Sir Dominick Ferrand by Henry James
"There are several objections to it, but I'll take it if you'll alter
it," Mr. Locket's rather curt note had said; and there was no waste
of words in the postscript in which he had added: "If you'll come in
and see me, I'll show you what I mean." This communication had
reached Jersey Villas by the first post, and Peter Baron had scarcely
swallowed his leathery muffin before he got into motion to obey the
editorial behest. He knew that such precipitation looked eager, and
he had no desire to look eager--it was not in his interest; but how
could he maintain a godlike calm, principled though he was in favour
of it, the first time one of the great magazines had accepted, even
with a cruel reservation, a specimen of his ardent young genius?
It was not till, like a child with a sea-shell at his ear, he began
to be aware of the great roar of the "underground," that, in his
third-class carriage, the cruelty of the reservation penetrated, with
the taste of acrid smoke, to his inner sense. It was really
degrading to be eager in the face of having to "alter." Peter Baron
tried to figure to himself at that moment that he was not flying to
betray the extremity of his need, but hurrying to fight for some of
those passages of superior boldness which were exactly what the
conductor of the "Promiscuous Review" would be sure to be down upon.
He made believe--as if to the greasy fellow-passenger opposite--that
he felt indignant; but he saw that to the small round eye of this
still more downtrodden brother he represented selfish success. He
would have liked to linger in the conception that he had been
"approached" by the Promiscuous; but whatever might be thought in the
office of that periodical of some of his flights of fancy, there was
no want of vividness in his occasional suspicion that he passed there
for a familiar bore. The only thing that was clearly flattering was
the fact that the Promiscuous rarely published fiction. He should
therefore be associated with a deviation from a solemn habit, and
that would more than make up to him for a phrase in one of Mr.
Locket's inexorable earlier notes, a phrase which still rankled,
about his showing no symptom of the faculty really creative. "You
don't seem able to keep a character together," this pitiless monitor
had somewhere else remarked. Peter Baron, as he sat in his corner
while the train stopped, considered, in the befogged gaslight, the
bookstall standard of literature and asked himself whose character
had fallen to pieces now. Tormenting indeed had always seemed to him
such a fate as to have the creative head without the creative hand.
It should be mentioned, however, that before he started on his
mission to Mr. Locket his attention had been briefly engaged by an
incident occurring at Jersey Villas. On leaving the house (he lived
at No. 3, the door of which stood open to a small front garden), he
encountered the lady who, a week before, had taken possession of the
rooms on the ground floor, the "parlours" of Mrs. Bundy's
terminology. He had heard her, and from his window, two or three
times, had even seen her pass in and out, and this observation had
created in his mind a vague prejudice in her favour. Such a
prejudice, it was true, had been subjected to a violent test; it had
been fairly apparent that she had a light step, but it was still less
to be overlooked that she had a cottage piano. She had furthermore a
little boy and a very sweet voice, of which Peter Baron had caught
the accent, not from her singing (for she only played), but from her
gay admonitions to her child, whom she occasionally allowed to amuse
himself--under restrictions very publicly enforced--in the tiny black
patch which, as a forecourt to each house, was held, in the humble
row, to be a feature. Jersey Villas stood in pairs, semi-detached,
and Mrs. Ryves--such was the name under which the new lodger
presented herself--had been admitted to the house as confessedly
musical. Mrs. Bundy, the earnest proprietress of No. 3, who
considered her "parlours" (they were a dozen feet square), even more
attractive, if possible, than the second floor with which Baron had
had to content himself--Mrs. Bundy, who reserved the drawing-room for
a casual dressmaking business, had threshed out the subject of the
new lodger in advance with our young man, reminding him that her
affection for his own person was a proof that, other things being
equal, she positively preferred tenants who were clever.
This was the case with Mrs. Ryves; she had satisfied Mrs. Bundy that
she was not a simple strummer. Mrs. Bundy admitted to Peter Baron
that, for herself, she had a weakness for a pretty tune, and Peter
could honestly reply that his ear was equally sensitive. Everything
would depend on the "touch" of their inmate. Mrs. Ryves's piano
would blight his existence if her hand should prove heavy or her
selections vulgar; but if she played agreeable things and played them
in an agreeable way she would render him rather a service while he
smoked the pipe of "form." Mrs. Bundy, who wanted to let her rooms,
guaranteed on the part of the stranger a first-class talent, and Mrs.
Ryves, who evidently knew thoroughly what she was about, had not
falsified this somewhat rash prediction. She never played in the
morning, which was Baron's working-time, and he found himself
listening with pleasure at other hours to her discreet and melancholy
strains. He really knew little about music, and the only criticism
he would have made of Mrs. Ryves's conception of it was that she
seemed devoted to the dismal. It was not, however, that these
strains were not pleasant to him; they floated up, on the contrary,
as a sort of conscious response to some of his broodings and doubts.
Harmony, therefore, would have reigned supreme had it not been for
the singularly bad taste of No. 4. Mrs. Ryves's piano was on the
free side of the house and was regarded by Mrs. Bundy as open to no
objection but that of their own gentleman, who was so reasonable. As
much, however, could not be said of the gentleman of No. 4, who had
not even Mr. Baron's excuse of being "littery"(he kept a bull-terrier
and had five hats--the street could count them), and whom, if you had
listened to Mrs. Bundy, you would have supposed to be divided from
the obnoxious instrument by walls and corridors, obstacles and
intervals, of massive structure and fabulous extent. This gentleman
had taken up an attitude which had now passed into the phase of
correspondence and compromise; but it was the opinion of the
immediate neighbourhood that he had not a leg to stand upon, and on
whatever subject the sentiment of Jersey Villas might have been
vague, it was not so on the rights and the wrongs of landladies.
Mrs. Ryves's little boy was in the garden as Peter Baron issued from
the house, and his mother appeared to have come out for a moment,
bareheaded, to see that he was doing no harm. She was discussing
with him the responsibility that he might incur by passing a piece of
string round one of the iron palings and pretending he was in command
of a "geegee"; but it happened that at the sight of the other lodger
the child was seized with a finer perception of the drivable. He
rushed at Baron with a flourish of the bridle, shouting, "Ou geegee!"
in a manner productive of some refined embarrassment to his mother.
Baron met his advance by mounting him on a shoulder and feigning to
prance an instant, so that by the time this performance was over--it
took but a few seconds--the young man felt introduced to Mrs. Ryves.
Her smile struck him as charming, and such an impression shortens
many steps. She said, "Oh, thank you--you mustn't let him worry
you"; and then as, having put down the child and raised his hat, he
was turning away, she added: "It's very good of you not to complain
of my piano."
"I particularly enjoy it--you play beautifully," said Peter Baron.
"I have to play, you see--it's all I can do. But the people next
door don't like it, though my room, you know, is not against their
wall. Therefore I thank you for letting me tell them that you, in
the house, don't find me a nuisance."
She looked gentle and bright as she spoke, and as the young man's
eyes rested on her the tolerance for which she expressed herself
indebted seemed to him the least indulgence she might count upon.
But he only laughed and said "Oh, no, you're not a nuisance!" and
felt more and more introduced.
The little boy, who was handsome, hereupon clamoured for another
ride, and she took him up herself, to moderate his transports. She
stood a moment with the child in her arms, and he put his fingers
exuberantly into her hair, so that while she smiled at Baron she
slowly, permittingly shook her head to get rid of them.
"If they really make a fuss I'm afraid I shall have to go," she went
"Oh, don't go!" Baron broke out, with a sudden expressiveness which
made his voice, as it fell upon his ear, strike him as the voice of
another. She gave a vague exclamation and, nodding slightly but not
unsociably, passed back into the house. She had made an impression
which remained till the other party to the conversation reached the
railway-station, when it was superseded by the thought of his
prospective discussion with Mr. Locket. This was a proof of the
intensity of that interest.
The aftertaste of the later conference was also intense for Peter
Baron, who quitted his editor with his manuscript under his arm. He
had had the question out with Mr. Locket, and he was in a flutter
which ought to have been a sense of triumph and which indeed at first
he succeeded in regarding in this light. Mr. Locket had had to admit
that there was an idea in his story, and that was a tribute which
Baron was in a position to make the most of. But there was also a
scene which scandalised the editorial conscience and which the young
man had promised to rewrite. The idea that Mr. Locket had been so
good as to disengage depended for clearness mainly on this scene; so
it was easy to see his objection was perverse. This inference was
probably a part of the joy in which Peter Baron walked as he carried
home a contribution it pleased him to classify as accepted. He
walked to work off his excitement and to think in what manner he
should reconstruct. He went some distance without settling that
point, and then, as it began to worry him, he looked vaguely into
shop-windows for solutions and hints. Mr. Locket lived in the depths
of Chelsea, in a little panelled, amiable house, and Baron took his
way homeward along the King's Road. There was a new amusement for
him, a fresher bustle, in a London walk in the morning; these were
hours that he habitually spent at his table, in the awkward attitude
engendered by the poor piece of furniture, one of the rickety
features of Mrs. Bundy's second floor, which had to serve as his
altar of literary sacrifice. If by exception he went out when the
day was young he noticed that life seemed younger with it; there were
livelier industries to profit by and shop-girls, often rosy, to look
at; a different air was in the streets and a chaff of traffic for the
observer of manners to catch. Above all, it was the time when poor
Baron made his purchases, which were wholly of the wandering mind;
his extravagances, for some mysterious reason, were all matutinal,
and he had a foreknowledge that if ever he should ruin himself it
would be well before noon. He felt lavish this morning, on the
strength of what the Promiscuous would do for him; he had lost sight
for the moment of what he should have to do for the Promiscuous.
Before the old bookshops and printshops, the crowded panes of the
curiosity-mongers and the desirable exhibitions of mahogany "done
up," he used, by an innocent process, to commit luxurious follies.
He refurnished Mrs. Bundy with a freedom that cost her nothing, and
lost himself in pictures of a transfigured second floor.
On this particular occasion the King's Road proved almost
unprecedentedly expensive, and indeed this occasion differed from
most others in containing the germ of real danger. For once in a way
he had a bad conscience--he felt himself tempted to pick his own
pocket. He never saw a commodious writing-table, with elbow-room and
drawers and a fair expanse of leather stamped neatly at the edge with
gilt, without being freshly reminded of Mrs. Bundy's dilapidations.
There were several such tables in the King's Road--they seemed indeed
particularly numerous today. Peter Baron glanced at them all through
the fronts of the shops, but there was one that detained him in
supreme contemplation. There was a fine assurance about it which
seemed a guarantee of masterpieces; but when at last he went in and,
just to help himself on his way, asked the impossible price, the sum
mentioned by the voluble vendor mocked at him even more than he had
feared. It was far too expensive, as he hinted, and he was on the
point of completing his comedy by a pensive retreat when the shopman
bespoke his attention for another article of the same general
character, which he described as remarkably cheap for what it was.
It was an old piece, from a sale in the country, and it had been in
stock some time; but it had got pushed out of sight in one of the
upper rooms--they contained such a wilderness of treasures--and
happened to have but just come to light. Peter suffered himself to
be conducted into an interminable dusky rear, where he presently
found himself bending over one of those square substantial desks of
old mahogany, raised, with the aid of front legs, on a sort of
retreating pedestal which is fitted with small drawers, contracted
conveniences known immemorially to the knowing as davenports. This
specimen had visibly seen service, but it had an old-time solidity
and to Peter Baron it unexpectedly appealed.
He would have said in advance that such an article was exactly what
he didn't want, but as the shopman pushed up a chair for him and he
sat down with his elbows on the gentle slope of the large, firm lid,
he felt that such a basis for literature would be half the battle.
He raised the lid and looked lovingly into the deep interior; he sat
ominously silent while his companion dropped the striking words:
"Now that's an article I personally covet!" Then when the man
mentioned the ridiculous price (they were literally giving it away),
he reflected on the economy of having a literary altar on which one
could really kindle a fire. A davenport was a compromise, but what
was all life but a compromise? He could beat down the dealer, and at
Mrs. Bundy's he had to write on an insincere card-table. After he
had sat for a minute with his nose in the friendly desk he had a
queer impression that it might tell him a secret or two--one of the
secrets of form, one of the sacrificial mysteries--though no doubt
its career had been literary only in the sense of its helping some
old lady to write invitations to dull dinners. There was a strange,
faint odour in the receptacle, as if fragrant, hallowed things had
once been put away there. When he took his head out of it he said to
the shopman: "I don't mind meeting you halfway." He had been told
by knowing people that that was the right thing. He felt rather
vulgar, but the davenport arrived that evening at Jersey Villas.
"I daresay it will be all right; he seems quiet now," said the poor
lady of the "parlours" a few days later, in reference to their
litigious neighbour and the precarious piano. The two lodgers had
grown regularly acquainted, and the piano had had much to do with it.
Just as this instrument served, with the gentleman at No. 4, as a
theme for discussion, so between Peter Baron and the lady of the
parlours it had become a basis of peculiar agreement, a topic, at any
rate, of conversation frequently renewed. Mrs. Ryves was so
prepossessing that Peter was sure that even if they had not had the
piano he would have found something else to thresh out with her.
Fortunately however they did have it, and he, at least, made the most
of it, knowing more now about his new friend, who when, widowed and
fatigued, she held her beautiful child in her arms, looked dimly like
a modern Madonna. Mrs. Bundy, as a letter of furnished lodgings, was
characterised in general by a familiar domestic severity in respect
to picturesque young women, but she had the highest confidence in
Mrs. Ryves. She was luminous about her being a lady, and a lady who
could bring Mrs. Bundy back to a gratified recognition of one of
those manifestations of mind for which she had an independent esteem.
She was professional, but Jersey Villas could be proud of a
profession that didn't happen to be the wrong one--they had seen
something of that. Mrs. Ryves had a hundred a year (Baron wondered
how Mrs. Bundy knew this; he thought it unlikely Mrs. Ryves had told
her), and for the rest she depended on her lovely music. Baron
judged that her music, even though lovely, was a frail dependence; it
would hardly help to fill a concert-room, and he asked himself at
first whether she played country-dances at children's parties or gave
lessons to young ladies who studied above their station.
Very soon, indeed, he was sufficiently enlightened; it all went fast,
for the little boy had been almost as great a help as the piano.
Sidney haunted the doorstep of No. 3 he was eminently sociable, and
had established independent relations with Peter, a frequent feature
of which was an adventurous visit, upstairs, to picture books
criticised for not being ALL geegees and walking sticks happily more
conformable. The young man's window, too, looked out on their
acquaintance; through a starched muslin curtain it kept his neighbour
before him, made him almost more aware of her comings and goings than
he felt he had a right to be. He was capable of a shyness of
curiosity about her and of dumb little delicacies of consideration.
She did give a few lessons; they were essentially local, and he ended
by knowing more or less what she went out for and what she came in
from. She had almost no visitors, only a decent old lady or two,
and, every day, poor dingy Miss Teagle, who was also ancient and who
came humbly enough to governess the infant of the parlours. Peter
Baron's window had always, to his sense, looked out on a good deal of
life, and one of the things it had most shown him was that there is
nobody so bereft of joy as not to be able to command for twopence the
services of somebody less joyous. Mrs. Ryves was a struggler (Baron
scarcely liked to think of it), but she occupied a pinnacle for Miss
Teagle, who had lived on--and from a noble nursery--into a period of
diplomas and humiliation.
Mrs. Ryves sometimes went out, like Baron himself, with manuscripts
under her arm, and, still more like Baron, she almost always came
back with them. Her vain approaches were to the music-sellers; she
tried to compose--to produce songs that would make a hit. A
successful song was an income, she confided to Peter one of the first
times he took Sidney, blase and drowsy, back to his mother. It was
not on one of these occasions, but once when he had come in on no
better pretext than that of simply wanting to (she had after all
virtually invited him), that she mentioned how only one song in a
thousand was successful and that the terrible difficulty was in
getting the right words. This rightness was just a vulgar "fluke"--
there were lots of words really clever that were of no use at all.
Peter said, laughing, that he supposed any words he should try to
produce would be sure to be too clever; yet only three weeks after
his first encounter with Mrs. Ryves he sat at his delightful
davenport (well aware that he had duties more pressing), trying to
string together rhymes idiotic enough to make his neighbour's
fortune. He was satisfied of the fineness of her musical gift--it
had the touching note. The touching note was in her person as well.
The davenport was delightful, after six months of its tottering
predecessor, and such a re-enforcement to the young man's style was
not impaired by his sense of something lawless in the way it had been
gained. He had made the purchase in anticipation of the money he
expected from Mr. Locket, but Mr. Locket's liberality was to depend
on the ingenuity of his contributor, who now found himself confronted
with the consequence of a frivolous optimism. The fruit of his
labour presented, as he stared at it with his elbows on his desk, an
aspect uncompromising and incorruptible. It seemed to look up at him
reproachfully and to say, with its essential finish: "How could you
promise anything so base; how could you pass your word to mutilate
and dishonour me?" The alterations demanded by Mr. Locket were
impossible; the concessions to the platitude of his conception of the
public mind were degrading. The public mind!--as if the public HAD a
mind, or any principle of perception more discoverable than the stare
of huddled sheep! Peter Baron felt that it concerned him to
determine if he were only not clever enough or if he were simply not
abject enough to rewrite his story. He might in truth have had less
pride if he had had more skill, and more discretion if he had had
more practice. Humility, in the profession of letters, was half of
practice, and resignation was half of success. Poor Peter actually
flushed with pain as he recognised that this was not success, the
production of gelid prose which his editor could do nothing with on
the one side and he himself could do nothing with on the other. The
truth about his luckless tale was now the more bitter from his having
managed, for some days, to taste it as sweet.
As he sat there, baffled and sombre, biting his pen and wondering
what was meant by the "rewards" of literature, he generally ended by
tossing away the composition deflowered by Mr. Locket and trying his
hand at the sort of twaddle that Mrs. Ryves might be able to set to
music. Success in these experiments wouldn't be a reward of
literature, but it might very well become a labour of love. The
experiments would be pleasant enough for him if they were pleasant
for his inscrutable neighbour. That was the way he thought of her
now, for he had learned enough about her, little by little, to guess
how much there was still to learn. To spend his mornings over cheap
rhymes for her was certainly to shirk the immediate question; but
there were hours when he judged this question to be altogether too
arduous, reflecting that he might quite as well perish by the sword
as by famine. Besides, he did meet it obliquely when he considered
that he shouldn't be an utter failure if he were to produce some
songs to which Mrs. Ryves's accompaniments would give a circulation.
He had not ventured to show her anything yet, but one morning, at a
moment when her little boy was in his room, it seemed to him that, by
an inspiration, he had arrived at the happy middle course (it was an
art by itself), between sound and sense. If the sense was not
confused it was because the sound was so familiar.
He had said to the child, to whom he had sacrificed barley-sugar (it
had no attraction for his own lips, yet in these days there was
always some of it about), he had confided to the small Sidney that if
he would wait a little he should be intrusted with something nice to
take down to his parent. Sidney had absorbing occupation and, while
Peter copied off the song in a pretty hand, roamed, gurgling and
sticky, about the room. In this manner he lurched like a little
toper into the rear of the davenport, which stood a few steps out
from the recess of the window, and, as he was fond of beating time to
his intensest joys, began to bang on the surface of it with a paper-
knife which at that spot had chanced to fall upon the floor. At the
moment Sidney committed this violence his kind friend had happened to
raise the lid of the desk and, with his head beneath it, was
rummaging among a mass of papers for a proper envelope. "I say, I
say, my boy!" he exclaimed, solicitous for the ancient glaze of his
most cherished possession. Sidney paused an instant; then, while
Peter still hunted for the envelope, he administered another, and
this time a distinctly disobedient, rap. Peter heard it from within
and was struck with its oddity of sound--so much so that, leaving the
child for a moment under a demoralising impression of impunity, he
waited with quick curiosity for a repetition of the stroke. It came
of course immediately, and then the young man, who had at the same
instant found his envelope and ejaculated "Hallo, this thing has a
false back!" jumped up and secured his visitor, whom with his left
arm he held in durance on his knee while with his free hand he
addressed the missive to Mrs. Ryves.
As Sidney was fond of errands he was easily got rid of, and after he
had gone Baron stood a moment at the window chinking pennies and keys
in pockets and wondering if the charming composer would think his
song as good, or in other words as bad, as he thought it. His eyes
as he turned away fell on the wooden back of the davenport, where, to
his regret, the traces of Sidney's assault were visible in three or
four ugly scratches. "Confound the little brute!" he exclaimed,
feeling as if an altar had been desecrated. He was reminded,
however, of the observation this outrage had led him to make, and,
for further assurance, he knocked on the wood with his knuckle. It
sounded from that position commonplace enough, but his suspicion was
strongly confirmed when, again standing beside the desk, he put his
head beneath the lifted lid and gave ear while with an extended arm
he tapped sharply in the same place. The back was distinctly hollow;
there was a space between the inner and the outer pieces (he could
measure it), so wide that he was a fool not to have noticed it
before. The depth of the receptacle from front to rear was so great
that it could sacrifice a certain quantity of room without detection.
The sacrifice could of course only be for a purpose, and the purpose
could only be the creation of a secret compartment. Peter Baron was
still boy enough to be thrilled by the idea of such a feature, the
more so as every indication of it had been cleverly concealed. The
people at the shop had never noticed it, else they would have called
his attention to it as an enhancement of value. His legendary lore
instructed him that where there was a hiding-place there was always a
hidden spring, and he pried and pressed and fumbled in an eager
search for the sensitive spot. The article was really a wonder of
neat construction; everything fitted with a closeness that completely
It took Baron some minutes to pursue his inquiry, during which he
reflected that the people of the shop were not such fools after all.
They had admitted moreover that they had accidentally neglected this
relic of gentility--it had been overlooked in the multiplicity of
their treasures. He now recalled that the man had wanted to polish
it up before sending it home, and that, satisfied for his own part
with its honourable appearance and averse in general to shiny
furniture, he had in his impatience declined to wait for such an
operation, so that the object had left the place for Jersey Villas,
carrying presumably its secret with it, two or three hours after his
visit. This secret it seemed indeed capable of keeping; there was an
absurdity in being baffled, but Peter couldn't find the spring. He
thumped and sounded, he listened and measured again; he inspected
every joint and crevice, with the effect of becoming surer still of
the existence of a chamber and of making up his mind that his
davenport was a rarity. Not only was there a compartment between the
two backs, but there was distinctly something IN the compartment!
Perhaps it was a lost manuscript--a nice, safe, old-fashioned story
that Mr. Locket wouldn't object to. Peter returned to the charge,
for it had occurred to him that he had perhaps not sufficiently
visited the small drawers, of which, in two vertical rows, there were
six in number, of different sizes, inserted sideways into that
portion of the structure which formed part of the support of the
desk. He took them out again and examined more minutely the
condition of their sockets, with the happy result of discovering at
last, in the place into which the third on the left-hand row was
fitted, a small sliding panel. Behind the panel was a spring, like a
flat button, which yielded with a click when he pressed it and which
instantly produced a loosening of one of the pieces of the shelf
forming the highest part of the davenport--pieces adjusted to each
other with the most deceptive closeness.
This particular piece proved to be, in its turn, a sliding panel,
which, when pushed, revealed the existence of a smaller receptacle, a
narrow, oblong box, in the false back. Its capacity was limited, but
if it couldn't hold many things it might hold precious ones. Baron,
in presence of the ingenuity with which it had been dissimulated,
immediately felt that, but for the odd chance of little Sidney
Ryves's having hammered on the outside at the moment he himself
happened to have his head in the desk, he might have remained for
years without suspicion of it. This apparently would have been a
loss, for he had been right in guessing that the chamber was not
empty. It contained objects which, whether precious or not, had at
any rate been worth somebody's hiding. These objects were a
collection of small fiat parcels, of the shape of packets of letters,
wrapped in white paper and neatly sealed. The seals, mechanically
figured, bore the impress neither of arms nor of initials; the paper
looked old--it had turned faintly sallow; the packets might have been
there for ages. Baron counted them--there were nine in all, of
different sizes; he turned them over and over, felt them curiously
and snuffed in their vague, musty smell, which affected him with the
melancholy of some smothered human accent. The little bundles were
neither named nor numbered--there was not a word of writing on any of
the covers; but they plainly contained old letters, sorted and
matched according to dates or to authorship. They told some old,
dead story--they were the ashes of fires burned out.
As Peter Baron held his discoveries successively in his hands he
became conscious of a queer emotion which was not altogether elation
and yet was still less pure pain. He had made a find, but it somehow
added to his responsibility; he was in the presence of something
interesting, but (in a manner he couldn't have defined) this
circumstance suddenly constituted a danger. It was the perception of
the danger, for instance, which caused to remain in abeyance any
impulse he might have felt to break one of the seals. He looked at
them all narrowly, but he was careful not to loosen them, and he
wondered uncomfortably whether the contents of the secret compartment
would be held in equity to be the property of the people in the
King's Road. He had given money for the davenport, but had he given
money for these buried papers? He paid by a growing consciousness
that a nameless chill had stolen into the air the penalty, which he
had many a time paid before, of being made of sensitive stuff. It
was as if an occasion had insidiously arisen for a sacrifice--a
sacrifice for the sake of a fine superstition, something like honour
or kindness or justice, something indeed perhaps even finer still--a
difficult deciphering of duty, an impossible tantalising wisdom.
Standing there before his ambiguous treasure and losing himself for
the moment in the sense of a dawning complication, he was startled by
a light, quick tap at the door of his sitting-room. Instinctively,
before answering, he listened an instant--he was in the attitude of a
miser surprised while counting his hoard. Then he answered "One
moment, please!" and slipped the little heap of packets into the
biggest of the drawers of the davenport, which happened to be open.
The aperture of the false back was still gaping, and he had not time
to work back the spring. He hastily laid a big book over the place
and then went and opened his door.
It offered him a sight none the less agreeable for being unexpected--
the graceful and agitated figure of Mrs. Ryves. Her agitation was so
visible that he thought at first that something dreadful had happened
to her child--that she had rushed up to ask for help, to beg him to
go for the doctor. Then he perceived that it was probably connected
with the desperate verses he had transmitted to her a quarter of an
hour before; for she had his open manuscript in one hand and was
nervously pulling it about with the other. She looked frightened and
pretty, and if, in invading the privacy of a fellow-lodger, she had
been guilty of a departure from rigid custom, she was at least
conscious of the enormity of the step and incapable of treating it
with levity. The levity was for Peter Baron, who endeavoured,
however, to clothe his familiarity with respect, pushing forward the
seat of honour and repeating that he rejoiced in such a visit. The
visitor came in, leaving the door ajar, and after a minute during
which, to help her, he charged her with the purpose of telling him
that he ought to be ashamed to send her down such rubbish, she
recovered herself sufficiently to stammer out that his song was
exactly what she had been looking for and that after reading it she
had been seized with an extraordinary, irresistible impulse--that of
thanking him for it in person and without delay.
"It was the impulse of a kind nature," he said, "and I can't tell you
what pleasure you give me."
She declined to sit down, and evidently wished to appear to have come
but for a few seconds. She looked confusedly at the place in which
she found herself, and when her eyes met his own they struck him as
anxious and appealing. She was evidently not thinking of his song,
though she said three or four times over that it was beautiful.
"Well, I only wanted you to know, and now I must go," she added; but
on his hearthrug she lingered with such an odd helplessness that he
felt almost sorry for her.
"Perhaps I can improve it if you find it doesn't go," said Baron.
"I'm so delighted to do anything for you I can."
"There may be a word or two that might be changed," she answered,
rather absently. "I shall have to think it over, to live with it a
little. But I like it, and that's all I wanted to say."
"Charming of you. I'm not a bit busy," said Baron.
Again she looked at him with a troubled intensity, then suddenly she
demanded: "Is there anything the matter with you?"
"The matter with me?"
"I mean like being ill or worried. I wondered if there might be; I
had a sudden fancy; and that, I think, is really why I came up."
"There isn't, indeed; I'm all right. But your sudden fancies are
"It's absurd. You must excuse me. Good-by!" said Mrs. Ryves.
"What are the words you want changed?" Baron asked.
"I don't want any--if you're all right. Good-by," his visitor
repeated, fixing her eyes an instant on an object on his desk that
had caught them. His own glanced in the same direction and he saw
that in his hurry to shuffle away the packets found in the davenport
he had overlooked one of them, which lay with its seals exposed. For
an instant he felt found out, as if he had been concerned in
something to be ashamed of, and it was only his quick second thought
that told him how little the incident of which the packet was a
sequel was an affair of Mrs. Ryves's. Her conscious eyes came back
to his as if they were sounding them, and suddenly this instinct of
keeping his discovery to himself was succeeded by a really startled
inference that, with the rarest alertness, she had guessed something
and that her guess (it seemed almost supernatural), had been her real
motive. Some secret sympathy had made her vibrate--had touched her
with the knowledge that he had brought something to light. After an
instant he saw that she also divined the very reflection he was then
making, and this gave him a lively desire, a grateful, happy desire,
to appear to have nothing to conceal. For herself, it determined her
still more to put an end to her momentary visit. But before she had
passed to the door he exclaimed: "All right? How can a fellow be
anything else who has just had such a find?"
She paused at this, still looking earnest and asking: "What have you
"Some ancient family papers, in a secret compartment of my writing-
table." And he took up the packet he had left out, holding it before
her eyes. "A lot of other things like that."
"What are they?" murmured Mrs. Ryves.
"I haven't the least idea. They're sealed."
"You haven't broken the seals?" She had come further back.
"I haven't had time; it only happened ten minutes ago."
"I knew it," said Mrs. Ryves, more gaily now.
"What did you know?"
"That you were in some predicament."
"You're extraordinary. I never heard of anything so miraculous; down
two flights of stairs."
"ARE you in a quandary?" the visitor asked.
"Yes, about giving them back." Peter Baron stood smiling at her and
rapping his packet on the palm of his hand. "What do you advise?"
She herself smiled now, with her eyes on the sealed parcel. "Back to
"The man of whom I bought the table."
"Ah then, they're not from YOUR family?"
"No indeed, the piece of furniture in which they were hidden is not
an ancestral possession. I bought it at second hand--you see it's
old--the other day in the King's Road. Obviously the man who sold it
to me sold me more than he meant; he had no idea (from his own point
of view it was stupid of him), that there was a hidden chamber or
that mysterious documents were buried there. Ought I to go and tell
him? It's rather a nice question."
"Are the papers of value?" Mrs. Ryves inquired.
"I haven't the least idea. But I can ascertain by breaking a seal."
"Don't!" said Mrs. Ryves, with much expression. She looked grave
"It's rather tantalising--it's a bit of a problem," Baron went on,
turning his packet over.
Mrs. Ryves hesitated. "Will you show me what you have in your hand?"
He gave her the packet, and she looked at it and held it for an
instant to her nose. "It has a queer, charming old fragrance," he
"Charming? It's horrid." She handed him back the packet, saying
again more emphatically "Don't!"
"Don't break a seal?"
"Don't give back the papers."
"Is it honest to keep them?"
"Certainly. They're yours as much as the people's of the shop. They
were in the hidden chamber when the table came to the shop, and the
people had every opportunity to find them out. They didn't--
therefore let them take the consequences."
Peter Baron reflected, diverted by her intensity. She was pale, with
eyes almost ardent. "The table had been in the place for years."
"That proves the things haven't been missed."
"Let me show you how they were concealed," he rejoined; and he
exhibited the ingenious recess and the working of the curious spring.
She was greatly interested, she grew excited and became familiar; she
appealed to him again not to do anything so foolish as to give up the
papers, the rest of which, in their little blank, impenetrable
covers, he placed in a row before her. "They might be traced--their
history, their ownership," he argued; to which she replied that this
was exactly why he ought to be quiet. He declared that women had not
the smallest sense of honour, and she retorted that at any rate they
have other perceptions more delicate than those of men. He admitted
that the papers might be rubbish, and she conceded that nothing was
more probable; yet when he offered to settle the point off-hand she
caught him by the wrist, acknowledging that, absurd as it was, she
was nervous. Finally she put the whole thing on the ground of his
just doing her a favour. She asked him to retain the papers, to be
silent about them, simply because it would please her. That would be
reason enough. Baron's acquaintance, his agreeable relations with
her, advanced many steps in the treatment of this question; an
element of friendly candour made its way into their discussion of it.
"I can't make out why it matters to you, one way or the other, nor
why you should think it worth talking about," the young man reasoned.
"Neither can I. It's just a whim."
"Certainly, if it will give you any pleasure, I'll say nothing at the
"That's charming of you, and I'm very grateful. I see now that this
was why the spirit moved me to come up--to save them," Mrs. Ryves
went on. She added, moving away, that now she had saved them she
must really go.
"To save them for what, if I mayn't break the seals?" Baron asked.
"I don't know--for a generous sacrifice."
"Why should it be generous? What's at stake?" Peter demanded,
leaning against the doorpost as she stood on the landing.
"I don't know what, but I feel as if something or other were in
peril. Burn them up!" she exclaimed with shining eyes.
"Ah, you ask too much--I'm so curious about them!"
"Well, I won't ask more than I ought, and I'm much obliged to you for
your promise to be quiet. I trust to your discretion. Good-by."
"You ought to REWARD my discretion," said Baron, coming out to the
She had partly descended the staircase and she stopped, leaning
against the baluster and smiling up at him. "Surely you've had your
reward in the honour of my visit."
"That's delightful as far as it goes. But what will you do for me if
I burn the papers?"
Mrs. Ryves considered a moment. "Burn them first and you'll see!"
On this she went rapidly downstairs, and Baron, to whom the answer
appeared inadequate and the proposition indeed in that form grossly
unfair, returned to his room. The vivacity of her interest in a
question in which she had discoverably nothing at stake mystified,
amused and, in addition, irresistibly charmed him. She was delicate,
imaginative, inflammable, quick to feel, quick to act. He didn't
complain of it, it was the way he liked women to be;, but he was not
impelled for the hour to commit the sealed packets to the flames. He
dropped them again into their secret well, and after that he went
out. He felt restless and excited; another day was lost for work--
the dreadful job to be performed for Mr. Locket was still further
Ten days after Mrs. Ryves's visit he paid by appointment another call
on the editor of the Promiscuous. He found him in the little
wainscoted Chelsea house, which had to Peter's sense the smoky
brownness of an old pipebowl, surrounded with all the emblems of his
office--a litter of papers, a hedge of encyclopaedias, a photographic
gallery of popular contributors--and he promised at first to consume
very few of the moments for which so many claims competed. It was
Mr. Locket himself however who presently made the interview spacious,
gave it air after discovering that poor Baron had come to tell him
something more interesting than that he couldn't after all patch up
his tale. Peter had begun with this, had intimated respectfully that
it was a case in which both practice and principle rebelled, and
then, perceiving how little Mr. Locket was affected by his audacity,
had felt weak and slightly silly, left with his heroism on his hands.
He had armed himself for a struggle, but the Promiscuous didn't even
protest, and there would have been nothing for him but to go away
with the prospect of never coming again had he not chanced to say
abruptly, irrelevantly, as he got up from his chair:
"Do you happen to be at all interested in Sir Dominick Ferrand?"
Mr. Locket, who had also got up, looked over his glasses. "The late
"The only one; you know the family's extinct."
Mr. Locket shot his young friend another sharp glance, a silent
retort to the glibness of this information. "Very extinct indeed.
I'm afraid the subject today would scarcely be regarded as
"Are you very sure?" Baron asked.
Mr. Locket leaned forward a little, with his fingertips on his table,
in the attitude of giving permission to retire. "I might consider
the question in a special connection." He was silent a minute, in a
way that relegated poor Peter to the general; but meeting the young
man's eyes again he asked: "Are you--a--thinking of proposing an
article upon him?"
"Not exactly proposing it--because I don't yet quite see my way; but
the idea rather appeals to me."
Mr. Locket emitted the safe assertion that this eminent statesman had
been a striking figure in his day; then he added: "Have you been
"I've been dipping into him."
"I'm afraid he's scarcely a question of the hour," said Mr. Locket,
shuffling papers together.
"I think I could make him one," Peter Baron declared.
Mr. Locket stared again; he was unable to repress an unattenuated
"I have some new material," said the young man, colouring a little.
"That often freshens up an old story."
"It buries it sometimes. It's often only another tombstone."
"That depends upon what it is. However," Peter added, "the documents
I speak of would be a crushing monument."
Mr. Locket, hesitating, shot another glance under his glasses. "Do
you allude to--a--revelations?"
"Very curious ones."
Mr. Locket, still on his feet, had kept his body at the bowing angle;
it was therefore easy for him after an instant to bend a little
further and to sink into his chair with a movement of his hand toward
the seat Baron had occupied. Baron resumed possession of this
convenience, and the conversation took a fresh start on a basis which
such an extension of privilege could render but little less
humiliating to our young man. He had matured no plan of confiding
his secret to Mr. Locket, and he had really come out to make him
conscientiously that other announcement as to which it appeared that
so much artistic agitation had been wasted. He had indeed during the
past days--days of painful indecision--appealed in imagination to the
editor of the Promiscuous, as he had appealed to other sources of
comfort; but his scruples turned their face upon him from quarters
high as well as low, and if on the one hand he had by no means made
up his mind not to mention his strange knowledge, he had still more
left to the determination of the moment the question of how he should
introduce the subject. He was in fact too nervous to decide; he only
felt that he needed for his peace of mind to communicate his
discovery. He wanted an opinion, the impression of somebody else,
and even in this intensely professional presence, five minutes after
he had begun to tell his queer story, he felt relieved of half his
burden. His story was very queer; he could take the measure of that
himself as he spoke; but wouldn't this very circumstance qualify it
for the Promiscuous?
"Of course the letters may be forgeries," said Mr. Locket at last.
"I've no doubt that's what many people will say."
"Have they been seen by any expert?"
"No indeed; they've been seen by nobody."
"Have you got any of them with you?"
"No; I felt nervous about bringing them out."
"That's a pity. I should have liked the testimony of my eyes."
"You may have it if you'll come to my rooms. If you don't care to do
that without a further guarantee I'll copy you out some passages."
"Select a few of the worst!" Mr. Locket laughed. Over Baron's
distressing information he had become quite human and genial. But he
added in a moment more dryly: "You know they ought to be seen by an
"That's exactly what I dread," said Peter.
"They'll be worth nothing to me if they're not."
Peter communed with his innermost spirit. "How much will they be
worth to ME if they ARE?"
Mr. Locket turned in his study-chair. "I should require to look at
them before answering that question."
"I've been to the British museum--there are many of his letters
there. I've obtained permission to see them, and I've compared
everything carefully. I repudiate the possibility of forgery. No
sign of genuineness is wanting; there are details, down to the very
postmarks, that no forger could have invented. Besides, whose
interest could it conceivably have been? A labor of unspeakable
difficulty, and all for what advantage? There are so many letters,
too--twenty-seven in all."
"Lord, what an ass!" Mr. Locket exclaimed.
"It will be one of the strangest post-mortem revelations of which
history preserves the record."
Mr. Locket, grave now, worried with a paper-knife the crevice of a
drawer. "It's very odd. But to be worth anything such documents
should be subjected to a searching criticism--I mean of the
"Certainly; that would be the task of the writer introducing them to
Again Mr. Locket considered; then with a smile he looked up. "You
had better give up original composition and take to buying old
"Do you mean because it will pay better?"
"For you, I should think, original composition couldn't pay worse.
The creative faculty's so rare."
"I do feel tempted to turn my attention to real heroes," Peter
"I'm bound to declare that Sir Dominick Ferrand was never one of
mine. Flashy, crafty, second-rate--that's how I've always read him.
It was never a secret, moreover, that his private life had its weak
spots. He was a mere flash in the pan."
"He speaks to the people of this country," said Baron.
"He did; but his voice--the voice, I mean, of his prestige--is
scarcely audible now."
"They're still proud of some of the things he did at the Foreign
Office--the famous 'exchange' with Spain, in the Mediterranean, which
took Europe so by surprise and by which she felt injured, especially
when it became apparent how much we had the best of the bargain.
Then the sudden, unexpected show of force by which he imposed on the
United States our interpretation of that tiresome treaty--I could
never make out what it was about. These were both matters that no
one really cared a straw about, but he made every one feel as if they
cared; the nation rose to the way he played his trumps--it was
uncommon. He was one of the few men we've had, in our period, who
took Europe, or took America, by surprise, made them jump a bit; and
the country liked his doing it--it was a pleasant change. The rest
of the world considered that they knew in any case exactly what we
would do, which was usually nothing at all. Say what you like, he's
still a high name; partly also, no doubt, on account of other things
his early success and early death, his political 'cheek' and wit; his
very appearance--he certainly was handsome--and the possibilities (of
future personal supremacy) which it was the fashion at the time,
which it's the fashion still, to say had passed away with him. He
had been twice at the Foreign Office; that alone was remarkable for a
man dying at forty-four. What therefore will the country think when
it learns he was venal?"
Peter Baron himself was not angry with Sir Dominick Ferrand, who had
simply become to him (he had been "reading up" feverishly for a week)
a very curious subject of psychological study; but he could easily
put himself in the place of that portion of the public whose memory
was long enough for their patriotism to receive a shock. It was some
time fortunately since the conduct of public affairs had wanted for
men of disinterested ability, but the extraordinary documents
concealed (of all places in the world--it was as fantastic as a
nightmare) in a "bargain" picked up at second-hand by an obscure
scribbler, would be a calculable blow to the retrospective mind.
Baron saw vividly that if these relics should be made public the
scandal, the horror, the chatter would be immense. Immense would be
also the contribution to truth, the rectification of history. He had
felt for several days (and it was exactly what had made him so
nervous) as if he held in his hand the key to public attention.
"There are too many things to explain," Mr. Locket went on, "and the
singular provenance of your papers would count almost overwhelmingly
against them even if the other objections were met. There would be a
perfect and probably a very complicated pedigree to trace. How did
they get into your davenport, as you call it, and how long had they
been there? What hands secreted them? what hands had, so incredibly,
clung to them and preserved them? Who are the persons mentioned in
them? who are the correspondents, the parties to the nefarious
transactions? You say the transactions appear to be of two distinct
kinds--some of them connected with public business and others
involving obscure personal relations."
"They all have this in common," said Peter Baron, "that they
constitute evidence of uneasiness, in some instances of painful
alarm, on the writer's part, in relation to exposure--the exposure in
the one case, as I gather, of the fact that he had availed himself of
official opportunities to promote enterprises (public works and that
sort of thing) in which he had a pecuniary stake. The dread of the
light in the other connection is evidently different, and these
letters are the earliest in date. They are addressed to a woman,
from whom he had evidently received money."
Mr. Locket wiped his glasses. "What woman?"
"I haven't the least idea. There are lots of questions I can't
answer, of course; lots of identities I can't establish; lots of gaps
I can't fill. But as to two points I'm clear, and they are the
essential ones. In the first place the papers in my possession are
genuine; in the second place they're compromising."
With this Peter Baron rose again, rather vexed with himself for
having been led on to advertise his treasure (it was his
interlocutor's perfectly natural scepticism that produced this
effect), for he felt that he was putting himself in a false position.
He detected in Mr. Locket's studied detachment the fermentation of
impulses from which, unsuccessful as he was, he himself prayed to be
Mr. Locket remained seated; he watched Baron go across the room for
his hat and umbrella. "Of course, the question would come up of
whose property today such documents would legally he. There are
heirs, descendants, executors to consider."
"In some degree perhaps; hut I've gone into that a little. Sir
Dominick Ferrand had no children, and he left no brothers and no
sisters. His wife survived him, but she died ten years ago. He can
have had no heirs and no executors to speak of, for he left no
''That's to his honour and against your theory,'' said Mr. Locket.
"I HAVE no theory. He left a largeish mass of debt," Peter Baron
added. At this Mr. Locket got up, while his visitor pursued: "So
far as I can ascertain, though of course my inquiries have had to be
very rapid and superficial, there is no one now living, directly or
indirectly related to the personage in question, who would be likely
to suffer from any steps in the direction of publicity. It happens
to be a rare instance of a life that had, as it were, no loose ends.
At least there are none perceptible at present."
"I see, I see," said Mr. Locket. "But I don't think I should care
much for your article."
"The one you seem to wish to write, embodying this new matter."
"Oh, I don't wish to write it!" Peter exclaimed. And then he bade
his host good-by.
"Good-by," said Mr. Locket. "Mind you, I don't say that I think
there's nothing in it."
"You would think there was something in it if you were to see my
"I should like to see the secret compartment,"
the caustic editor rejoined. "Copy me out some extracts."
"To what end, if there's no question of their being of use to you?"
"I don't say that--I might like the letters themselves."
"Not as the basis of a paper, but just to publish--for a sensation."
"They'd sell your number!" Baron laughed.
"I daresay I should like to look at them," Mr. Locket conceded after
a moment. "When should I find you at home?"
"Don't come," said the young man. "I make you no offer."
"I might make YOU one," the editor hinted. "Don't trouble yourself;
I shall probably destroy them." With this Peter Baron took his
departure, waiting however just afterwards, in the street near the
house, as if he had been looking out for a stray hansom, to which he
would not have signalled had it appeared. He thought Mr. Locket
might hurry after him, but Mr. Locket seemed to have other things to
do, and Peter Baron returned on foot to Jersey Villas.
On the evening that succeeded this apparently pointless encounter he
had an interview more conclusive with Mrs. Bundy, for whose shrewd
and philosophic view of life he had several times expressed, even to
the good woman herself, a considerable relish. The situation at
Jersey Villas (Mrs. Ryves had suddenly flown off to Dover) was such
as to create in him a desire for moral support, and there was a kind
of domestic determination in Mrs. Bundy which seemed, in general, to
advertise it. He had asked for her on coming in, but had been told
she was absent for the hour; upon which he had addressed himself
mechanically to the task of doing up his dishonoured manuscript--the
ingenious fiction about which Mr. Locket had been so stupid--for
further adventures and not improbable defeats. He passed a restless,
ineffective afternoon, asking himself if his genius were a horrid
delusion, looking out of his window for something that didn't happen,
something that seemed now to be the advent of a persuasive Mr. Locket
and now the return, from an absence more disappointing even than Mrs.
Bundy's, of his interesting neighbour of the parlours. He was so
nervous and so depressed that he was unable even to fix his mind on
the composition of the note with which, on its next peregrination, it
was necessary that his manuscript should be accompanied. He was too
nervous to eat, and he forgot even to dine; he forgot to light his
candles, he let his fire go out, and it was in the melancholy chill
of the late dusk that Mrs. Bundy, arriving at last with his lamp,
found him extended moodily upon his sofa. She had been informed that
he wished to speak to her, and as she placed on the malodorous
luminary an oily shade of green pasteboard she expressed the friendly
hope that there was nothing wrong with his 'ealth.
The young man rose from his couch, pulling himself together
sufficiently to reply that his health was well enough but that his
spirits were down in his hoots. He had a strong disposition to
"draw" his landlady on the subject of Mrs. Ryves, as well as a vivid
conviction that she constituted a theme as to which Mrs. Bundy would
require little pressure to tell him even more than she knew. At the
same time he hated to appear to pry into the secrets of his absent
friend; to discuss her with their bustling hostess resembled too much
for his taste a gossip with a tattling servant about an unconscious
employer. He left out of account however Mrs. Bundy's knowledge of
the human heart, for it was this fine principle that broke down the
barriers after he had reflected reassuringly that it was not meddling
with Mrs. Ryves's affairs to try and find out if she struck such an
observer as happy. Crudely, abruptly, even a little blushingly, he
put the direct question to Mrs. Bundy, and this led tolerably
straight to another question, which, on his spirit, sat equally heavy
(they were indeed but different phases of the same), and which the
good woman answered with expression when she ejaculated: "Think it a
liberty for you to run down for a few hours? If she do, my dear sir,
just send her to me to talk to!" As regards happiness indeed she
warned Baron against imposing too high a standard on a young thing
who had been through so much, and before he knew it he found himself,
without the responsibility of choice, in submissive receipt of Mrs.
Bundy's version of this experience. It was an interesting picture,
though it had its infirmities, one of them congenital and consisting
of the fact that it had sprung essentially from the virginal brain of
Miss Teagle. Amplified, edited, embellished by the richer genius of
Mrs. Bundy, who had incorporated with it and now liberally introduced
copious interleavings of Miss Teagle's own romance, it gave Peter
Baron much food for meditation, at the same time that it only half
relieved his curiosity about the causes of the charming woman's
underlying strangeness. He sounded this note experimentally in Mrs.
Bundy's ear, but it was easy to see that it didn't reverberate in her
fancy. She had no idea of the picture it would have been natural for
him to desire that Mrs. Ryves should present to him, and she was
therefore unable to estimate the points in respect to which his
actual impression was irritating. She had indeed no adequate
conception of the intellectual requirements of a young man in love.
She couldn't tell him why their faultless friend was so isolated, so
unrelated, so nervously, shrinkingly proud. On the other hand she
could tell him (he knew it already) that she had passed many years of
her life in the acquisition of accomplishments at a seat of learning
no less remote than Boulogne, and that Miss Teagle had been
intimately acquainted with the late Mr. Everard Ryves, who was a
"most rising" young man in the city, not making any year less than
his clear twelve hundred. "Now that he isn't there to make them, his
mourning widow can't live as she had then, can she?" Mrs. Bundy
Baron was not prepared to say that she could, but he thought of
another way she might live as he sat, the next day, in the train
which rattled him down to Dover. The place, as he approached it,
seemed bright and breezy to him; his roamings had been neither far
enough nor frequent enough to make the cockneyfied coast insipid.
Mrs. Bundy had of course given him the address he needed, and on
emerging from the station he was on the point of asking what
direction he should take. His attention however at this moment was
drawn away by the bustle of the departing boat. He had been long
enough shut up in London to be conscious of refreshment in the mere
act of turning his face to Paris. He wandered off to the pier in
company with happier tourists and, leaning on a rail, watched
enviously the preparation, the agitation of foreign travel. It was
for some minutes a foretaste of adventure; but, ah, when was he to
have the very draught? He turned away as he dropped this
interrogative sigh, and in doing so perceived that in another part of
the pier two ladies and a little boy were gathered with something of
the same wistfulness. The little boy indeed happened to look round
for a moment, upon which, with the keenness of the predatory age, he
recognised in our young man a source of pleasures from which he
lately had been weaned. He bounded forward with irrepressible cries
of "Geegee!" and Peter lifted him aloft for an embrace. On putting
him down the pilgrim from Jersey Villas stood confronted with a
sensibly severe Miss Teagle, who had followed her little charge.
"What's the matter with the old woman?" he asked himself as he
offered her a hand which she treated as the merest detail. Whatever
it was, it was (and very properly, on the part of a loyal suivante)
the same complaint as that of her employer, to whom, from a distance,
for Mrs. Ryves had not advanced an inch, he flourished his hat as she
stood looking at him with a face that he imagined rather white. Mrs.
Ryves's response to this salutation was to shift her position in such
a manner as to appear again absorbed in the Calais boat. Peter
Baron, however, kept hold of the child, whom Miss Teagle artfully
endeavoured to wrest from him--a policy in which he was aided by
Sidney's own rough but instinctive loyalty; and he was thankful for
the happy effect of being dragged by his jubilant friend in the very
direction in which he had tended for so many hours. Mrs. Ryves
turned once more as he came near, and then, from the sweet, strained
smile with which she asked him if he were on his way to France, he
saw that if she had been angry at his having followed her she had
quickly got over it.
"No, I'm not crossing; but it came over me that you might be, and
that's why I hurried down--to catch you before you were off."
"Oh, we can't go--more's the pity; but why, if we could," Mrs. Ryves
inquired, "should you wish to prevent it?"
"Because I've something to ask you first, something that may take
some time." He saw now that her embarrassment had really not been
resentful; it had been nervous, tremulous, as the emotion of an
unexpected pleasure might have been. "That's really why I determined
last night, without asking your leave first to pay you this little
visit--that and the intense desire for another bout of horse-play
with Sidney. Oh, I've come to see you," Peter Baron went on, "and I
won't make any secret of the fact that I expect you to resign
yourself gracefully to the trial and give me all your time. The
day's lovely, and I'm ready to declare that the place is as good as
the day. Let me drink deep of these things, drain the cup like a man
who hasn't been out of London for months and months. Let me walk
with you and talk with you and lunch with you--I go back this
afternoon. Give me all your hours in short, so that they may live in
my memory as one of the sweetest occasions of life."
The emission of steam from the French packet made such an uproar that
Baron could breathe his passion into the young woman's ear without
scandalising the spectators; and the charm which little by little it
scattered over his fleeting visit proved indeed to be the collective
influence of the conditions he had put into words. "What is it you
wish to ask me?" Mrs. Ryves demanded, as they stood there together;
to which he replied that he would tell her all about it if she would
send Miss Teagle off with Sidney. Miss Teagle, who was always
anticipating her cue, had already begun ostentatiously to gaze at the
distant shores of France and was easily enough induced to take an
earlier start home and rise to the responsibility of stopping on her
way to contend with the butcher. She had however to retire without
Sidney, who clung to his recovered prey, so that the rest of the
episode was seasoned, to Baron's sense, by the importunate twitch of
the child's little, plump, cool hand. The friends wandered together
with a conjugal air and Sidney not between them, hanging wistfully,
first, over the lengthened picture of the Calais boat, till they
could look after it, as it moved rumbling away, in a spell of silence
which seemed to confess--especially when, a moment later, their eyes
met--that it produced the same fond fancy in each. The presence of
the boy moreover was no hindrance to their talking in a manner that
they made believe was very frank. Peter Baron presently told his
companion what it was he had taken a journey to ask, and he had time
afterwards to get over his discomfiture at her appearance of having
fancied it might be something greater. She seemed disappointed (but
she was forgiving) on learning from him that he had only wished to
know if she judged ferociously his not having complied with her
request to respect certain seals.
"How ferociously do you suspect me of having judged it?" she
"Why, to the extent of leaving the house the next moment."
They were still lingering on the great granite pier when he touched
on this matter, and she sat down at the end while the breeze, warmed
by the sunshine, ruffled the purple sea. She coloured a little and
looked troubled, and after an instant she repeated interrogatively:
"The next moment?"
"As soon as I told you what I had done. I was scrupulous about this,
you will remember; I went straight downstairs to confess to you. You
turned away from me, saying nothing; I couldn't imagine--as I vow I
can't imagine now--why such a matter should appear so closely to
touch you. I went out on some business and when I returned you had
quitted the house. It had all the look of my having offended you, of
your wishing to get away from me. You didn't even give me time to
tell you how it was that, in spite of your advice, I determined to
see for myself what my discovery represented. You must do me justice
and hear what determined me."
Mrs. Ryves got up from her scat and asked him, as a particular
favour, not to allude again to his discovery. It was no concern of
hers at all, and she had no warrant for prying into his secrets. She
was very sorry to have been for a moment so absurd as to appear to do
so, and she humbly begged his pardon for her meddling. Saying this
she walked on with a charming colour in her cheek, while he laughed
out, though he was really bewildered, at the endless capriciousness
of women. Fortunately the incident didn't spoil the hour, in which
there were other sources of satisfaction, and they took their course
to her lodgings with such pleasant little pauses and excursions by
the way as permitted her to show him the objects of interest at
Dover. She let him stop at a wine-merchant's and buy a bottle for
luncheon, of which, in its order, they partook, together with a
pudding invented by Miss Teagle, which, as they hypocritically
swallowed it, made them look at each other in an intimacy of
indulgence. They came out again and, while Sidney grubbed in the
gravel of the shore, sat selfishly on the Parade, to the
disappointment of Miss Teagle, who had fixed her hopes on a fly and a
ladylike visit to the castle. Baron had his eye on his watch--he had
to think of his train and the dismal return and many other melancholy
things; but the sea in the afternoon light was a more appealing
picture; the wind had gone down, the Channel was crowded, the sails
of the ships were white in the purple distance. The young man had
asked his companion (he had asked her before) when she was to come
back to Jersey Villas, and she had said that she should probably stay
at Dover another week. It was dreadfully expensive, but it was doing
the child all the good in the world, and if Miss Teagle could go up
for some things she should probably be able to manage an extension.
Earlier in the day she had said that she perhaps wouldn't return to
Jersey Villas at all, or only return to wind up her connection with
Mrs. Bundy. At another moment she had spoken of an early date, an
immediate reoccupation of the wonderful parlours. Baron saw that she
had no plan, no real reasons, that she was vague and, in secret,
worried and nervous, waiting for something that didn't depend on
herself. A silence of several minutes had fallen upon them while
they watched the shining sails; to which Mrs. Ryves put an end by
exclaiming abruptly, but without completing her sentence: "Oh, if
you had come to tell me you had destroyed them--"
"Those terrible papers? I like the way you talk about 'destroying!'
You don't even know what they are."
"I don't want to know; they put me into a state."
"What sort of a state?"
"I don't know; they haunt me."
"They haunted me; that was why, early one morning, suddenly, I
couldn't keep my hands off them. I had told you I wouldn't touch
them. I had deferred to your whim, your superstition (what is it?)
but at last they got the better of me. I had lain awake all night
threshing about, itching with curiosity. It made me ill; my own
nerves (as I may say) were irritated, my capacity to work was gone.
It had come over me in the small hours in the shape of an obsession,
a fixed idea, that there was nothing in the ridiculous relics and
that my exaggerated scruples were making a fool of me. It was ten to
one they were rubbish, they were vain, they were empty; that they had
been even a practical joke on the part of some weak-minded gentleman
of leisure, the former possessor of the confounded davenport. The
longer I hovered about them with such precautions the longer I was
taken in, and the sooner I exposed their insignificance the sooner I
should get back to my usual occupations. This conviction made my
hand so uncontrollable that that morning before breakfast I broke one
of the seals. It took me but a few minutes to perceive that the
contents were not rubbish; the little bundle contained old letters--
very curious old letters."
"I know--I know; 'private and confidential.' So you broke the other
seals?" Mrs. Ryves looked at him with the strange apprehension he
had seen in her eyes when she appeared at his door the moment after
"You know, of course, because I told you an hour later, though you
would let me tell you very little."
Baron, as he met this queer gaze, smiled hard at her to prevent her
guessing that he smarted with the fine reproach conveyed in the tone
of her last words; but she appeared able to guess everything, for she
reminded him that she had not had to wait that morning till he came
downstairs to know what had happened above, but had shown him at the
moment how she had been conscious of it an hour before, had passed on
her side the same tormented night as he, and had had to exert
extraordinary self-command not to rush up to his rooms while the
study of the open packets was going on. "You're so sensitively
organised and you've such mysterious powers that you re uncanny,"
"I feel what takes place at a distance; that's all."
"One would think somebody you liked was in danger."
"I told you that that was what was present to me the day I came up to
"Oh, but you don't like me so much as that," Baron argued, laughing.
She hesitated. "No, I don't know that I do."
"It must be for someone else--the other person concerned. The other
day, however, you wouldn't let me tell you that person's name."
Mrs. Ryves, at this, rose quickly. "I don't want to know it; it's
none of my business."
"No, fortunately, I don't think it is," Baron rejoined, walking with
her along the Parade. She had Sidney by the hand now, and the young
man was on the other side of her. They moved toward the station--she
had offered to go part of the way. "But with your miraculous gift
it's a wonder you haven't divined."
"I only divine what I want," said Mrs. Ryves.
"That's very convenient!" exclaimed Peter, to whom Sidney had
presently come round again. "Only, being thus in the dark, it's
difficult to see your motive for wishing the papers destroyed."
Mrs. Ryves meditated, looking fixedly at the ground. "I thought you
might do it to oblige me."
"Does it strike you that such an expectation, formed in such
conditions, is reasonable?"
Mrs. Ryves stopped short, and this time she turned on him the clouded
clearness of her eyes. "What do you mean to do with them?"
It was Peter Baron's turn to meditate, which he did, on the empty
asphalt of the Parade (the "season," at Dover, was not yet), where
their shadows were long in the afternoon light. He was under such a
charm as he had never known, and he wanted immensely to be able to
reply: "I'll do anything you like if you'll love me." These words,
however, would have represented a responsibility and have constituted
what was vulgarly termed an offer. An offer of what? he quickly
asked himself here, as he had already asked himself after making in
spirit other awkward dashes in the same direction--of what but his
poverty, his obscurity, his attempts that had come to nothing, his
abilities for which there was nothing to show? Mrs. Ryves was not
exactly a success, but she was a greater success than Peter Baron.
Poor as he was he hated the sordid (he knew she didn't love it), and
he felt small for talking of marriage. Therefore he didn't put the
question in the words it would have pleased him most to hear himself
utter, but he compromised, with an angry young pang, and said to her:
"What will you do for me if I put an end to them?"
She shook her head sadly--it was always her prettiest movement. "I
can promise nothing--oh, no, I can't promise! We must part now," she
added. "You'll miss your train."
He looked at his watch, taking the hand she held out to him. She
drew it away quickly, and nothing then was left him, before hurrying
to the station, but to catch up Sidney and squeeze him till he
uttered a little shriek. On the way back to town the situation
struck him as grotesque.
It tormented him so the next morning that after threshing it out a
little further he felt he had something of a grievance. Mrs. Ryves's
intervention had made him acutely uncomfortable, for she had taken
the attitude of exerting pressure without, it appeared, recognising
on his part an equal right. She had imposed herself as an influence,
yet she held herself aloof as a participant; there were things she
looked to him to do for her, yet she could tell him of no good that
would come to him from the doing. She should either have had less to
say or have been willing to say more, and he asked himself why he
should be the sport of her moods and her mysteries. He perceived her
knack of punctual interference to be striking, but it was just this
apparent infallibility that he resented. Why didn't she set up at
once as a professional clairvoyant and eke out her little income more
successfully? In purely private life such a gift was disconcerting;
her divinations, her evasions disturbed at any rate his own
What disturbed it still further was that he received early in the day
a visit from Mr. Locket, who, leaving him under no illusion as to the
grounds of such an honour, remarked as soon as he had got into the
room or rather while he still panted on the second flight and the
smudged little slavey held open Baron's door, that he had taken up
his young friend's invitation to look at Sir Dominick Ferrand's
letters for himself. Peter drew them forth with a promptitude
intended to show that he recognised the commercial character of the
call and without attenuating the inconsequence of this departure from
the last determination he had expressed to Mr. Locket. He showed his
visitor the davenport and the hidden recess, and he smoked a
cigarette, humming softly, with a sense of unwonted advantage and
triumph, while the cautious editor sat silent and handled the papers.
For all his caution Mr. Locket was unable to keep a warmer light out
of his judicial eye as he said to Baron at last with sociable
brevity--a tone that took many things for granted: "I'll take them
home with me--they require much attention."
The young man looked at him a moment. "Do you think they're
genuine?" He didn't mean to be mocking, he meant not to be; but the
words sounded so to his own ear, and he could see that they produced
that effect on Mr. Locket.
"I can't in the least determine. I shall have to go into them at my
leisure, and that's why I ask you to lend them to me."
He had shuffled the papers together with a movement charged, while he
spoke, with the air of being preliminary to that of thrusting them
into a little black bag which he had brought with him and which,
resting on the shelf of the davenport, struck Peter, who viewed it
askance, as an object darkly editorial. It made our young man,
somehow, suddenly apprehensive; the advantage of which he had just
been conscious was about to be transferred by a quiet process of
legerdemain to a person who already had advantages enough. Baron, in
short, felt a deep pang of anxiety; he couldn't have said why. Mr.
Locket took decidedly too many things for granted, and the explorer
of Sir Dominick Ferrand's irregularities remembered afresh how clear
he had been after all about his indisposition to traffic in them. He
asked his visitor to what end he wished to remove the letters, since
on the one hand there was no question now of the article in the
Promiscuous which was to reveal their existence, and on the other he
himself, as their owner, had a thousand insurmountable scruples about
putting them into circulation.
Mr. Locket looked over his spectacles as over the battlements of a
fortress. "I'm not thinking of the end--I'm thinking of the
beginning. A few glances have assured me that such documents ought
to be submitted to some competent eye."
"Oh, you mustn't show them to anyone!" Baron exclaimed.
"You may think me presumptuous, but the eye that I venture to allude
to in those terms--"
"Is the eye now fixed so terribly on ME?" Peter laughingly
interrupted. "Oh, it would be interesting, I confess, to know how
they strike a man of your acuteness!" It had occurred to him that by
such a concession he might endear himself to a literary umpire
hitherto implacable. There would be no question of his publishing
Sir Dominick Ferrand, but he might, in due acknowledgment of services
rendered, form the habit of publishing Peter Baron. "How long would
it be your idea to retain them?" he inquired, in a manner which, he
immediately became aware, was what incited Mr. Locket to begin
stuffing the papers into his bag. With this perception he came
quickly closer and, laying his hand on the gaping receptacle, lightly
drew its two lips together. In this way the two men stood for a few
seconds, touching, almost in the attitude of combat, looking hard
into each other's eyes.
The tension was quickly relieved however by the surprised flush which
mantled on Mr. Locket's brow. He fell back a few steps with an
injured dignity that might have been a protest against physical
violence. "Really, my dear young sir, your attitude is tantamount to
an accusation of intended bad faith. Do you think I want to steal
the confounded things?" In reply to such a challenge Peter could
only hastily declare that he was guilty of no discourteous suspicion-
-he only wanted a limit named, a pledge of every precaution against
accident. Mr. Locket admitted the justice of the demand, assured him
he would restore the property within three days, and completed, with
Peter's assistance, his little arrangements for removing it
discreetly. When he was ready, his treacherous reticule distended
with its treasures, he gave a lingering look at the inscrutable
davenport. "It's how they ever got into that thing that puzzles
"There was some concatenation of circumstances that would doubtless
seem natural enough if it were explained, but that one would have to
remount the stream of time to ascertain. To one course I have
definitely made up my mind: not to make any statement or any inquiry
at the shop. I simply accept the mystery," said Peter, rather
"That would be thought a cheap escape if you were to put it into a
story," Mr. Locket smiled.
"Yes, I shouldn't offer the story to YOU. I shall be impatient till
I see my papers again," the young man called out, as his visitor
That evening, by the last delivery, he received, under the Dover
postmark, a letter that was not from Miss Teagle. It was a slightly
confused but altogether friendly note, written that morning after
breakfast, the ostensible purpose of which was to thank him for the
amiability of his visit, to express regret at any appearance the
writer might have had of meddling with what didn't concern her, and
to let him know that the evening before, after he had left her, she
had in a moment of inspiration got hold of the tail of a really
musical idea--a perfect accompaniment for the song he had so kindly
given her. She had scrawled, as a specimen, a few bars at the end of
her note, mystic, mocking musical signs which had no sense for her
correspondent. The whole letter testified to a restless but rather
pointless desire to remain in communication with him. In answering
her, however, which he did that night before going to bed, it was on
this bright possibility of their collaboration, its advantages for
the future of each of them, that Baron principally expatiated. He
spoke of this future with an eloquence of which he would have
defended the sincerity, and drew of it a picture extravagantly rich.
The next morning, as he was about to settle himself to tasks for some
time terribly neglected, with a sense that after all it was rather a
relief not to be sitting so close to Sir Dominick Ferrand, who had
become dreadfully distracting; at the very moment at which he
habitually addressed his preliminary invocation to the muse, he was
agitated by the arrival of a telegram which proved to be an urgent
request from Mr. Locket that he would immediately come down and see
him. This represented, for poor Baron, whose funds were very low,
another morning sacrificed, but somehow it didn't even occur to him
that he might impose his own time upon the editor of the Promiscuous,
the keeper of the keys of renown. He had some of the plasticity of
the raw contributor. He gave the muse another holiday, feeling she
was really ashamed to take it, and in course of time found himself in
Mr. Locket's own chair at Mr. Locket's own table--so much nobler an
expanse than the slippery slope of the davenport--considering with
quick intensity, in the white flash of certain words just brought out
by his host, the quantity of happiness, of emancipation that might
reside in a hundred pounds.
Yes, that was what it meant: Mr. Locket, in the twenty-four hours,
had discovered so much in Sir Dominick's literary remains that his
visitor found him primed with an offer. A hundred pounds would be
paid him that day, that minute, and no questions would be either
asked or answered. "I take all the risks, I take all the risks," the
editor of the Promiscuous repeated. The letters were out on the
table, Mr. Locket was on the hearthrug, like an orator on a platform,
and Peter, under the influence of his sudden ultimatum, had dropped,
rather weakly, into the seat which happened to be nearest and which,
as he became conscious it moved on a pivot, he whirled round so as to
enable himself to look at his tempter with an eye intended to be
cold. What surprised him most was to find Mr. Locket taking exactly
the line about the expediency of publication which he would have
expected Mr. Locket not to take. "Hush it all up; a barren scandal,
an offence that can't be remedied, is the thing in the world that
least justifies an airing--" some such line as that was the line he
would have thought natural to a man whose life was spent in weighing
questions of propriety and who had only the other day objected, in
the light of this virtue, to a work of the most disinterested art.
But the author of that incorruptible masterpiece had put his finger
on the place in saying to his interlocutor on the occasion of his
last visit that, if given to the world in the pages of the
Promiscuous, Sir Dominick's aberrations would sell the edition. It
was not necessary for Mr. Locket to reiterate to his young friend his
phrase about their making a sensation. If he wished to purchase the
"rights," as theatrical people said, it was not to protect a
celebrated name or to lock them up in a cupboard. That formula of
Baron's covered all the ground, and one edition was a low estimate of
the probable performance of the magazine.
Peter left the letters behind him and, on withdrawing from the
editorial presence, took a long walk on the Embankment. His
impressions were at war with each other--he was flurried by
possibilities of which he yet denied the existence. He had consented
to trust Mr. Locket with the papers a day or two longer, till he
should have thought out the terms on which he might--in the event of
certain occurrences--be induced to dispose of them. A hundred pounds
were not this gentleman's last word, nor perhaps was mere unreasoning
intractability Peter's own. He sighed as he took no note of the
pictures made by barges--sighed because it all might mean money. He
needed money bitterly; he owed it in disquieting quarters. Mr.
Locket had put it before him that he had a high responsibility--that
he might vindicate the disfigured truth, contribute a chapter to the
history of England. "You haven't a right to suppress such momentous
facts," the hungry little editor had declared, thinking how the
series (he would spread it into three numbers) would be the talk of
the town. If Peter had money he might treat himself to ardour, to
bliss. Mr. Locket had said, no doubt justly enough, that there were
ever so many questions one would have to meet should one venture to
play so daring a game. These questions, embarrassments, dangers--the
danger, for instance, of the cropping-up of some lurking litigious
relative--he would take over unreservedly and bear the brunt of
dealing with. It was to be remembered that the papers were
discredited, vitiated by their childish pedigree; such a preposterous
origin, suggesting, as he had hinted before, the feeble ingenuity of
a third-rate novelist, was a thing he should have to place himself at
the positive disadvantage of being silent about. He would rather
give no account of the matter at all than expose himself to the
ridicule that such a story would infallibly excite. Couldn't one see
them in advance, the clever, taunting things the daily and weekly
papers would say? Peter Baron had his guileless side, but he felt,
as he worried with a stick that betrayed him the granite parapets of
the Thames, that he was not such a fool as not to know how Mr. Locket
would "work" the mystery of his marvellous find. Nothing could help
it on better with the public than the impenetrability of the secret
attached to it. If Mr. Locket should only be able to kick up dust
enough over the circumstances that had guided his hand his fortune
would literally be made. Peter thought a hundred pounds a low bid,
yet he wondered how the Promiscuous could bring itself to offer such
a sum--so large it loomed in the light of literary remuneration as
hitherto revealed to our young man. The explanation of this anomaly
was of course that the editor shrewdly saw a dozen ways of getting
his money back. There would be in the "sensation," at a later stage,
the making of a book in large type--the book of the hour; and the
profits of this scandalous volume or, if one preferred the name, this
reconstruction, before an impartial posterity, of a great historical
humbug, the sum "down," in other words, that any lively publisher
would give for it, figured vividly in Mr. Locket's calculations. It
was therefore altogether an opportunity of dealing at first hand with
the lively publisher that Peter was invited to forego. Peter gave a
masterful laugh, rejoicing in his heart that, on the spot, in the
repaire he had lately quitted, he had not been tempted by a figure
that would have approximately represented the value of his property.
It was a good job, he mentally added as he turned his face homeward,
that there was so little likelihood of his having to struggle with
that particular pressure.
When, half an hour later, he approached Jersey Villas, he noticed
that the house-door was open; then, as he reached the gate, saw it
make a frame for an unexpected presence. Mrs. Ryves, in her bonnet
and jacket, looked out from it as if she were expecting something--as
if she had been passing to and fro to watch. Yet when he had
expressed to her that it was a delightful welcome she replied that
she had only thought there might possibly be a cab in sight. He
offered to go and look for one, upon which it appeared that after all
she was not, as yet at least, in need. He went back with her into
her sitting-room, where she let him know that within a couple of days
she had seen clearer what was best; she had determined to quit Jersey
Villas and had come up to take away her things, which she had just
been packing and getting together.
"I wrote you last night a charming letter in answer to yours," Baron
said. "You didn't mention in yours that you were coming up."
"It wasn't your answer that brought me. It hadn't arrived when I
"You'll see when you get back that my letter is charming."
"I daresay." Baron had observed that the room was not, as she had
intimated, in confusion--Mrs. Ryves's preparations for departure were
not striking. She saw him look round and, standing in front of the
fireless grate with her hands behind her, she suddenly asked: "Where
have you come from now?"
"From an interview with a literary friend."
"What are you concocting between you?"
"Nothing at all. We've fallen out--we don't agree."
"Is he a publisher?"
"He's an editor."
"Well, I'm glad you don't agree. I don't know what he wants, but,
whatever it is, don't do it."
"He must do what _I_ want!" said Baron.
"And what's that?"
"Oh, I'll tell you when he has done it!" Baron begged her to let him
hear the "musical idea" she had mentioned in her letter; on which she
took off her hat and jacket and, seating herself at her piano, gave
him, with a sentiment of which the very first notes thrilled him, the
accompaniment of his song. She phrased the words with her sketchy
sweetness, and he sat there as if he had been held in a velvet vise,
throbbing with the emotion, irrecoverable ever after in its
freshness, of the young artist in the presence for the first time of
"production"--the proofs of his book, the hanging of his picture, the
rehearsal of his play. When she had finished he asked again for the
same delight, and then for more music and for more; it did him such a
world of good, kept him quiet and safe, smoothed out the creases of
his spirit. She dropped her own experiments and gave him immortal
things, and he lounged there, pacified and charmed, feeling the mean
little room grow large and vague and happy possibilities come back.
Abruptly, at the piano, she called out to him: "Those papers of
yours--the letters you found--are not in the house?"
"No, they're not in the house."
"I was sure of it! No matter--it's all right!" she added. She
herself was pacified--trouble was a false note. Later he was on the
point of asking her how she knew the objects she had mentioned were
not in the house; but he let it pass. The subject was a profitless
riddle--a puzzle that grew grotesquely bigger, like some monstrosity
seen in the darkness, as one opened one's eyes to it. He closed his
eyes--he wanted another vision. Besides, she had shown him that she
had extraordinary senses--her explanation would have been stranger
than the fact. Moreover they had other things to talk about, in
particular the question of her putting off her return to Dover till
the morrow and dispensing meanwhile with the valuable protection of
Sidney. This was indeed but another face of the question of her
dining with him somewhere that evening (where else should she dine?)-
-accompanying him, for instance, just for an hour of Bohemia, in
their deadly respectable lives, to a jolly little place in Soho.
Mrs. Ryves declined to have her life abused, but in fact, at the
proper moment, at the jolly little place, to which she did accompany
him--it dealt in macaroni and Chianti--the pair put their elbows on
the crumpled cloth and, face to face, with their little emptied
coffee-cups pushed away and the young man's cigarette lighted by her
command, became increasingly confidential. They went afterwards to
the theatre, in cheap places, and came home in "busses" and under
On the way back Peter Baron turned something over in his mind as he
had never turned anything before; it was the question of whether, at
the end, she would let him come into her sitting-room for five
minutes. He felt on this point a passion of suspense and impatience,
and yet for what would it be but to tell her how poor he was? This
was literally the moment to say it, so supremely depleted had the
hour of Bohemia left him. Even Bohemia was too expensive, and yet in
the course of the day his whole temper on the subject of certain
fitnesses had changed. At Jersey Villas (it was near midnight, and
Mrs. Ryves, scratching a light for her glimmering taper, had said:
"Oh, yes, come in for a minute if you like!"), in her precarious
parlour, which was indeed, after the brilliances of the evening, a
return to ugliness and truth, she let him stand while he explained
that he had certainly everything in the way of fame and fortune still
to gain, but that youth and love and faith and energy--to say nothing
of her supreme dearness--were all on his side. Why, if one's
beginnings were rough, should one add to the hardness of the
conditions by giving up the dream which, if she would only hear him
out, would make just the blessed difference? Whether Mrs. Ryves
heard him out or not is a circumstance as to which this chronicle
happens to be silent; but after he had got possession of both her
hands and breathed into her face for a moment all the intensity of
his tenderness--in the relief and joy of utterance he felt it carry
him like a rising flood--she checked him with better reasons, with a
cold, sweet afterthought in which he felt there was something deep.
Her procrastinating head-shake was prettier than ever, yet it had
never meant so many fears and pains--impossibilities and memories,
independences and pieties, and a sort of uncomplaining ache for the
ruin of a friendship that had been happy. She had liked him--if she
hadn't she wouldn't have let him think so!--but she protested that
she had not, in the odious vulgar sense, "encouraged" him. Moreover
she couldn't talk of such things in that place, at that hour, and she
begged him not to make her regret her good-nature in staying over.
There were peculiarities in her position, considerations
insurmountable. She got rid of him with kind and confused words, and
afterwards, in the dull, humiliated night, he felt that he had been
put in his place. Women in her situation, women who after having
really loved and lost, usually lived on into the new dawns in which
old ghosts steal away. But there was something in his whimsical
neighbour that struck him as terribly invulnerable.
"I've had time to look a little further into what we're prepared to
do, and I find the case is one in which I should consider the
advisability of going to an extreme length," said Mr. Locket. Jersey
Villas the next morning had had the privilege of again receiving the
editor of the Promiscuous, and he sat once more at the davenport,
where the bone of contention, in the shape of a large, loose heap of
papers that showed how much they had been handled, was placed well in
view. "We shall see our way to offering you three hundred, but we
shouldn't, I must positively assure you, see it a single step
Peter Baron, in his dressing-gown and slippers, with his hands in his
pockets, crept softly about the room, repeating, below his breath and
with inflections that for his own sake he endeavoured to make
humorous: "Three hundred--three hundred." His state of mind was far
from hilarious, for he felt poor and sore and disappointed; but he
wanted to prove to himself that he was gallant--was made, in general
and in particular, of undiscourageable stuff. The first thing he had
been aware of on stepping into his front room was that a four-wheeled
cab, with Mrs. Ryves's luggage upon it, stood at the door of No. 3.
Permitting himself, behind his curtain, a pardonable peep, he saw the
mistress of his thoughts come out of the house, attended by Mrs.
Bundy, and take her place in the modest vehicle. After this his eyes
rested for a long time on the sprigged cotton back of the landlady,
who kept bobbing at the window of the cab an endlessly moralising old
head. Mrs. Ryves had really taken flight--he had made Jersey Villas
impossible for her--but Mrs. Bundy, with a magnanimity unprecedented
in the profession, seemed to express a belief in the purity of her
motives. Baron felt that his own separation had been, for the
present at least, effected; every instinct of delicacy prompted him
to stand back.
Mr. Locket talked a long time, and Peter Baron listened and waited.
He reflected that his willingness to listen would probably excite
hopes in his visitor--hopes which he himself was ready to contemplate
without a scruple. He felt no pity for Mr. Locket and had no
consideration for his suspense or for his possible illusions; he only
felt sick and forsaken and in want of comfort and of money. Yet it
was a kind of outrage to his dignity to have the knife held to his
throat, and he was irritated above all by the ground on which Mr.
Locket put the question--the ground of a service rendered to
historical truth. It might be--he wasn't clear; it might be--the
question was deep, too deep, probably, for his wisdom; at any rate he
had to control himself not to interrupt angrily such dry, interested
palaver, the false voice of commerce and of cant. He stared
tragically out of the window and saw the stupid rain begin to fall;
the day was duller even than his own soul, and Jersey Villas looked
so sordidly hideous that it was no wonder Mrs. Ryves couldn't endure
them. Hideous as they were he should have to tell Mrs. Bundy in the
course of the day that he was obliged to seek humbler quarters.
Suddenly he interrupted Mr. Locket; he observed to him: "I take it
that if I should make you this concession the hospitality of the
Promiscuous would be by that very fact unrestrictedly secured to me."
Mr. Locket stared. "Hospitality--secured?" He thumbed the
proposition as if it were a hard peach.
"I mean that of course you wouldn't--in courtsey, in gratitude--keep
on declining my things."
"I should give them my best attention--as I've always done in the
Peter Baron hesitated. It was a case in which there would have
seemed to be some chance for the ideally shrewd aspirant in such an
advantage as he possessed; but after a moment the blood rushed into
his face with the shame of the idea of pleading for his productions
in the name of anything but their merit. It was as if he had
stupidly uttered evil of them. Nevertheless be added the
"Would you for instance publish my little story?"
"The one I read (and objected to some features of) the other day? Do
you mean--a--with the alteration?" Mr. Locket continued.
"Oh, no, I mean utterly without it. The pages you want altered
contain, as I explained to you very lucidly, I think, the very raison
d'etre of the work, and it would therefore, it seems to me, be an
imbecility of the first magnitude to cancel them." Peter had really
renounced all hope that his critic would understand what he meant,
but, under favour of circumstances, he couldn't forbear to taste the
luxury, which probably never again would come within his reach, of
being really plain, for one wild moment, with an editor.
Mr. Locket gave a constrained smile. "Think of the scandal, Mr.
"But isn't this other scandal just what you're going in for?"
"It will be a great public service."
"You mean it will be a big scandal, whereas my poor story would be a
very small one, and that it's only out of a big one that money's to
Mr. Locket got up--he too had his dignity to vindicate. "Such a sum
as I offer you ought really to be an offset against all claims."
"Very good--I don't mean to make any, since you don't really care for
what I write. I take note of your offer," Peter pursued, "and I
engage to give you to-night (in a few words left by my own hand at
your house) my absolutely definite and final reply."
Mr. Locket's movements, as he hovered near the relics of the eminent
statesman, were those of some feathered parent fluttering over a
threatened nest. If he had brought his huddled brood back with him
this morning it was because he had felt sure enough of closing the
bargain to be able to be graceful. He kept a glittering eye on the
papers and remarked that he was afraid that before leaving them he
must elicit some assurance that in the meanwhile Peter would not
place them in any other hands. Peter, at this, gave a laugh of
harsher cadence than he intended, asking, justly enough, on what
privilege his visitor rested such a demand and why he himself was
disqualified from offering his wares to the highest bidder. "Surely
you wouldn't hawk such things about?" cried Mr. Locket; but before
Baron had time to retort cynically he added: "I'll publish your
"Oh, thank you!"
"I'll publish anything you'll send me," Mr. Locket continued, as he
went out. Peter had before this virtually given his word that for
the letters he would treat only with the Promiscuous.
The young man passed, during a portion of the rest of the day, the
strangest hours of his life. Yet he thought of them afterwards not
as a phase of temptation, though they had been full of the emotion
that accompanies an intense vision of alternatives. The struggle was
already over; it seemed to him that, poor as he was, he was not poor
enough to take Mr. Locket's money. He looked at the opposed courses
with the self-possession of a man who has chosen, but this self-
possession was in itself the most exquisite of excitements. It was
really a high revulsion and a sort of noble pity. He seemed indeed
to have his finger upon the pulse of history and to be in the secret
of the gods. He had them all in his hand, the tablets and the scales
and the torch. He couldn't keep a character together, but he might
easily pull one to pieces. That would be "creative work" of a kind--
he could reconstruct the character less pleasingly, could show an
unknown side of it. Mr. Locket had had a good deal to say about
responsibility; and responsibility in truth sat there with him all
the morning, while he revolved in his narrow cage and, watching the
crude spring rain on the windows, thought of the dismalness to which,
at Dover, Mrs. Ryves was going back. This influence took in fact the
form, put on the physiognomy of poor Sir Dominick Ferrand; he was at
present as perceptible in it, as coldly and strangely personal, as if
he had been a haunting ghost and had risen beside his own old
hearthstone. Our friend was accustomed to his company and indeed had
spent so many hours in it of late, following him up at the museum and
comparing his different portraits, engravings and lithographs, in
which there seemed to be conscious, pleading eyes for the betrayer,
that their queer intimacy had grown as close as an embrace. Sir
Dominick was very dumb, but he was terrible in his dependence, and
Peter would not have encouraged him by so much curiosity nor
reassured him by so much deference had it not been for the young
man's complete acceptance of the impossibility of getting out of a
tight place by exposing an individual. It didn't matter that the
individual was dead; it didn't matter that he was dishonest. Peter
felt him sufficiently alive to suffer; he perceived the rectification
of history so conscientiously desired by Mr. Locket to be somehow for
himself not an imperative task. It had come over him too definitely
that in a case where one's success was to hinge upon an act of
extradition it would minister most to an easy conscience to let the
success go. No, no--even should he be starving he couldn't make
money out of Sir Dominick's disgrace. He was almost surprised at the
violence of the horror with which, as he shuffled mournfully about,
the idea of any such profit inspired him. What was Sir Dominick to
him after all? He wished he had never come across him.
In one of his brooding pauses at the window--the window out of which
never again apparently should he see Mrs. Ryves glide across the
little garden with the step for which he had liked her from the
first--he became aware that the rain was about to intermit and the
sun to make some grudging amends. This was a sign that he might go
out; he had a vague perception that there were things to be done. He
had work to look for, and a cheaper lodging, and a new idea (every
idea he had ever cherished had left him), in addition to which the
promised little word was to be dropped at Mr. Locket's door. He
looked at his watch and was surprised at the hour, for he had nothing
but a heartache to show for so much time. He would have to dress
quickly, but as he passed to his bedroom his eye was caught by the
little pyramid of letters which Mr. Locket had constructed on his
davenport. They startled him and, staring at them, he stopped for an
instant, half-amused, half-annoyed at their being still in existence.
He had so completely destroyed them in spirit that he had taken the
act for granted, and he was now reminded of the orderly stages of
which an intention must consist to be sincere. Baron went at the
papers with all his sincerity, and at his empty grate (where there
lately had been no fire and he had only to remove a horrible ornament
of tissue-paper dear to Mrs. Bundy) he burned the collection with
infinite method. It made him feel happier to watch the worst pages
turn to illegible ashes--if happiness be the right word to apply to
his sense, in the process, of something so crisp and crackling that
it suggested the death-rustle of bank-notes.
When ten minutes later he came back into his sitting-room, he seemed
to himself oddly, unexpectedly in the presence of a bigger view. It
was as if some interfering mass had been so displaced that he could
see more sky and more country. Yet the opposite houses were
naturally still there, and if the grimy little place looked lighter
it was doubtless only because the rain had indeed stopped and the sun
was pouring in. Peter went to the window to open it to the altered
air, and in doing so beheld at the garden gate the humble "growler"
in which a few hours before he had seen Mrs. Ryves take her
departure. It was unmistakable--he remembered the knock-kneed white
horse; but this made the fact that his friend's luggage no longer
surmounted it only the more mystifying. Perhaps the cabman had
already removed the luggage--he was now on his box smoking the short
pipe that derived relish from inaction paid for. As Peter turned
into the room again his ears caught a knock at his own door, a knock
explained, as soon as he had responded, by the hard breathing of Mrs.
"Please, sir, it's to say she've come back."
"What has she come back for?" Baron's question sounded ungracious,
but his heartache had given another throb, and he felt a dread of
another wound. It was like a practical joke.
"I think it's for you, sir," said Mrs. Bundy. "She'll see you for a
moment, if you'll be so good, in the old place."
Peter followed his hostess downstairs, and Mrs. Bundy ushered him,
with her company flourish, into the apartment she had fondly
"I went away this morning, and I've only returned for an instant,"
said Mrs. Ryves, as soon as Mrs. Bundy had closed the door. He saw
that she was different now; something had happened that had made her
"Have you been all the way to Dover and back?"
"No, but I've been to Victoria. I've left my luggage there--I've
been driving about."
"I hope you've enjoyed it."
"Very much. I've been to see Mr. Morrish."
"The musical publisher. I showed him our song. I played it for him,
and he's delighted with it. He declares it's just the thing. He has
given me fifty pounds. I think he believes in us," Mrs. Ryves went
on, while Baron stared at the wonder--too sweet to be safe, it seemed
to him as yet--of her standing there again before him and speaking of
what they had in common. "Fifty pounds! fifty pounds!" she
exclaimed, fluttering at him her happy cheque. She had come back,
the first thing, to tell him, and of course his share of the money
would be the half. She was rosy, jubilant, natural, she chattered
like a happy woman. She said they must do more, ever so much more.
Mr. Morrish had practically promised he would take anything that was
as good as that. She had kept her cab because she was going to
Dover; she couldn't leave the others alone. It was a vehicle infirm
and inert, but Baron, after a little, appreciated its pace, for she
had consented to his getting in with her and driving, this time in
earnest, to Victoria. She had only come to tell him the good news--
she repeated this assurance more than once. They talked of it so
profoundly that it drove everything else for the time out of his
head--his duty to Mr. Locket, the remarkable sacrifice he had just
achieved, and even the odd coincidence, matching with the oddity of
all the others, of her having reverted to the house again, as if with
one of her famous divinations, at the very moment the trumpery
papers, the origin really of their intimacy, had ceased to exist.
But she, on her side, also had evidently forgotten the trumpery
papers: she never mentioned them again, and Peter Baron never
boasted of what he had done with them. He was silent for a while,
from curiosity to see if her fine nerves had really given her a hint;
and then later, when it came to be a question of his permanent
attitude, he was silent, prodigiously, religiously, tremulously
silent, in consequence of an extraordinary conversation that he had
This conversation took place at Dover, when he went down to give her
the money for which, at Mr. Morrish's bank, he had exchanged the
cheque she had left with him. That cheque, or rather certain things
it represented, had made somehow all the difference in their
relations. The difference was huge, and Baron could think of nothing
but this confirmed vision of their being able to work fruitfully
together that would account for so rapid a change. She didn't talk
of impossibilities now--she didn't seem to want to stop him off; only
when, the day following his arrival at Dover with the fifty pounds
(he had after all to agree to share them with her--he couldn't expect
her to take a present of money from him), he returned to the question
over which they had had their little scene the night they dined
together--on this occasion (he had brought a portmanteau and he was
staying) she mentioned that there was something very particular she
had it on her conscience to tell him before letting him commit
himself. There dawned in her face as she approached the subject a
light of warning that frightened him; it was charged with something
so strange that for an instant he held his breath. This flash of
ugly possibilities passed however, and it was with the gesture of
taking still tenderer possession of her, checked indeed by the grave,
important way she held up a finger, that he answered: "Tell me
"You must know what I am--who I am; you must know especially what I'm
not! There's a name for it, a hideous, cruel name. It's not my
fault! Others have known, I've had to speak of it--it has made a
great difference in my life. Surely you must have guessed!" she went
on, with the thinnest quaver of irony, letting him now take her hand,
which felt as cold as her hard duty. "Don't you see I've no
belongings, no relations, no friends, nothing at all, in all the
world, of my own? I was only a poor girl."
"A poor girl?" Baron was mystified, touched, distressed, piecing
dimly together what she meant, but feeling, in a great surge of pity,
that it was only something more to love her for.
"My mother--my poor mother," said Mrs. Ryves.
She paused with this, and through gathering tears her eyes met his as
if to plead with him to understand. He understood, and drew her
closer, but she kept herself free still, to continue: "She was a
poor girl--she was only a governess; she was alone, she thought he
loved her. He did--I think it was the only happiness she ever knew.
But she died of it."
"Oh, I'm so glad you tell me--it's so grand of you!" Baron murmured.
"Then--your father?" He hesitated, as if with his hands on old
"He had his own troubles, but he was kind to her. It was all misery
and folly--he was married. He wasn't happy--there were good reasons,
I believe, for that. I know it from letters, I know it from a person
who's dead. Everyone is dead now--it's too far off. That's the only
good thing. He was very kind to me; I remember him, though I didn't
know then, as a little girl, who he was. He put me with some very
good people--he did what he could for me. I think, later, his wife
knew--a lady who came to see me once after his death. I was a very
little girl, but I remember many things. What he could he did--
something that helped me afterwards, something that helps me now. I
think of him with a strange pity--I SEE him!" said Mrs. Ryves, with
the faint past in her eyes. "You mustn't say anything against him,"
she added, gently and gravely.
"Never--never; for he has only made it more of a rapture to care for
"You must wait, you must think; we must wait together," she went on.
"You can't tell, and you must give me time. Now that you know, it's
all right; but you had to know. Doesn't it make us better friends?"
asked Mrs. Ryves, with a tired smile which had the effect of putting
the whole story further and further away. The next moment, however,
she added quickly, as if with the sense that it couldn't be far
enough: "You don't know, you can't judge, you must let it settle.
Think of it, think of it; oh you will, and leave it so. I must have
time myself, oh I must! Yes, you must believe me."
She turned away from him, and he remained looking at her a moment.
"Ah, how I shall work for you!" he exclaimed.
"You must work for yourself; I'll help you." Her eyes had met his
eyes again, and she added, hesitating, thinking: "You had better
know, perhaps, who he was."
Baron shook his head, smiling confidently. "I don't care a straw."
"I do--a little. He was a great man."
"There must indeed have been some good in him."
"He was a high celebrity. You've often heard of him."
Baron wondered an instant. "I've no doubt you're a princess!" he
said with a laugh. She made him nervous.
"I'm not ashamed of him. He was Sir Dominick Ferrand."
Baron saw in her face, in a few seconds, that she had seen something
in his. He knew that he stared, then turned pale; it had the effect
of a powerful shock. He was cold for an instant, as he had just
found her, with the sense of danger, the confused horror of having
dealt a blow. But the blood rushed back to its courses with his
still quicker consciousness of safety, and he could make out, as he
recovered his balance, that his emotion struck her simply as a
violent surprise. He gave a muffled murmur: "Ah, it's you, my
beloved!" which lost itself as he drew her close and held her long,
in the intensity of his embrace and the wonder of his escape. It
took more than a minute for him to say over to himself often enough,
with his hidden face: "Ah, she must never, never know!"
She never knew; she only learned, when she asked him casually, that
he had in fact destroyed the old documents she had had such a comic
caprice about. The sensibility, the curiosity they had had the queer
privilege of exciting in her had lapsed with the event as
irresponsibly as they had arisen, and she appeared to have forgotten,
or rather to attribute now to other causes, the agitation and several
of the odd incidents that accompanied them. They naturally gave
Peter Baron rather more to think about, much food, indeed, for
clandestine meditation, some of which, in spite of the pains he took
not to be caught, was noted by his friend and interpreted, to his
knowledge, as depression produced by the long probation she succeeded
in imposing on him. He was more patient than she could guess, with
all her guessing, for if he was put to the proof she herself was not
left undissected. It came back to him again and again that if the
documents he had burned proved anything they proved that Sir Dominick
Ferrand's human errors were not all of one order. The woman he loved
was the daughter of her father, he couldn't get over that. What was
more to the point was that as he came to know her better and better--
for they did work together under Mr. Morrish's protection--his
affection was a quantity still less to be neglected. He sometimes
wondered, in the light of her general straightness (their marriage
had brought out even more than he believed there was of it) whether
the relics in the davenport were genuine. That piece of furniture is
still almost as useful to him as Mr. Morrish's patronage. There is a
tremendous run, as this gentlemen calls it, on several of their
songs. Baron nevertheless still tries his hand also at prose, and
his offerings are now not always declined by the magazines. But he
has never approached the Promiscuous again. This periodical
published in due course a highly eulogistic study of the remarkable
career of Sir Dominick Ferrand.