continued, after a brief pause, "I was just refreshing my memory as to the wording of the inscriptions on these stones, especially that of your grandfather, Francis Bellingham. It has occurred to me that if it should appear by the finding of the coroner's jury that your uncle is deceased, it would be proper and decorous that some memorial should be placed here. But, as the burial-ground is closed, there might be some difficulty about erecting a new monument, whereas there would probably be none in adding an inscription to one already existing. Hence these investigations. For if the inscription on your grandfather's stone had set forth that 'here rests the body of Francis Bellingham,' it would have been manifestly improper to add 'also that of John Bellingham, son of the above.' Fortunately the inscription was more discreetly drafted, merely recording the fact that this monument is 'sacred to the memory of the said Francis,' and not committing itself as to the whereabouts of the remains. But perhaps I am interrupting you?"
"No, not at all," replied Miss Bellingham (which was grossly untrue; he was interrupting me most intolerably); "we were going to the British Museum and just looked in here on our way."
"Ha," said Mr. Jellicoe, "now, I happen to be going to the Museum too, to see Doctor Norbury. I suppose that is another coincidence?"
"Certainly it is," Miss Bellingham replied; and then she asked: "Shall we walk there together?" and the old curmudgeon actually said "yes"--confound him!
We returned to the Gray's Inn Road, where, as there was now room for us to walk abreast, I proceeded to indemnify myself for the lawyer's unwelcome company by leading the conversation back to the subject of the missing man.
"Was there anything, Mr. Jellicoe, in Mr. John Bellingham's state of health that would make it probable that he might die suddenly?"
The lawyer looked at me suspiciously for a few moments and then remarked:
"You seem to be greatly interested in John Bellingham and his affairs."
"I am. My friends are deeply concerned in them, and the case itself is of more than common interest from a professional point of view."
"And what is the bearing of this particular question?"
"Surely it is obvious," said I. "If a missing man is known to have suffered from some affection, such as heart disease, aneurism, or arterial degeneration, likely to produce sudden death, that fact will surely be highly material to the question as to whether he is probably dead or alive."
"No doubt you are right," said Mr. Jellicoe. "I have little knowledge of medical affairs, but doubtless you are right. As to the question itself, I am Mr. Bellingham's lawyer, not his doctor. His health is a matter that lies outside my jurisdiction. But you heard my evidence in Court, to the effect that the testator appeared, to my untutored observation, to be a healthy man. I can say no more now."
"If the question is of any importance," said Miss Bellingham, "I wonder they did not call his doctor and settle it definitely. My own impression is that he was--or is--rather a strong and sound man. He certainly recovered very quickly and completely after his accident."
"What accident was that?" I asked.
"Oh, hasn't my father told you? It occurred while he was staying with us. He slipped from a high kerb and broke one of the bones of the left ankle--somebody's fracture--"
"Yes, that was the name--Pott's fracture; and he broke both his knee-caps as well. Sir Morgan Bennet had to perform an operation, or he would have been a cripple for life. As it was, he was about again in a few weeks, apparently none the worse excepting for a slight weakness of the left ankle."
"Could he walk upstairs?" I asked.
"Oh, yes; and play golf and ride a bicycle."
"You are sure he broke both knee-caps?"
"Quite sure. I remember that it was mentioned as an uncommon injury, and that Sir Morgan seemed quite pleased with him for doing it."
"That sounds rather libellous; but I expect he was pleased with the result of the operation. He might well be."
Here there was a brief lull in the conversation, and, even as I was trying to think of a poser for Mr. Jellicoe, that gentleman took the opportunity to change the subject.
"Are you going to the Egyptian Rooms?" he asked.
"No," replied Miss Bellingham; "we are going to look at the pottery."
"Ancient or modern?"
"The old Fulham ware is what chiefly interests us at present; that of the seventeenth century. I don't know whether you would call that ancient or modern."
"Neither do I," said Mr. Jellicoe. "Antiquity and modernity are terms that have no fixed connotation. They are purely relative and their application in a particular instance has to be determined by a sort of sliding scale. To a furniture collector, a Tudor chair or a Jacobean chest is ancient; to an architect, their period is modern, whereas an eleventh-century church is ancient; but to an Egyptologist, accustomed to remains of a vast antiquity, both are products of modern periods separated by an insignificant interval. And, I suppose," he added, reflectively, "that to a geologist, the traces of the very earliest dawn of human history appertain only to the recent period. Conceptions of time, like all other conceptions, are relative."
"You appear to be a disciple of Herbert Spencer," I remarked.
"I am a disciple of Arthur Jellicoe, sir," he retorted. And I believed him.
By the time we had reached the Museum he had become almost genial; and, if less amusing in this frame, he was so much more instructive and entertaining that I refrained from baiting him, and permitted him to discuss his favourite topic unhindered, especially since my companion listened with lively interest. Nor, when we entered the great hall, did he relinquish possession of us, and we followed submissively, as he led the way past the winged bulls of Nineveh and the great seated statues, until we found ourselves, almost without the exercise of our volition, in the upper room amidst the glaring mummy cases that had witnessed the birth of my friendship with Ruth Bellingham.
"Before I leave you," said Mr. Jellicoe, "I should like to show you that mummy that we were discussing the other evening; the one, you remember, that my friend, John Bellingham, presented to the Museum a little time before his disappearance. The point that I mentioned is only a trivial one, but it may become of interest hereafter if any plausible explanation should be forthcoming." He led us along the room until we arrived at the case containing John Bellingham's gift, where he halted and gazed in at the mummy with the affectionate reflectiveness of the connoisseur.
"The bitumen coating was what we were discussing, Miss Bellingham," said he. "You have seen it, of course."
"Yes," she answered. "It is a dreadful disfigurement, isn't it?"
"Aesthetically it is to be deplored, but it adds a certain speculative interest to the specimen. You notice that the black coating leaves the principal decoration and the whole of the inscription untouched, which is precisely the part that one would expect to find covered up; whereas the feet and the back, which probably bore no writing, are quite thickly encrusted. If you stoop down, you can see that the bitumen was daubed freely into the lacings of the back, where it served no purpose, so that even the strings are embedded." He stooped, as he spoke, and peered up inquisitively at the back of the mummy, where it was visible between the supports.
"Has Doctor Norbury any explanation to offer?" asked Miss Bellingham.
"None whatever," replied Mr. Jellicoe. "He finds it as great a mystery as I do. But he thinks that we may get some suggestion from the Director when he comes back. He is a very great authority, as you know, and a practical excavator of great experience too. But I mustn't stay here talking of these things, and keeping you from your pottery. Perhaps I have stayed too long already. If I have I ask your pardon, and I will now wish you a very good afternoon." With a sudden return to his customary wooden impassivity, he shook hands with us, bowed stiffly, and took himself off towards the curator's office.
"What a strange man that is," said Miss Bellingham, as Mr. Jellicoe disappeared through the doorway at the end of the room, "or perhaps I should say, a strange being, for I can hardly think of him as a man. I have never met any other human creature at all like him."
"He is certainly a queer old fogey," I agreed.
"Yes, but there is something more than that. He is so emotionless, so remote and aloof from all mundane concerns. He moves among ordinary men and women, but as a mere presence, an unmoved spectator of their actions, quite dispassionate and impersonal."
"Yes, he is astonishingly self-contained; in fact, he seems, as you say, to go to and fro among men, enveloped in a sort of infernal atmosphere of his own, like Marley's ghost. But he is lively and human enough as soon as the subject of Egyptian antiquities is broached."
"Lively, but not human. He is always, to me, quite unhuman. Even when he is most interested, and even enthusiastic, he is a mere personification of knowledge. Nature ought to have furnished him with an ibis' head like Tahuti; then he would have looked his part."
"He would have made a rare sensation in Lincoln's Inn if she had," said I; and we both laughed heartily at the imaginary picture of Tahuti Jellicoe, slender-beaked and top-hatted, going about his business in Lincoln's Inn and the Law Courts.
Insensibly, as we talked, we had drawn near to the mummy of Artemidorus, and now my companion halted before the case with her thoughtful grey eyes bent dreamily on the face that looked out at us. I watched her with reverent admiration. How charming she looked as she stood with her sweet, grave face turned so earnestly to the object of her mystical affection! How dainty and full of womanly dignity and grace! And then, suddenly, it was borne in upon me that a great change had come over her since the day of our first meeting. She had grown younger, more girlish, and more gentle. At first she had seemed much older than I; a sad-faced woman, weary, solemn, enigmatic, almost gloomy, with a bitter, ironic humour and a bearing distant and cold. Now she was only maidenly and sweet; tinged, it is true, with a certain seriousness, but frank and gracious and wholly lovable.
Could the change be due to our growing friendship? As I asked myself the question, my heart leaped with a new-born hope. I yearned to tell her all that she was to me--all that I hoped we might be to one another in the years to come.
At length I ventured to break in upon her reverie.
"What are you thinking about so earnestly, fair lady?"
She turned quickly with a bright smile and sparkling eyes that looked frankly into mine. "I was wondering," said she, "if he was jealous of my new friend. But what a baby I am to talk such nonsense!"
She laughed softly and happily with just an adorable hint of shyness.
"Why should he be jealous?" I asked.
"Well, you see, before--we were friends, he had me all to himself. I have never had a man-friend before--except my father--and no really intimate friend at all. And I was very lonely in those days, after our troubles had befallen. I am naturally solitary, but still, I am only a girl; I am not a philosopher. So when I felt very lonely, I used to come here and look at Artemidorus and make believe that he knew all the sadness of my life and sympathised with me. It was very silly, I know, but yet, somehow it was a real comfort to me."
"It was not silly of you at all. He must have been a good man, a gentle, sweet-faced man who had won the love of those who knew him, as this beautiful memorial tells us; and it was wise and good of you to sweeten the bitterness of your life with the fragrance of this human love that blossoms in the dust after the lapse of centuries. No, you were not silly, and Artemidorus is not jealous of your new friend."
"Are you sure?" She still smiled as she asked the question, but her glance was soft--almost tender--and there was a note of whimsical anxiety in her voice.
"Quite sure. I give you my confident assurance."
She laughed gaily. "Then," said she, "I am satisfied, for I am sure you know. But here is a mighty telepathist who can read the thoughts even of a mummy. A most formidable companion. But tell me how you know."
"I know, because it is he who gave you to me to be my friend. Don't you remember?"
"Yes, I remember," she answered, softly. "It was when you were so sympathetic with my foolish whim that I felt we were really friends."
"And I, when you confided your pretty fancy to me, thanked you for the gift of your friendship, and treasured it, and do still treasure it, above everything on earth."
She looked at me quickly with a sort of nervousness in her manner, and cast down her eyes. Then, after a few moments' almost embarrassed silence, as if to bring our talk back to a less emotional plane, she said:
"Do you notice the curious way in which this memorial divides itself up into two distinct parts?"
"How do you mean?" I asked, a little disconcerted by the sudden descent.
"I mean that there is a part of it that is purely decorative and a part that is expressive or emotional. You notice that the general design and scheme of decoration, although really Greek in feeling, follows rigidly the Egyptian conventions. But the portrait is entirely in the Greek manner, and when they came to that pathetic farewell, it had to be spoken in their own tongue, written in their own familiar characters."
"Yes. I have noticed that and admired the taste with which they have kept the inscription so inconspicuous as not to clash with the decoration. An obtrusive inscription in Greek characters would have spoiled the consistency of the whole scheme."
"Yes, it would." She assented absently as if she were thinking of something else, and once more gazed thoughtfully at the mummy. I watched her with deep content: noted the lovely contour of her cheek, the soft masses of hair that strayed away so gracefully from her brow, and thought her the most wonderful creature that had ever trod the earth. Suddenly she looked at me reflectively.
"I wonder," she said, "what made me tell you about Artemidorus. It was a rather silly, childish sort of make-believe, and I wouldn't have told anyone else for the world; not even my father. How did I know that you would sympathise and understand?"
She asked the question in all simplicity with her serious, grey eyes looking inquiringly into mine. And the answer came to me in a flash, with the beating of my own heart.
"I will tell you how you knew, Ruth," I whispered passionately. "It was because I loved you more than anyone in the world has ever loved you, and you felt my love in your heart and called it sympathy."
I stopped short, for she had blushed scarlet and then turned deathly pale. And now she looked at me wildly, almost with terror.
"Have I shocked you, Ruth, dearest?" I exclaimed penitently, "have I spoken too soon? If I have, forgive me. But I had to tell you. I have been eating my heart out for love of you for I don't know how long. I think I have loved you from the first day we met. Perhaps I shouldn't have spoken yet, but, Ruth, dear, if you only knew what a sweet girl you are, you wouldn't blame me."
"I don't blame you," she said, almost in a whisper; "I blame myself. I have been a bad friend to you, who have been so loyal and loving to me. I ought not to have let this happen. For it can't be, Paul; I can't say what you want me to say. We can never be anything more to one another than friends."
A cold hand seemed to grasp my heart--a horrible fear that I had lost all that I cared for--all that made life desirable.
"Why can't we?" I asked. "Do you mean that--that the gods have been gracious to some other man?"
"No, no," she answered, hastily--almost indignantly, "of course I don't mean that."
"Then it is only that you don't love me yet. Of course you don't. Why should you? But you will, dear, some day. And I will wait patiently until that day comes and not trouble you with entreaties. I will wait for you as Jacob waited for Rachel; and as the long years seemed to him but as a few days because of the love he bore her, so it shall be with me, if only you will not send me away quite without hope."
She was looking down, white-faced, with a hardening of the lips as if she were in bodily pain. "You don't understand," she whispered. "It can't be--it can never be. There is something that makes it impossible, now and always. I can't tell you more than that."
"But, Ruth, dearest," I pleaded despairingly, "may it not become possible some day? Can it not be made possible? I can wait, but I can't give you up. Is there no chance whatever that this obstacle may be removed?"
"Very little, I fear. Hardly any. No, Paul; it is hopeless, and I can't bear to talk about it. Let me go now. Let us say good-bye here and see one another no more for a while. Perhaps we may be friends again some day--when you have forgiven me."
"Forgiven you, dearest!" I exclaimed. "There is nothing to forgive. And we are friends, Ruth. Whatever happens, you are the dearest friend I have on earth, or can ever have."
"Thank you, Paul," she said faintly. "You are very good to me. But let me go, please. I must go. I must be alone."
She held out a trembling hand, and, as I took it, I was shocked to see how terribly agitated and ill she looked.
"May I not come with you, dear?" I pleaded.
"No, no!" she exclaimed breathlessly; "I must go away by myself. I want to be alone. Good-bye!"
"Before I let you go, Ruth--if you must go--I must have a solemn promise from you."
Her sad grey eyes met mine and her lips quivered with an unspoken question.
"You must promise me," I went on, "that if ever this barrier that parts us should be removed, you will let me know instantly. Remember that I love you always, and that I am waiting for you always on this side of the grave."
She caught her breath in a little quick sob, and pressed my hand.
"Yes," she whispered: "I promise. Good-bye." She pressed my hand again and was gone; and, as I gazed at the empty doorway through which she had passed, I caught a glimpse of her reflection in a glass case on the landing, where she had paused for a moment to wipe her eyes. I felt it, in a manner, indelicate to have seen her, and turned away my head quickly; and yet I was conscious of a certain selfish satisfaction in the sweet sympathy that her grief bespoke.
But now that she was gone a horrible sense of desolation descended on me. Only now, by the consciousness of irreparable loss, did I begin to realise the meaning of this passion of love that had stolen unawares into my life. How it had glorified the present and spread a glamour of delight over the dimly considered future: how all pleasures and desires, all hopes and ambitions, had converged upon it as a focus; how it had stood out as the one great reality behind which the other circumstances of life were as a background, shimmering, half seen, immaterial, and unreal. And now it was gone--lost, as it seemed, beyond hope; and that which was left to me was but the empty frame from which the picture had vanished.
I have no idea how long I stood rooted to the spot where she had left me, wrapped in a dull consciousness of pain, immersed in a half-numb reverie. Recent events flitted, dream-like, through my mind; our happy labours in the reading-room; our first visit to the Museum; and this present day that had opened so brightly and with such joyous promise. One by one these phantoms of a vanished happiness came and went. Occasional visitors sauntered into the room--but the galleries were mostly empty that day--gazed inquisitively at my motionless figure, and went their way. And still the dull, intolerable ache in my breast went on, the only vivid consciousness that was left to me.
Presently I raised my eyes and met those of the portrait. The sweet, pensive face of the old Greek settler looked out at me wistfully as though he would offer comfort; as though he would tell me that he, too, had known sorrow when he lived his life in the sunny Fayyum. And a subtle consolation, like the faint scent of old rose leaves, seemed to exhale from that friendly face that had looked on the birth of my happiness and had seen it wither and fade. I turned away, at last, with a silent farewell; and when I looked back, he seemed to speed me on my way with gentle valediction.