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Chapter 4 THE SINGULAR SPECULATION OF THE HOUSE-AGENT

  • Lieutenant Drummond Keith was a man about whom conversation always burst lik_ thunderstorm the moment he left the room. This arose from many separat_ouches about him. He was a light, loose person, who wore light, loos_lothes, generally white, as if he were in the tropics; he was lean an_raceful, like a panther, and he had restless black eyes.
  • He was very impecunious. He had one of the habits of the poor, in a degree s_xaggerated as immeasurably to eclipse the most miserable of the unemployed; _ean the habit of continual change of lodgings. There are inland tracts o_ondon where, in the very heart of artificial civilization, humanity ha_lmost become nomadic once more. But in that restless interior there was n_agged tramp so restless as the elegant officer in the loose white clothes. H_ad shot a great many things in his time, to judge from his conversation, fro_artridges to elephants, but his slangier acquaintances were of opinion that
  • "the moon" had been not unfrequently amid the victims of his victorious rifle.
  • The phrase is a fine one, and suggests a mystic, elvish, nocturnal hunting.
  • He carried from house to house and from parish to parish a kit which consiste_ractically of five articles. Two odd-looking, large-bladed spears, tie_ogether, the weapons, I suppose, of some savage tribe, a green umbrella, _uge and tattered copy of the Pickwick Papers, a big game rifle, and a larg_ealed jar of some unholy Oriental wine. These always went into every ne_odging, even for one night; and they went in quite undisguised, tied up i_isps of string or straw, to the delight of the poetic gutter boys in th_ittle grey streets.
  • I had forgotten to mention that he always carried also his old regimenta_word. But this raised another odd question about him. Slim and active as h_as, he was no longer very young. His hair, indeed, was quite grey, though hi_ather wild almost Italian moustache retained its blackness, and his face wa_areworn under its almost Italian gaiety. To find a middle-aged man who ha_eft the Army at the primitive rank of lieutenant is unusual and no_ecessarily encouraging. With the more cautious and solid this fact, like hi_ndless flitting, did the mysterious gentleman no good.
  • Lastly, he was a man who told the kind of adventures which win a ma_dmiration, but not respect. They came out of queer places, where a good ma_ould scarcely find himself, out of opium dens and gambling hells; they ha_he heat of the thieves' kitchens or smelled of a strange smoke from canniba_ncantations. These are the kind of stories which discredit a person almos_qually whether they are believed or no. If Keith's tales were false he was _iar; if they were true he had had, at any rate, every opportunity of being _camp.
  • He had just left the room in which I sat with Basil Grant and his brothe_upert, the voluble amateur detective. And as I say was invariably the case, we were all talking about him. Rupert Grant was a clever young fellow, but h_ad that tendency which youth and cleverness, when sharply combined, so ofte_roduce, a somewhat extravagant scepticism. He saw doubt and guilt everywhere, and it was meat and drink to him. I had often got irritated with this boyis_ncredulity of his, but on this particular occasion I am bound to say that _hought him so obviously right that I was astounded at Basil's opposing him, however banteringly.
  • I could swallow a good deal, being naturally of a simple turn, but I could no_wallow Lieutenant Keith's autobiography.
  • "You don't seriously mean, Basil," I said, "that you think that that fello_eally did go as a stowaway with Nansen and pretend to be the Mad Mullah and—"
  • "He has one fault," said Basil thoughtfully, "or virtue, as you may happen t_egard it. He tells the truth in too exact and bald a style; he is to_eracious."
  • "Oh! if you are going to be paradoxical," said Rupert contemptuously, "be _it funnier than that. Say, for instance, that he has lived all his life i_ne ancestral manor."
  • "No, he's extremely fond of change of scene," replied Basil dispassionately,
  • "and of living in odd places. That doesn't prevent his chief trait bein_erbal exactitude. What you people don't understand is that telling a thin_rudely and coarsely as it happened makes it sound frightfully strange. Th_ort of things Keith recounts are not the sort of things that a man would mak_p to cover himself with honour; they are too absurd. But they are the sort o_hings that a man would do if he were sufficiently filled with the soul o_kylarking."
  • "So far from paradox," said his brother, with something rather like a sneer,
  • "you seem to be going in for journalese proverbs. Do you believe that truth i_tranger than fiction?"
  • "Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction," said Basil placidly. "Fo_iction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it."
  • "Well, your lieutenant's truth is stranger, if it is truth, than anything _ver heard of," said Rupert, relapsing into flippancy. "Do you, on your soul, believe in all that about the shark and the camera?"
  • "I believe Keith's words," answered the other. "He is an honest man."
  • "I should like to question a regiment of his landladies," said Ruper_ynically.
  • "I must say, I think you can hardly regard him as unimpeachable merely i_imself," I said mildly; "his mode of life—"
  • Before I could complete the sentence the door was flung open and Drummon_eith appeared again on the threshold, his white Panama on his head.
  • "I say, Grant," he said, knocking off his cigarette ash against the door,
  • "I've got no money in the world till next April. Could you lend me a hundre_ounds? There's a good chap."
  • Rupert and I looked at each other in an ironical silence. Basil, who wa_itting by his desk, swung the chair round idly on its screw and picked up _uill-pen.
  • "Shall I cross it?" he asked, opening a cheque-book.
  • "Really," began Rupert, with a rather nervous loudness, "since Lieutenan_eith has seen fit to make this suggestion to Basil before his family, I—"
  • "Here you are, Ugly," said Basil, fluttering a cheque in the direction of th_uite nonchalant officer. "Are you in a hurry?"
  • "Yes," replied Keith, in a rather abrupt way. "As a matter of fact I want i_ow. I want to see my—er—business man."
  • Rupert was eyeing him sarcastically, and I could see that it was on the tip o_is tongue to say, inquiringly, "Receiver of stolen goods, perhaps." What h_id say was:
  • "A business man? That's rather a general description, Lieutenant Keith."
  • Keith looked at him sharply, and then said, with something rather like ill- temper:
  • "He's a thingum-my-bob, a house-agent, say. I'm going to see him."
  • "Oh, you're going to see a house-agent, are you?" said Rupert Grant grimly.
  • "Do you know, Mr Keith, I think I should very much like to go with you?"
  • Basil shook with his soundless laughter. Lieutenant Keith started a little; his brow blackened sharply.
  • "I beg your pardon," he said. "What did you say?"
  • Rupert's face had been growing from stage to stage of ferocious irony, and h_nswered:
  • "I was saying that I wondered whether you would mind our strolling along wit_ou to this house-agent's."
  • The visitor swung his stick with a sudden whirling violence.
  • "Oh, in God's name, come to my house-agent's! Come to my bedroom. Look unde_y bed. Examine my dust-bin. Come along!" And with a furious energy which too_way our breath he banged his way out of the room.
  • Rupert Grant, his restless blue eyes dancing with his detective excitement, soon shouldered alongside him, talking to him with that transparen_amaraderie which he imagined to be appropriate from the disguised policema_o the disguised criminal. His interpretation was certainly corroborated b_ne particular detail, the unmistakable unrest, annoyance, and nervousness o_he man with whom he walked. Basil and I tramped behind, and it was no_ecessary for us to tell each other that we had both noticed this.
  • Lieutenant Drummond Keith led us through very extraordinary and unpromisin_eighbourhoods in the search for his remarkable house-agent. Neither of th_rothers Grant failed to notice this fact. As the streets grew closer and mor_rooked and the roofs lower and the gutters grosser with mud, a darke_uriosity deepened on the brows of Basil, and the figure of Rupert seen fro_ehind seemed to fill the street with a gigantic swagger of success. A_ength, at the end of the fourth or fifth lean grey street in that steril_istrict, we came suddenly to a halt, the mysterious lieutenant looking onc_ore about him with a sort of sulky desperation. Above a row of shutters and _oor, all indescribably dingy in appearance and in size scarce sufficient eve_or a penny toyshop, ran the inscription: "P. Montmorency, House-Agent."
  • "This is the office of which I spoke," said Keith, in a cutting voice. "Wil_ou wait here a moment, or does your astonishing tenderness about my welfar_ead you to wish to overhear everything I have to say to my business adviser?"
  • Rupert's face was white and shaking with excitement; nothing on earth woul_ave induced him now to have abandoned his prey.
  • "If you will excuse me," he said, clenching his hands behind his back, "_hink I should feel myself justified in—"
  • "Oh! Come along in," exploded the lieutenant. He made the same gesture o_avage surrender. And he slammed into the office, the rest of us at his heels.
  • P. Montmorency, House-Agent, was a solitary old gentleman sitting behind _are brown counter. He had an egglike head, froglike jaws, and a grey hair_ringe of aureole round the lower part of his face; the whole combined with _eddish, aquiline nose. He wore a shabby black frock-coat, a sort of semi- clerical tie worn at a very unclerical angle, and looked, generally speaking, about as unlike a house-agent as anything could look, short of something lik_ sandwich man or a Scotch Highlander.
  • We stood inside the room for fully forty seconds, and the odd old gentlema_id not look at us. Neither, to tell the truth, odd as he was, did we look a_im. Our eyes were fixed, where his were fixed, upon something that wa_rawling about on the counter in front of him. It was a ferret.
  • The silence was broken by Rupert Grant. He spoke in that sweet and steel_oice which he reserved for great occasions and practised for hours togethe_n his bedroom. He said:
  • "Mr Montmorency, I think?"
  • The old gentleman started, lifted his eyes with a bland bewilderment, picke_p the ferret by the neck, stuffed it alive into his trousers pocket, smile_pologetically, and said:
  • "Sir."
  • "You are a house-agent, are you not?" asked Rupert.
  • To the delight of that criminal investigator, Mr Montmorency's eyes wandere_nquietly towards Lieutenant Keith, the only man present that he knew.
  • "A house-agent," cried Rupert again, bringing out the word as if it were
  • "burglar'.
  • "Yes … oh, yes," said the man, with a quavering and almost coquettish smile.
  • "I am a house-agent … oh, yes."
  • "Well, I think," said Rupert, with a sardonic sleekness, "that Lieutenan_eith wants to speak to you. We have come in by his request."
  • Lieutenant Keith was lowering gloomily, and now he spoke.
  • "I have come, Mr Montmorency, about that house of mine."
  • "Yes, sir," said Montmorency, spreading his fingers on the flat counter. "It'_ll ready, sir. I've attended to all your suggestions er—about the br—"
  • "Right," cried Keith, cutting the word short with the startling neatness of _unshot. "We needn't bother about all that. If you've done what I told you, all right."
  • And he turned sharply towards the door.
  • Mr Montmorency, House-Agent, presented a picture of pathos. After stammering _oment he said: "Excuse me … Mr Keith … there was another matter … about whic_ wasn't quite sure. I tried to get all the heating apparatus possible unde_he circumstances … but in winter … at that elevation … "
  • "Can't expect much, eh?" said the lieutenant, cutting in with the same sudde_kill. "No, of course not. That's all right, Montmorency. There can't be an_ore difficulties," and he put his hand on the handle of the door.
  • "I think," said Rupert Grant, with a satanic suavity, "that Mr Montmorency ha_omething further to say to you, lieutenant."
  • "Only," said the house-agent, in desperation, "what about the birds?"
  • "I beg your pardon," said Rupert, in a general blank.
  • "What about the birds?" said the house-agent doggedly.
  • Basil, who had remained throughout the procedings in a state of Napoleoni_alm, which might be more accurately described as a state of Napoleoni_tupidity, suddenly lifted his leonine head.
  • "Before you go, Lieutenant Keith," he said. "Come now. Really, what about th_irds?"
  • "I'll take care of them," said Lieutenant Keith, still with his long bac_urned to us; "they shan't suffer."
  • "Thank you, sir, thank you," cried the incomprehensible house-agent, with a_ir of ecstasy. "You'll excuse my concern, sir. You know I'm wild on wil_nimals. I'm as wild as any of them on that. Thank you, sir. But there'_nother thing… "
  • The lieutenant, with his back turned to us, exploded with an indescribabl_augh and swung round to face us. It was a laugh, the purport of which wa_irect and essential, and yet which one cannot exactly express. As near as i_aid anything, verbally speaking, it said: "Well, if you must spoil it, yo_ust. But you don't know what you're spoiling."
  • "There is another thing," continued Mr Montmorency weakly. "Of course, if yo_on't want to be visited you'll paint the house green, but—"
  • "Green!" shouted Keith. "Green! Let it be green or nothing. I won't have _ouse of another colour. Green!" and before we could realize anything the doo_ad banged between us and the street.
  • Rupert Grant seemed to take a little time to collect himself; but he spok_efore the echoes of the door died away.
  • "Your client, Lieutenant Keith, appears somewhat excited," he said. "What i_he matter with him? Is he unwell?"
  • "Oh, I should think not," said Mr Montmorency, in some confusion. "Th_egotiations have been somewhat difficult—the house is rather—"
  • "Green," said Rupert calmly. "That appears to be a very important point. I_ust be rather green. May I ask you, Mr Montmorency, before I rejoin m_ompanion outside, whether, in your business, it is usual to ask for houses b_heir colour? Do clients write to a house-agent asking for a pink house or _lue house? Or, to take another instance, for a green house?"
  • "Only," said Montmorency, trembling, "only to be inconspicuous."
  • Rupert had his ruthless smile. "Can you tell me any place on earth in which _reen house would be inconspicuous?"
  • The house-agent was fidgeting nervously in his pocket. Slowly drawing out _ouple of lizards and leaving them to run on the counter, he said:
  • "No; I can't."
  • "You can't suggest an explanation?"
  • "No," said Mr Montmorency, rising slowly and yet in such a way as to suggest _udden situation, "I can't. And may I, as a busy man, be excused if I ask you, gentlemen, if you have any demand to make of me in connection with m_usiness. What kind of house would you desire me to get for you, sir?"
  • He opened his blank blue eyes on Rupert, who seemed for the second staggered.
  • Then he recovered himself with perfect common sense and answered:
  • "I am sorry, Mr Montmorency. The fascination of your remarks has undul_elayed us from joining our friend outside. Pray excuse my apparen_mpertinence."
  • "Not at all, sir," said the house-agent, taking a South American spider idl_rom his waistcoat pocket and letting it climb up the slope of his desk. "No_t all, sir. I hope you will favour me again."
  • Rupert Grant dashed out of the office in a gust of anger, anxious to fac_ieutenant Keith. He was gone. The dull, starlit street was deserted.
  • "What do you say now?" cried Rupert to his brother. His brother said nothin_ow.
  • We all three strode down the street in silence, Rupert feverish, myself dazed, Basil, to all appearance, merely dull. We walked through grey street afte_rey street, turning corners, traversing squares, scarcely meeting anyone, except occasional drunken knots of two or three.
  • In one small street, however, the knots of two or three began abruptly t_hicken into knots of five or six and then into great groups and then into _rowd. The crowd was stirring very slightly. But anyone with a knowledge o_he eternal populace knows that if the outside rim of a crowd stirs ever s_lightly it means that there is madness in the heart and core of the mob. I_oon became evident that something really important had happened in the centr_f this excitement. We wormed our way to the front, with the cunning which i_nown only to cockneys, and once there we soon learned the nature of th_ifficulty. There had been a brawl concerned with some six men, and one o_hem lay almost dead on the stones of the street. Of the other four, al_nteresting matters were, as far as we were concerned, swallowed up in on_tupendous fact. One of the four survivors of the brutal and perhaps fata_cuffle was the immaculate Lieutenant Keith, his clothes torn to ribbons, hi_yes blazing, blood on his knuckles. One other thing, however, pointed at hi_n a worse manner. A short sword, or very long knife, had been drawn out o_is elegant walking-stick, and lay in front of him upon the stones. It di_ot, however, appear to be bloody.
  • The police had already pushed into the centre with their ponderou_mnipotence, and even as they did so, Rupert Grant sprang forward with hi_ncontrollable and intolerable secret.
  • "That is the man, constable," he shouted, pointing at the battered lieutenant.
  • "He is a suspicious character. He did the murder."
  • "There's been no murder done, sir," said the policeman, with his automati_ivility. "The poor man's only hurt. I shall only be able to take the name_nd addresses of the men in the scuffle and have a good eye kept on them."
  • "Have a good eye kept on that one," said Rupert, pale to the lips, an_ointing to the ragged Keith.
  • "All right, sir," said the policeman unemotionally, and went the round of th_eople present, collecting the addresses. When he had completed his task th_usk had fallen and most of the people not immediately connected with th_xamination had gone away. He still found, however, one eager-faced strange_ingering on the outskirts of the affair. It was Rupert Grant.
  • "Constable," he said, "I have a very particular reason for asking you _uestion. Would you mind telling me whether that military fellow who droppe_is sword-stick in the row gave you an address or not?"
  • "Yes, sir," said the policeman, after a reflective pause; "yes, he gave me hi_ddress."
  • "My name is Rupert Grant," said that individual, with some pomp. "I hav_ssisted the police on more than one occasion. I wonder whether you would tel_e, as a special favour, what address?"
  • The constable looked at him.
  • "Yes," he said slowly, "if you like. His address is: The Elms, Buxton Common, near Purley, Surrey."
  • "Thank you," said Rupert, and ran home through the gathering night as fast a_is legs could carry him, repeating the address to himself.
  • Rupert Grant generally came down late in a rather lordly way to breakfast; h_ontrived, I don't know how, to achieve always the attitude of the indulge_ounger brother. Next morning, however, when Basil and I came down we foun_im ready and restless.
  • "Well," he said sharply to his brother almost before we sat down to the meal.
  • "What do you think of your Drummond Keith now?"
  • "What do I think of him?" inquired Basil slowly. "I don't think anything o_im."
  • "I'm glad to hear it," said Rupert, buttering his toast with an energy tha_as somewhat exultant. "I thought you'd come round to my view, but I own I wa_tartled at your not seeing it from the beginning. The man is a translucen_iar and knave."
  • "I think," said Basil, in the same heavy monotone as before, "that I did no_ake myself clear. When I said that I thought nothing of him I mean_rammatically what I said. I meant that I did not think about him; that he di_ot occupy my mind. You, however, seem to me to think a lot of him, since yo_hink him a knave. I should say he was glaringly good myself."
  • "I sometimes think you talk paradox for its own sake," said Rupert, breakin_n egg with unnecessary sharpness. "What the deuce is the sense of it? Here'_ man whose original position was, by our common agreement, dubious. He's _anderer, a teller of tall tales, a man who doesn't conceal his acquaintanc_ith all the blackest and bloodiest scenes on earth. We take the trouble t_ollow him to one of his appointments, and if ever two human beings wer_lotting together and lying to every one else, he and that impossible house- agent were doing it. We followed him home, and the very same night he is i_he thick of a fatal, or nearly fatal, brawl, in which he is the only ma_rmed. Really, if this is being glaringly good, I must confess that the glar_oes not dazzle me."
  • Basil was quite unmoved. "I admit his moral goodness is of a certain kind, _uaint, perhaps a casual kind. He is very fond of change and experiment. Bu_ll the points you so ingeniously make against him are mere coincidence o_pecial pleading. It's true he didn't want to talk about his house business i_ront of us. No man would. It's true that he carries a sword-stick. Any ma_ight. It's true he drew it in the shock of a street fight. Any man would. Bu_here's nothing really dubious in all this. There's nothing to confirm—"
  • As he spoke a knock came at the door.
  • "If you please, sir," said the landlady, with an alarmed air, "there's _oliceman wants to see you."
  • "Show him in," said Basil, amid the blank silence.
  • The heavy, handsome constable who appeared at the door spoke almost as soon a_e appeared there.
  • "I think one of you gentlemen," he said, curtly but respectfully, "was presen_t the affair in Copper Street last night, and drew my attention very strongl_o a particular man."
  • Rupert half rose from his chair, with eyes like diamonds, but the constabl_ent on calmly, referring to a paper.
  • "A young man with grey hair. Had light grey clothes, very good, but torn i_he struggle. Gave his name as Drummond Keith."
  • "This is amusing," said Basil, laughing. "I was in the very act of clearin_hat poor officer's character of rather fanciful aspersions. What about him?"
  • "Well, sir," said the constable, "I took all the men's addresses and had the_ll watched. It wasn't serious enough to do more than that. All the othe_ddresses are all right. But this man Keith gave a false address. The plac_oesn't exist."
  • The breakfast table was nearly flung over as Rupert sprang up, slapping bot_is thighs.
  • "Well, by all that's good," he cried. "This is a sign from heaven."
  • "It's certainly very extraordinary," said Basil quietly, with knitted brows.
  • "It's odd the fellow should have given a false address, considering he wa_erfectly innocent in the—"
  • "Oh, you jolly old early Christian duffer," cried Rupert, in a sort o_apture, "I don't wonder you couldn't be a judge. You think every one as goo_s yourself. Isn't the thing plain enough now? A doubtful acquaintance; rowd_tories, a most suspicious conversation, mean streets, a concealed knife, _an nearly killed, and, finally, a false address. That's what we call glarin_oodness."
  • "It's certainly very extraordinary," repeated Basil. And he strolled moodil_bout the room. Then he said: "You are quite sure, constable, that there's n_istake? You got the address right, and the police have really gone to it an_ound it was a fraud?"
  • "It was very simple, sir," said the policeman, chuckling. "The place he name_as a well-known common quite near London, and our people were down there thi_orning before any of you were awake. And there's no such house. In fact, there are hardly any houses at all. Though it is so near London, it's a blan_oor with hardly five trees on it, to say nothing of Christians. Oh, no, sir, the address was a fraud right enough. He was a clever rascal, and chose one o_hose scraps of lost England that people know nothing about. Nobody could sa_ff-hand that there was not a particular house dropped somewhere about th_eath. But as a fact, there isn't."
  • Basil's face during this sensible speech had been growing darker and darke_ith a sort of desperate sagacity. He was cornered almost for the first tim_ince I had known him; and to tell the truth I rather wondered at the almos_hildish obstinacy which kept him so close to his original prejudice in favou_f the wildly questionable lieutenant. At length he said:
  • "You really searched the common? And the address was really not known in th_istrict—by the way, what was the address?"
  • The constable selected one of his slips of paper and consulted it, but befor_e could speak Rupert Grant, who was leaning in the window in a perfec_osture of the quiet and triumphant detective, struck in with the sharp an_uave voice he loved so much to use.
  • "Why, I can tell you that, Basil," he said graciously as he idly plucke_eaves from a plant in the window. "I took the precaution to get this man'_ddress from the constable last night."
  • "And what was it?" asked his brother gruffly.
  • "The constable will correct me if I am wrong," said Rupert, looking sweetly a_he ceiling. "It was: The Elms, Buxton Common, near Purley, Surrey."
  • "Right, sir," said the policeman, laughing and folding up his papers.
  • There was a silence, and the blue eyes of Basil looked blindly for a fe_econds into the void. Then his head fell back in his chair so suddenly that _tarted up, thinking him ill. But before I could move further his lips ha_lown apart (I can use no other phrase) and a peal of gigantic laughter struc_nd shook the ceiling— laughter that shook the laughter, laughter redoubled, laughter incurable, laughter that could not stop.
  • Two whole minutes afterwards it was still unended; Basil was ill wit_aughter; but still he laughed. The rest of us were by this time ill almos_ith terror.
  • "Excuse me," said the insane creature, getting at last to his feet. "I a_wfully sorry. It is horribly rude. And stupid, too. And also unpractical, because we have not much time to lose if we're to get down to that place. Th_rain service is confoundedly bad, as I happen to know. It's quite out o_roportion to the comparatively small distance."
  • "Get down to that place?" I repeated blankly. "Get down to what place?"
  • "I have forgotten its name," said Basil vaguely, putting his hands in hi_ockets as he rose. "Something Common near Purley. Has any one got _imetable?"
  • "You don't seriously mean," cried Rupert, who had been staring in a sort o_onfusion of emotions. "You don't mean that you want to go to Buxton Common, do you? You can't mean that!"
  • "Why shouldn't I go to Buxton Common?" asked Basil, smiling.
  • "Why should you?" said his brother, catching hold again restlessly of th_lant in the window and staring at the speaker.
  • "To find our friend, the lieutenant, of course," said Basil Grant. "I though_ou wanted to find him?"
  • Rupert broke a branch brutally from the plant and flung it impatiently on th_loor. "And in order to find him," he said, "you suggest the admirabl_xpedient of going to the only place on the habitable earth where we know h_an't be."
  • The constable and I could not avoid breaking into a kind of assenting laugh, and Rupert, who had family eloquence, was encouraged to go on with _eiterated gesture:
  • "He may be in Buckingham Palace; he may be sitting astride the cross of S_aul's; he may be in jail (which I think most likely); he may be in the Grea_heel; he may be in my pantry; he may be in your store cupboard; but out o_ll the innumerable points of space, there is only one where he has just bee_ystematically looked for and where we know that he is not to be found—an_hat, if I understand you rightly, is where you want us to go."
  • "Exactly," said Basil calmly, getting into his great-coat; "I thought yo_ight care to accompany me. If not, of course, make yourselves jolly here til_ come back."
  • It is our nature always to follow vanishing things and value them if the_eally show a resolution to depart. We all followed Basil, and I cannot sa_hy, except that he was a vanishing thing, that he vanished decisively wit_is great-coat and his stick. Rupert ran after him with a considerable flurr_f rationality.
  • "My dear chap," he cried, "do you really mean that you see any good in goin_own to this ridiculous scrub, where there is nothing but beaten tracks and _ew twisted trees, simply because it was the first place that came into _owdy lieutenant's head when he wanted to give a lying reference in a scrape?"
  • "Yes," said Basil, taking out his watch, "and, what's worse, we've lost th_rain."
  • He paused a moment and then added: "As a matter of fact, I think we may jus_s well go down later in the day. I have some writing to do, and I think yo_old me, Rupert, that you thought of going to the Dulwich Gallery. I wa_ather too impetuous. Very likely he wouldn't be in. But if we get down by th_.15, which gets to Purley about 6, I expect we shall just catch him."
  • "Catch him!" cried his brother, in a kind of final anger. "I wish we could.
  • Where the deuce shall we catch him now?"
  • "I keep forgetting the name of the common," said Basil, as he buttoned up hi_oat. "The Elms—what is it? Buxton Common, near Purley. That's where we shal_ind him."
  • "But there is no such place," groaned Rupert; but he followed his brothe_ownstairs.
  • We all followed him. We snatched our hats from the hat-stand and our stick_rom the umbrella-stand; and why we followed him we did not and do not know.
  • But we always followed him, whatever was the meaning of the fact, whatever wa_he nature of his mastery. And the strange thing was that we followed him th_ore completely the more nonsensical appeared the thing which he said. A_ottom, I believe, if he had risen from our breakfast table and said: "I a_oing to find the Holy Pig with Ten Tails," we should have followed him to th_nd of the world.
  • I don't know whether this mystical feeling of mine about Basil on thi_ccasion has got any of the dark and cloudy colour, so to speak, of th_trange journey that we made the same evening. It was already very dens_wilight when we struck southward from Purley. Suburbs and things on th_ondon border may be, in most cases, commonplace and comfortable. But if eve_y any chance they really are empty solitudes they are to the human spiri_ore desolate and dehumanized than any Yorkshire moors or Highland hills, because the suddenness with which the traveller drops into that silence ha_omething about it as of evil elf-land. It seems to be one of the ragge_uburbs of the cosmos half-forgotten by God—such a place was Buxton Common, near Purley.
  • There was certainly a sort of grey futility in the landscape itself. But i_as enormously increased by the sense of grey futility in our expedition. Th_racts of grey turf looked useless, the occasional wind-stricken trees looke_seless, but we, the human beings, more useless than the hopeless turf or th_dle trees. We were maniacs akin to the foolish landscape, for we were come t_hase the wild goose which has led men and left men in bogs from th_eginning. We were three dazed men under the captaincy of a madman going t_ook for a man whom we knew was not there in a house that had no existence. _ivid sunset seemed to look at us with a sort of sickly smile before it died.
  • Basil went on in front with his coat collar turned up, looking in the gloo_ather like a grotesque Napoleon. We crossed swell after swell of the wind_ommon in increasing darkness and entire silence. Suddenly Basil stopped an_urned to us, his hands in his pockets. Through the dusk I could just detec_hat he wore a broad grin as of comfortable success.
  • "Well," he cried, taking his heavily gloved hands out of his pockets an_lapping them together, "here we are at last."
  • The wind swirled sadly over the homeless heath; two desolate elms rocked abov_s in the sky like shapeless clouds of grey. There was not a sign of man o_east to the sullen circle of the horizon, and in the midst of that wildernes_asil Grant stood rubbing his hands with the air of an innkeeper standing a_n open door.
  • "How jolly it is," he cried, "to get back to civilization. That notion tha_ivilization isn't poetical is a civilised delusion. Wait till you've reall_ost yourself in nature, among the devilish woodlands and the cruel flowers.
  • Then you'll know that there's no star like the red star of man that he light_n his hearthstone; no river like the red river of man, the good red wine, which you, Mr Rupert Grant, if I have any knowledge of you, will be drinkin_n two or three minutes in enormous quantities."
  • Rupert and I exchanged glances of fear. Basil went on heartily, as the win_ied in the dreary trees.
  • "You'll find our host a much more simple kind of fellow in his own house. _id when I visited him when he lived in the cabin at Yarmouth, and again i_he loft at the city warehouse. He's really a very good fellow. But hi_reatest virtue remains what I said originally."
  • "What do you mean?" I asked, finding his speech straying towards a sort o_anity. "What is his greatest virtue?"
  • "His greatest virtue," replied Basil, "is that he always tells the litera_ruth."
  • "Well, really," cried Rupert, stamping about between cold and anger, an_lapping himself like a cabman, "he doesn't seem to have been very literal o_ruthful in this case, nor you either. Why the deuce, may I ask, have yo_rought us out to this infernal place?"
  • "He was too truthful, I confess," said Basil, leaning against the tree; "to_ardly veracious, too severely accurate. He should have indulged in a littl_ore suggestiveness and legitimate romance. But come, it's time we went in. W_hall be late for dinner."
  • Rupert whispered to me with a white face:
  • "Is it a hallucination, do you think? Does he really fancy he sees a house?"
  • "I suppose so," I said. Then I added aloud, in what was meant to be a cheer_nd sensible voice, but which sounded in my ears almost as strange as th_ind:
  • "Come, come, Basil, my dear fellow. Where do you want us to go?"
  • "Why, up here," cried Basil, and with a bound and a swing he was above ou_eads, swarming up the grey column of the colossal tree.
  • "Come up, all of you," he shouted out of the darkness, with the voice of _choolboy. "Come up. You'll be late for dinner."
  • The two great elms stood so close together that there was scarcely a yar_nywhere, and in some places not more than a foot, between them. Thu_ccasional branches and even bosses and boles formed a series of foothold_hat almost amounted to a rude natural ladder. They must, I supposed, hav_een some sport of growth, Siamese twins of vegetation.
  • Why we did it I cannot think; perhaps, as I have said, the mystery of th_aste and dark had brought out and made primary something wholly mystical i_asil's supremacy. But we only felt that there was a giant's staircase goin_omewhere, perhaps to the stars; and the victorious voice above called to u_ut of heaven. We hoisted ourselves up after him.
  • Half-way up some cold tongue of the night air struck and sobered me suddenly.
  • The hypnotism of the madman above fell from me, and I saw the whole map of ou_illy actions as clearly as if it were printed. I saw three modern men i_lack coats who had begun with a perfectly sensible suspicion of a doubtfu_dventurer and who had ended, God knows how, half-way up a naked tree on _aked moorland, far from that adventurer and all his works, that adventure_ho was at that moment, in all probability, laughing at us in some dirty Soh_estaurant. He had plenty to laugh at us about, and no doubt he was laughin_is loudest; but when I thought what his laughter would be if he knew where w_ere at that moment, I nearly let go of the tree and fell.
  • "Swinburne," said Rupert suddenly, from above, "what are we doing? Let's ge_own again," and by the mere sound of his voice I knew that he too felt th_hock of wakening to reality.
  • "We can't leave poor Basil," I said. "Can't you call to him or get hold of hi_y the leg?"
  • "He's too far ahead," answered Rupert; "he's nearly at the top of the beastl_hing. Looking for Lieutenant Keith in the rooks' nests, I suppose."
  • We were ourselves by this time far on our frantic vertical journey. The might_runks were beginning to sway and shake slightly in the wind. Then I looke_own and saw something which made me feel that we were far from the world in _ense and to a degree that I cannot easily describe. I saw that the almos_traight lines of the tall elm trees diminished a little in perspective a_hey fell. I was used to seeing parallel lines taper towards the sky. But t_ee them taper towards the earth made me feel lost in space, like a fallin_tar.
  • "Can nothing be done to stop Basil?" I called out.
  • "No," answered my fellow climber. "He's too far up. He must get to the top, and when he finds nothing but wind and leaves he may go sane again. Hark a_im above there; you can just hear him talking to himself."
  • "Perhaps he's talking to us," I said.
  • "No," said Rupert, "he'd shout if he was. I've never known him to talk t_imself before; I'm afraid he really is bad tonight; it's a known sign of th_rain going."
  • "Yes," I said sadly, and listened. Basil's voice certainly was sounding abov_s, and not by any means in the rich and riotous tones in which he had haile_s before. He was speaking quietly, and laughing every now and then, up ther_mong the leaves and stars.
  • After a silence mingled with this murmur, Rupert Grant suddenly said, "M_od!" with a violent voice.
  • "What's the matter—are you hurt?" I cried, alarmed.
  • "No. Listen to Basil," said the other in a very strange voice. "He's no_alking to himself."
  • "Then he is talking to us," I cried.
  • "No," said Rupert simply, "he's talking to somebody else."
  • Great branches of the elm loaded with leaves swung about us in a sudden burs_f wind, but when it died down I could still hear the conversational voic_bove. I could hear two voices.
  • Suddenly from aloft came Basil's boisterous hailing voice as before: "Come up, you fellows. Here's Lieutenant Keith."
  • And a second afterwards came the half-American voice we had heard in ou_hambers more than once. It called out:
  • "Happy to see you, gentlemen; pray come in."
  • Out of a hole in an enormous dark egg-shaped thing, pendent in the branche_ike a wasps' nest, was protruding the pale face and fierce moustache of th_ieutenant, his teeth shining with that slightly Southern air that belonged t_im.
  • Somehow or other, stunned and speechless, we lifted ourselves heavily into th_pening. We fell into the full glow of a lamp-lit, cushioned, tiny room, wit_ circular wall lined with books, a circular table, and a circular seat aroun_t. At this table sat three people. One was Basil, who, in the instant afte_lighting there, had fallen into an attitude of marmoreal ease as if he ha_een there from boyhood; he was smoking a cigar with a slow pleasure. Th_econd was Lieutenant Drummond Keith, who looked happy also, but feverish an_oubtful compared with his granite guest. The third was the little bald-heade_ouse-agent with the wild whiskers, who called himself Montmorency. Th_pears, the green umbrella, and the cavalry sword hung in parallels on th_all. The sealed jar of strange wine was on the mantelpiece, the enormou_ifle in the corner. In the middle of the table was a magnum of champagne.
  • Glasses were already set for us.
  • The wind of the night roared far below us, like an ocean at the foot of _ight-house. The room stirred slightly, as a cabin might in a mild sea.
  • Our glasses were filled, and we still sat there dazed and dumb. Then Basi_poke.
  • "You seem still a little doubtful, Rupert. Surely there is no further questio_bout the cold veracity of our injured host."
  • "I don't quite grasp it all," said Rupert, blinking still in the sudden glare.
  • "Lieutenant Keith said his address was—"
  • "It's really quite right, sir," said Keith, with an open smile. "The bobb_sked me where I lived. And I said, quite truthfully, that I lived in the elm_n Buxton Common, near Purley. So I do. This gentleman, Mr Montmorency, whom _hink you have met before, is an agent for houses of this kind. He has _pecial line in arboreal villas. It's being kept rather quiet at present, because the people who want these houses don't want them to get too common.
  • But it's just the sort of thing a fellow like myself, racketing about in al_orts of queer corners of London, naturally knocks up against."
  • "Are you really an agent for arboreal villas?" asked Rupert eagerly, recovering his ease with the romance of reality.
  • Mr Montmorency, in his embarrassment, fingered one of his pockets an_ervously pulled out a snake, which crawled about the table.
  • "W-well, yes, sir," he said. "The fact was—er—my people wanted me very much t_o into the house-agency business. But I never cared myself for anything bu_atural history and botany and things like that. My poor parents have bee_ead some years now, but—naturally I like to respect their wishes. And _hought somehow that an arboreal villa agency was a sort of—of compromis_etween being a botanist and being a house-agent."
  • Rupert could not help laughing. "Do you have much custom?" he asked.
  • "N-not much," replied Mr Montmorency, and then he glanced at Keith, who was (_m convinced) his only client. "But what there is—very select."
  • "My dear friends," said Basil, puffing his cigar, "always remember two facts.
  • The first is that though when you are guessing about any one who is sane, th_anest thing is the most likely; when you are guessing about any one who is, like our host, insane, the maddest thing is the most likely. The second is t_emember that very plain literal fact always seems fantastic. If Keith ha_aken a little brick box of a house in Clapham with nothing but railings i_ront of it and had written 'The Elms' over it, you wouldn't have though_here was anything fantastic about that. Simply because it was a grea_laring, swaggering lie you would have believed it."
  • "Drink your wine, gentlemen," said Keith, laughing, "for this confounded win_ill upset it."
  • We drank, and as we did so, although the hanging house, by a cunnin_echanism, swung only slightly, we knew that the great head of the elm tre_wayed in the sky like a stricken thistle.