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The Vanishing Man (Chapter17)

2006-08-22 18:52

  Chapter XVII. The Accusing Finger

  Of my wanderings after I left the Museum on that black and dismal dies irae, I have but a dim recollection. But I must have travelled a quite considerable distance, since it wanted an hour or two to the time for returning to the surgery, and I spent the interval walking swiftly through streets and squares, unmindful of the happenings around, intent only on my present misfortune, and driven by a natural impulse to seek relief in bodily exertion. For mental distress sets up, as it were, a sort of induced current of physical unrest; a beneficent arrangement, by which a dangerous excess of emotional excitement may be transformed into motor energy, and so safely got rid of. The motor apparatus acts as a safety-valve to the psychical; and if the engine races for a while, with the onset of bodily fatigue the emotional pressure-gauge returns to a normal reading.

  And so it was with me. At first I was conscious of nothing but a sense of utter bereavement, of the shipwreck of all my hopes. But, by degrees, as I threaded my way among the moving crowds, I came to a better and more worthy frame of mind. After all, I had lost nothing that I had ever had. Ruth was still all that she had ever been to me——perhaps even more; and if that had been a rich endowment yesterday, why not to-day also? And how unfair it would be to her if I should mope and grieve over a disappointment that was no fault of hers and for which there was no remedy! Thus I reasoned with myself, and to such purpose that, by the time I reached Fetter Lane, my dejection had come to quite manageable proportions and I had formed the resolution to get back to the status quo ante bellum as soon as possible.

  About eight o'clock, as I was sitting alone in the consulting-room, gloomily persuading myself that I was now quite resigned to the inevitable, Adolphus brought me a registered packet, at the handwriting on which my heart gave such a bound that I had much ado to sign the receipt. As soon as Adolphus had retired (with undissembled contempt of the shaky signature) I tore open the packet, and as I drew out a letter a tiny box dropped on the table.

  The letter was all too short, and I devoured it over and over again with the eagerness of a condemned man reading a reprieve:——

  “My Dear Paul,

  “Forgive me for leaving you so abruptly this afternoon, and leaving you so unhappy, too. I am more sane and reasonable now, and so send you greeting and beg you not to grieve for that which can never be. It is quite impossible, dear friend, and I entreat you, as you care for me, never to speak of it again; never again to make me feel that I can give so little when you have given so much. And do not try to see me for a little while. I shall miss your visits, and so will my father, who is very fond of you; but it is better that we should not meet, until we can take up the old relations——if that can ever be.

  “I am sending you a little keepsake in case we should drift apart on the eddies of life. It is the ring that I told you about——the one that my uncle gave me. Perhaps you may be able to wear it as you have a small hand, but in any case keep it in remembrance of our friendship. The device on it is the Eye of Osiris, a mystic symbol for which I have a sentimentally superstitious affection, as also had my poor uncle, who actually bore it tattooed in scarlet on his breast. It signifies that the great judge of the dead looks down on men to see that justice is done and that truth prevails. So I commend you to the good Osiris; may his eye be upon you, ever watchful over your welfare in the absence of

  “Your affectionate friend

  “RUTH.”

  It was a sweet letter, I thought, even if it carried little comfort; quiet and reticent like its writer, but with an undertone of sincere affection. I laid it down at length, and, taking the ring from its box, examined it fondly. Though but a copy, it had all the quaintness and feeling of the antique original, and, above all, it was fragrant with the spirit of the giver. Dainty and delicate, wrought of silver and gold, with an inlay of copper, I would not have exchanged it for the Koh-i-noor; and when I had slipped it on my finger its tiny eye of blue enamel looked up at me so friendly and companionable that I felt the glamour of the old-world superstition stealing over me, too.

  Not a single patient came in this evening, which was well for me (and also for the patient), as I was able forthwith to write in reply a long letter; but this I shall spare the long-suffering reader excepting its concluding paragraph:——

  “And now, dearest, I have said my say; once for all, I have said it, and I will not open my mouth on the subject again (I am not actually opening it now) 'until the times do alter.' And if the times do never alter——if it shall come to pass, in due course, that we two shall sit side by side, white-haired, and crinkly-nosed, and lean our poor old chins upon our sticks and mumble and gibber amicably over the things that might have been if the good Osiris had come up to the scratch——I will still be content, because your friendship, Ruth, is better than another woman's love. So you see, I have taken my gruel and come up to time smiling——if you will pardon the pugilistic metaphor——and I promise you loyally to do your bidding and never again to distress you.

  “Your faithful and loving friend,

  “PAUL.”

  This letter I addressed and stamped, and then, with a wry grimace which I palmed off on myself (but not on Adolphus) as a cheerful smile, I went out and dropped it into the post-box; after which I further deluded myself by murmuring Nunc dimittis and assuring myself that the incident was now absolutely closed.

  But, despite this comfortable assurance, I was, in the days that followed, an exceedingly miserable young man. It is all very well to write down troubles of this kind as trivial and sentimental. They are nothing of the kind. When a man of an essentially serious nature has found the one woman of all the world who fulfils his highest ideals of womanhood, who is, in fact, a woman in ten thousand, to whom he has given all that he has to give of love and worship, the sudden wreck of all his hopes is no small calamity. And so I found it. Resign myself as I would to the bitter reality, the ghost of the might-have-been haunted me night and day, so that I spent my leisure wandering abstractedly about the streets, always trying to banish thought and never for an instant succeeding. A great unrest was upon me; and when I received a letter from Dick Barnard announcing his arrival at Madeira, homeward bound, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had no plans for the future, but I longed to be rid of the, now irksome, routine of the practice——to be free to come and go when and how I pleased.

  One evening, as I sat consuming with little appetite my solitary supper, there fell on me a sudden sense of loneliness. The desire that I had hitherto felt to be alone with my own miserable reflections gave place to a yearning for human companionship. That, indeed, which I craved for most was forbidden, and I must abide by my lady's wishes; but there were my friends in the Temple. It was more than a week since I had seen them; in fact, we had not met since the morning of that unhappiest day of my life. They would be wondering what had become of me. I rose from the table, and, having filled my pouch from a tin of tobacco, set forth for King's Bench Walk.

  As I approached the entry of No. 5A in the gathering darkness I met Thorndyke himself emerging, encumbered with two deck-chairs, a reading-lantern, and a book.

  “Why, Berkeley!” he exclaimed, “is it indeed thou? We have been wondering what had become of you.”

  “It is a long time since I looked you up,” I admitted.

  He scrutinised me attentively by the light of the entry lamp, and then remarked: “Fetter Lane doesn't seem to be agreeing with you very well, my son. You are looking quite thin and peaky.”

  “Well, I've nearly done with it. Barnard will be back in about ten days. His ship is putting in at Madeira to coal and take in some cargo, and then he is coming home. Where are you going with those chairs?”

  “I am going to sit down at the end of the Walk by the garden railings. It's cooler there than indoors. If you will wait a moment I will fetch another chair for Jervis, though he won't be back for a little while.” He ran up the stairs, and presently returned with a third chair, and we carried our impedimenta down to the quiet corner at the bottom of the Walk.

  “So your term of servitude is coming to an end,” said he when we had placed the chairs and hung the lantern on the railings. “Any other news?”

  “No. Have you any?”

  “I am afraid I have not. All my inquiries have yielded negative results. There is, of course, a considerable body of evidence, and it all seems to point one way. But I am unwilling to make a decisive move without something more definite. I am really waiting for confirmation or otherwise of my ideas on the subject; for some new item of evidence.”

  “I didn't know there was any evidence.”

  “Didn't you?” said Thorndyke. “But you know as much as I know. You have all the essential facts; but apparently you haven't collated them and extracted their meaning. If you had, you would have found them curiously significant.”

  “I suppose I mustn't ask what their significance is?”

  “No, I think not. When I am conducting a case I mention my surmises to nobody——not even to Jervis. Then I can say confidently that there has been no leakage. Don't think I distrust you. Remember that my thoughts are my client's property, and that the essence of strategy is to keep the enemy in the dark.”

  “Yes, I see that. Of course, I ought not to have asked.”

  “You ought not to need to ask,” Thorndyke replied, with a smile; “you should put the facts together and reason from them yourself.”

  While we had been talking I had noticed Thorndyke glance at me inquisitively from time to time. Now, after an interval of silence, he asked suddenly:

  “Is anything amiss, Berkeley? Are you worrying about your friends' affairs?”

  “No, not particularly; though their prospects don't look very rosy.”

  “Perhaps they are not quite so bad as they look,” said he. “But I am afraid something is troubling you. All your gay spirits seem to have evaporated.” He paused for a few moments, and then added: “I don't want to intrude on your private affairs, but if I can help you by advice or otherwise, remember that we are old friends and that you are my academic offspring.”

  Instinctively, with a man's natural reticence, I began to mumble a half-articulate disclaimer; and then I stopped. After all, why should I not confide in him? He was a good man and a wise man, full of human sympathy, as I knew, though so cryptic and secretive in his professional capacity. And I wanted a friend badly just now.

  “I am afraid,” I began shyly, “it is not a matter that admits of much help, and it's hardly the sort of thing that I ought to worry you by talking about——”

  “If it is enough to make you unhappy, my dear fellow, it is enough to merit serious consideration by your friend; so, if you don't mind telling me——”

  “Of course I don't, sir!” I exclaimed.

  “Then fire away; and don't call me 'sir.' We are brother practitioners now.”

  Thus encouraged, I poured out the story of my little romance; bashfully at first and with halting phrases, but, later, with more freedom and confidence. He listened with grave attention, and once or twice put a question when my narrative became a little disconnected. When I had finished he laid his hand softly on my arm.

  “You have had rough luck, Berkeley. I don't wonder that you are miserable. I am more sorry than I can tell you.”

  “Thank you,” I said. “It's exceedingly good of you to listen so patiently, but it's a shame for me to pester you with my sentimental troubles.”

  “Now, Berkeley, you don't think that, and I hope you don't think that I do. We should be bad biologists and worse physicians if we should under-estimate the importance of that which is Nature's chiefest care. The one salient biological truth is the paramount importance of sex; and we are deaf and blind if we do not hear and see it in everything that lives when we look abroad upon the world; when we listen to the spring song of the birds, or when we consider the lilies of the field. And as is man to the lower organisms, so is human love to their merely reflex manifestations of sex. I will maintain, and you will agree with me, I know, that the love of a serious and honourable man for a woman who is worthy of him is the most momentous of all human affairs. It is the foundation of social life, and its failure is a serious calamity, not only to those whose lives may be thereby spoilt, but to society at large.”

  “It's a serious enough matter for the parties concerned,” I agreed; “but that is no reason why they should bore their friends.”

  “But they don't. Friends should help one another and think it a privilege.”

  “Oh, I shouldn't mind coming to you for help, knowing you as I do. But no one can help a poor devil in a case like this——and certainly not a medical jurist.”

  “Oh, come, Berkeley!” he protested, “don't rate us too low. The humblest of creatures has its uses——'even the little pismire,' you know, as Isaak Walton tells us. Why, I have got substantial help from a stamp-collector. And then reflect upon the motor-scorcher and the earthworm and the blow-fly. All these lowly creatures play their parts in the scheme of Nature; and shall we cast out the medical jurist as nothing worth?”

  I laughed dejectedly at my teacher's genial irony.

  “What I meant,” said I, “was that there is nothing to be done but wait——perhaps for ever. I don't know why she isn't able to marry me, and I mustn't ask her. She can't be married already.”

  “Certainly not. She told you explicitly that there was no man in the case.”

  “Exactly. And I can think of no other valid reason, excepting that she doesn't care enough for me. That would be a perfectly sound reason, but then it would only be a temporary one, not the insuperable obstacle that she assumes to exist, especially as we really got on excellently together. I hope it isn't some confounded perverse feminine scruple. I don't see how it could be; but women are most frightfully tortuous and wrong-headed at times.”

  “I don't see,” said Thorndyke, “why we should cast about for perversely abnormal motives when there is a perfectly reasonable explanation staring us in the face.”

  “Is there?” I exclaimed. “I see none.”

  “You are, not unnaturally, overlooking some of the circumstances that affect Miss Bellingham; but I don't suppose she has failed to grasp their meaning. Do you realise what her position really is? I mean with regard to her uncle's disappearance?”

  “I don't think I quite understand you.”

  “Well, there is no use in blinking the facts,” said Thorndyke. “The position is this: If John Bellingham ever went to his brother's house at Woodford, it is nearly certain that he went there after his visit to Hurst. Mind, I say 'if he went'; I don't say that I believe he did. But it is stated that he appears to have gone there; and if he did go, he was never seen alive afterwards. Now, he did not go in at the front door. No one saw him enter the house. But there was a back gate, which John Bellingham knew, and which had a bell which rang in the library. And you will remember that, when Hurst and Jellicoe called, Mr. Bellingham had only just come in. Previous to that time Miss Bellingham had been alone in the library; that is to say, she was alone in the library at the very time when John Bellingham is said to have made his visit. That is the position, Berkeley. Nothing pointed has been said up to the present. But, sooner or later, if John Bellingham is not found, dead or alive, the question will be opened. Then it is certain that Hurst, in self-defence, will make the most of any facts that may transfer suspicion from him to someone else. And that someone else will be Miss Bellingham.”

  I sat for some moments literally paralysed with horror. Then my dismay gave place to indignation. “But, damn it!” I exclaimed, starting up——“I beg your pardon——but could anyone have the infernal audacity to insinuate that that gentle, refined lady murdered her uncle?”

  “That is what will be hinted, if not plainly asserted; and she knows it. And that being so, is it difficult to understand why she should refuse to allow you to be publicly associated with her? To run the risk of dragging your honourable name into the sordid transactions of the police-court or the Old Bailey? To invest it, perhaps, with a dreadful notoriety?”

  “Oh, don't! for God's sake! It is too horrible! Not that I would care for myself. I would be proud to share her martyrdom of ignominy, if it had to be; but it is the sacrilege, the blasphemy of even thinking of her in such terms, that enrages me.”

  “Yes,” said Thorndyke; “I understand and sympathise with you. Indeed, I share your righteous indignation at this dastardly affair. So you mustn't think me brutal for putting the case so plainly.”

  “I don't. You have only shown me the danger that I was fool enough not to see. But you seem to imply that this hideous position has been brought about deliberately.”

  “Certainly I do! This is no chance affair. Either the appearances indicate the real events——which I am sure they do not——or they have been created of a set purpose to lead to false conclusions. But the circumstances convince me that there has been a deliberate plot; and I am waiting——in no spirit of Christian patience, I can tell you——to lay my hand on the wretch who has done this.”

  “What are you waiting for?” I asked.

  “I am waiting for the inevitable,” he replied; “for the false move that the most artful criminal invariably makes. At present he is lying low; but presently he must make a move, and then I shall have him.”

  “But he may go on lying low. What will you do then?”

  “Yes, that is the danger. We may have to deal with the perfect villain who knows when to leave well alone. I have never met him, but he may exist, nevertheless.”

  “And then we should have to stand by and see our friends go under.”

  “Perhaps,” said Thorndyke; and we both subsided into gloomy and silent reflection.

  The place was peaceful and quiet, as only a backwater of London can be. Occasional hoots from far-away tugs and steamers told of the busy life down below in the crowded Pool. A faint hum of traffic was borne in from the streets outside the precincts, and the shrill voices of newspaper boys came in unceasing chorus from the direction of Carmelite Street. They were too far away to be physically disturbing, but the excited yells, toned down as they were by distance, nevertheless stirred the very marrow in my bones, so dreadfully suggestive were they of those possibilities of the future at which Thorndyke had hinted. They seemed like the sinister shadows of coming misfortunes.

  Perhaps they called up the same association of ideas in Thorndyke's mind, for he remarked presently: “The newsvendor is abroad to-night like a bird of ill-omen. Something unusual has happened: some public or private calamity, most likely, and these yelling ghouls are out to feast on the remains. The newspaper men have a good deal in common with the carrion-birds that hover over a battle-field.”

  Again we subsided into silence and reflection. Then, after an interval, I asked:

  “Would it be possible for me to help in any way in this investigation of yours?”

  “That is exactly what I have been asking myself,” replied Thorndyke. “It would be right and proper that you should, and I think you might.”

  “How?” I asked eagerly.

  “I can't say off-hand; but Jervis will be going away for his holiday almost at once——in fact, he will go off actual duty to-night. There is very little doing; the long vacation is close upon us, and I can do without him. But if you would care to come down here and take his place, you would be very useful to me; and if there should be anything to be done in the Bellinghams' case, I am sure you would make up in enthusiasm for any deficiency in experience.”

  “I couldn't really take Jervis's place,” said I, “but if you would let me help you in any way it would be a great kindness. I would rather clean your boots than be out of it altogether.”

  “Very well. Let us leave it that you come here as soon as Barnard has done with you. You can have Jervis's room, which he doesn't often use nowadays, and you will be more happy here than elsewhere, I know. I may as well give you my latchkey now. I have a duplicate upstairs, and you understand that my chambers are yours too from this moment.”

  He handed me the latchkey and I thanked him warmly from my heart, for I felt sure that the suggestion was made, not for any use that I should be to him, but for my own peace of mind. I had hardly finished speaking when a quick step on the paved walk caught my ear.

  “Here is Jervis,” said Thorndyke. “We will let him know that there is a locum tenens ready to step into his shoes when he wants to be off.” He flashed the lantern across the path, and a few moments later his junior stepped up briskly with a bundle of newspapers tucked under his arm.

  It struck me that Jervis looked at me a little queerly when he recognised me in the dim light; also that he was a trifle constrained in his manner, as if my presence were an embarrassment. He listened to Thorndyke's announcement of our newly made arrangement without much enthusiasm and with none of his customary facetious comments. And again I noticed a quick glance at me, half curious, half uneasy, and wholly puzzling to me.

  “That's all right,” he said when Thorndyke had explained the situation. “I daresay you'll find Berkeley as useful as me, and, in any case, he'll be better here than staying on with Barnard.” He spoke with unwonted gravity, and there was in his tone a solicitude for me that attracted my notice and that of Thorndyke as well, for the latter looked at him curiously, though he made no comment. After a short silence, however, he asked: “And what news does my learned brother bring? There is a mighty shouting among the outer barbarians, and I see a bundle of newspapers under my learned friend's arm. Has anything in particular happened?”

  Jervis looked more uncomfortable than ever. “Well——yes,” he replied hesitatingly, “something has happened——there! It's no use beating about the bush; Berkeley may as well learn it from me as from those yelling devils outside.” He took a couple of papers from his bundle and silently handed one to me and the other to Thorndyke.

  Jervis's ominous manner, naturally enough, alarmed me not a little. I opened the paper with a nameless dread. But whatever my vague fears, they fell far short of the occasion; and when I saw those yells from without crystallised into scare headlines and flaming capitals I turned for a moment sick and dizzy with fear.

  The paragraph was only a short one, and I read it through in less than a minute:

  “THE MISSING FINGER

  “DRAMATIC DISCOVERY AT WOODFORD.

  “The mystery that has surrounded the remains of a mutilated human body, portions of which have been found in various places in Kent and Essex, has received a partial and very sinister solution. The police have, all along, suspected that these remains were those of a Mr. John Bellingham who disappeared under circumstances of some suspicion about two years ago. There is now no doubt upon the subject, for the finger which was missing from the hand that was found at Sidcup has been discovered at the bottom of a disused well together with a ring, which has been identified as one habitually worn by Mr. John Bellingham.

  “The house in the garden of which the well is situated was the property of the murdered man, and was occupied at the time of the disappearance by his brother, Mr. Godfrey Bellingham. But the latter left it very soon after, and it has been empty ever since. Just lately it has been put in repair, and it was in this way that the well came to be emptied and cleaned out. It seems that Detective-Inspector Badger, who was searching the neighbourhood for further remains, heard of the emptying of the well and went down in the bucket to examine the bottom, where he found the three bones and the ring.

  “Thus the identity of the body is established beyond all doubt, and the question that remains is, Who killed John Bellingham? It may be remembered that a trinket, apparently broken from his watch-chain, was found in the grounds of this house on the day that he disappeared, and that he was never again seen alive. What may be the import of these facts time will show.”

  That was all; but it was enough. I dropped the paper to the ground and glanced round furtively at Jervis, who sat gazing gloomily at the toes of his boots. It was horrible; It was incredible! The blow was so crushing that it left my faculties numb, and for a while I seemed unable even to think intelligibly.

  I was aroused by Thorndyke's voice——calm, business-like, composed:

  “Time will show, indeed! But meanwhile we must go warily. And don't be unduly alarmed, Berkeley. Go home, take a good dose of bromide with a little stimulant, and turn in. I am afraid this has been rather a shock to you.”

  I rose from my chair like one in a dream and held out my hand to Thorndyke; and even in the dim light and in my dazed condition I noticed that his face bore a look that I had never seen before: the look of a granite mask of Fate——grim, stern, inexorable.

  My two friends walked with me as far as the gateway at the top of Inner Temple Lane, and as we reached the entry a stranger, coming quickly up the Lane, overtook and passed us. In the glare of the lamp outside the porter's lodge he looked at us quickly over his shoulder, and though he passed on without halt or greeting, I recognised him with a certain dull surprise which I did not understand then and do not understand now. It was Mr. Jellicoe.

  I shook hands once more with my friends and strode out into Fleet Street, but as soon as I was outside the gate I made direct for Nevill's Court. What was in my mind I do not know; only that some instinct of protection led me there, where my lady lay unconscious of the hideous menace that hung over her. At the entrance to the court a tall, powerful man was lounging against the wall, and he seemed to look at me curiously as I passed; but I hardly noticed him and strode forward into the narrow passage. By the shabby gateway of the house I halted and looked up at such of the windows as I could see over the wall. They were all dark. All the inmates, then, were in bed. Vaguely comforted by this, I walked on to the New Street end of the court and looked out. Here, too, a man——a tall, thick-set man——was loitering; and, as he looked inquisitively into my face, I turned and reentered the court, slowly retracing my steps. As I again reached the gate of the house I stopped to look up once more at the windows, and turning, I found the man whom I had last noticed close behind me. Then, in a flash of dreadful comprehension, I understood. These two men were plain-clothes policemen.

  For a moment a blind fury possessed me. An insane impulse urged me to give battle to this intruder; to avenge upon his person the insult of his presence. Fortunately the impulse was but momentary, and I recovered myself without making any demonstration. But the appearance of those two policemen brought the peril into the immediate present, imparted to it a horrible actuality. A chilly sweat of terror stood on my forehead, and my ears were ringing when I walked with faltering steps out into Fetter Lane.

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