The Vanishing Man by R. Austin Freeman
Chapter VI. Sidelights
The association of coal with potatoes is one upon which I have frequently speculated, without arriving at any more satisfactory explanation than that both products are of the earth, earthy. Of the connection itself Barnard's practice furnished several instances besides Mrs. Jablett's establishment in Fleur-de-Lys Court, one of which was a dark and mysterious cavern a foot below the level of the street, that burrowed under an ancient house on the west side of Fetter Lane--a crinkly, timber house of the three-decker type that leaned back drunkenly from the road as if about to sit down in its own back yard.
Passing this repository of the associated products about ten o'clock in the morning, I perceived in the shadow of the cavern no less a person than Miss Oman. She saw me at the same moment, and beckoned peremptorily with a hand that held a large Spanish onion. I approached with a deferential smile.
"What a magnificent onion, Miss Oman! and how generous of you to offer it to me--"
"I wasn't offering it to you. But there! Isn't it just like a man--"
"Isn't what just like a man?" I interrupted. "If you mean the onion--"
"I don't!" she snapped; "and I wish you wouldn't talk such a parcel of nonsense. A grown man and a member of a serious profession, too! You ought to know better."
"I suppose I ought," I said reflectively. And she continued:
"I called in at the surgery just now."
"To see me?"
"What else should I come for? Do you suppose that I called to consult the bottle-boy?"
"Certainly not, Miss Oman. So you find the lady doctor no use, after all?"
Miss Oman gnashed her teeth at me (and very fine teeth they were, too).
"I called," she said majestically, "on behalf of Miss Bellingham."
My facetiousness evaporated instantly. "I hope Miss Bellingham is not ill," I said with a sudden anxiety that elicited a sardonic smile from Miss Oman.
"No," was the reply, "she is not ill, but she has cut her hand rather badly. It's her right hand, too, and she can't afford to lose the use of it, not being a great, hulking, lazy, lolloping man. So you had better go and put some stuff on it."
With this advice, Miss Oman whisked to the right-about and vanished into the depths of the cavern like the Witch of Wokey, while I hurried on to the surgery to provide myself with the necessary instruments and materials, and thence proceeded to Nevill's Court.
Miss Oman's juvenile maid-servant, who opened the door to me, stated the existing conditions with epigrammatic conciseness:
"Mr. Bellingham is hout, sir; but Miss Bellingham is hin."
Having thus delivered herself she retreated towards the kitchen and I ascended the stairs, at the head of which I found Miss Bellingham awaiting me with her right hand encased in what looked like a white boxing-glove.
"I am glad you have come," she said. "Phyllis--Miss Oman, you know--has kindly bound up my hand, but I should like you to see that it is all right."
We went into the sitting-room, where I laid out my paraphernalia on the table while I inquired into the particulars of the accident.
"It is most unfortunate that it should have happened just now," she said, as I wrestled with one of those remarkable feminine knots that, while they seem to defy the utmost efforts of human ingenuity to untie, yet have a singular habit of untying themselves at inopportune moments.
"Why just now, in particular?" I asked.
"Because I have some specially important work to do. A very learned lady who is writing a historical book has commissioned me to collect all the literature relating to the Tell el Amarna letters--the cuneiform tablets, you know, of Amenhotep the Fourth."
"Well," I said soothingly, "I expect your hand will soon be well."
"Yes, but that won't do. The work has to be done immediately. I have to send in the completed notes not later than this day week, and it will be quite impossible. I am dreadfully disappointed."
By this time I had unwound the voluminous wrappings and exposed the injury--a deep gash in the palm that must have narrowly missed a good-sized artery. Obviously the hand would be useless for fully a week.
"I suppose," she said, "you couldn't patch it up so that I could write with it?"
I shook my head.
"No, Miss Bellingham. I shall have to put it on a splint. We can't run any risks with a deep wound like this."
"Then I shall have to give up the commission, and I don't know how my client will get the work done in the time. You see, I am pretty well up in the literature of Ancient Egypt; in fact, I was to receive special payment on that account. And it would have been such an interesting task, too. However, it can't be helped."
I proceeded methodically with the application of the dressings, and meanwhile reflected. It was evident that she was deeply disappointed. Loss of work meant loss of money, and it needed but a glance at her rusty black dress to see that there was little margin for that. Possibly, too, there was some special need to be met. Her manner seemed almost to imply that there was. And at this point I had a brilliant idea.
"I'm not sure that it can't be helped," said I.
She looked at me inquiringly, and I continued: "I am going to make a proposition, and I shall ask you to consider it with an open mind."
"That sounds rather portentous," said she; "but I promise. What is it?"
"It is this: When I was a student I acquired the useful art of writing shorthand. I am not a lightning reporter, you understand, but I can take matter down from dictation at quite respectable speed."
"Well, I have several hours free every day--usually, the whole of the afternoon up to six or half-past--and it occurs to me that if you were to go to the Museum in the mornings you could get out your books, look up passages (you could do that without using your right hand), and put in book-marks. Then I could come along in the afternoon and you could read out the selected passages to me, and I could take them down in shorthand. We should get through as much in a couple of hours as you could in a day using longhand."
"Oh, but how kind of you, Doctor Berkeley!" she exclaimed. "How very kind! Of course, I couldn't think of taking up all your leisure in that way; but I do appreciate your kindness very much."
I was rather chapfallen at this very definite refusal, but persisted feebly:
"I wish you would. It may seem rather cheek for a comparative stranger like me to make such a proposal to a lady; but if you'd been a man--in these special circumstances--I should have made it all the same, and you would have accepted as a matter of course."
"I doubt that. At any rate, I am not a man. I sometimes wish I were."
"Oh, I am sure you are much better as you are!" I exclaimed, with such earnestness that we both laughed. And at this moment Mr. Bellingham entered the room carrying several large and evidently brand-new books in a strap.
"Well, I'm sure!" he exclaimed genially; "here are pretty goings on. Doctor and patient giggling like a pair of schoolgirls! What's the joke?"
He thumped his parcel of books down on the table and listened smilingly while my unconscious witticism was expounded.
"The Doctor's quite right," he said. "You'll do as you are, chick; but the Lord knows what sort of man you would make. You take his advice and let well alone."
Finding him in this genial frame of mind, I ventured to explain my proposition to him and to enlist his support. He considered it with attentive approval, and when I had finished turned to his daughter.
"What is your objection, chick?" he asked.
"It would give Doctor Berkeley such a fearful lot of work," she answered.
"It would give him a fearful lot of pleasure," I said. "It would, really."
"Then why not?" said Mr. Bellingham. "We don't mind being under an obligation to the Doctor, do we?"
"Oh, it wasn't that!" she exclaimed hastily.
"Then take him at his word. He means it. It is a kind action and he'll like doing it, I'm sure. That's all right, Doctor; she accepts, don't you, chick?"
"Yes, if you say so, I do; and most thankfully."
She accompanied the acceptance with a gracious smile that was in itself a large payment on account, and when we had made the necessary arrangements, I hurried away in a state of the most perfect satisfaction to finish my morning's work and order an early lunch.
When I called for her a couple of hours later I found her waiting in the garden with the shabby handbag, of which I relieved her, and we set forth together, watched jealously by Miss Oman, who had accompanied her to the gate.
As I walked up the court with this wonderful maid by my side I could hardly believe in my good fortune. By her presence and my own resulting happiness the mean surroundings became glorified and the commonest objects transfigured into things of beauty. What a delightful thoroughfare, for instance, was Fetter Lane, with its quaint charm and mediaeval grace! I snuffed the cabbage-laden atmosphere and seemed to breathe the scent of the asphodel. Holborn was even as the Elysian Fields; the omnibus that bore us westward was a chariot of glory; and the people who swarmed verminously on the pavements bore the semblance of the children of light.
Love is a foolish thing judged by workaday standards, and the thoughts and actions of lovers foolish beyond measure. But the workaday standard is the wrong one, after all; for the utilitarian mind does but busy itself with the trivial and transitory interests of life, behind which looms the great and everlasting reality of the love of man and woman. There is more significance in a nightingale's song in the hush of a summer night than in all the wisdom of Solomon (who, by the way, was not without his little experiences of the tender passion).
The janitor in the little glass box by the entrance to the library inspected us and passed us on, with a silent benediction, to the lobby, whence (when I had handed my stick to a bald-headed demigod and received a talismanic disc in exchange) we entered the enormous rotunda of the reading-room.
I have often thought that, if some lethal vapour of highly preservative properties--such as formaldehyde, for instance--could be shed into the atmosphere of this apartment, the entire and complete collection of books and bookworms would be well worth preserving, for the enlightenment of posterity, as a sort of anthropological appendix to the main collection of the Museum. For, surely, nowhere else in the world are so many strange and abnormal human beings gathered together in one place. And a curious question that must have occurred to many observers is: Whence do these singular creatures come, and whither do they go when the very distinct-faced clock (adjusted to literary eye-sight) proclaims closing time? The tragic-faced gentleman, for instance, with the corkscrew ringlets that bob up and down like spiral springs as he walks? Or the short, elderly gentleman in the black cassock and bowler hat, who shatters your nerves by turning suddenly and revealing himself as a middle-aged woman? Whither do they go? One never sees them elsewhere. Do they steal away at closing time into the depths of the Museum and hide themselves until morning in sarcophagi or mummy cases? Or do they creep through spaces in the book-shelves and spend the night behind the volumes in a congenial atmosphere of leather and antique paper? Who can say? What I do know is that when Ruth Bellingham entered the reading-room she appeared in comparison with these like a creature of another order; even as the head of Antinous, which formerly stood (it has since been moved) amidst the portrait-busts of the Roman Emperors, seemed like the head of a god set in a portrait gallery of illustrious baboons.
"What have we got to do?" I asked when we had found a vacant seat. "Do you want to look up the catalogue?"
"No, I have the tickets in my bag. The books are waiting in the 'kept books' department."
I placed my hat on the leather-covered shelf, dropped her gloves into it--how delightfully intimate and companionable it seemed!--altered the numbers on the tickets, and then we proceeded together to the "kept books" desk to collect the volumes that contained the material for our day's work.
It was a blissful afternoon. Two and a half hours of happiness unalloyed did I spend at that shiny, leather-clad desk, guiding my nimble pen across the pages of the note-book. It introduced me to a new world--a world in which love and learning, sweet intimacy and crusted archaeology, were mingled into the oddest, most whimsical, and most delicious confection that the mind of man can conceive. Hitherto, these recondite histories had been far beyond my ken. Of the wonderful heretic, Amenhotep the Fourth, I had barely heard--at the most he had been a mere name; the Hittites a mythical race of undetermined habitat; while cuneiform tablets had presented themselves to my mind merely as an uncouth kind of fossil biscuit suited to the digestion of a pre-historic ostrich.
Now all this was changed. As we sat with our chairs creaking together and she whispered the story of those stirring times into my receptive ear--talking is strictly forbidden in the reading-room--the disjointed fragments arranged themselves into a romance of supreme fascination. Egyptian, Babylonian, Aramaean, Hittite, Memphis, Babylon, Hamath, Megiddo--I swallowed them all thankfully, wrote them down and asked for more. Only once did I disgrace myself. An elderly clergyman of ascetic and acidulous aspect had passed us with a glance of evident disapproval, clearly setting us down as intruding philanderers; and when I contrasted the parson's probable conception of the whispered communications that were being poured into my ear so tenderly and confidentially with the dry reality, I chuckled aloud. But my fair task-mistress only paused, with her finger on the page, smilingly to rebuke me, and then went on with the dictation. She was certainly a Tartar for work.
It was a proud moment for me when, in response to my interrogative "Yes?" my companion said "That is all" and closed the book. We had extracted the pith and marrow of six considerable volumes in two hours and a half.
"You have been better than your word," she said. "It would have taken me two full days of really hard work to make the notes that you have written down since we commenced. I don't know how to thank you."
"There's no need to. I've enjoyed myself and polished up my shorthand. What is the next thing? We shall want some books for to-morrow, shan't we?"
"Yes. I have made out a list, so if you will come with me to the catalogue desk I will look out the numbers and ask you to write the tickets."
The selection of a fresh batch of authorities occupied us for another quarter of an hour, and then, having handed in the volumes that we had squeezed dry, we took our way out of the reading-room.
"Which way shall we go?" she asked as we passed out of the gate, where stood a massive policeman, like the guardian angel at the gate of Paradise (only, thank Heaven! he bore no flaming sword forbidding reentry).
"We are going," I replied, "to Museum Street, where is a milkshop in which one can get an excellent cup of tea."
She looked as if she would have demurred, but eventually followed obediently, and we were soon seated side by side at a little marble-topped table, retracing the ground that we had covered in the afternoon's work and discussing various points of interest over a joint teapot.
"Have you been doing this sort of work long?" I asked as she handed me my second cup of tea.
"Professionally," she answered, "only about two years; since we broke up our home, in fact. But long before that I used to come to the Museum with my Uncle John--the one who disappeared, you know, in that dreadfully mysterious way--and help him to look up references. We were quite good friends, he and I."
"I suppose he was a very learned man?" I suggested.
"Yes, in a certain way; in the way of the better-class collector he was very learned indeed. He knew the contents of every museum in the world, in so far as they were connected with Egyptian antiquities, and had studied them specimen by specimen. Consequently, as Egyptology is largely a museum science, he was a learned Egyptologist. But his real interest was in things rather than events. Of course, he knew a great deal--a very great deal--about Egyptian history, but still he was, before all, a collector."
"And what will happen to his collection if he is really dead?"
"The greater part of it goes to the British Museum by his will, and the remainder he has left to his solicitor, Mr. Jellicoe."
"To Mr. Jellicoe! Why, what will Mr. Jellicoe do with Egyptian antiquities?"
"Oh, he is an Egyptologist, too, and quite an enthusiast. He has a really fine collection of scarabs and other small objects such as it is possible to keep in a private house. I have always thought that it was his enthusiasm for everything Egyptian that brought him and my uncle together on terms of such intimacy; though I believe he is an excellent lawyer, and he is certainly a very discreet, cautious man."
"Is he? I shouldn't have thought so, judging by your uncle's will."
"Oh, but that was not Mr. Jellicoe's fault. He assures us that he entreated my uncle to let him draw up a fresh document with more reasonable provisions. But he says Uncle John was immovable; and he really was a rather obstinate man. Mr. Jellicoe repudiates any responsibility in the matter. He washes his hands of the whole affair, and says that it is the will of a lunatic. And so it is. I was glancing through it only a night or two ago, and really I cannot conceive how a sane man could have written such nonsense."
"You have a copy, then?" I asked eagerly, remembering Thorndyke's parting instructions.
"Yes. Would you like to see it? I know my father has told you about it, and it is worth reading as a curiosity of perverseness."
"I should very much like to show it to my friend, Doctor Thorndyke," I replied. "He said that he would be interested to read it and learn the exact provisions; and it might be well to let him, and hear what he has to say about it."
"I see no objection," she rejoined; "but you know what my father is: his horror, I mean, of what he calls 'cadging for advice gratis.'"
"Oh, but he need have no scruples on that score. Doctor Thorndyke wants to see the will because the case interests him. He is an enthusiast, you know, and he put the request as a personal favour to himself."
"That is very nice and delicate of him, and I will explain the position to my father. If he is willing for Doctor Thorndyke to see the copy, I will send or bring it over this evening. Have we finished?"
I regretfully admitted that we had, and, when I had paid the modest reckoning, we sallied forth, turning back with one accord into Great Russell Street to avoid the noise and bustle of the larger thoroughfare.
"What sort of man was your uncle?" I asked presently, as we walked along the quiet, dignified street. And then I added hastily: "I hope you don't think me inquisitive, but, to my mind, he presents himself as a kind of mysterious abstraction; the unknown quantity of a legal problem."
"My Uncle John," she answered reflectively, "was a very peculiar man, rather obstinate, very self-willed, what people call 'masterful,' and decidedly wrong-headed and unreasonable."
"That is certainly the impression that the terms of his will convey," I said.
"Yes; and not the will only. There was the absurd allowance that he made my father. That was a ridiculous arrangement, and very unfair, too. He ought to have divided up the property as my grandfather intended. And yet he was by no means ungenerous, only he would have his own way, and his own way was very commonly the wrong way.
"I remember," she continued, after a short pause, "a very odd instance of his wrong-headedness and obstinacy. It was a small matter, but very typical of him. He had in his collection a beautiful little ring of the eighteenth dynasty. It was said to have belonged to Queen Ti, the mother of our friend Amenhotep the Fourth; but I don't think that could have been so, because the device on it was the Eye of Osiris, and Ti, as you know, was an Aten-worshipper. However, it was a very charming ring, and Uncle John, who had a queer sort of devotion to the mystical Eye of Osiris, commissioned a very clever goldsmith to make two exact copies of it, one for himself and one for me. The goldsmith naturally wanted to take the measurements of our fingers, but this Uncle John would not hear of; the rings were to be exact copies, and an exact copy must be the same size as the original. You can imagine the result; my ring was so loose that I couldn't keep it on my finger, and Uncle John's was so tight that, though he did manage to get it on, he was never able to get it off again. And it was only the circumstance that his left hand was decidedly smaller than his right that made it possible for him to wear it at all."
"So you never wore your copy?"
"No. I wanted to have it altered to make it fit, but he objected strongly; so I put it away, and have it in a box still."
"He must have been an extraordinarily pig-headed old fellow," I remarked.
"Yes; he was very tenacious. He annoyed my father a good deal, too, by making unnecessary alterations in the house in Queen Square when he fitted up his museum. We have a certain sentiment with regard to that house. Our people have lived in it ever since it was built, when the square was first laid out in the reign of Queen Anne, after whom the square was named. It is a dear old house. Would you like to see it? We are quite near it now."
I assented eagerly. If it had been a coal-shed or a fried-fish shop I would still have visited it with pleasure, for the sake of prolonging our walk; but I was also really interested in this old house as a part of the background of the mystery of the vanished John Bellingham.
We crossed into Cosmo Place, with its quaint row of the, now rare, cannon-shaped iron posts, and passing through stood for a few moments looking into the peaceful, stately old square. A party of boys disported themselves noisily on the range of stone posts that form a bodyguard round the ancient lamp-surmounted pump, but otherwise the place was wrapped in dignified repose suited to its age and station. And very pleasant it looked on this summer afternoon, with the sunlight gilding the foliage of its wide-spreading plane trees and lighting up the warm-toned brick of the house-fronts. We walked slowly down the shady west side, near the middle of which my companion halted.
"This is the house," she said. "It looks gloomy and forsaken now; but it must have been a delightful house in the days when my ancestors could look out of the windows through the open end of the square across the fields and meadows to the heights of Hampstead and Highgate."
She stood at the edge of the pavement looking up with a curious wistfulness at the old house; a very pathetic figure, I thought, with her handsome face and proud carriage, her threadbare dress and shabby gloves, standing at the threshold of the home that had been her family's for generations, that should now have been hers, and that was shortly to pass away into the hands of strangers.
I, too, looked up at it with a strange interest, impressed by something gloomy and forbidding in its aspect. The windows were shuttered from basement to attic, and no sign of life was visible. Silent, neglected, desolate, it breathed an air of tragedy. It seemed to mourn in sackcloth and ashes for its lost master. The massive door within the splendid carven portico was crusted with grime, and seemed to have passed out of use as completely as the ancient lamp-irons or the rusted extinguishers wherein the footmen were wont to quench their torches when some Bellingham dame was borne up the steps in her gilded chair, in the days of good Queen Anne.
It was in a somewhat sobered frame of mind that we presently turned away and started homeward by way of Great Ormond Street. My companion was deeply thoughtful, relapsing for a while into that sombreness of manner that had so impressed me when I first met her. Nor was I without a certain sympathetic pensiveness; as if, from the great, silent house, the spirit of the vanished man had issued forth to bear us company.
But still it was a delightful walk, and I was sorry when at last we arrived at the entrance to Nevill's Court, and Miss Bellingham halted and held out her hand.
"Good-bye," she said; "and many, many thanks for your invaluable help. Shall I take the bag?"
"If you want it. But I must take out the note-books."
"Why must you take them?" she asked.
"Why, haven't I got to copy the notes out into longhand?"
An expression of utter consternation spread over her face; in fact, she was so completely taken aback that she forgot to release my hand.
"Heavens!" she exclaimed. "How idiotic of me! But it is impossible, Doctor Berkeley! It will take you hours!"
"It is perfectly possible, and it is going to be done; otherwise the notes would be useless. Do you want the bag?"
"No, of course not. But I am positively appalled. Hadn't you better give up the idea?"
"And is this the end of our collaboration?" I exclaimed tragically, giving her hand a final squeeze (whereby she became suddenly aware of its position, and withdrew it rather hastily). "Would you throw away a whole afternoon's work? I won't, certainly; so, good-bye until to-morrow. I shall turn up in the reading-room as early as I can. You had better take the tickets. Oh, and you won't forget about the copy of the will for Doctor Thorndyke, will you?"
"No; if my father agrees, you shall have it this evening."
She took the tickets from me, and, thanking me yet again, retired into the court.