I have friends who tell me that they seldom walk the streets of London without wondering what is passing behind the house-fronts; without picturing a comedy here, a love-scene there, and behind the dingy cane blinds a something ill-defined, a something odd and bizarre. They experience–if you believe them–a sense of loneliness out in the street, an impatience of the sameness of all these many houses, their dull bricks and discreet windows, and a longing that someone would step out and ask them to enter and see the play.
Well, I have never felt any of these things; but as I was passing through Fitzhardinge Square about half-past ten o’clock one evening in last July, after dining, if I remember rightly, in Baker Street, something happened to me which I fancy may be of interest to such people.
I was passing through the square from north to south, and to avoid a small crowd, which some reception had drawn together, I left the pavement and struck across the road to the path around the oval garden; which, by the way, contains a few of the finest trees in London. This part was in deep shadow, so that when I presently emerged from it and recrossed the road to the pavement near the top of Fitzhardinge Street, I had an advantage over any persons on the pavement. They were under the lamps, while I, coming from beneath the trees, was almost invisible.
The door of the house immediately in front of me as I crossed was open, and an elderly man servant out of livery was standing at it, looking up and down the pavement by turns. It was his air of furtive anxiety that drew my attention to him. He was not like a man looking for a cab, or waiting for his sweetheart; and I had my eye upon him as I stepped upon the pavement before him. But my surprise was great when he uttered a low exclamation of dismay at sight of me, and made as if he would escape; while his face, in the full glare of the light, grew so pale and terror-stricken that he might before have been completely at his ease. I was astonished and instinctively stood still returning his gaze; for perhaps twenty seconds we remained so, he speechless, and his hands fallen by his side. Then, before I could move on, as I was in the act of doing, he cried, “Oh, Mr. George! Oh! Mr. George!” in a tone that rang out in the stillness rather as a wail than an ordinary cry.
My name, my surname, I mean, is George. For a moment I took the address to myself, forgetting that the man was a stranger, and my heart began to beat more quickly with fear of what might have happened. “What is it?” I exclaimed. “What is it?” and I shook back from the lower part of my face the silk muffler I was wearing. The evening was close, but I had been suffering from a sore throat.
He came nearer and peered more closely at me, and I dismissed my fear; for I thought that I could see the discovery of his mistake dawning upon him. His pallid face, on which the pallor was the more noticeable as his plump features were those of a man with whom the world as a rule went well, regained some of its lost color, and a sigh of relief passed his lips. But this feeling was only momentary. The joy of escape from whatever blow he had thought imminent gave place at once to his previous state of miserable expectancy of something or other.
“You took me for another person,” I said, preparing to pass on. At that moment I could have sworn–I would have given one hundred to one twice over–that he was going to say yes. To my intense astonishment, he did not. With a very visible effort he said, “No.”
“Eh! What?” I exclaimed. I had taken a step or two.
“Then what is it?” I said. “What do you want, my good fellow?”
Watching his shuffling, indeterminate manner, I wondered if he were sane. His next answer reassured me on that point. There was an almost desperate deliberation about its manner. “My master wishes to see you, sir, if you will kindly walk in for five minutes,” was what he said.
I should have replied, “Who is your master?” if I had been wise; or cried, “Nonsense!” and gone my way. But the mind, when it is spurred by a sudden emergency, often overruns the more obvious course to adopt a worse. It was possible that one of my intimates had taken the house, and said in his butler’s presence that he wished to see me. Thinking of that I answered, “Are you sure of this? Have you not made a mistake, my man?”
With an obstinate sullenness that was new in him, he said, No he had not. Would I please to walk in? He stepped briskly forward as he spake, and induced me by a kind of gentle urgency to enter the house, taking from me, with the ease of a trained servant, my hat, coat, and muffler. Finding himself in the course of his duties he gained more composure; while I, being thus treated, lost my sense of the strangeness of the proceeding, and only awoke to a full consciousness of my position when he had softly shut the door behind us and was in the act of putting up the chain.
Then I confess I looked round, a little alarmed at my precipitancy. But I found the hall spacious, lofty, and dark-paneled, the ordinary hall of an old London house. The big fireplace was filled with plants in flower. There were rugs on the floor and a number of chairs with painted crests on the backs, and in a corner was an old sedan chair, its poles upright against the wall.
No other servants were visible, it is true. But apart from this all was in order, all was quiet, and any idea of violence was manifestly absurd.
At the same time the affair seemed of the strangest. Why should the butler in charge of a well-arranged and handsome house–the house of an ordinary wealthy gentleman–why should he loiter about the open doorway as if anxious to feel the presence of his kind? Why should he show such nervous excitement and terror as I had witnessed? Why should he introduce a stranger?
I had reached this point when he led the way upstairs. The staircase was wide, the steps were low and broad. On either side at the head of the flight stood a beautiful Venus of white Parian marble. They were not common reproductions, and I paused. I could see beyond them a Hercules and a Meleager of bronze, and delicately tinted draperies and ottomans that under the light of a silver hanging lamp–a gem from Malta–changed a mere lobby to a fairies’ nook. The sight filled me with a certain suspicion; which was dispelled, however, when my hand rested for an instant upon the reddish pedestal that supported one of the statues. The cold touch of the marble was enough for me. The pillars were not of composite; of which they certainly would have consisted in a gaming house, or worse.
Three steps carried me across the lobby to a curtained doorway by which the servant was waiting. I saw that the “shakes” were upon him again. His impatience was so ill concealed that I was not surprised–though I was taken aback–when he dropped the mask altogether, and as I passed him–it being now too late for me to retreat undiscovered, if the room were occupied–laid a trembling hand upon my arm and thrust his face close to mine. “Ask how he is! Say anything,” he whispered, trembling, “no matter what, sir! Only, for the love of Heaven, stay five minutes!”
He gave me a gentle push forward as he spoke–pleasant, all this!–and announced in a loud, quavering voice, “Mr. George!” which was true enough. I found myself walking round a screen at the same time that something in the room, a long, dimly lighted room, fell with a brisk, rattling sound, and there was the scuffling noise of a person, still hidden from me by the screen, rising to his feet in haste.
Next moment I was face to face with two men. One, a handsome elderly gentleman, who wore gray mustaches and would have seemed in place at a service club, was still in his chair, regarding me with a perfectly calm, unmoved face, as if my entrance at that hour were the commonest incident of his life. The other had risen and stood looking at me askance. He was five-and-twenty years younger than his companion and as good-looking in a different way. But now his face was white and drawn, distorted by the same expression of terror–ay, and a darker and fiercer terror than that which I had already seen upon the servant’s features; it was the face of one in a desperate strait. He looked as a man looks who has put all he has in the world upon an outsider–and done it twice. In that quiet drawing room by the side of his placid companion, with nothing whatever in their surroundings to account for his emotion, his panic-stricken face shocked me inexpressibly.
They were in evening dress; and between them was a chess table, its men in disorder: almost touching this was another small table bearing a tray of Apollinaris water and spirits. On this the young man was resting one hand as if, but for its support, he would have fallen.
To add one more fact, I had never seen either of them in my life.
Or wait; could that be true? If so, it must indeed have been a nightmare I was suffering. For the elder man broke the silence by addressing me in a quiet, ordinary tone that exactly matched his face. “Sit down, George,” he said, “don’t stand there. I did not expect you this evening.” He held out his hand, without rising from his chair, and I advanced and shook it in silence. “I thought you were in Liverpool. How are you?” he continued.
“Very well, I thank you,” I muttered mechanically.
“Not very well, I should say,” he retorted. “You are as hoarse as a raven. You have a bad cold at best. It is nothing worse, my boy, is it?” with anxiety.
“No, a throat cough; nothing else,” I murmured, resigning myself to this astonishing reception–this evident concern for my welfare on the part of a man whom I had never seen in my life.
“That is well!” he answered cheerily. Not only did my presence cause him no surprise. It gave him, without doubt, actual pleasure!
It was otherwise with his companion; grimly and painfully so indeed. He had made no advances to me, spoken no word, scarcely altered his position. His eyes he had never taken from me. Yet in him there was a change. He had discovered, exactly as had the butler before him, his mistake. The sickly terror was gone from his face, and a half-frightened malevolence, not much more pleasant to witness, had taken its place. Why this did not break out in any active form was part of the general mystery given to me to solve. I could only surmise from glances which he later cast from time to time toward the door, and from the occasional faint creaking of a board in that direction, that his self-restraint had to do with my friend the butler. The inconsequences of dreamland ran through it all: why the elder man remained in error; why the younger with that passion on his face was tongue-tied; why the great house was so still; why the servant should have mixed me up with this business at all–these were questions as unanswerable, one as the other.
And the fog in my mind grew denser when the old gentleman turned from me as if my presence were a usual thing, and rapped the table before him impatiently. “Now, Gerald!” cried he, in sharp tones, “have you put those pieces back? Good Heavens! I am glad that I have not nerves like yours! Don’t you remember the squares, boy? Here, give them to me!” With a hasty gesture of his hand, something like a mesmeric pass over the board, he set down the half dozen pieces with a rapid tap! tap! tap! which made it abundantly clear that he, at any rate, had no doubt of their former positions.
“You will not mind sitting by until we have finished the game?” he continued, speaking to me, and in a voice I fancied more genial than that which he had used to Gerald. “You are anxious to talk to me about your letter, George?” he went on when I did not answer. “The fact is that I have not read the inclosure. Barnes, as usual, read the outer letter to me, in which you said the matter was private and of grave importance; and I intended to go to Laura to-morrow, as you suggested, and get her to read the news to me. Now you have returned so soon, I am glad that I did not trouble her.”
“Just so, sir,” I said, listening with all my ears; and wondering.
“Well, I hope there is nothing very bad the matter, my boy?” he replied. “However–Gerald! it is your move! ten minutes more of such play as your brother’s, and I shall be at your service.”
Gerald made a hurried move. The piece rattled upon the board as if he had been playing the castanets. His father made him take it back. I sat watching the two in wonder and silence. What did it all mean? Why should Barnes–doubtless behind the screen, listening–read the outer letter? Why must Laura be employed to read the inner? Why could not this cultivated and refined gentleman before me read his—- Ah! that much was disclosed to me. A mere turn of the hand did it. He had made another of those passes over the board, and I learned from it what an ordinary examination would not have detected. He, the old soldier with the placid face and light-blue eyes, was blind! Quite blind!
I began to see more clearly now, and from this moment I took up, at any rate in my own mind, a different position. Possibly the servant who had impelled me into the middle of this had had his own good reasons for doing so, as I now began to discern. But with a clew to the labyrinth in my hand, I could no longer move passively at any other’s impulse. I must act for myself. For a while I sat still and made no sign. My suspicions were presently confirmed. The elder man more than once scolded his opponent for playing slowly. In one of these intervals he took from an inside pocket of his dress waistcoat a small package.
“You had better take your letter, George,” he said. “If there are, as you mentioned, originals in it, they will be more safe with you than with me. You can tell me all about it, viva voce, now you are here. Gerald will leave us alone presently.”
He held the papers toward me. To take them would be to take an active part in the imposture, and I hesitated, my own hand half outstretched. But my eyes fell at the critical instant upon Master Gerald’s face, and my scruples took themselves off. He was eying the packet with an intense greed and a trembling longing–a very itching of the fingers and toes to fall upon the prey–that put an end to my doubts. I rose and took the papers. With a quiet, but I think significant look in his direction, I placed them in the breast pocket of my evening coat. I had no safer receptacle about me, or into that they would have gone.
“Very well, sir,” I said, “there is no particular hurry. I think the matter will keep, as things now are, until to-morrow.”
“To be sure. You ought not to be out with such a cold at night, my boy,” he answered. “You will find a decanter of the Scotch whisky you gave me last Christmas on the tray. Will you have some with hot water and a lemon, George? The servants are all at the theater–Gerald begged a holiday for them–but Barnes will get you the things in a minute.”
“Thank you; I won’t trouble him. I will take some with cold water,” I replied, thinking I should gain in this way what I wanted–time to think; five minutes to myself while they played.
But I was out of my reckoning. “I will have mine now, too,” he said. “Will you mix it, Gerald?”
Gerald jumped up to do it, with tolerable alacrity. I sat still, preferring to help myself when he should have attended to his father, if his father it was. I felt more easy now that I had those papers in my pocket. The more I thought of it the more certain I became that they were the object aimed at by whatever deviltry was on foot, and that possession of them gave me the whip hand. My young gentleman might snarl and show his teeth, but the prize had escaped him.
Perhaps I was a little too confident, a little too contemptuous of my opponent; a little too proud of the firmness with which I had taken at one and the same time the responsibility and the post of vantage. A creak of the board behind the screen roused me from my thoughts. It fell upon my ear trumpet-tongued, a sudden note of warning. I glanced up with a start and a conviction that I was being caught napping, and looked instinctively toward the young man. He was busy at the tray, his back to me. Relieved of my fear of I did not know what,–perhaps a desperate attack upon my pocket,–I was removing my eyes, when, in doing so, I caught sight of his reflection in a small mirror beyond him. Ah!
What was he busy about? Nothing. Absolutely nothing, at the moment. He was standing motionless,–I could fancy him breathless also,–a strange, listening expression on his face, which seemed to me to have faded to a grayish tinge. His left hand was clasping a half-filled tumbler, the other was at his waistcoat pocket. So he stood during perhaps a second or two, a small lamp upon the tray before him illumining his handsome figure; and then his eyes, glancing up, met the reflection of mine in the mirror. Swiftly as the thought itself could pass from brain to limb, the hand which had been resting in the pocket flashed with a clatter among the glasses; and, turning almost as quickly, he brought one of the latter to the chess table, and set it down unsteadily.
What had I seen? Nothing, actually nothing. Just what Gerald had been doing. Yet my heart was going as many strokes to the minute as a losing crew. I rose abruptly.
“Wait a moment, sir,” I said, as the elder man laid his hand upon the glass. “I don’t think that Gerald has mixed this quite as you like it.”
He had already lifted it to his lips. I looked from him to Gerald. That young gentleman’s color, though he faced me hardily, shifted more than once, and he seemed to be swallowing a succession of oversized fives balls; but his eyes met mine in a vicious kind of smile that was not without its gleam of triumph. I was persuaded that all was right even before his father said so.
“Perhaps you have mixed for me, Gerald?” I suggested pleasantly.
“No!” he answered in sullen defiance. He filled a glass with something–perhaps it was water–and drank it, his back toward me. He had not spoken so much as a single word to me before.
The blind man’s ear recognized the tone now. “I wish you boys would agree better,” he said wearily. “Gerald, go to bed. I would as soon play chess with an idiot from Earlswood. Generally you can play the game, if you are good for nothing else; but since your brother came in, you have not made a move which anyone not an imbecile would make. Go to bed, boy! go to bed!”
I had stepped to the table while he was speaking. One of the glasses was full. I lifted it, with seeming unconcern, to my nose. There was whisky in it as well as water. Then had Gerald mixed for me? At any rate, I put the tumbler aside, and helped myself afresh. When I set the glass down empty, my mind was made up.
“Gerald does not seem inclined to move, sir, so I will,” I said quietly. “I will call in the morning and discuss that matter, if it will suit you. But to-night I feel inclined to get to bed early.”
“Quite right, my boy. I would ask you to take a bed here instead of turning out, but I suppose that Laura will be expecting you. Come in any time tomorrow morning. Shall Barnes call a cab for you?”
“I think I will walk,” I answered, shaking the proffered hand. “By the way, sir,” I added, “have you heard who is the new Home Secretary?”
“Yes, Henry Matthews,” he replied. “Gerald told me. He had heard it at the club.”
“It is to be hoped that he will have no womanish scruples about capital punishment,” I said, as if I were incidentally considering the appointment. And with that last shot at Mr. Gerald–he turned green, I thought, a color which does not go well with a black mustache–I walked out of the room, so peaceful, so cozy, so softly lighted as it looked, I remember, and downstairs. I hoped that I had paralyzed the young fellow, and might leave the house without molestation.
But, as I gained the foot of the stairs, he tapped me on the shoulder. I saw, then, looking at him, that I had mistaken my man. Every trace of the sullen defiance which had marked his manner throughout the interview upstairs was gone. His face was still pale, but it wore a gentle smile as we confronted one another under the hall lamp. “I have not the pleasure of knowing you, but let me thank you for your help,” he said in a low voice, yet with a kind of frank spontaneity. “Barnes’ idea of bringing you in was a splendid one, and I am immensely obliged to you.”
“Don’t mention it,” I answered stiffly, proceeding with my preparations for going out as if he had not been there, although I must confess that this complete change in him exercised my mind no little.
“I feel so sure that we may rely upon your discretion,” he went on, ignoring my tone, “that I need say nothing about that. Of course, we owe you an explanation, but as your cold is really yours and not my brother’s, you will not mind if I read you the riddle to-morrow instead of keeping you from your bed to-night?”
“It will do equally well; indeed better,” I said, putting on my overcoat and buttoning it carefully across my chest, while I affected to be looking with curiosity at the sedan chair.
He pointed lightly to the place where the packet lay. “You are forgetting the papers,” he reminded me. His tone almost compelled the answer: “To be sure.”
But I had pretty well made up my mind, and I answered instead: “Not at all. They are quite safe, thank you.”
“But you don’t—- I beg your pardon,” he said, opening his eyes very wide, as if some new light were beginning to shine upon his mind and he could scarcely believe its revelations. “You don’t really mean that you are going to take those papers away with you?”
“My dear sir!” he remonstrated earnestly. “This is preposterous. Pray forgive me the reminder, but those papers, as my father gave you to understand, are private papers, which he supposed himself to be handing to my brother George.”
“Just so,” was all I said. And I took a step toward the door.
“You really mean to take them?” he asked seriously.
“I do; unless you can satisfactorily explain the part I have played this evening, and also make it clear to me that you have a right to the possession of the papers.”
“Confound it! If I must do so tonight, I must!” he said reluctantly. “I trust to your honor, sir, to keep the explanation secret.” I bowed, and he resumed: “My elder brother and I are in business together. Lately we have had losses which have crippled us so severely that we decided to disclose them to Sir Charles and ask his help. George did so yesterday by letter, giving certain notes of our liabilities. You ask why he did not make such a statement by word of mouth? Because he had to go to Liverpool at a moment’s notice to make a last effort to arrange the matter. And as for me,” with a curious grimace, “my father would as soon discuss business with his dog! Sooner!”
“Well?” I said. He had paused, and was absently nicking the blossoms off the geraniums in the fireplace with his pocket handkerchief, looking moodily at his work the while. I cannot remember noticing the handkerchief, yet I seem to be able to see it now. It had a red border, and was heavily scented with white rose. “Well?”
“Well,” he continued, with a visible effort, “my father has been ailing lately, and this morning his usual doctor made him see Bristowe. He is an authority on heart disease, as you doubtless know; and his opinion is,” he added, in a lower voice and with some emotion, “that even a slight shock may prove fatal.”
I began to feel hot and uncomfortable. What was I to think? The packet was becoming as lead in my pocket.
“Of course,” he resumed more briskly, “that threw our difficulties into the shade at once; and my first impulse was to get these papers from him. Don’t you see that? All day I have been trying in vain to effect it. I took Barnes, who is an old servant, partially into my confidence, but we could think of no plan. My father, like many people who have lost their sight, is jealous, and I was at my wits’ end, when Barnes brought you up. Your likeness,” he added in a parenthesis, looking at me reflectively, “to George put the idea into his head, I fancy? Yes, it must have been so. When I heard you announced, for a moment I thought that you were George.”
“And you called up a look of the warmest welcome,” I put in dryly.
He colored, but answered almost immediately, “I was afraid that he would assume that the governor had read his letter, and blurt out something about it. Good Lord! if you knew the funk in which I have been all the evening lest my father should ask either of us to read the letter!” and he gathered up his handkerchief with a sigh of relief, and wiped his forehead.
“I could see it very plainly,” I answered, going slowly in my mind over what he had told me. If the truth must be confessed, I was in no slight quandary what I should do, or what I should believe. Was this really the key to it all? Dared I doubt it? or that that which I had constructed was a mare’s nest–the mere framework of a mare’s nest. For the life of me I could not tell!
“Well?” he said presently, looking up with an offended air. “Is there anything else I can explain? or will you have the kindness to return my property to me now?”
“There is one thing, about which I should like to ask a question,” I said.
“Ask on!” he replied; and I wondered whether there was not a little too much of bravado in the tone of sufferance he assumed.
“Why do you carry”–I went on, raising my eyes to his, and pausing on the word an instant–“that little medicament–you know what I mean–in your waistcoat pocket, my friend?”
He perceptibly flinched. “I don’t quite–quite understand,” he began to stammer. Then he changed his tone and went on rapidly, “No! I will be frank with you, Mr.–Mr.—-“
“George,” I said calmly.
“Ah, indeed?” a trifle surprised, “Mr. George! Well, it is something Bristowe gave me this morning to be administered to my father–without his knowledge, if possible–whenever he grows excited. I did not think that you had seen it.”
Nor had I. I had only inferred its presence. But having inferred rightly once, I was inclined to trust my inference farther. Moreover, while he gave this explanation, his breath came and went so quickly that my former suspicions returned. I was ready for him when he said, “Now I will trouble you, if you please, for those papers?” and held out his hand.
“I cannot give them to you,” I replied, point-blank.
“You cannot give them to me now?” he repeated.
“No. Moreover, the packet is sealed. I do not see, on second thoughts, what harm I can do you–now that it is out of your father’s hands–by keeping it until to-morrow, when I will return it to your brother, from whom it came.”
“He will not be in London,” he answered doggedly. He stepped between me and the door with looks which I did not like. At the same time I felt that some allowance must be made for a man treated in this way.
“I am sorry,” I said, “but I cannot do what you ask. I will do this, however. If you think the delay of importance, and will give me your brother’s address in Liverpool, I will undertake to post the letters to him at once.”
He considered the offer, eying me the while with the same disfavor which he had exhibited in the drawing room. At last he said slowly, “If you will do that?”
“I will,” I repeated. “I will do it immediately.”
He gave me the direction–“George Ritherdon, at the London and Northwestern Hotel, Liverpool”–and in return I gave him my own name and address. Then I parted from him, with a civil good-night on either side–and little liking, I fancy–the clocks striking midnight, and the servants coming in as I passed out into the cool darkness of the square.
Late as it was I went straight to my club, determined that, as I had assumed the responsibility, there should be no laches on my part. There I placed the packet, together with a short note explaining how it came into my possession, in an outer envelope, and dropped the whole, duly directed and stamped, into the nearest pillar box. I could not register it at that hour, and rather than wait until next morning, I omitted the precaution; merely requesting Mr. Ritherdon to acknowledge its receipt.
Well, some days passed; during which it may be imagined that I thought no little about my odd experience. It was the story of the Lady and the Tiger over again. I had the choice of two alternatives at least. I might either believe the young fellow’s story, which certainly had the merit of explaining in a fairly probable manner an occurrence of so odd a character as not to lend itself freely to explanation. Or I might disbelieve his story, plausible in its very strangeness as it was, in favor of my own vague suspicions. Which was I to do?
Well, I set out by preferring the former alternative. This, notwithstanding that I had to some extent committed myself against it by withholding the papers. But with each day that passed without bringing me an answer from Liverpool, I leaned more and more to the other side. I began to pin my faith to the Tiger, adding each morning a point to the odds in the animal’s favor. So it went on until ten days had passed.
Then a little out of curiosity, but more, I gravely declare, because I thought it the right thing to do, I resolved to seek out George Ritherdon. I had no difficulty in learning where he might be found. I turned up the firm of Ritherdon Brothers (George and Gerald), cotton-spinners and India merchants, in the first directory I consulted. And about noon the next day I called at their place of business, and sent in my card to the senior partner. I waited five minutes–curiously scanned by the porter, who no doubt saw a likeness between me and his employer–and then I was admitted to the latter’s room.
He was a tall man with a fair beard, not one whit like Gerald, and yet tolerably good looking; if I say more I shall seem to be describing myself. I fancied him to be balder about the temples, however, and grayer and more careworn than the man I am in the habit of seeing in my shaving glass. His eyes, too, had a hard look, and he seemed in ill health. All these things I took in later. At the time I only noticed his clothes. “So the old gentleman is dead,” I thought, “and the young one’s tale is true, after all?” George Ritherdon was in deep mourning.
“I wrote to you,” I began, taking the seat to which he pointed, “about a fortnight ago.”
He looked at my card, which he held in his hand. “I think not,” he said slowly.
“Yes,” I repeated. “You were then at the London and Northwestern Hotel, at Liverpool.”
He was stepping to his writing table, but he stopped abruptly. “I was in Liverpool,” he answered, in a different tone, “but I was not at that hotel. You are thinking of my brother, are you not?”
“No,” I said. “It was your brother who told me you were there.”
“Perhaps you had better explain what was the subject of your letter,” he suggested, speaking in the weary tone of one returning to a painful matter. “I have been through a great trouble lately, and this may well have been overlooked.”
I said I would, and as briefly as possible I told the main facts of my strange visit in Fitzhardinge Square. He was much moved, walking up and down the room as he listened, and giving vent to exclamations from time to time, until I came to the arrangement I had finally made with his brother. Then he raised his hand as one might do in pain.
“Enough!” he said abruptly. “Barnes told me a rambling tale of some stranger. I understand it all now.”
“So do I, I think!” I replied dryly. “Your brother went to Liverpool, and received the papers in your name?”
He murmured what I took for “Yes.” But he did not utter a single word of acknowledgment to me, or of reprobation of his brother’s deceit. I thought some such word should have been spoken; and I let my feelings carry me away. “Let me tell you,” I said warmly, “that your brother is a—-“
“Hush!” he said, holding up his hand again. “He is dead.”
“Dead!” I repeated, shocked and amazed.
“Have you not read of it in the papers? It is in all the papers,” he said wearily. “He committed suicide–God forgive me for it!–at Liverpool, at the hotel you have mentioned, and the day after you saw him.”
And so it was. He had committed some serious forgery–he had always been wild, though his father, slow to see it, had only lately closed his purse to him–and the forged signatures had come into his brother’s power. He had cheated his brother before. There had long been bad blood between them; the one being as cold, businesslike, and masterful as the other was idle and jealous.
“I told him,” the elder said to me, shading his eyes with his hand, “that I should let him be prosecuted–that I would not protect or shelter him. The threat nearly drove him mad; and while it was hanging over him, I wrote to disclose the matter to Sir Charles. Gerald thought his last chance lay in recovering this letter unread. The proofs against him destroyed, he might laugh at me. His first attempts failed; and then he planned, with Barnes’ cognizance, to get possession of the packet by drugging my father’s whisky. Barnes’ courage deserted him; he called you in, and–and you know the rest.”
“But,” I said softly, “your brother did get the letter–at Liverpool.”
George Ritherdon groaned. “Yes,” he said, “he did. But the proofs were not inclosed. After writing the outside letter I changed my mind, and withheld them, explaining my reasons within. He found his plot laid in vain; and it was under the shock of this disappointment–the packet lay before him, resealed and directed to me–that he–that he did it. Poor Gerald!”
“Poor Gerald!” I said. What else remained to be said?
It may be a survival of superstition, yet, when I dine in Baker Street now, I take some care to go home by any other route than that through Fitzhardinge Square.