The Vanishing Man by R. Austin Freeman
Chapter II. The Eavesdropper
It is one of the canons of correct conduct, scrupulously adhered to (when convenient) by all well-bred persons, that an acquaintance should be initiated by a proper introduction. To this salutary rule, which I have disregarded to the extent of an entire chapter, I now hasten to conform; and the more so inasmuch as nearly two years have passed since my first informal appearance.
Permit me, then, to introduce Paul Berkeley, M.B., etc., recently--very recently--qualified, faultlessly attired in the professional frock-coat and tall hat, and, at the moment of introduction, navigating with anxious care a perilous strait between a row of well-filled coal-sacks and a colossal tray piled high with kidney potatoes.
The passage of this strait landed me on the terra firma of Fleur-de-Lys Court, where I halted for a moment to consult my visiting list. There was only one more patient for me to see this morning, and he lived at 49 Nevill's Court, wherever that might be. I turned for information to the presiding deity of the coal shop.
"Can you direct me, Mrs. Jablett, to Nevill's Court?"
She could and she did, grasping me confidentially by the arm (the mark remained on my sleeve for weeks) and pointing a shaking forefinger at the dead wall ahead. "Nevill's Court," said Mrs. Jablett, "is a alley, and you goes into it through a archway. It turns out of Fetter Lane on the right 'and as you goes up, oppersight Bream's Buildings."
I thanked Mrs. Jablett and went on my way, glad that the morning round was nearly finished, and vaguely conscious of a growing appetite and of a desire to wash in hot water.
The practice which I was conducting was not my own. It belonged to poor Dick Barnard, an old St. Margaret's man of irrepressible spirits and indifferent physique, who had started only the day before for a trip down the Mediterranean on board a tramp engaged in the currant trade; and this, my second morning's round, was in some sort a voyage of geographical discovery.
I walked on briskly up Fetter Lane until a narrow, arched opening, bearing the superscription "Nevill's Court," arrested my steps, and here I turned to encounter one of those surprises that lie in wait for the wanderer in London byways. Expecting to find the grey squalor of the ordinary London court, I looked out from under the shadow of the arch past a row of decent little shops through a vista full of light and colour--a vista of ancient, warm-toned roofs and walls relieved by sunlit foliage. In the heart of London a tree is always a delightful surprise; but here were not only trees, but bushes and even flowers. The narrow footway was bordered by little gardens, which, with their wooden palings and well-kept shrubs, gave to the place an air of quaint and sober rusticity; and even as I entered a bevy of work-girls, with gaily-coloured blouses and hair aflame in the sunlight, brightened up the quiet background like the wild flowers that spangle a summer hedgerow.
In one of the gardens I noticed that the little paths were paved with what looked like circular tiles, but which, on inspection, I found to be old-fashioned stone ink-bottles, buried bottom upwards; and I was meditating upon the quaint conceit of the forgotten scrivener who had thus adorned his habitation--a law-writer perhaps, or an author, or perchance even a poet--when I perceived the number that I was seeking inscribed on a shabby door in a high wall. There was no bell or knocker, so, lifting the latch, I pushed the door open and entered.
But if the court itself had been a surprise, this was a positive wonder, a dream. Here, within earshot of the rumble of Fleet Street, I was in an old-fashioned garden enclosed by high walls and, now that the gate was shut, cut off from all sight and knowledge of the urban world that seethed without. I stood and gazed in delighted astonishment. Sun-gilded trees and flower-beds gay with blossom; lupins, snap-dragons, nasturtiums, spiry foxgloves, and mighty hollyhocks formed the foreground; over which a pair of sulphur-tinted butterflies flitted, unmindful of a buxom and miraculously clean white cat which pursued them, dancing across the borders and clapping her snowy paws fruitlessly in mid-air. And the background was no less wonderful: a grand old house, dark-eaved and venerable, that must have looked down on this garden when ruffled dandies were borne in sedan chairs through the court, and gentle Izaak Walton, stealing forth from his shop in Fleet Street, strolled up Fetter Lane to "go a-angling" at Temple Mills.
So overpowered was I by this unexpected vision that my hand was on the bottom knob of a row of bell-pulls before I recollected myself; and it was not until a most infernal jangling from within recalled me to my business that I observed underneath it a small brass plate inscribed "Miss Oman."
The door opened with some suddenness, and a short, middle-aged woman surveyed me hungrily.
"Have I rung the wrong bell?" I asked--foolishly enough, I must admit.
"How can I tell?" she demanded. "I expect you have. It's the sort of thing a man would do--ring the wrong bell and then say he's sorry."
"I didn't go as far as that," I retorted. "It seems to have had the desired effect, and I've made your acquaintance into the bargain."
"Whom do you want to see?" she asked.
"Are you the doctor?"
"I am a doctor."
"Follow me upstairs," said Miss Oman, "and don't tread on the paint."
I crossed the spacious hall, and, preceded by my conductress, ascended a noble oak staircase, treading carefully on a ribbon of matting that ran up the middle. On the first-floor landing Miss Oman opened a door and, pointing to the room, said: "Go in there and wait; I'll tell her you're here."
"I said Mr. Bellingham--" I began; but the door slammed on me, and Miss Oman's footsteps retreated rapidly down the stairs.
It was at once obvious to me that I was in a very awkward position. The room into which I had been shown communicated with another, and though the door of communication was shut, I was unpleasantly aware of a conversation that was taking place in the adjoining room. At first, indeed, only a vague mutter, with a few disjointed phrases, came through the door, but suddenly an angry voice rang out clear and painfully distinct:
"Yes, I did! And I say it again. Bribery! Collusion! That's what it amounts to. You want to square me!"
"Nothing of the kind, Godfrey," was the reply in a lower tone; but at this point I coughed emphatically and moved a chair, and the voices subsided once more into an indistinct murmur.
To distract my attention from my unseen neighbours I glanced curiously about the room and speculated upon the personalities of its occupants. A very curious room it was, with its pathetic suggestion of decayed splendour and old-world dignity: a room full of interest and character and of contrasts and perplexing contradictions. For the most part it spoke of unmistakable though decent poverty. It was nearly bare of furniture, and what little there was was of the cheapest--a small kitchen table and three Windsor chairs (two of them with arms); a threadbare string carpet on the floor, and a cheap cotton cloth on the table; these, with a set of bookshelves, frankly constructed of grocer's boxes, formed the entire suite. And yet, despite its poverty, the place exhaled an air of homely if rather ascetic comfort, and the taste was irreproachable. The quiet russet of the tablecloth struck a pleasant harmony with the subdued bluish green of the worn carpet; the Windsor chairs and the legs of the table had been carefully denuded of their glaring varnish and stained a sober brown; and the austerity of the whole was relieved by a ginger-jar filled with fresh-cut flowers and set in the middle of the table.
But the contrasts of which I have spoken were most singular and puzzling. There were the bookshelves, for instance, home-made and stained at the cost of a few pence, but filled with recent and costly works on archaeology and ancient art. There were the objects on the mantelpiece: a facsimile in bronze--not bronzed plaster--of the beautiful head of Hypnos and a pair of fine Ushabti figures. There were the decorations of the walls, a number of etchings--signed proofs, every one of them--of Oriental subjects, and a splendid facsimile reproduction of an Egyptian papyrus. It was incongruous in the extreme, this mingling of costly refinements with the barest and shabbiest necessaries of life, of fastidious culture with manifest poverty. I could make nothing of it. What manner of man, I wondered, was this new patient of mine? Was he a miser, hiding himself and his wealth in this obscure court? An eccentric savant? A philosopher? Or--more probably--a crank? But at this point my meditations were interrupted by the voice from the adjoining room, once more raised in anger.
"But I say that you are making an accusation! You are implying that I made away with him."
"Not at all," was the reply; "but I repeat that it is your business to ascertain what has become of him. The responsibility rests upon you."
"Upon me!" rejoined the first voice. "And what about you? Your position is a pretty fishy one if it comes to that."
"What!" roared the other. "Do you insinuate that I murdered my own brother?"
During this amazing colloquy I had stood gaping with sheer astonishment. Suddenly I recollected myself, and, dropping into a chair, set my elbows on my knees and slapped my hands over my ears; and thus I must have remained for a full minute when I became aware of the closing of a door behind me.
I sprang to my feet and turned in some embarrassment (for I must have looked unspeakably ridiculous) to confront the sombre figure of a rather tall and strikingly handsome girl, who, as she stood with her hand on the knob of the door, saluted me with a formal bow. In an instantaneous glance I noted how perfectly she matched her strange surroundings. Black-robed, black-haired, with black-grey eyes and a grave, sad face of ivory pallor, she stood, like one of old Terborch's portraits, a harmony in tones so low as to be but a step removed from monochrome. Obviously a lady in spite of the worn and rusty dress, and something in the poise of the head and the set of the straight brows hinted at a spirit that adversity had hardened rather than broken.
"I must ask you to forgive me for keeping you waiting," she said; and as she spoke a certain softening at the corners of the austere mouth reminded me of the absurd position in which she had found me.
I murmured that the trifling delay was of no consequence whatever; that I had, in fact, been rather glad of the rest; and I was beginning somewhat vaguely to approach the subject of the invalid when the voice from the adjoining room again broke forth with hideous distinctness.
"I tell you I'll do nothing of the kind! Why, confound you, it's nothing less than a conspiracy that you're proposing!"
Miss Bellingham--as I assumed her to be--stepped quickly across the floor, flushing angrily, as well she might; but, as she reached the door, it flew open and a small, spruce, middle-aged man burst into the room.
"Your father is mad, Ruth!" he exclaimed; "absolutely stark mad! And I refuse to hold any further communication with him."
"The present interview was not of his seeking," Miss Bellingham replied coldly.
"No, it was not," was the wrathful rejoinder; "it was my mistaken generosity. But there--what is the use of talking? I've done my best for you and I'll do no more. Don't trouble to let me out; I can find my way. Good morning." With a stiff bow and a quick glance at me, the speaker strode out of the room, banging the door after him.
"I must apologise for this extraordinary reception," said Miss Bellingham; "but I believe medical men are not easily astonished. I will introduce you to your patient now." She opened the door and, as I followed her into the adjoining room, she said: "Here is another visitor for you, dear. Doctor--"
"Berkeley," said I. "I am acting for my friend Doctor Barnard."
The invalid, a fine-looking man of about fifty-five, who sat propped up in bed with a pile of pillows, held out an excessively shaky hand, which I grasped cordially, making a mental note of the tremor.
"How do you do, sir?" said Mr. Bellingham. "I hope Doctor Barnard is not ill."
"Oh, no," I answered; "he has gone for a trip down the Mediterranean on a currant ship. The chance occurred rather suddenly, and I bustled him off before he had time to change his mind. Hence my rather unceremonious appearance, which I hope you will forgive."
"Not at all," was the hearty response. "I'm delighted to hear that you sent him off; he wanted a holiday, poor man. And I am delighted to make your acquaintance, too."
"It is very good of you," I said; whereupon he bowed as gracefully as a man may who is propped up in bed with a heap of pillows; and having thus exchanged broadsides of civility, so to speak, we--or, at least, I--proceeded to business.
"How long have you been laid up?" I asked cautiously, not wishing to make too evident the fact that my principal had given me no information respecting his case.
"A week to-day," he replied. "The fons et origo mali was a hansom-cab which upset me opposite the Law Courts--sent me sprawling in the middle of the road. My own fault, of course--at least, the cabby said so, and I suppose he knew. But that was no consolation to me."
"Were you much hurt?"
"No, not really; but the fall bruised my knee rather badly and gave me a deuce of a shake up. I'm too old for that sort of thing, you know."
"Most people are," said I.
"True; but you can take a cropper more gracefully at twenty than at fifty-five. However, the knee is getting on quite well--you shall see it presently--and you observe that I am giving it complete rest. But that isn't the whole of the trouble or the worst of it. It's my confounded nerves. I'm as irritable as the devil and as nervous as a cat, and I can't get a decent night's rest."
I recalled the tremulous hand that he had offered me. He did not look like a drinker, but still--
"Do you smoke much?" I inquired diplomatically.
He looked at me slyly and chuckled. "That's a very delicate way to approach the subject, Doctor," he said. "No, I don't smoke much, and I don't crook my little finger. I saw you look at my shaky hand just now--oh, it's all right; I'm not offended. It's a doctor's business to keep his eyelids lifting. But my hand is steady enough as a rule, when I'm not upset, but the least excitement sets me shaking like a jelly. And the fact is that I have just had a deucedly unpleasant interview--"
"I think," Miss Bellingham interrupted, "Doctor Berkeley and, in fact, the neighbourhood at large, are aware of the fact."
Mr. Bellingham laughed rather shamefacedly. "I'm afraid I did lose my temper," he said; "but I am an impulsive old fellow, Doctor, and when I'm put out I'm apt to speak my mind--a little too bluntly, perhaps."
"And audibly," his daughter added. "Do you know that Doctor Berkeley was reduced to the necessity of stopping his ears?" She glanced at me, as she spoke, with something like a twinkle in her solemn grey eyes.
"Did I shout?" Mr. Bellingham asked, not very contritely, I thought, though he added: "I'm very sorry, my dear; but it won't happen again. I think we've seen the last of that good gentleman."
"I am sure I hope so," she rejoined, adding: "And now I will leave you to your talk; I shall be in the next room if you should want me."
I opened the door for her, and when she had passed out with a stiff little bow I seated myself by the bedside and resumed the consultation. It was evidently a case of nervous breakdown, to which the cab accident had, no doubt, contributed. As to the other antecedents, they were no concern of mine, though Mr. Bellingham seemed to think otherwise, for he resumed: "That cab business was the last straw, you know, and it finished me off, but I have been going down the hill for a long time. I've had a lot of trouble during the last two years. But I suppose I oughtn't to pester you with the details of my personal affairs."
"Anything that bears on your present state of health is of interest to me if you don't mind telling it," I said.
"Mind!" he exclaimed. "Did you ever meet an invalid who didn't enjoy talking about his own health? It's the listener who minds, as a rule."
"Well, the present listener doesn't," I said.
"Then," said Mr. Bellingham, "I'll treat myself to the luxury of telling you all my troubles; I don't often get the chance of a confidential grumble to a responsible man of my own class. And I really have some excuse for railing at Fortune, as you will agree when I tell you that, a couple of years ago, I went to bed one night a gentleman of independent means and excellent prospects and woke up in the morning to find myself practically a beggar. Not a cheerful experience that, you know, at my time of life, eh?"
"No," I agreed, "nor at any other."
"And that was not all," he continued; "for, at the same moment, I lost my only brother, my dearest, kindest friend. He disappeared--vanished off the face of the earth; but perhaps you have heard of the affair. The confounded papers were full of it at the time."
He paused abruptly, noticing, no doubt, a sudden change in my face. Of course, I recollected the case now. Indeed, ever since I had entered the house some chord of memory had been faintly vibrating, and now his last words had struck out the full note.
"Yes," I said, "I remember the incident, though I don't suppose I should but for the fact that our lecturer on medical jurisprudence drew my attention to it."
"Indeed," said Mr. Bellingham, rather uneasily, as I fancied. "What did he say about it?"
"He referred to it as a case that was calculated to give rise to some very pretty legal complications."
"By Jove!" exclaimed Mr. Bellingham, "that man was a prophet! Legal complications, indeed! But I'll be bound he never guessed at the sort of infernal tangle that has actually gathered round the affair. By the way, what was his name?"
"Thorndyke," I replied. "Doctor John Thorndyke."
"Thorndyke," Mr. Bellingham repeated in a musing, retrospective tone. "I seem to remember that name. Yes, of course. I have heard a legal friend of mine, a Mr. Marchmont, speak of him in reference to the case of a man whom I knew slightly years ago--a certain Jeffrey Blackmore, who also disappeared very mysteriously. I remember now that Doctor Thorndyke unravelled that case with most remarkable ingenuity."
"I daresay he would be very much interested to hear about your case," I suggested.
"I daresay he would," was the reply; "but one can't take up a professional man's time for nothing, and I couldn't afford to pay him. And that reminds me that I'm taking up your time by gossiping about my purely personal affairs."
"My morning round is finished," said I, "and, moreover, your personal affairs are highly interesting. I suppose I mustn't ask what is the nature of the legal entanglement?"
"Not unless you are prepared to stay here for the rest of the day and go home a raving lunatic. But I'll tell you this much: the trouble is about my poor brother's will. In the first place, it can't be administered because there is no sufficient evidence that my brother is dead; and in the second place, if it could, all the property would go to people who were never intended to benefit. The will itself is the most diabolically exasperating document that was ever produced by the perverted ingenuity of a wrong-headed man. That's all. Will you have a look at my knee?"
As Mr. Bellingham's explanation (delivered in a rapid crescendo and ending almost in a shout) had left him purple-faced and trembling, I thought it best to bring our talk to an end. Accordingly I proceeded to inspect the injured knee, which was now nearly well, and to overhaul my patient generally; and having given him detailed instructions as to his general conduct, I rose to take my leave.
"And remember," I said as I shook his hand, "no tobacco, no coffee, no excitement of any kind. Lead a quiet, bovine life."
"That's all very well," he grumbled, "but supposing people come here and excite me?"
"Disregard them," said I, "and read Whitaker's Almanack." And with this parting advice I passed out into the other room.
Miss Bellingham was seated at the table with a pile of blue-covered note-books before her, two of which were open, displaying pages closely written in a small, neat handwriting. She rose as I entered and looked at me inquiringly.
"I heard you advising my father to read Whitaker's Almanack," she said. "Was that as a curative measure?"
"Entirely," I replied. "I recommended it for its medicinal virtues, as an antidote to mental excitement."
She smiled faintly. "It certainly is not a highly emotional book," she said, and then asked: "Have you any other instructions to give?"
"Well, I might give the conventional advice--to maintain a cheerful outlook and avoid worry; but I don't suppose you would find it very helpful."
"No," she answered bitterly; "it is a counsel of perfection. People in our position are not a very cheerful class, I am afraid; but still they don't seek out worries from sheer perverseness. The worries come unsought. But, of course, you can't enter into that."
"I can't give any practical help, I fear, though I do sincerely hope that your father's affairs will straighten themselves out soon."
She thanked me for my good wishes and accompanied me down to the street door, where, with a bow and a rather stiff handshake, she gave me my conge.
Very ungratefully the noise of Fetter Lane smote on my ears as I came out through the archway, and very squalid and unrestful the little street looked when contrasted with the dignity and monastic quiet of the old garden. As to the surgery, with its oilcloth floor and walls made hideous with gaudy insurance show-cards in sham gilt frames, its aspect was so revolting that I flew to the day-book for distraction, and was still busily entering the morning's visits when the bottle-boy, Adolphus, entered stealthily to announce lunch.