Chapter 1 THE TREMENDOUS ADVENTURES OF MAJOR BROWN
Rabelais, or his wild illustrator Gustave Doré, must have had something to d_ith the designing of the things called flats in England and America. There i_omething entirely Gargantuan in the idea of economising spacng houses on to_f each other, front doors and all. And in the chaos and complexity of thos_erpendicular streets anything may dwell or happen, and it is in one of them, I believe, that the inquirer may find the offices of the Club of Queer Trades.
It may be thought at the first glance that the name would attract and startl_he passer-by, but nothing attracts or startles in these dim immense hives.
The passer-by is only looking for his own melancholy destination, th_ontenegro Shipping Agency or the London office of the Rutland Sentinel, an_asses through the twilight passages as one passes through the twiligh_orridors of a dream. If the Thugs set up a Strangers' Assassination Compan_n one of the great buildings in Norfolk Street, and sent in a mild man i_pectacles to answer inquiries, no inquiries would be made. And the Club o_ueer Trades reigns in a great edifice hidden like a fossil in a mighty clif_f fossils.
The nature of this society, such as we afterwards discovered it to be, is soo_nd simply told. It is an eccentric and Bohemian Club, of which the absolut_ondition of membership lies in this, that the candidate must have invente_he method by which he earns his living. It must be an entirely new trade. Th_xact definition of this requirement is given in the two principal rules.
First, it must not be a mere application or variation of an existing trade.
Thus, for instance, the Club would not admit an insurance agent simply becaus_nstead of insuring men's furniture against being burnt in a fire, he insured, let us say, their trousers against being torn by a mad dog. The principle (a_ir Bradcock Burnaby-Bradcock, in the extraordinarily eloquent and soarin_peech to the club on the occasion of the question being raised in the Stormb_mith affair, said wittily and keenly) is the same. Secondly, the trade mus_e a genuine commercial source of income, the support of its inventor. Thu_he Club would not receive a man simply because he chose to pass his day_ollecting broken sardine tins, unless he could drive a roaring trade in them.
Professor Chick made that quite clear. And when one remembers what Professo_hick's own new trade was, one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.
The discovery of this strange society was a curiously refreshing thing; t_ealize that there were ten new trades in the world was like looking at th_irst ship or the first plough. It made a man feel what he should feel, tha_e was still in the childhood of the world. That I should have come at las_pon so singular a body was, I may say without vanity, not altogethe_ingular, for I have a mania for belonging to as many societies as possible: _ay be said to collect clubs, and I have accumulated a vast and fantasti_ariety of specimens ever since, in my audacious youth, I collected th_thenaeum. At some future day, perhaps, I may tell tales of some of the othe_odies to which I have belonged. I will recount the doings of the Dead Man'_hoes Society (that superficially immoral, but darkly justifiable communion); I will explain the curious origin of the Cat and Christian, the name of whic_as been so shamefully misinterpreted; and the world shall know at last wh_he Institute of Typewriters coalesced with the Red Tulip League. Of the Te_eacups, of course I dare not say a word. The first of my revelations, at an_ate, shall be concerned with the Club of Queer Trades, which, as I have said, was one of this class, one which I was almost bound to come across sooner o_ater, because of my singular hobby. The wild youth of the metropolis call m_acetiously 'The King of Clubs'. They also call me 'The Cherub', in allusio_o the roseate and youthful appearance I have presented in my declining years.
I only hope the spirits in the better world have as good dinners as I have.
But the finding of the Club of Queer Trades has one very curious thing abou_t. The most curious thing about it is that it was not discovered by me; i_as discovered by my friend Basil Grant, a star-gazer, a mystic, and a man wh_carcely stirred out of his attic.
Very few people knew anything of Basil; not because he was in the leas_nsociable, for if a man out of the street had walked into his rooms he woul_ave kept him talking till morning. Few people knew him, because, like al_oets, he could do without them; he welcomed a human face as he might welcom_ sudden blend of colour in a sunset; but he no more felt the need of goin_ut to parties than he felt the need of altering the sunset clouds. He live_n a queer and comfortable garret in the roofs of Lambeth. He was surrounde_y a chaos of things that were in odd contrast to the slums around him; ol_antastic books, swords, armour—the whole dust-hole of romanticism. But hi_ace, amid all these quixotic relics, appeared curiously keen and modern—_owerful, legal face. And no one but I knew who he was.
Long ago as it is, everyone remembers the terrible and grotesque scene tha_ccurred in—, when one of the most acute and forcible of the English judge_uddenly went mad on the bench. I had my own view of that occurrence; bu_bout the facts themselves there is no question at all. For some months, indeed for some years, people had detected something curious in the judge'_onduct. He seemed to have lost interest in the law, in which he had bee_eyond expression brilliant and terrible as a K.C., and to be occupied i_iving personal and moral advice to the people concerned. He talked more lik_ priest or a doctor, and a very outspoken one at that. The first thrill wa_robably given when he said to a man who had attempted a crime of passion: "_entence you to three years imprisonment, under the firm, and solemn, and God- given conviction, that what you require is three months at the seaside." H_ccused criminals from the bench, not so much of their obvious legal crimes, but of things that had never been heard of in a court of justice, monstrou_goism, lack of humour, and morbidity deliberately encouraged. Things came t_ head in that celebrated diamond case in which the Prime Minister himself, that brilliant patrician, had to come forward, gracefully and reluctantly, t_ive evidence against his valet. After the detailed life of the household ha_een thoroughly exhibited, the judge requested the Premier again to ste_orward, which he did with quiet dignity. The judge then said, in a sudden, grating voice: "Get a new soul. That thing's not fit for a dog. Get a ne_oul." All this, of course, in the eyes of the sagacious, was premonitory o_hat melancholy and farcical day when his wits actually deserted him in ope_ourt. It was a libel case between two very eminent and powerful financiers, against both of whom charges of considerable defalcation were brought. Th_ase was long and complex; the advocates were long and eloquent; but at last, after weeks of work and rhetoric, the time came for the great judge to give _umming-up; and one of his celebrated masterpieces of lucidity and pulverizin_ogic was eagerly looked for. He had spoken very little during the prolonge_ffair, and he looked sad and lowering at the end of it. He was silent for _ew moments, and then burst into a stentorian song. His remarks (as reported) were as follows:
> "O Rowty-owty tiddly-owty
> Tiddly-owty tiddly-owty
> Highty-ighty tiddly-ighty
> Tiddly-ighty ow."
He then retired from public life and took the garret in Lambeth.
I was sitting there one evening, about six o'clock, over a glass of tha_orgeous Burgundy which he kept behind a pile of black-letter folios; he wa_triding about the room, fingering, after a habit of his, one of the grea_words in his collection; the red glare of the strong fire struck his squar_eatures and his fierce grey hair; his blue eyes were even unusually full o_reams, and he had opened his mouth to speak dreamily, when the door was flun_pen, and a pale, fiery man, with red hair and a huge furred overcoat, swun_imself panting into the room.
"Sorry to bother you, Basil," he gasped. "I took a liberty—made an appointmen_ere with a man—a client—in five minutes—I beg your pardon, sir," and he gav_e a bow of apology.
Basil smiled at me. "You didn't know," he said, "that I had a practica_rother. This is Rupert Grant, Esquire, who can and does all there is to b_one. Just as I was a failure at one thing, he is a success at everything. _emember him as a journalist, a house-agent, a naturalist, an inventor, _ublisher, a schoolmaster, a—what are you now, Rupert?"
"I am and have been for some time," said Rupert, with some dignity, "a privat_etective, and there's my client."
A loud rap at the door had cut him short, and, on permission being given, th_oor was thrown sharply open and a stout, dapper man walked swiftly into th_oom, set his silk hat with a clap on the table, and said, "Good evening, gentlemen," with a stress on the last syllable that somehow marked him out a_ martinet, military, literary and social. He had a large head streaked wit_lack and grey, and an abrupt black moustache, which gave him a look o_ierceness which was contradicted by his sad sea-blue eyes.
Basil immediately said to me, "Let us come into the next room, Gully," and wa_oving towards the door, but the stranger said:
"Not at all. Friends remain. Assistance possibly."
The moment I heard him speak I remembered who he was, a certain Major Brown _ad met years before in Basil's society. I had forgotten altogether the blac_andified figure and the large solemn head, but I remembered the peculia_peech, which consisted of only saying about a quarter of each sentence, an_hat sharply, like the crack of a gun. I do not know, it may have come fro_iving orders to troops.
Major Brown was a V.C., and an able and distinguished soldier, but he wa_nything but a warlike person. Like many among the iron men who recovere_ritish India, he was a man with the natural beliefs and tastes of an ol_aid. In his dress he was dapper and yet demure; in his habits he was precis_o the point of the exact adjustment of a tea-cup. One enthusiasm he had, which was of the nature of a religion—the cultivation of pansies. And when h_alked about his collection, his blue eyes glittered like a child's at a ne_oy, the eyes that had remained untroubled when the troops were roarin_ictory round Roberts at Candahar.
"Well, Major," said Rupert Grant, with a lordly heartiness, flinging himsel_nto a chair, "what is the matter with you?"
"Yellow pansies. Coal-cellar. P. G. Northover," said the Major, with righteou_ndignation.
We glanced at each other with inquisitiveness. Basil, who had his eyes shut i_is abstracted way, said simply:
"I beg your pardon."
"Fact is. Street, you know, man, pansies. On wall. Death to me. Something.
We shook our heads gently. Bit by bit, and mainly by the seemingly sleep_ssistance of Basil Grant, we pieced together the Major's fragmentary, bu_xcited narration. It would be infamous to submit the reader to what w_ndured; therefore I will tell the story of Major Brown in my own words. Bu_he reader must imagine the scene. The eyes of Basil closed as in a trance, after his habit, and the eyes of Rupert and myself getting rounder and rounde_s we listened to one of the most astounding stories in the world, from th_ips of the little man in black, sitting bolt upright in his chair and talkin_ike a telegram.
Major Brown was, I have said, a successful soldier, but by no means a_nthusiastic one. So far from regretting his retirement on half-pay, it wa_ith delight that he took a small neat villa, very like a doll's house, an_evoted the rest of his life to pansies and weak tea. The thought that battle_ere over when he had once hung up his sword in the little front hall (alon_ith two patent stew-pots and a bad water-colour), and betaken himself instea_o wielding the rake in his little sunlit garden, was to him like having com_nto a harbour in heaven. He was Dutch-like and precise in his taste i_ardening, and had, perhaps, some tendency to drill his flowers like soldiers.
He was one of those men who are capable of putting four umbrellas in the stan_ather than three, so that two may lean one way and two another; he saw lif_ike a pattern in a freehand drawing-book. And assuredly he would not hav_elieved, or even understood, any one who had told him that within a few yard_f his brick paradise he was destined to be caught in a whirlpool o_ncredible adventure, such as he had never seen or dreamed of in the horribl_ungle, or the heat of battle.
One certain bright and windy afternoon, the Major, attired in his usua_aultless manner, had set out for his usual constitutional. In crossing fro_ne great residential thoroughfare to another, he happened to pass along on_f those aimless-looking lanes which lie along the back-garden walls of a ro_f mansions, and which in their empty and discoloured appearance give one a_dd sensation as of being behind the scenes of a theatre. But mean and sulk_s the scene might be in the eyes of most of us, it was not altogether so i_he Major's, for along the coarse gravel footway was coming a thing which wa_o him what the passing of a religious procession is to a devout person. _arge, heavy man, with fish-blue eyes and a ring of irradiating red beard, wa_ushing before him a barrow, which was ablaze with incomparable flowers. Ther_ere splendid specimens of almost every order, but the Major's own favourit_ansies predominated. The Major stopped and fell into conversation, and the_nto bargaining. He treated the man after the manner of collectors and othe_ad men, that is to say, he carefully and with a sort of anguish selected th_est roots from the less excellent, praised some, disparaged others, made _ubtle scale ranging from a thrilling worth and rarity to a degrade_nsignificance, and then bought them all. The man was just pushing off hi_arrow when he stopped and came close to the Major.
"I'll tell you what, sir," he said. "If you're interested in them things, yo_ust get on to that wall."
"On the wall!" cried the scandalised Major, whose conventional soul quaile_ithin him at the thought of such fantastic trespass.
"Finest show of yellow pansies in England in that there garden, sir," hisse_he tempter. "I'll help you up, sir."
How it happened no one will ever know but that positive enthusiasm of th_ajor's life triumphed over all its negative traditions, and with an easy lea_nd swing that showed that he was in no need of physical assistance, he stoo_n the wall at the end of the strange garden. The second after, the flappin_f the frock-coat at his knees made him feel inexpressibly a fool. But th_ext instant all such trifling sentiments were swallowed up by the mos_ppalling shock of surprise the old soldier had ever felt in all his bold an_andering existence. His eyes fell upon the garden, and there across a larg_ed in the centre of the lawn was a vast pattern of pansies; they wer_plendid flowers, but for once it was not their horticultural aspects tha_ajor Brown beheld, for the pansies were arranged in gigantic capital letter_o as to form the sentence:
DEATH TO MAJOR BROWN
A kindly looking old man, with white whiskers, was watering them. Brown looke_harply back at the road behind him; the man with the barrow had suddenl_anished. Then he looked again at the lawn with its incredible inscription.
Another man might have thought he had gone mad, but Brown did not. Whe_omantic ladies gushed over his V.C. and his military exploits, he sometime_elt himself to be a painfully prosaic person, but by the same token he kne_e was incurably sane. Another man, again, might have thought himself a victi_f a passing practical joke, but Brown could not easily believe this. He kne_rom his own quaint learning that the garden arrangement was an elaborate an_xpensive one; he thought it extravagantly improbable that any one would pou_ut money like water for a joke against him. Having no explanation whatever t_ffer, he admitted the fact to himself, like a clear-headed man, and waited a_e would have done in the presence of a man with six legs.
At this moment the stout old man with white whiskers looked up, and th_atering can fell from his hand, shooting a swirl of water down the grave_ath.
"Who on earth are you?" he gasped, trembling violently.
"I am Major Brown," said that individual, who was always cool in the hour o_ction.
The old man gaped helplessly like some monstrous fish. At last he stammere_ildly, "Come down—come down here!"
"At your service," said the Major, and alighted at a bound on the grass besid_im, without disarranging his silk hat.
The old man turned his broad back and set off at a sort of waddling ru_owards the house, followed with swift steps by the Major. His guide led hi_hrough the back passages of a gloomy, but gorgeously appointed house, unti_hey reached the door of the front room. Then the old man turned with a fac_f apoplectic terror dimly showing in the twilight.
"For heaven's sake," he said, "don't mention jackals."
Then he threw open the door, releasing a burst of red lamplight, and ra_ownstairs with a clatter.
The Major stepped into a rich, glowing room, full of red copper, and peacoc_nd purple hangings, hat in hand. He had the finest manners in the world, and, though mystified, was not in the least embarrassed to see that the onl_ccupant was a lady, sitting by the window, looking out.
"Madam," he said, bowing simply, "I am Major Brown."
"Sit down," said the lady; but she did not turn her head.
She was a graceful, green-clad figure, with fiery red hair and a flavour o_edford Park. "You have come, I suppose," she said mournfully, "to tax m_bout the hateful title-deeds."
"I have come, madam," he said, "to know what is the matter. To know why m_ame is written across your garden. Not amicably either."
He spoke grimly, for the thing had hit him. It is impossible to describe th_ffect produced on the mind by that quiet and sunny garden scene, the fram_or a stunning and brutal personality. The evening air was still, and th_rass was golden in the place where the little flowers he studied cried t_eaven for his blood.
"You know I must not turn round," said the lady; "every afternoon till th_troke of six I must keep my face turned to the street."
Some queer and unusual inspiration made the prosaic soldier resolute to accep_hese outrageous riddles without surprise.
"It is almost six," he said; and even as he spoke the barbaric copper cloc_pon the wall clanged the first stroke of the hour. At the sixth the lad_prang up and turned on the Major one of the queerest and yet most attractiv_aces he had ever seen in his life; open, and yet tantalising, the face of a_lf.
"That makes the third year I have waited," she cried. "This is an anniversary.
The waiting almost makes one wish the frightful thing would happen once an_or all."
And even as she spoke, a sudden rending cry broke the stillness. From low dow_n the pavement of the dim street (it was already twilight) a voice cried ou_ith a raucous and merciless distinctness:
"Major Brown, Major Brown, where does the jackal dwell?"
Brown was decisive and silent in action. He strode to the front door an_ooked out. There was no sign of life in the blue gloaming of the street, where one or two lamps were beginning to light their lemon sparks. O_eturning, he found the lady in green trembling.
"It is the end," she cried, with shaking lips; "it may be death for both o_s. Whenever—"
But even as she spoke her speech was cloven by another hoarse proclamatio_rom the dark street, again horribly articulate.
"Major Brown, Major Brown, how did the jackal die?"
Brown dashed out of the door and down the steps, but again he was frustrated; there was no figure in sight, and the street was far too long and empty fo_he shouter to have run away. Even the rational Major was a little shaken a_e returned in a certain time to the drawing-room. Scarcely had he done s_han the terrific voice came:
"Major Brown, Major Brown, where did—"
Brown was in the street almost at a bound, and he was in time—in time to se_omething which at first glance froze the blood. The cries appeared to com_rom a decapitated head resting on the pavement.
The next moment the pale Major understood. It was the head of a man thrus_hrough the coal-hole in the street. The next moment, again, it had vanished, and Major Brown turned to the lady. "Where's your coal-cellar?" he said, an_tepped out into the passage.
She looked at him with wild grey eyes. "You will not go down," she cried,
"alone, into the dark hole, with that beast?"
"Is this the way?" replied Brown, and descended the kitchen stairs three at _ime. He flung open the door of a black cavity and stepped in, feeling in hi_ocket for matches. As his right hand was thus occupied, a pair of great slim_ands came out of the darkness, hands clearly belonging to a man of giganti_tature, and seized him by the back of the head. They forced him down, down i_he suffocating darkness, a brutal image of destiny. But the Major's head, though upside down, was perfectly clear and intellectual. He gave quietl_nder the pressure until he had slid down almost to his hands and knees. The_inding the knees of the invisible monster within a foot of him, he simply pu_ut one of his long, bony, and skilful hands, and gripping the leg by a muscl_ulled it off the ground and laid the huge living man, with a crash, along th_loor. He strove to rise, but Brown was on top like a cat. They rolled ove_nd over. Big as the man was, he had evidently now no desire but to escape; h_ade sprawls hither and thither to get past the Major to the door, but tha_enacious person had him hard by the coat collar and hung with the other han_o a beam. At length there came a strain in holding back this human bull, _train under which Brown expected his hand to rend and part from the arm. Bu_omething else rent and parted; and the dim fat figure of the giant vanishe_ut of the cellar, leaving the torn coat in the Major's hand; the only frui_f his adventure and the only clue to the mystery. For when he went up and ou_t the front door, the lady, the rich hangings, and the whole equipment of th_ouse had disappeared. It had only bare boards and whitewashed walls.
"The lady was in the conspiracy, of course," said Rupert, nodding. Major Brow_urned brick red. "I beg your pardon," he said, "I think not."
Rupert raised his eyebrows and looked at him for a moment, but said nothing.
When next he spoke he asked:
"Was there anything in the pockets of the coat?"
"There was sevenpence halfpenny in coppers and a threepenny-bit," said th_ajor carefully; "there was a cigarette-holder, a piece of string, and thi_etter," and he laid it on the table. It ran as follows:
> Dear Mr Plover,
> I am annoyed to hear that some delay has occurred in the arrangements r_ajor Brown. Please see that he is attacked as per arrangement tomorrow Th_oal-cellar, of course.
> Yours faithfully, P. G. Northover.
Rupert Grant was leaning forward listening with hawk-like eyes. He cut in:
"Is it dated from anywhere?"
"No—oh, yes!" replied Brown, glancing upon the paper; "14 Tanner's Court, North—"
Rupert sprang up and struck his hands together.
"Then why are we hanging here? Let's get along. Basil, lend me your revolver."
Basil was staring into the embers like a man in a trance; and it was some tim_efore he answered:
"I don't think you'll need it."
"Perhaps not," said Rupert, getting into his fur coat. "One never knows. Bu_oing down a dark court to see criminals—"
"Do you think they are criminals?" asked his brother.
Rupert laughed stoutly. "Giving orders to a subordinate to strangle a harmles_tranger in a coal-cellar may strike you as a very blameless experiment, but—"
"Do you think they wanted to strangle the Major?" asked Basil, in the sam_istant and monotonous voice.
"My dear fellow, you've been asleep. Look at the letter."
"I am looking at the letter," said the mad judge calmly; though, as a matte_f fact, he was looking at the fire. "I don't think it's the sort of lette_ne criminal would write to another."
"My dear boy, you are glorious," cried Rupert, turning round, with laughter i_is blue bright eyes. "Your methods amaze me. Why, there is the letter. It i_ritten, and it does give orders for a crime. You might as well say that th_elson Column was not at all the sort of thing that was likely to be set up i_rafalgar Square."
Basil Grant shook all over with a sort of silent laughter, but did no_therwise move.
"That's rather good," he said; "but, of course, logic like that's not what i_eally wanted. It's a question of spiritual atmosphere. It's not a crimina_etter."
"It is. It's a matter of fact," cried the other in an agony of reasonableness.
"Facts," murmured Basil, like one mentioning some strange, far-off animals,
"how facts obscure the truth. I may be silly—in fact, I'm off my head—but _ever could believe in that man—what's his name, in those capita_tories?—Sherlock Holmes. Every detail points to something, certainly; bu_enerally to the wrong thing. Facts point in all directions, it seems to me, like the thousands of twigs on a tree. It's only the life of the tree that ha_nity and goes up—only the green blood that springs, like a fountain, at th_tars."
"But what the deuce else can the letter be but criminal?"
"We have eternity to stretch our legs in," replied the mystic. "It can be a_nfinity of things. I haven't seen any of them—I've only seen the letter. _ook at that, and say it's not criminal."
"Then what's the origin of it?"
"I haven't the vaguest idea."
"Then why don't you accept the ordinary explanation?"
Basil continued for a little to glare at the coals, and seemed collecting hi_houghts in a humble and even painful way. Then he said:
"Suppose you went out into the moonlight. Suppose you passed through silent, silvery streets and squares until you came into an open and deserted space, set with a few monuments, and you beheld one dressed as a ballet girl dancin_n the argent glimmer. And suppose you looked, and saw it was a man disguised.
And suppose you looked again, and saw it was Lord Kitchener. What would yo_hink?"
He paused a moment, and went on:
"You could not adopt the ordinary explanation. The ordinary explanation o_utting on singular clothes is that you look nice in them; you would not thin_hat Lord Kitchener dressed up like a ballet girl out of ordinary persona_anity. You would think it much more likely that he inherited a dancin_adness from a great grandmother; or had been hypnotised at a seance; o_hreatened by a secret society with death if he refused the ordeal. Wit_aden-Powell, say, it might be a bet—but not with Kitchener. I should know al_hat, because in my public days I knew him quite well. So I know that lette_uite well, and criminals quite well. It's not a criminal's letter. It's al_tmospheres." And he closed his eyes and passed his hand over his forehead.
Rupert and the Major were regarding him with a mixture of respect and pity.
The former said
"Well, I'm going, anyhow, and shall continue to think—until your spiritua_ystery turns up—that a man who sends a note recommending a crime, that is, actually a crime that is actually carried out, at least tentatively, is, i_ll probability, a little casual in his moral tastes. Can I have tha_evolver?"
"Certainly," said Basil, getting up. "But I am coming with you." And he flun_n old cape or cloak round him, and took a sword-stick from the corner.
"You!" said Rupert, with some surprise, "you scarcely ever leave your hole t_ook at anything on the face of the earth."
Basil fitted on a formidable old white hat.
"I scarcely ever," he said, with an unconscious and colossal arrogance, "hea_f anything on the face of the earth that I do not understand at once, withou_oing to see it."
And he led the way out into the purple night.
We four swung along the flaring Lambeth streets, across Westminster Bridge, and along the Embankment in the direction of that part of Fleet Street whic_ontained Tanner's Court. The erect, black figure of Major Brown, seen fro_ehind, was a quaint contrast to the hound-like stoop and flapping mantle o_oung Rupert Grant, who adopted, with childlike delight, all the dramati_oses of the detective of fiction. The finest among his many fine qualitie_as his boyish appetite for the colour and poetry of London. Basil, who walke_ehind, with his face turned blindly to the stars, had the look of _omnambulist.
Rupert paused at the corner of Tanner's Court, with a quiver of delight a_anger, and gripped Basil's revolver in his great-coat pocket.
"Shall we go in now?" he asked.
"Not get police?" asked Major Brown, glancing sharply up and down the street.
"I am not sure," answered Rupert, knitting his brows. "Of course, it's quit_lear, the thing's all crooked. But there are three of us, and—"
"I shouldn't get the police," said Basil in a queer voice. Rupert glanced a_im and stared hard.
"Basil," he cried, "you're trembling. What's the matter—are you afraid?"
"Cold, perhaps," said the Major, eyeing him. There was no doubt that he wa_haking.
At last, after a few moments' scrutiny, Rupert broke into a curse.
"You're laughing," he cried. "I know that confounded, silent, shaky laugh o_ours. What the deuce is the amusement, Basil? Here we are, all three of us, within a yard of a den of ruffians—"
"But I shouldn't call the police," said Basil. "We four heroes are quite equa_o a host," and he continued to quake with his mysterious mirth.
Rupert turned with impatience and strode swiftly down the court, the rest o_s following. When he reached the door of No. 14 he turned abruptly, th_evolver glittering in his hand.
"Stand close," he said in the voice of a commander. "The scoundrel may b_ttempting an escape at this moment. We must fling open the door and rush in."
The four of us cowered instantly under the archway, rigid, except for the ol_udge and his convulsion of merriment.
"Now," hissed Rupert Grant, turning his pale face and burning eyes suddenl_ver his shoulder, "when I say 'Four', follow me with a rush. If I say 'Hol_im', pin the fellows down, whoever they are. If I say 'Stop', stop. I shal_ay that if there are more than three. If they attack us I shall empty m_evolver on them. Basil, have your sword-stick ready. Now—one, two three, four!"
With the sound of the word the door burst open, and we fell into the room lik_n invasion, only to stop dead.
The room, which was an ordinary and neatly appointed office, appeared, at th_irst glance, to be empty. But on a second and more careful glance, we sa_eated behind a very large desk with pigeonholes and drawers of bewilderin_ultiplicity, a small man with a black waxed moustache, and the air of a ver_verage clerk, writing hard. He looked up as we came to a standstill.
"Did you knock?" he asked pleasantly. "I am sorry if I did not hear. What ca_ do for you?"
There was a doubtful pause, and then, by general consent, the Major himself, the victim of the outrage, stepped forward.
The letter was in his hand, and he looked unusually grim.
"Is your name P. G. Northover?" he asked.
"That is my name," replied the other, smiling.
"I think," said Major Brown, with an increase in the dark glow of his face,
"that this letter was written by you." And with a loud clap he struck open th_etter on the desk with his clenched fist. The man called Northover looked a_t with unaffected interest and merely nodded.
"Well, sir," said the Major, breathing hard, "what about that?"
"What about it, precisely," said the man with the moustache.
"I am Major Brown," said that gentleman sternly.
Northover bowed. "Pleased to meet you, sir. What have you to say to me?"
"Say!" cried the Major, loosing a sudden tempest; "why, I want this confounde_hing settled. I want—"
"Certainly, sir," said Northover, jumping up with a slight elevation of th_yebrows. "Will you take a chair for a moment." And he pressed an electri_ell just above him, which thrilled and tinkled in a room beyond. The Majo_ut his hand on the back of the chair offered him, but stood chafing an_eating the floor with his polished boot.
The next moment an inner glass door was opened, and a fair, weedy, young man, in a frock-coat, entered from within.
"Mr Hopson," said Northover, "this is Major Brown. Will you please finish tha_hing for him I gave you this morning and bring it in?"
"Yes, sir," said Mr Hopson, and vanished like lightning.
"You will excuse me, gentlemen," said the egregious Northover, with hi_adiant smile, "if I continue to work until Mr Hopson is ready. I have som_ooks that must be cleared up before I get away on my holiday tomorrow. And w_ll like a whiff of the country, don't we? Ha! ha!"
The criminal took up his pen with a childlike laugh, and a silence ensued; _lacid and busy silence on the part of Mr P. G. Northover; a raging silence o_he part of everybody else.
At length the scratching of Northover's pen in the stillness was mingled wit_ knock at the door, almost simultaneous with the turning of the handle, an_r Hopson came in again with the same silent rapidity, placed a paper befor_is principal, and disappeared again.
The man at the desk pulled and twisted his spiky moustache for a few moment_s he ran his eye up and down the paper presented to him. He took up his pen, with a slight, instantaneous frown, and altered something, muttering—"Careless." Then he read it again with the same impenetrabl_eflectiveness, and finally handed it to the frantic Brown, whose hand wa_eating the devil's tattoo on the back of the chair.
"I think you will find that all right, Major," he said briefly.
The Major looked at it; whether he found it all right or not will appea_ater, but he found it like this:
> Major Brown to P. G. Northover. £.:s.:d.
> January 1, to account rendered 5:6:0
> May 9, to potting and embedding of zoo pansies 2:0:0
> To cost of trolley with flowers 0:15:0
> To hiring of man with trolley 0:5:0
> To hire of house and garden for one day 1:0:0
> To furnishing of room in peacock curtains, copper ornaments, etc. 3:0:0
> To salary of Miss Jameson 1:0:0
> To salary of Mr Plover 1:0:0
> ========= Total £14:6:0 =========
> A Remittance will oblige.
"What," said Brown, after a dead pause, and with eyes that seemed slowl_ising out of his head, "What in heaven's name is this?"
"What is it?" repeated Northover, cocking his eyebrow with amusement. "It'_our account, of course."
"My account!" The Major's ideas appeared to be in a vague stampede. "M_ccount! And what have I got to do with it?"
"Well," said Northover, laughing outright, "naturally I prefer you to pay it."
The Major's hand was still resting on the back of the chair as the words came.
He scarcely stirred otherwise, but he lifted the chair bodily into the ai_ith one hand and hurled it at Northover's head.
The legs crashed against the desk, so that Northover only got a blow on th_lbow as he sprang up with clenched fists, only to be seized by the unite_ush of the rest of us. The chair had fallen clattering on the empty floor.
"Let me go, you scamps," he shouted. "Let me—"
"Stand still," cried Rupert authoritatively. "Major Brown's action i_xcusable. The abominable crime you have attempted—"
"A customer has a perfect right," said Northover hotly, "to question a_lleged overcharge, but, confound it all, not to throw furniture."
"What, in God's name, do you mean by your customers and overcharges?" shrieke_ajor Brown, whose keen feminine nature, steady in pain or danger, becam_lmost hysterical in the presence of a long and exasperating mystery. "Who ar_ou? I've never seen you or your insolent tomfool bills. I know one of you_ursed brutes tried to choke me—"
"Mad," said Northover, gazing blankly round; "all of them mad. I didn't kno_hey travelled in quartettes."
"Enough of this prevarication," said Rupert; "your crimes are discovered. _oliceman is stationed at the corner of the court. Though only a privat_etective myself, I will take the responsibility of telling you that anythin_ou say—"
"Mad," repeated Northover, with a weary air.
And at this moment, for the first time, there struck in among them th_trange, sleepy voice of Basil Grant.
"Major Brown," he said, "may I ask you a question?"
The Major turned his head with an increased bewilderment.
"You?" he cried; "certainly, Mr Grant."
"Can you tell me," said the mystic, with sunken head and lowering brow, as h_raced a pattern in the dust with his sword-stick, "can you tell me what wa_he name of the man who lived in your house before you?"
The unhappy Major was only faintly more disturbed by this last and futil_rrelevancy, and he answered vaguely:
"Yes, I think so; a man named Gurney something—a name with a hyphen—Gurney- Brown; that was it."
"And when did the house change hands?" said Basil, looking up sharply. Hi_trange eyes were burning brilliantly.
"I came in last month," said the Major.
And at the mere word the criminal Northover suddenly fell into his grea_ffice chair and shouted with a volleying laughter.
"Oh! it's too perfect—it's too exquisite," he gasped, beating the arms wit_is fists. He was laughing deafeningly; Basil Grant was laughing voicelessly; and the rest of us only felt that our heads were like weathercocks in _hirlwind.
"Confound it, Basil," said Rupert, stamping. "If you don't want me to go ma_nd blow your metaphysical brains out, tell me what all this means."
"Permit me, sir, to explain," he said. "And, first of all, permit me t_pologize to you, Major Brown, for a most abominable and unpardonable blunder, which has caused you menace and inconvenience, in which, if you will allow m_o say so, you have behaved with astonishing courage and dignity. Of cours_ou need not trouble about the bill. We will stand the loss." And, tearing th_aper across, he flung the halves into the waste-paper basket and bowed.
Poor Brown's face was still a picture of distraction. "But I don't even begi_o understand," he cried. "What bill? what blunder? what loss?"
Mr P. G. Northover advanced in the centre of the room, thoughtfully, and wit_ great deal of unconscious dignity. On closer consideration, there wer_pparent about him other things beside a screwed moustache, especially a lean, sallow face, hawk-like, and not without a careworn intelligence. Then h_ooked up abruptly.
"Do you know where you are, Major?" he said.
"God knows I don't," said the warrior, with fervour.
"You are standing," replied Northover, "in the office of the Adventure an_omance Agency, Limited."
"And what's that?" blankly inquired Brown.
The man of business leaned over the back of the chair, and fixed his dark eye_n the other's face.
"Major," said he, "did you ever, as you walked along the empty street upo_ome idle afternoon, feel the utter hunger for something to happen—something, in the splendid words of Walt Whitman: 'Something pernicious and dread; something far removed from a puny and pious life; something unproved; something in a trance; something loosed from its anchorage, and driving free.'
Did you ever feel that?"
"Certainly not," said the Major shortly.
"Then I must explain with more elaboration," said Mr Northover, with a sigh.
"The Adventure and Romance Agency has been started to meet a great moder_esire. On every side, in conversation and in literature, we hear of th_esire for a larger theatre of events for something to waylay us and lead u_plendidly astray. Now the man who feels this desire for a varied life pays _early or a quarterly sum to the Adventure and Romance Agency; in return, th_dventure and Romance Agency undertakes to surround him with startling an_eird events. As a man is leaving his front door, an excited sweep approache_im and assures him of a plot against his life; he gets into a cab, and i_riven to an opium den; he receives a mysterious telegram or a dramatic visit, and is immediately in a vortex of incidents. A very picturesque and movin_tory is first written by one of the staff of distinguished novelists who ar_t present hard at work in the adjoining room. Yours, Major Brown (designed b_ur Mr Grigsby), I consider peculiarly forcible and pointed; it is almost _ity you did not see the end of it. I need scarcely explain further th_onstrous mistake. Your predecessor in your present house, Mr Gurney-Brown, was a subscriber to our agency, and our foolish clerks, ignoring alike th_ignity of the hyphen and the glory of military rank, positively imagined tha_ajor Brown and Mr Gurney-Brown were the same person. Thus you were suddenl_urled into the middle of another man's story."
"How on earth does the thing work?" asked Rupert Grant, with bright an_ascinated eyes.
"We believe that we are doing a noble work," said Northover warmly. "It ha_ontinually struck us that there is no element in modern life that is mor_amentable than the fact that the modern man has to seek all artisti_xistence in a sedentary state. If he wishes to float into fairyland, he read_ book; if he wishes to dash into the thick of battle, he reads a book; if h_ishes to soar into heaven, he reads a book; if he wishes to slide down th_anisters, he reads a book. We give him these visions, but we give hi_xercise at the same time, the necessity of leaping from wall to wall, o_ighting strange gentlemen, of running down long streets from pursuers—al_ealthy and pleasant exercises. We give him a glimpse of that great mornin_orld of Robin Hood or the Knights Errant, when one great game was playe_nder the splendid sky. We give him back his childhood, that godlike time whe_e can act stories, be our own heroes, and at the same instant dance an_ream."
Basil gazed at him curiously. The most singular psychological discovery ha_een reserved to the end, for as the little business man ceased speaking h_ad the blazing eyes of a fanatic.
Major Brown received the explanation with complete simplicity and good humour.
"Of course; awfully dense, sir," he said. "No doubt at all, the schem_xcellent. But I don't think—" He paused a moment, and looked dreamily out o_he window. "I don't think you will find me in it. Somehow, when one'_een—seen the thing itself, you know—blood and men screaming, one feels abou_aving a little house and a little hobby; in the Bible, you know, 'Ther_emaineth a rest'."
Northover bowed. Then after a pause he said:
"Gentlemen, may I offer you my card. If any of the rest of you desire, at an_ime, to communicate with me, despite Major Brown's view of the matter—"
"I should be obliged for your card, sir," said the Major, in his abrupt bu_ourteous voice. "Pay for chair."
The agent of Romance and Adventure handed his card, laughing.
It ran, "P. G. Northover, B.A., C.Q.T., Adventure and Romance Agency, 1_anner's Court, Fleet Street."
"What on earth is "C.QT."?" asked Rupert Grant, looking over the Major'_houlder.
"Don't you know?" returned Northover. "Haven't you ever heard of the Club o_ueer Trades?"
"There seems to be a confounded lot of funny things we haven't heard of," sai_he little Major reflectively. "What's this one?"
"The Club of Queer Trades is a society consisting exclusively of people wh_ave invented some new and curious way of making money. I was one of th_arliest members."
"You deserve to be," said Basil, taking up his great white hat, with a smile, and speaking for the last time that evening.
When they had passed out the Adventure and Romance agent wore a queer smile, as he trod down the fire and locked up his desk. "A fine chap, that Major; when one hasn't a touch of the poet one stands some chance of being a poem.
But to think of such a clockwork little creature of all people getting int_he nets of one of Grigsby's tales," and he laughed out aloud in the silence.
Just as the laugh echoed away, there came a sharp knock at the door. An owlis_ead, with dark moustaches, was thrust in, with deprecating and somewha_bsurd inquiry.
"What! back again, Major?" cried Northover in surprise. "What can I do fo_ou?"
The Major shuffled feverishly into the room.
"It's horribly absurd," he said. "Something must have got started in me that _ever knew before. But upon my soul I feel the most desperate desire to kno_he end of it all."
"The end of it all?"
"Yes," said the Major. "'Jackals', and the title-deeds, and 'Death to Majo_rown'."
The agent's face grew grave, but his eyes were amused.
"I am terribly sorry, Major," said he, "but what you ask is impossible. _on't know any one I would sooner oblige than you; but the rules of the agenc_re strict. The Adventures are confidential; you are an outsider; I am no_llowed to let you know an inch more than I can help. I do hope yo_nderstand—"
"There is no one," said Brown, "who understands discipline better than I do.
Thank you very much. Good night."
And the little man withdrew for the last time.
He married Miss Jameson, the lady with the red hair and the green garments.
She was an actress, employed (with many others) by the Romance Agency; and he_arriage with the prim old veteran caused some stir in her languid an_ntellectualized set. She always replied very quietly that she had met score_f men who acted splendidly in the charades provided for them by Northover, but that she had only met one man who went down into a coal-cellar when h_eally thought it contained a murderer.
The Major and she are living as happily as birds, in an absurd villa, and th_ormer has taken to smoking. Otherwise he is unchanged—except, perhaps, ther_re moments when, alert and full of feminine unselfishness as the Major is b_ature, he falls into a trance of abstraction. Then his wife recognizes with _oncealed smile, by the blind look in his blue eyes, that he is wondering wha_ere the title-deeds, and why he was not allowed to mention jackals. But, lik_o many old soldiers, Brown is religious, and believes that he will realiz_he rest of those purple adventures in a better world.