The Vanishing Man by R. Austin Freeman
Chapter IX. The Sphinx of Lincoln's Inn
At the age of twenty-six one cannot claim to have attained to the position of a person of experience. Nevertheless, the knowledge of human nature accumulated in that brief period sufficed to make me feel pretty confident that, at some time during the evening, I should receive a visit from Miss Oman. And circumstances justified my confidence; for the clock yet stood at two minutes to seven when a premonitory tap at the surgery door heralded her arrival.
"I happened to be passing," she explained, and I forbore to smile at the coincidence, "so I thought I might as well drop in and hear what you wanted to ask me about."
She seated herself in the patients' chair and, laying a bundle of newspapers on the table, glared at me expectantly.
"Thank you, Miss Oman," I said. "It is very good of you to look in on me. I am ashamed to give you all this trouble about such a trifling matter."
She rapped her knuckles impatiently on the table.
"Never mind about the trouble," she exclaimed tartly. "What--is--it--that--you--want--to--ask--me about?"
I stated my difficulties in respect of the supper-party, and, as I proceeded, an expression of disgust and disappointment spread over her countenance. "I don't see why you need have been so mysterious about it," she said glumly.
"I didn't mean to be mysterious; I was only anxious not to make a mess of the affair. It's all very fine to assume a lofty scorn of the pleasures of the table, but there is great virtue in a really good feed, especially when low-living and high-thinking have been the order of the day."
"Coarsely put," said Miss Oman, "but perfectly true."
"Very well. Now, if I leave the management to Mrs. Gummer, she will probably provide a tepid Irish stew with flakes of congealed fat on it, and a plastic suet-pudding or something of that kind, and turn the house upside-down in getting it ready. So I thought of having a cold spread and getting the things in from outside. But I don't want it to look as if I had been making enormous preparations."
"They won't think the things came down from heaven," said Miss Oman.
"No, I suppose they won't. But you know what I mean. Now, where do you advise me to go for the raw materials of conviviality?"
Miss Oman reflected. "You'd better let me do your shopping and manage the whole business," was her final verdict.
This was precisely what I had wanted, and I accepted thankfully, regardless of the feelings of Mrs. Gummer. I handed her two pounds, and, after some protests at my extravagance, she bestowed them in her purse; a process that occupied time, since that receptacle, besides and time-stained bills, already bulged with a lading of draper's samples, ends of tape, a card of linen buttons, another of hooks and eyes, a lump of beeswax, a rat-eaten stump of lead-pencil, and other trifles that I have forgotten. As she closed the purse at the imminent risk of wrenching off its fastenings she looked at me severely and pursed up her lips.
"You're a very plausible young man," she remarked.
"What makes you say that?" I asked.
"Philandering about museums," she continued, "with handsome young ladies on the pretence of work. Work, indeed! Oh, I heard her telling her father about it. She thinks you were perfectly enthralled by the mummies and dried cats and chunks of stone and all the other trash. She doesn't know what humbugs men are."
"Really, Miss Oman--" I began.
"Oh, don't talk to me!" she snapped. "I can see it all. You can't impose on me. I can see you staring into those glass cases, egging her on to talk and listening open-mouthed and bulging-eyed and sitting at her feet--now, didn't you?"
"I don't know about sitting at her feet," I said, "though it might easily have come to that with those infernal slippery floors; but I had a very jolly time, and I mean to go again if I can. Miss Bellingham is the cleverest and most accomplished woman I have ever spoken to."
This was a poser for Miss Oman, whose admiration and loyalty, I knew, were only equalled by my own. She would have liked to contradict me, but the thing was impossible. To cover her defeat she snatched up the bundle of newspapers and began to open them out.
"What sort of stuff is 'hibernation'?" she demanded suddenly.
"Hibernation!" I exclaimed.
"Yes. They found a patch of it on a bone that was discovered in a pond at St. Mary Cray, and a similar patch on one that was found at some place in Essex. Now, I want to know what 'hibernation' is."
"You must mean 'eburnation,'" I said, after a moment's reflection.
"The newspapers say 'hibernation,' and I suppose they know what they are talking about. If you don't know what it is, don't be ashamed to say so."
"Well, then, I don't."
"In that case you'd better read the papers and find out," she said, a little illogically. And then: "Are you fond of murders? I am, awfully."
"What a shocking little ghoul you must be!" I exclaimed.
She stuck out her chin at me. "I'll trouble you," she said, "to be a little more respectful in your language. Do you realise that I am old enough to be your mother?"
"Impossible!" I ejaculated.
"Fact," said Miss Oman.
"Well, anyhow," said I, "age is not the only qualification. And, besides, you are too late for the billet. The vacancy's filled."
Miss Oman slapped the papers down on the table and rose abruptly.
"You had better read the papers and see if you can learn a little sense," she said severely as she turned to go. "Oh, and don't forget the finger!" she added eagerly. "That is really thrilling."
"The finger?" I repeated.
"Yes. They found a hand with one finger missing. The police think it is a highly important clue. I don't know quite what they mean; but you read the account and tell me what you think."
With this parting injunction she bustled out through the surgery, and I followed to bid her a ceremonious adieu on the doorstep. I watched her little figure tripping with quick, bird-like steps down Fetter Lane, and was about to turn back into the surgery when my attention was attracted by the evolutions of an elderly gentleman on the opposite side of the street. He was a somewhat peculiar-looking man, tall, gaunt, and bony, and the way in which he carried his head suggested to the medical mind a pronounced degree of near sight and a pair of "deep" spectacle glasses. Suddenly he espied me and crossed the road with his chin thrust forward and a pair of keen blue eyes directed at me through the centres of his spectacles.
"I wonder if you can and will help me," said he, with a courteous salute. "I wish to call on an acquaintance, and I have forgotten his address. It is in some court, but the name of that court has escaped me for the moment. My friend's name is Bellingham. I suppose you don't chance to know it? Doctors know a great many people, as a rule."
"Do you mean Mr. Godfrey Bellingham?"
"Ah! Then you do know him. I have not consulted the oracle in vain. He is a patient of yours, no doubt?"
"A patient and a personal friend. His address is Forty-nine Nevill's Court."
"Thank you, thank you. Oh, and as you are a friend, perhaps you can inform me as to the customs of the household. I am not expected, and I do not wish to make an untimely visit. What are Mr. Bellingham's habits as to his evening meal? Would this be a convenient time to call?"
"I generally make my evening visits a little later than this--say about half-past eight; they have finished their meal by then."
"Ah! half-past eight, then? Then I suppose I had better take a walk until that time. I don't want to disturb them."
"Would you care to come in and smoke a cigar until it is time to make your call? If you would, I could walk over with you and show you the house."
"That is very kind of you," said my new acquaintance, with an inquisitive glance at me through his spectacles. "I think I should like to sit down. It's a dull affair, mooning about the streets, and there isn't time to go back to my chambers--in Lincoln's Inn."
"I wonder," said I, as I ushered him into the room lately vacated by Miss Oman, "if you happen to be Mr. Jellicoe?"
He turned his spectacles full on me with a keen, suspicious glance. "What makes you think I am Mr. Jellicoe?" he asked.
"Oh, only that you live in Lincoln's Inn."
"Ha! I see. I live in Lincoln's Inn; Mr. Jellicoe lives in Lincoln's Inn; therefore I am Mr. Jellicoe. Ha! ha! Bad logic, but a correct conclusion. Yes, I am Mr. Jellicoe. What do you know about me?"
"Mighty little, excepting that you were the late John Bellingham's man of business."
"The 'late John Bellingham,' hey! How do you know he is the late John Bellingham?"
"As a matter of fact, I don't; only I rather understood that that was your own belief."
"You understood! Now, from whom did you 'understand' that? From Godfrey Bellingham? H'm! And how did he know what I believe? I never told him. It is a very unsafe thing, my dear sir, to expound another man's beliefs."
"Then you think that John Bellingham is alive?"
"Do I? Who said so? I did not, you know."
"But he must be either dead or alive."
"There," said Mr. Jellicoe, "I am entirely with you. You have stated an undeniable truth."
"It is not a very illuminating one, however," I replied, laughing.
"Undeniable truths often are not," he retorted. "They are apt to be extremely general. In fact, I would affirm that the certainty of the truth of a given proposition is directly proportional to its generality."
"I suppose that is so," said I.
"Undoubtedly. Take an instance from your own profession. Given a million normal human beings under twenty, and you can say with certainty that a majority of them will die before reaching a certain age, that they will die in certain circumstances and of certain diseases. Then take a single unit from that million, and what can you predict concerning him? Nothing. He may die to-morrow; he may live to a couple of hundred. He may die of a cold in the head or a cut finger, or from falling off the cross of St. Paul's. In a particular case you can predict nothing."
"That is perfectly true," said I. And then, realising that I had been led away from the topic of John Bellingham, I ventured to return to it.
"That was a very mysterious affair--the disappearance of John Bellingham, I mean."
"Why mysterious?" asked Mr. Jellicoe. "Men disappear from time to time, and when they reappear, the explanations that they give (when they give any) seem to be more or less adequate."
"But the circumstances were surely rather mysterious."
"What circumstances?" asked Mr. Jellicoe.
"I mean the way in which he vanished from Mr. Hurst's house."
"In what way did he vanish from it?"
"Well, of course, I don't know."
"Precisely. Neither do I. Therefore I can't say whether that way was a mysterious one or not."
"It is not even certain that he did leave it," I remarked, rather recklessly.
"Exactly," said Mr. Jellicoe. "And if he did not, he is there still. And if he is there still, he has not disappeared--in the sense understood. And if he has not disappeared, there is no mystery."
I laughed heartily, but Mr. Jellicoe preserved a wooden solemnity and continued to examine me through his spectacles (which I, in my turn, inspected and estimated at about minus five dioptres). There was something highly diverting about this grim lawyer, with his dry contentiousness and almost farcical caution. His ostentatious reserve encouraged me to ply him with fresh questions, the more indiscreet the better.
"I suppose," said I, "that, under these circumstances, you would hardly favour Mr. Hurst's proposal to apply for permission to presume death?"
"Under what circumstances?" he inquired.
"I was referring to the doubt you have expressed as to whether John Bellingham is, after all, really dead."
"My dear sir," said he, "I fail to see your point. If it were certain that the man was alive, it would be impossible to presume that he was dead; and if it were certain that he was dead, presumption of death would still be impossible. You do not presume a certainty. The uncertainty is of the essence of the transaction."
"But," I persisted, "if you really believe that he may be alive, I should hardly have thought that you would take the responsibility of presuming his death and dispersing his property."
"I don't," said Mr. Jellicoe. "I take no responsibility. I act in accordance with the decision of the Court and have no choice in the matter."
"But the Court may decide that he is dead and he may nevertheless be alive."
"Not at all. If the Court decides that he is presumably dead, then he is presumably dead. As a mere irrelevant, physical circumstance he may, it is true, be alive. But legally speaking, and for testamentary purposes, he is dead. You fail to perceive the distinction, no doubt?"
"I am afraid I do," I admitted.
"Yes; members of your profession usually do. That is what makes them such bad witnesses in a court of law. The scientific outlook is radically different from the legal. The man of science relies on his own knowledge and observation and judgment, and disregards testimony. A man comes to you and tells you he is blind in one eye. Do you accept his statement? Not in the least. You proceed to test his eyesight with some infernal apparatus of coloured glasses, and you find that he can see perfectly well with both eyes. Then you decide that he is not blind in one eye; that is to say, you reject his testimony in favour of facts of your own ascertaining."
"But surely that is the rational method of coming to a conclusion?"
"In science, no doubt. Not in law. A court of law must decide according to the evidence which is before it; and that evidence is of the nature of sworn testimony. If a witness is prepared to swear that black is white, and no evidence to the contrary is offered, the evidence before the Court is that black is white, and the Court must decide accordingly. The judge and the jury may think otherwise--they may even have private knowledge to the contrary--but they have to decide according to the evidence."
"Do you mean to say that a judge would be justified in giving a decision which he knew privately to be contrary to the facts? Or that he might sentence a man whom he knew to be innocent?"
"Certainly. It has been done. There is a case of a judge who sentenced a man to death and allowed the execution to take place, notwithstanding that he--the judge--had actually seen the murder committed by another man. But that was carrying correctness of procedure to the verge of pedantry."
"It was, with a vengeance," I agreed. "But to return to the case of John Bellingham. Supposing that after the Court has decided that he is dead he should turn up alive? What then?"
"Ah! It would then be his turn to make an application, and the Court, having fresh evidence laid before it, would probably decide that he was alive."
"And meantime his property would have been dispersed?"
"Probably. But you will observe that the presumption of death would have arisen out of his own proceedings. If a man acts in such a way as to create a belief that he is dead, he must put up with the consequences."
"Yes, that is reasonable enough," said I. And then, after a pause, I asked: "Is there any immediate likelihood of proceedings of the kind being commenced?"
"I understood from what you said just now that Mr. Hurst was contemplating some action of the kind. No doubt you had your information from a reliable quarter." This answer Mr. Jellicoe delivered without moving a muscle, regarding me with the fixity of a spectacled figure-head.
I smiled feebly. The operation of pumping Mr. Jellicoe was rather like the sport of boxing with a porcupine, being chiefly remarkable as a demonstration of the power of passive resistance. I determined, however, to make one more effort, rather, I think, for the pleasure of witnessing his defensive manoeuvres than with the expectation of getting anything out of him. I accordingly "opened out" on the subject of the "remains."
"Have you been following these remarkable discoveries of human bones that have been appearing in the papers?" I asked.
He looked at me stonily for some moments, and then replied:
"Human bones are rather more within your province than mine, but, now that you mention it, I think I recall having read of some such discoveries. They were disconnected bones, I believe?"
"Yes; evidently parts of a dismembered body."
"So I should suppose. No, I have not followed the accounts. As we get on in life our interests tend to settle into grooves, and my groove is chiefly connected with conveyancing. These discoveries would be of more interest to a criminal lawyer."
"I thought that you might, perhaps, have connected them with the disappearance of your client."
"Why should I? What could be the nature of the connection?"
"Well," I said, "these are the bones of a man--"
"Yes; and my client was a man with bones. That is a connection, certainly, though not a very specific or distinctive one. But perhaps you had something more particular in your mind."
"I had," I replied. "The fact that some of the bones were actually found on land belonging to your client seemed to me rather significant."
"Did it, indeed?" said Mr. Jellicoe. He reflected for a few moments, gazing steadily at me the while, and then continued: "In that I am unable to follow you. It would have seemed to me that the finding of human remains upon a certain piece of land might conceivably throw a prima facie suspicion upon the owner or occupant of that land as being the person who deposited them. But the case that you suggest is the one case in which this would be impossible. A man cannot deposit his own dismembered remains."
"No, of course not. I was not suggesting that he deposited them himself, but merely that the fact of their being deposited on his land, in a way, connected these remains with him."
"Again," said Mr. Jellicoe, "I fail to follow you, unless you are suggesting that it is customary for murderers who mutilate bodies to be punctilious in depositing the dismembered remains upon land belonging to their victims. In which case I am sceptical as to your facts. I am not aware of the existence of any such custom. Moreover, it appears that only a portion of the body was deposited on Mr. Bellingham's land, the remaining portions having been scattered broadcast over a wide area. How does that agree with your suggestion?"
"It doesn't, of course," I admitted. "But there is another fact that I think you will admit to be more significant. The first remains that were discovered were found at Sidcup. Now, Sidcup is close to Eltham; and Eltham is the place where Mr. Bellingham was last seen alive."
"And what is the significance of this? Why do you connect the remains with one locality rather than the various other localities in which other portions of the body have been found?"
"Well," I replied, rather gravelled by this very pertinent question, "the appearances seem to suggest that the person who deposited these remains started from the neighbourhood of Eltham, where the missing man was last seen."
Mr. Jellicoe shook his head. "You appear," said he, "to be confusing the order of deposition with the order of discovery. What evidence is there that the remains found at Sidcup were deposited before those found elsewhere?"
"I don't know that there is any," I admitted.
"Then," said he, "I don't see how you support your suggestion that the person started from the neighbourhood of Eltham."
On consideration, I had to admit that I had nothing to offer in support of my theory; and having thus shot my last arrow in this very unequal contest, I thought it time to change the subject.
"I called in at the British Museum the other day," said I, "and had a look at Mr. Bellingham's last gift to the nation. The things are very well shown in that central case."
"Yes. I was very pleased with the position they have given to the exhibit, and so would my poor old friend have been. I wished, as I looked at the case, that he could have seen it. But perhaps he may, after all."
"I am sure I hope he will," said I, with more sincerity, perhaps, than the lawyer gave me credit for. For the return of John Bellingham would most effectually have cut the Gordian knot of my friend Godfrey's difficulties. "You are a good deal interested in Egyptology yourself, aren't you?" I added.
"Greatly interested," replied Mr. Jellicoe, with more animation than I had thought possible in his wooden face. "It is a fascinating subject, the study of this venerable civilisation, extending back to the childhood of the human race, preserved for ever for our instruction in its own unchanging monuments like a fly in a block of amber. Everything connected with Egypt is full of an impressive solemnity. A feeling of permanence, of stability, defying time and change, pervades it. The place, the people, and the monuments alike breathe of eternity."
I was mightily surprised at this rhetorical outburst on the part of this dry and taciturn lawyer. But I liked him the better for the touch of enthusiasm that made him human, and determined to keep him astride of his hobby.
"Yet," said I, "the people must have changed in the course of centuries."
"Yes, that is so. The people who fought against Cambyses were not the race that marched into Egypt five thousand years before--the dynastic people whose portraits we see on the early monuments. In those fifty centuries the blood of Hyksos and Syrians and Ethiopians and Hittites, and who can say how many more races, must have mingled with that of the old Egyptians. But still the national life went on without a break; the old culture leavened the new peoples, and the immigrant strangers ended by becoming Egyptians. It is a wonderful phenomenon. Looking back on it from our own time, it seems more like a geological period than the life-history of a single nation. Are you at all interested in the subject?"
"Yes, decidedly, though I am completely ignorant of it. The fact is that my interest is of quite recent growth. It is only of late that I have been sensible of the glamour of things Egyptian."
"Since you made Miss Bellingham's acquaintance, perhaps?" suggested Mr. Jellicoe, himself as unchanging in aspect as an Egyptian effigy.
I suppose I must have reddened--I certainly resented the remark--for he continued in the same even tone: "I made the suggestion because I know that she takes an intelligent interest in the subject and is, in fact, quite well informed on it."
"Yes; she seems to know a great deal about the antiquities of Egypt, and I may as well admit that your surmise was correct. It was she who showed me her uncle's collection."
"So I had supposed," said Mr. Jellicoe. "And a very instructive collection it is, in a popular sense; very suitable for exhibition in a public museum, though there is nothing in it of unusual interest to the expert. The tomb furniture is excellent of its kind and the cartonnage case of the mummy is well made and rather finely decorated."
"Yes, I thought it quite handsome. But can you explain to me why, after taking all that trouble to decorate it, they should have disfigured it with those great smears of bitumen?"
"Ah!" said Mr. Jellicoe, "that is quite an interesting question. It is not unusual to find mummy-cases smeared with bitumen; there is a mummy of a priestess in the next gallery which is completely coated with bitumen excepting the gilded face. Now, this bitumen was put on for a purpose--for the purpose of obliterating the inscriptions and thus concealing the identity of the deceased from the robbers and desecrators of tombs. And there is the oddity of this mummy of Sebek-hotep. Evidently there was an intention of obliterating the inscriptions. The whole of the back is covered thickly with bitumen, and so are the feet. Then the workers seem to have changed their minds and left the inscriptions and decoration untouched. Why they intended to cover it, and why, having commenced, they left it partially covered only, is a mystery. The mummy was found in its original tomb and quite undisturbed, so far as tomb-robbers are concerned. Poor Bellingham was greatly puzzled as to what the explanation could be."
"Speaking of bitumen," said I, "reminds me of a question that has occurred to me. You know that this substance has been used a good deal by modern painters and that it has a very dangerous peculiarity; I mean its tendency to liquefy, without any very obvious reason, long after it has dried."
"Yes, I know. Isn't there some story about a picture of Reynolds' in which bitumen had been used? A portrait of a lady, I think. The bitumen softened, and one of the lady's eyes slipped down on to her cheek; and they had to hang the portrait upside down and keep it warm until the eye slipped back into its place. But what was your question?"
"I was wondering whether the bitumen used by the Egyptian artists has ever been known to soften after this great lapse of time."
"Yes, I think it has. I have heard of instances in which the bitumen coatings of mummy cases have softened under certain circumstances and become quite 'tacky.' But, bless my soul! here am I gossiping with you and wasting your time, and it is nearly a quarter to nine!"
My guest rose hastily, and I, with many apologies for having detained him, proceeded to fulfil my promise to guide him to his destination. As we sallied forth together the glamour of Egypt faded by degrees, and when he shook my hand stiffly at the gate of the Bellinghams' house, all his vivacity and enthusiasm had vanished, leaving the taciturn lawyer, dry, uncommunicative, and not a little suspicious.