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:
"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
"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.