Not According to the Code by Robert Barr
Even a stranger to the big town walking for the first time through London, sees on the sides of the houses many names with which he has long been familiar. His precognition has cost the firms those names represent much money in advertising. The stranger has had the names before him for years in newspapers and magazines, on the hoardings and boards by the railway side, paying little heed to them at the time; yet they have been indelibly impressed on his brain, and when he wishes soap or pills his lips almost automatically frame the words most familiar to them. Thus are the lavish sums spent in advertising justified, and thus are many excellent publications made possible.
When you come to ponder over the matter, it seems strange that there should ever be any real man behind the names so lavishly advertised; that there should be a genuine Smith or Jones whose justly celebrated medicines work such wonders, or whose soap will clean even a guilty conscience. Granting the actual existence of these persons and probing still further into the mystery, can any one imagine that the excellent Smith to whom thousands of former sufferers send entirely unsolicited testimonials, or the admirable Jones whom prima donnas love because his soap preserves their dainty complexions--can any one credit the fact that Smith and Jones have passions like other men, have hatreds, likes and dislikes?
Such a condition of things, incredible as it may appear, exists in London. There are men in the metropolis, utterly unknown personally, whose names are more widely spread over the earth than the names of the greatest novelists, living or dead, and these men have feeling and form like unto ourselves.
There was the firm of Danby and Strong for instance. The name may mean nothing to any reader of these pages, but there was a time when it was well-known and widely advertised, not only in England but over the greater part of the world as well. They did a great business, as every firm that spends a fortune every year in advertising is bound to do. It was in the old paper-collar days. There actually was a time when the majority of men wore paper collars, and, when you come to think of it, the wonder is that the paper-collar trade ever fell away as it did, when you consider with what vile laundries London is and always has been cursed. Take the Danby and Strong collars for instance, advertised as being so similar to linen that only an expert could tell the difference. That was Strong's invention. Before he invented the Piccadilly collar so-called, paper collars had a brilliant glaze that would not have deceived the most recent arrival from the most remote shire in the country. Strong devised some method by which a slight linen film was put on the paper, adding strength to the collar and giving it the appearance of the genuine article. You bought a pasteboard box containing a dozen of these collars for something like the price you paid for the washing of half a dozen linen ones. The Danby and Strong Piccadilly collar jumped at once into great popularity, and the wonder is that the linen collar ever recovered from the blow dealt it by this ingenious invention.
Curiously enough, during the time the firm was struggling to establish itself, the two members of it were the best of friends, but when prosperity came to them, causes of difference arose, and their relations, as the papers say of warlike nations, became strained. Whether the fault lay with John Danby or with William Strong no one has ever been able to find out. They had mutual friends who claimed that each one of them was a good fellow, but those friends always added that Strong and Danby did not "hit it off."
Strong was a bitter man when aroused, and could generally be counted upon to use harsh language. Danby was quieter, but there was a sullen streak of stubbornness in him that did not tend to the making up of a quarrel. They had been past the speaking point for more than a year, when there came a crisis in their relations with each other, that ended in disaster to the business carried on under the title of Danby and Strong. Neither man would budge, and between them the business sunk to ruin. Where competition is fierce no firm can stand against it if there is internal dissension. Danby held his ground quietly but firmly, Strong raged and cursed, but was equally steadfast in not yielding a point. Each hated the other so bitterly that each was willing to lose his own share in a profitable business, if by doing so he could bring ruin on his partner.
We are all rather prone to be misled by appearances. As one walks down Piccadilly, or the Strand, or Fleet Street and meets numerous irreproachably dressed men with glossy tall hats and polished boots, with affable manners and a courteous way of deporting themselves toward their fellows, we are apt to fall into the fallacy of believing that these gentlemen are civilised. We fail to realise that if you probe in the right direction you will come upon possibilities of savagery that would draw forth the warmest commendation from a Pawnee Indian. There are reputable business men in London who would, if they dared, tie an enemy to a stake and roast him over a slow fire, and these men have succeeded so well, not only in deceiving their neighbours, but also themselves, that they would actually be offended if you told them so. If law were suspended in London for one day, during which time none of us would be held answerable for any deed then done, how many of us would be alive next morning? Most of us would go out to pot some favourite enemy, and would doubtless be potted ourselves before we got safely home again.
The law, however, is a great restrainer, and helps to keep the death- rate from reaching excessive proportions. One department of the law crushed out the remnant of the business of Messrs. Danby and Strong, leaving the firm bankrupt, while another department of the law prevented either of the partners taking the life of the other.
When Strong found himself penniless, he cursed, as was his habit, and wrote to a friend in Texas asking if he could get anything to do over there. He was tired of a country of law and order, he said, which was not as complimentary to Texas as it might have been. But his remark only goes to show what extraordinary ideas Englishmen have of foreign parts. The friend's answer was not very encouraging, but, nevertheless, Strong got himself out there somehow, and in course of time became a cowboy. He grew reasonably expert with his revolver and rode a mustang as well as could be expected, considering that he had never seen such an animal in London, even at the Zoo. The life of a cowboy on a Texas ranch leads to the forgetting of such things as linen shirts and paper collars.
Strong's hatred of Danby never ceased, but he began to think of him less often.
One day, when he least expected it, the subject was brought to his mind in a manner that startled him. He was in Galveston ordering supplies for the ranch, when in passing a shop which he would have called a draper's, but which was there designated as dealing in dry goods, he was amazed to see the name "Danby and Strong" in big letters at the bottom of a huge pile of small cardboard boxes that filled the whole window. At first the name merely struck him as familiar, and he came near asking himself "Where have I seen that before?" It was some moments before he realised that the Strong stood for the man gazing stupidly in at the plate-glass window. Then he noticed that the boxes were all guaranteed to contain the famous Piccadilly collar. He read in a dazed manner a large printed bill which stood beside the pile of boxes. These collars it seemed, were warranted to be the genuine Danby and Strong collar, and the public was warned against imitations. They were asserted to be London made and linen faced, and the gratifying information was added that once a person wore the D. and S. collar he never afterwards relapsed into wearing any inferior brand. The price of each box was fifteen cents, or two boxes for a quarter. Strong found himself making a mental calculation which resulted in turning this notation into English money.
As he stood there a new interest began to fill his mind. Was the firm being carried on under the old name by some one else, or did this lot of collars represent part of the old stock? He had had no news from home since he left, and the bitter thought occurred to him that perhaps Danby had got somebody with capital to aid him in resuscitating the business. He resolved to go inside and get some information.
"You seem to have a very large stock of those collars on hand," he said to the man who was evidently the proprietor.
"Yes," was the answer. "You see, we are the State agents for this make. We supply the country dealers."
"Oh, do you? Is the firm of Danby and Strong still in existence? I understood it had suspended."
"I guess not," said the man. "They supply us all right enough. Still, I really know nothing about the firm, except that they turn out a first- class article. We're not in any way responsible for Danby and Strong; we're merely agents for the State of Texas, you know," the man added, with sudden caution.
"I have nothing against the firm," said Strong. "I asked because I once knew some members of it, and was wondering how it was getting along."
"Well, in that case you ought to see the American representative. He was here this week ... that's why we make such a display in the window, it always pleases the agent ... he's now working up the State and will be back in Galveston before the month is out."
"What's his name? Do you remember?"
"Danby. George Danby, I think. Here's his card. No, John Danby is the name. I thought it was George. Most Englishmen are George, you know."
Strong looked at the card, but the lettering seemed to waver before his eyes. He made out, however, that Mr. John Danby had an address in New York, and that he was the American representative of the firm of Danby and Strong, London. Strong placed the card on the counter before him.
"I used to know Mr. Danby, and I would like to meet him. Where do you think I could find him?"
"Well, as I said before, you could see him right here in Galveston if you wait a month, but if you are in a hurry you might catch him at Broncho Junction on Thursday night."
"He is travelling by rail then?"
"No, he is not. He went by rail as far as Felixopolis. There he takes a horse, and goes across the prairies to Broncho Junction; a three days' journey. I told him he wouldn't do much business on that route, but he said he was going partly for his health, and partly to see the country. He expected to reach Broncho Thursday night." The dry goods merchant laughed as one who suddenly remembers a pleasant circumstance. "You're an Englishman, I take it."
"Well, I must say you folks have queer notions about this country. Danby, who was going for a three days' journey across the plains, bought himself two Colts revolvers, and a knife half as long as my arm. Now I've travelled all over this State, and never carried a gun, but I couldn't get Danby to believe his route was as safe as a church. Of course, now and then in Texas a cowboy shoots off his gun, but it's more often his mouth, and I don't believe there's more killing done in Texas than in any other bit of land the same size. But you can't get an Englishman to believe that. You folks are an awful law-abiding crowd. For my part I would sooner stand my chance with a revolver than a lawsuit any day." Then the good-natured Texan told the story of the pistol in Texas; of the general lack of demand for it, but the great necessity of having it handy when it was called for.
A man with murder in his heart should not hold a conversation like this, but William Strong was too full of one idea to think of prudence. Such a talk sets the hounds of justice on the right trail, with unpleasant results for the criminal.
On Thursday morning Strong set out on horse-back from Broncho Junction with his face towards Felixopolis. By noon he said to himself he ought to meet his former partner with nothing but the horizon around them. Besides the revolvers in his belt, Strong had a Winchester rifle in front of him. He did not know but he might have to shoot at long range, and it was always well to prepare for eventualities. Twelve o'clock came, but he met no one, and there was nothing in sight around the empty circle of the horizon. It was nearly two before he saw a moving dot ahead of him. Danby was evidently unused to riding and had come leisurely. Some time before they met, Strong recognised his former partner and he got his rifle ready.
"Throw up your hands!" he shouted, bringing his rifle butt to his shoulder.
Danby instantly raised his hands above his head. "I have no money on me," he cried, evidently not recognising his opponent. "You may search me if you like."
"Get down off your horse; don't lower your hands, or I fire."
Danby got down, as well as he could, with his hands above his head. Strong had thrown his right leg over to the left side of the horse, and, as his enemy got down, he also slid to the ground, keeping Danby covered with the rifle.
"I assure you I have only a few dollars with me, which you are quite welcome to," said Danby.
Strong did not answer. Seeing that the firing was to be at short range, he took a six-shooter from his belt, and, cocking it, covered his man, throwing the rifle on the grass. He walked up to his enemy, placed the muzzle of the revolver against his rapidly beating heart, and leisurely disarmed him, throwing Danby's weapons on the ground out of reach. Then he stood back a few paces and looked at the trembling man. His face seemed to have already taken on the hue of death and his lips were bloodless.
"I see you recognise me at last, Mr. Danby. This is an unexpected meeting, is it not? You realise, I hope, that there are here no judges, juries, nor lawyers, no mandamuses and no appeals. Nothing but a writ of ejectment from the barrel of a pistol and no legal way of staying the proceedings. In other words, no cursed quibbles and no damned law."
Danby, after several times moistening his pallid lips, found his voice.
"Do you mean to give me a chance, or are you going to murder me?"
"I am going to murder you."
Danby closed his eyes, let his hands drop to his sides, and swayed gently from side to side as a man does on the scaffold just before the bolt is drawn. Strong lowered his revolver and fired, shattering one knee of the doomed man. Danby dropped with a cry that was drowned by the second report. The second bullet put out his left eye, and the murdered man lay with his mutilated face turned up to the blue sky.
A revolver report on the prairies is short, sharp, and echoless. The silence that followed seemed intense and boundless, as if nowhere on earth there was such a thing as sound. The man on his back gave an awesome touch of the eternal to the stillness.
Strong, now that it was all over, began to realise his position. Texas, perhaps, paid too little heed to life lost in fair fight, but she had an uncomfortable habit of putting a rope round the neck of a cowardly murderer. Strong was an inventor by nature. He proceeded to invent his justification. He took one of Danby's revolvers and fired two shots out of it into the empty air. This would show that the dead man had defended himself at least, and it would be difficult to prove that he had not been the first to fire. He placed the other pistol and the knife in their places in Danby's belt. He took Danby's right hand while it was still warm and closed the fingers around the butt of the revolver from which he had fired, placing the forefinger on the trigger of the cocked six-shooter. To give effect and naturalness to the tableau he was arranging for the benefit of the next traveller by that trail, he drew up the right knee and put revolver and closed hand on it as if Danby had been killed while just about to fire his third shot.
Strong, with the pride of a true artist in his work, stepped back a pace or two for the purpose of seeing the effect of his work as a whole. As Danby fell, the back of his head had struck a lump of soil or a tuft of grass which threw the chin forward on the breast. As Strong looked at his victim his heart jumped, and a sort of hypnotic fear took possession of him and paralysed action at its source. Danby was not yet dead. His right eye was open, and it glared at Strong with a malice and hatred that mesmerised the murderer and held him there, although he felt rather than knew he was covered by the cocked revolver he had placed in what he thought was a dead hand. Danby's lips moved but no sound came from them. Strong could not take his fascinated gaze from the open eye. He knew he was a dead man if Danby had strength to crook his finger, yet he could not take the leap that would bring him out of range. The fifth pistol-shot rang out and Strong pitched forward on his face.
The firm of Danby and Strong was dissolved.