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The Uttermost Farthing (Chapter7)

2006-08-22 20:34

  VII. The Uttermost Farthing

  Intense was the curiosity with which I turned to the last entry in Humphrey Challoner's “Museum Archives.” Not that I had any doubt as to the issue of the adventure that it recorded. I had seen the specimen numbered “twenty-five” in the shallow box, and its identity had long since been evident. But this fact mitigated my curiosity not at all. The “Archives” had furnished a continuous narrative——surely one of the strangest ever committed to writing——and now I was to read the climax of that romantically terrible story; to witness the final achievement of that object that my poor friend had pursued with such unswerving pertinacity.

  I extract the entry entire with the exception of one or two passages near the end, the reasons for the omission of which will be obvious to the reader.

  “Circumstances attending the acquirement of the specimen numbered 'twenty-five' in the Anthropological Series (A. Osteology. B. Reduced dry preparations)。

  “The months that followed the events connected with the acquirement of the specimens 23 and 24 brought me nothing but aching suspense and hope deferred. The pursuit of the common criminal I had abandoned since I had got scent of my real quarry. The concussor lay idle in its basket; the cellar steps were greased no more. I had but a passive role to play until the hour should strike to usher in the final scene——if that should ever be. Though the term of my long exile in East London was drawing nigh, its approach was unseen by me. I could but wait; and what is harder than waiting?

  “I had made cautious inquiries among the alien population. But no one knew Piragoff——or, at least, admitted any knowledge of him; and as to the police, when they had made a few arrests and then released the prisoners, they appeared to let the matter drop. The newspapers were, of course, more active. One of them described circumstantially how 'the three anarchists who escaped from the house in Saul Street' had been seen together in an East End restaurant; and several others followed from day to day the supposed whereabouts of a mysterious person known as 'Paul the Plumber,' whom the police declared to be a picturesque myth. But for me there was one salient fact: of those three ruffians one was still at large, and no one seemed to have any knowledge of him.

  “It was some four months later that I again caught up the scent. A certain Friday evening early in February found me listlessly tidying up the shop; for the Jewish Sabbath had begun and customers were few. But about eight o'clock a man strode in jauntily, hung up his hat and seated himself in the operating chair; and at that moment a second man entered and sat down to wait. I glanced at this latter, and in an instant my gorge rose at him. I cannot tell why. To the scientific mind, intuitions are abhorrent. They are mostly wrong and wholly unreasonable. But as I looked at that man a wave of instinctive dislike and suspicion swept over me. He was, indeed, an ill-looking fellow enough. A broad, lozenge-shaped Tartar face, with great cheekbones and massive jaws; a low forehead surmounted by a dense brush of up-standing grayish-brown hair; beetling brows and eyes deep-set, fierce and furtive; combined to make a sufficiently unprepossessing countenance. Nor was his manner more pleasing. He scowled forbiddingly at me, he scrutinized the other customer, craning sideways to survey him in the mirror, he looked about the shop and he stared inquisitively at the parlor door. Every movement was expressive of watchful, uneasy suspicion.

  “I tried to avoid looking at him lest my face should betray me, and, to divert my thoughts, concentrated my attention on the other customer. The latter unconsciously gave me every assistance in doing so. Though by no means a young man, he was the vainest and most dandified client I had ever had under my hands. He stopped me repeatedly to give exhaustive directions as to the effect that he desired me to produce. He examined himself in the glass and consulted me anxiously as to the exact disposition of an artificially curled forelock. I cursed him inwardly, for I wanted him to be gone and leave me alone with the other man, but for that very reason and that I might conceal my impatience, I did his bidding and treated him with elaborate care. But now and again my glance would stray to the other man; and as I caught his fierce, suspicious eye——like the eye of a hunted animal——I would look away quickly lest he should read what was in my mind.

  “At length I had finished my dandy client. I had brushed his hair to a nicety and had even curled his forelock with heated tongs. With a sigh of relief I took off the cloth and waited for him to rise. But he rose not. Stroking his cheek critically he decided that he wanted shaving, and, cursing him in my heart, I had to comply.

  “I had acquired some reputation as a barber and, I think, deserved it. I could put a perfect edge on a razor and I wielded the instrument with a sensitive hand and habitual care. My client appreciated my skill and complimented me patronizingly in very fair English, though with a slight Russian accent, delaying me intolerably to express his approval. When I had shaved him he asked for pink powder to be applied to his chin; and when I had powdered him he directed me to shape his mustache with Pate Hongrois, a process which he superintended with anxious care.

  “At last the fellow was actually finished. He got up from the chair and surveyed himself in the large wall-mirror. He turned his head from side to side and tried to see the back of it. He smiled into the mirror, raised his eyebrows, frowned and, in fact, tried a variety of expressions and effects, including a slight and graceful bow. Then he approached the glass to examine a spot on his cheek; leaned against it with outspread hands to inspect his teeth, and finally put out his tongue to examine that too. I almost expected that he would ask me to brush it. However, he did not. Adjusting his necktie delicately, he handed me my fee with a patronizing smile and remarked, 'You are a good barber: you have taste and you take trouble. I give you a penny for yourself and I shall come to you again.'

  “As the door closed behind him I turned to the other customer. He rose, walked over to the operating chair and sat down sullenly, keeping an eye on me all the time; and something in his face expressive of suspicion, uneasiness and even fear seemed to hint at something unusual in my own appearance.

  “It was likely enough. Hard as I had struggled to smother the tumult of emotions that seethed within me, some disturbance must have reached the surface, some light in the eye, some tension of the mouth to tell of the fierce excitement, the raging anxiety, that possessed me. I was afraid to look at him for fear of frightening him away.

  “Was he the man? Was this the murderer, Piragoff, the slayer of my wife? The question rang in my ears as, with a far from steady hand, I slowly lathered his face. Instinct told me that he was. But, even in my excitement, reason rejected a mere unanalyzable belief. For what is an intuition? Brutally stated, it is simply a conclusion reached without premises. I had always disbelieved in instinct and intuition and I disbelieved still. But what had made me connect this man with Piragoff? He was clearly a Russian. He looked like a villain. He had the manner of a Nihilist or violent criminal of some kind. But all this was nothing. It formed no rational basis for the conviction that possessed me.

  “There was his hair; a coarse, wiry mop of a queer grayish-brown. It might well, from its color, be ringed hair; and if it was I should have little doubt of the man's identity. But was it? I was getting on in years and could not see near objects clearly without my spectacles; and I had laid down my spectacles somewhere in the parlor.

  “As I lathered his face, I leaned over him to look at his hair more closely, but he shrank away in fierce alarm, and after all my eyesight was not good enough. Once I tried to get out my lens; but he challenged me furiously as to my object, and I put it away again. I dared not provoke him to violence, for if he had struck me I should have killed him on the spot. And he might be the wrong man.

  “The operation of shaving him was beset with temptations from moment to moment. Forgotten anatomical details revived in my memory. I found myself tracing through the coarse skin those underlying structures that were so near to hand. Now I was at the angle of the jaw, and as the ringing blade swept over the skin I traced the edge of the strap-like muscle and mentally marked the spot where it crossed the great carotid artery. I could even detect the pulsation of the vessel. How near it was to the surface! A little dip of the razor's beak at that spot——

  “But still I had no clear evidence that he was the right man. A mere impression——a feeling of physical repulsion unsupported by any tangible fact——was not enough to act on. One moment a savage impatience for retribution urged me to take the chance; to fell him with a blow and fling him down into the cellar. The next, my reason stepped in and bade me hold my hand and wait for proof. And all the time he watched me like a cat, and kept his hands thrust into the hip pockets of his coat.

  “Again and again these mental oscillations occurred. Now I was simply and savagely homicidal, and now I was rational——almost judicial. Now the vital necessity was to prevent his escape; and yet, again, I shrank from the dreadful risk of killing an innocent man.

  “What the issue might have been I cannot say. But suddenly the door opened, a burly carter entered and sat down, and the opportunity was gone. The Russian waited for no lengthy inspection in the glass like his predecessor. As soon as he was finished he sprang from the chair, slapped down his coppers in payment and darted out of the shop, only too glad to take himself off in safety. There must have been something very sinister in my appearance.

  “The carter seated himself in the chair and I fell to work on him mechanically. But my thoughts were with the man who was gone. What a fiasco it had been! After waiting all these years, I had met a man whom I suspected to be the very wretch I sought; I had actually been alone with him——and I had let him go!

  “The futility of it! Before my eyes the grinning tenants of the great wall-case rose in reproach; the little, impassive faces in those shallow boxes seemed to look at me and ask why they had been killed. I had let the man go; and he would certainly never come to my shop again. True, I should know him again; but what better chance should I ever have of identifying him? And then again came the unanswerable question: Was he really the man, after all?

  “So my thoughts fluttered to and fro. Constant, only, was a feeling of profound dejection; a sense of unutterable, irretrievable failure. The carter——a regular customer——rose and looked askance at me as he rubbed his face with the towel. He remarked that I 'seemed to be feeling a bit dull tonight,' paid his fee, and, with a civil 'good evening,' took his departure.

  “When he had gone I stood by the chair wrapped in a gloomy reverie. Had I failed finally? Was my long quest at an end with my object unachieved? It almost seemed so.

  “I raised my eyes and they fell on my reflection in the large mirror; and suddenly it was borne in on me that I was an old man. The passing years of labor and mental unrest had left deep traces. My hair, which was black when I first came to the east, was now snow-white and the face beneath it was worn and wrinkled and aged. The sands of my life were running out apace. Soon the last grains would trickle out of the glass; and then would come the end——the futile end, with the task still unaccomplished. And for this I had dragged out these twenty weary years, ever longing for repose and the eternal reunion! How much better to have spent those years in the peace of the tomb by the dear companion of my sunny hours!

  “I stepped up to the glass to look more closely at my face, to mark the crow's-feet and intersecting wrinkles in the shrunken skin. Yes, it was an old, old face; a weary face, too, that spoke of sorrow and anxious thought and strenuous, unsatisfying effort. And presently it would be a dead face, calm and peaceful enough then; and the wretch who had wrought all the havoc would still stalk abroad with his heavy debt unpaid.

  “Something on the surface of the mirror interposed between my eye and the reflection, slightly blurring the image. I focussed on it with some difficulty and then saw that it was a group of finger-marks; the prints made by the greasy fingers of my dandy customer when he had leaned on the glass to inspect his teeth. As they grew distinct to my vision, I was aware of a curious sense of familiarity; at first merely subconscious and not strongly attracting my attention. But this state lasted only for a few brief moments. Then the vague feeling burst into full recognition. I snatched out my lens and brought it

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