The Land of Mist, by Arthur Conan Doyle

11. Where Silas Linden Comes Into His Own

SILAS LINDEN, prize-fighter and fake-medium, had had some good days in his life — days crowded with incidents for good or evil. There was the time when he had backed Rosalind at 100 to 1 in the Oaks and had spent twenty-four hours of brutal debauchery on the strength of it. There was the day also when his favourite right uppercut had connected in most accurate and rhythmical fashion with the protruded chin of Bull Wardell of Whitechapel, whereby Silas put himself in the way of a Lonsdale Belt and a try for the championship. But never in all his varied career had he such a day as this supreme one, so it is worth our while to follow him to the end of it. Fanatical believers have urged that it is dangerous to cross the path of spiritual things when the heart is not clean. Silas Linden’s name might be added to their list of examples, but his cup of sin was full and overflowing before the judgment fell.

He emerged from the room of Algernon Mailey with every reason to know that Lord Roxton’s grip was as muscular as ever. In the excitement of the struggle he had hardly realized his injuries, but now he stood outside the door with his hand to his bruised throat and a hoarse stream of oaths pouring through it. His breast was aching also where Malone had planted his knee, and even the successful blow which had struck Mailey down had brought retribution, or it had jarred that injured hand of which he had complained to his brother. Altogether, if Silas Linden was in a most cursed temper, there was a very good reason for his mood.

“I’ll get you one at a time,” he growled, looking back with his angry pigs’ eyes at the outer door of the flats. “You wait my lads, and see!” Then with sudden purpose he swung off down the street.

It was to the Bardsley Square Police Station that he made his way, and he found the jovial, rubicund, black-moustached Inspector Murphy seated at his desk.

“Well, what do you want?” asked the inspector in no very friendly voice.

“I hear you got that medium right and proper.”

“Yes, we did. I learn he was your brother.”

“That’s neither here not there. I don’t hold with such things in any man. But you got your conviction. What is there for me in it?”

“Not a shilling.”

“What? Wasn’t it I that gave the information? Where would you have been if I had not given you the office?”

“If there had been a fine we might have allowed you something We would have got something, too. Mr. Melrose sent him to gaol. There is nothing for anybody.”

“So say you. I’m damned sure you and those two women got something out of it. Why the hell should I give away my own brother for the sake of the likes of you? You’ll find your own bird next time.”

Murphy was a choleric man with a sense of his own importance. He was not to be bearded thus in his own seat of office. He rose with a very red face.

“I’ll tell you what, Silas Linden, I could find my own bird and never move out of this room. You had best get out of this quick, or you may chance to stay here longer than you like. We’ve had complaints of your treatment of those two children of yours, and the children’s protection folk are taking an interest. Look out that we don’t take an interest, too.”

Silas Linden flung out of the room with his temper hotter than ever, and a couple of rum-and-waters on his way home did not help to appease him. On the contrary, he had always been a man who grew more dangerous in his cups. There were many of his trade who refused to drink with him.

Silas lived in one of a row of small brick houses named Bolton’s Court, lying at the back of Tottenham Court Road. His was the end house of a cul-desac, with the side wall of a huge brewery beyond. These dwellings were very small, which was probably the reason why the inhabitants, both adults and children, spent most of their time in the street. Several of the elders were out now, and as Silas passed under the solitary lamp-post, they scowled at his thick-set figure, for though the morality of Bolton’s Court was of no high order, it was none the less graduated and Silas was at zero. A tall Jewish woman, Rebecca Levi, thin, aquiline and fierce-eyed, lived next to the prizefighter. She was standing at her door now, with a child holding her apron.

“Mr. Linden,” she said as he passed, “them children of yours want more care than they get. Little Margery was in here today. That child don’t get enough to eat.”

“You mind your own business, curse you!” growled Silas. “I’ve told you before now not to push that long, sheeny beak of yours into my affairs. If you was a man I’d know better how to speak to you.”

“If I was a man maybe you wouldn’t dare to speak to me so. I say it’s a shame, Silas Linden, the way them children is treated. If it’s a police-court case, I’ll know what to say.”

“Oh, go to hell!” said Silas, and kicked open his own unlatched door. A big, frowsy woman with a shock of dyed hair and some remains of a florid beauty, now long over-ripe, looked out from the sitting-room door.

“Oh, it’s you, is it?” said she.

“Who did you think it was? The Dook of Wellington?”

“I thought it was a mad bullock maybe got strayin’ down the lane, and buttin’ down our door.”

“Funny, ain’t you?”

“Maybe I am, but I hain’t got much to be funny about. Not a shilling in the ’ouse, nor so much as a pint o’ beer, and these damned children of yours for ever upsettin’ me.”

“What have they been a-doin’ of?” asked Silas with a scowl. When this worthy pair could get no change out of each other, they usually united their forces against the children. He had entered the sitting-room and flung himself down in the wooden armchair.

“They’ve been seein’ Number One again.”

“How d’ye know that?”

“I ‘eard ’im say somethin’ to ‘er about it. ‘Mother was there’, ‘e says. Then afterwards ‘e ‘ad one ‘o them sleepy fits.”

“It’s in the family.”

“Yes, it is,” retorted the woman. “If you ‘adn’t sleepy fits you’d get some work to do, like other men.”

“Oh, shut it, woman! What I mean is, that my brother Tom gets them fits, and this lad o’ mine is said to be the livin’ image of his uncle. So he had a trance, had he? What did you do?”

The woman gave an evil grin.

“I did what you did.”

“What, the sealin’-wax again?”

“Not much of it. Just enough to wake ’im. It’s the only way to break ’im of it.”

Silas shrugged his shoulders.

“‘Ave a care, my lass! There is talk of the p’lice, and if they see those burns, you and I may be in the dock together.”

“Silas Linden, you are a fool! Can’t a parent c’rect ‘is own child?”

“Yes, but it ain’t your own child, and stepmothers has a bad name, see? There’s that Jew woman next door. She saw you when you took the clothes’ rope to little Margery last washin’-day. She spoke to me about it and again today about the food.”

“What’s the matter with the food? The greedy little bastards! They had a ‘unch of bread each when I ‘ad my dinner. A bit of real starvin’ would do them no ‘arm, and I would ‘ave less sauce.”

“What, has Willie sauced you?”

“Yes, when ‘e woke up.”

“After you’d dropped the hot sealin’-wax on him?”

“Well, I did it for ‘is good, didn’t I? It was to cure ’im of a bad ‘abit.”

“Wot did he say?”

“Cursed me good and proper, ‘e did. All about his mother — wot ‘is mother would do to me. I’m dam’ well sick of ‘is mother!”

“Don’t say too much about Amy. She was a good woman.”

“So you say now, Silas Linden, but by all accounts you ‘ad a queer way of showin’ it when she was alive.”

“Hold your jaw, woman! I’ve had enough to vex me today without you startin’ your tantrums. You’re jealous of the grave. That’s wot’s the matter with you.”

“And her brats can insult me as they like — me that ‘as cared for you these five years.”

“No, I didn’t say that. If he insulted you, it’s up to me to deal with him. Where’s that strap? Go, fetch him in!”

The woman came across and kissed him.

“I’ve only you, Silas.”

“Oh hell! don’t muck me about. I’m not in the mood. Go and fetch Willie in. You can bring Margery also. It takes the sauce out of her also, for I think she feels it more than he does.”

The woman left the room but was back, in a moment.

“‘E’s off again!” said she. “It fair gets on my nerves to see him. Come ’ere, Silas! ‘Ave a look!”

They went together into the back kitchen. A small fire was smouldering in the grate. Beside it, huddled up in a chair, sat a fair-haired boy of ten. His delicate face was upturned to the ceiling. His eyes were half-closed, and only the whites visible. There was a look of great peace upon his thin, spiritual features. In the corner a poor little cowed mite of a girl, a year or two younger, was gazing with sad, frightened eyes at her brother.

“Looks awful, don’t ‘e?” said the woman. “Don’t seem to belong to this world. I wish to God ‘e’d make a move for the other. ‘E don’t do much good ’ere.”

“Here, wake up!” cried Silas. “None of your foxin’! Wake up! D’ye hear?” He shook him roughly by the shoulder, but the boy still slumbered on. The backs of his hands, which lay upon his lap, were covered with bright scarlet blotches.

“My word, you’ve dropped enough hot wax on him. D’you mean to tell me, Sarah, it took all that to wake him?”

“Maybe I dropped one or two extra for luck. ‘E does aggravate me so that I can ‘ardly ‘old myself. But you wouldn’t believe ‘ow little ‘e can feel when ‘e’s like that. You can ‘owl in ‘is ear.— It’s all lost on ’im. See ’ere!”

She caught the lad by the hair and shook him violently. He groaned and shivered. Then he sank back into his serene trance.

“Say!” cried Silas, stroking his stubbled chin as he looked thoughtfully at his son, “I think there is money in this if it is handled to rights. Wot about a turn on the halls, eh? ‘The Boy Wonder or How is it Done?’ There’s a name for the bills. Then folk know his uncle’s name, so they will be able to take him on trust.”

“I thought you was going into the business yourself.”

“That’s a wash-out,” snarled Silas. “Don’t you talk of it. It’s finished.”

“Been caught out already?”

“I tell you not to talk about it, Woman!” the man shouted. “I’m just in the mood to give you the hidin’ of your life, so don’t you get my goat’ or you’ll be sorry.” He stepped across and pinched the boy’s arm with all his force. “By Cripes, he’s a wonder! Let us see how far it will go.”

He turned to the sinking fire and with the tongs he picked out a half-red ember. This he placed on the boy’s head. There was a smell of burning hair, then of roasting flesh, and suddenly, with a scream of pain, the boy came back to his senses.

“Mother! Mother!” he cried. The girl in the corner took up the cry. They were like two lambs bleating together.

“Damn your mother!” cried the woman, shaking Margery by the collar of her frail black dress. “Stop squallin’, you little stinker!” She struck the child with her open hand across the face. Little Willie ran at her and kicked her shins until a blow from Silas knocked him into the corner. The brute picked up a stick and lashed the two cowering children, while they screamed for mercy, and tried to cover their little bodies from the cruel blows.

“You stop that!” cried a voice in the passage.

“It’s that blasted Jewess!” said the woman. She went to the kitchen door. “What the ‘ell are you doing in our ’ouse? ‘Op it, quick, or it will be the worse for you!”

“If I hear them children cry out once more, I’m off far the police.”

“Get out of it! ‘Op it, I tell you!” The frowsy stepmother bore down in full sail, but the lean, lank Jewess stood her ground. Next instant they met. Mrs. Silas Linden screamed, and staggered back with blood running down her face where four nails had left as many red furrows. Silas’ with an oath, pushed his wife out of the way, seized the intruder round the waist, and slung her bodily through the door. She lay in the roadway with her long gaunt limbs sprawling about like some half-slain fowl. Without rising, she shook her clenched hands in the air and screamed curses at Silas, who slammed the door and left her, while neighbours ran from all sides to hear particulars of the fray. Mrs. Linden, staring through the front blind, saw with some relief that her enemy was able to rise and to limp back to her own door, whence she could be heard delivering a long shrill harangue as to her wrongs. The wrongs of a Jew are not lightly forgotten, for the race can both love and hate.

“She’s all right, Silas. I thought maybe you ‘ad killed ‘er.”

“It’s what she wants, the damned canting sheeny. It’s bad enough to have her in the street without her daring to set foot inside my door. I’ll cut the hide off that young Willie. He’s the cause of it all. Where is he?”

“They ran up to their room. I heard them lock the door.”

“A lot of good that will do them.”

“I wouldn’t touch ’em now, Silas. The neighbours is all up and about and we needn’t ask for trouble.”

“You’re right!” he grumbled. “It will keep till I come back.”

“Where are you goin’?”

“Down to the ‘Admiral Vernon’. There’s a chance of a job as sparrin’ partner to Long Davis. He goes into training on Monday and needs a man of my weight.”

“Well, I’ll expect you when I see you. I get too much of that pub of yours. I know what the ‘Admiral Vernon’ means.”

“It means the only place in God’s earth where I get any peace or rest” said Silas.

“A fat lot I get — or ever ‘ave ‘ad since I married you.”

“That’s right. Grouse away!” he growled. “If grousin’ made a man happy, you’d be the champion.”

He picked up his hat and slouched off down the street, his heavy tread resounding upon the great wooden flap which covered the cellars of the brewery.

Up in a dingy attic two little figures were seated on the side of a wretched straw-stuffed bed, their arms enlacing each other, their cheeks touching, their tears mingling. They had to cry in silence, for any sound might remind the ogre downstairs of their existence. Now and again one would break into an uncontrollable sob, and the other would whisper, “Hush! Hush! Oh hush!” Then suddenly they heard the slam of the outer door and that heavy tread booming over the wooden flap. They squeezed each other in their joy. Perhaps when he came back he might kill them, but for a few short hours at least they were safe from him. As to the woman, she was spiteful and vicious, but she did not seem so deadly as the man. In a dim way they felt that he had hunted their mother into her grave and might do as much for them.

The room was dark save for the light which came through the single dirty window. It cast a bar across the floor, but all round was black shadow. Suddenly the little boy stiffened, clasped his sister with a tighter grip, and stared rigidly into the darkness.

“She’s coming!” he muttered. “She’s coming!” Little Margery clung to him.

“Oh, Wiliie, is it mother?”

“It is a light — a beautiful yellow light. Can you not see it, Margery?”

But the little girl, like all the world, was without vision. To her all was darkness.

“Tell me, Willie,” she whispered, in a solemn voice. She was not really frightened, for many times before had the dead mother returned in the watches of the night to comfort her stricken children.

“Yes. Yes, she is coming now. Oh, mother! Mother!”

“What does she say, Willie?”

“Oh, she is beautiful. She is not crying. She is smiling. It is like the picture we saw of the angel. She looks so happy. Dear, dear mother! Now she is speaking. ‘It is over’, she says. ‘It is all over’. She says it again. Now she beckons with her hand. We are to follow. She has moved to the door.”

“Oh, Willie, I dare not.”

“Yes, yes, she nods her head. She bids us fear nothing Now she has passed through the door. Come, Margery, come, or we shall lose her.”

The two little mites crept across the room and Willie unlocked the door. The mother stood at the head of the stair beckoning them onwards. Step by step they followed her down into an empty kitchen. The woman seemed to have gone out. All was still in the house. The phantom still beckoned them on.”

“We are to go out.”

“Oh, Willie, we have no hats.”

“We must follow, Madge. She is smiling and waving.”

“Father will kill us for this.”

“She shakes her head. She says we are to fear nothing. Come!”

They threw open the door and were in the street. Down the deserted court they followed the gleaming gracious presence, and through a tangle of low streets, and so out into the crowded rush of Tottenham Court Road. Once or twice amid all that blind torrent of humanity, some man or woman, blessed with the precious gift of discernment, would start and stare as if they were aware of an angel presence and of two little white-faced children who followed behind, the boy with fixed, absorbed gaze, the girl glancing ever in terror over her shoulder. Down the long street they passed, then again amid humbler dwellings, and so at last to a quiet drab line of brick houses. On the step of one the spirit had halted.

“We are to knock,” said Willie.

“Oh, Willie, what shall we say? We don’t know them.”

“We are to knock,” he repeated, stoutly. Rat-tat!

“It’s all right, Madge. She is clapping her hands and laughing.”

So it was that Mrs. Tom Linden, sitting lonely in her misery and brooding over her martyr in gaol, was summoned suddenly to the door, and found two little apologetic figures outside it. A few words, a rush of woman’s instinct, and her arms were round the children. These battered little skiffs, who had started their life’s voyage so sadly, had found a harbour of peace where no storm should vex them more.

There were some strange happenings in Bolton’s Court that night. Some folk thought they had no relation to each other. One or two thought they had. The British Law saw nothing and had nothing to say.

In the second last house, a keen, hawklike face peered from behind a window-blind into the darkened street. A shaded candle was behind that fearful face, dark as death, remorseless as the tomb. Behind Rebecca Levi stood a young man whose features showed that he sprang from the same Oriental race. For an hour — for a second hour — the woman had sat without a word, watching, watching. At the entrance to the court there was a hanging lamp which cast a circle of yellow light. It was on this pool of radiance that her brooding eyes were fixed.

Then suddenly she saw what she had waited for. She started and hissed out a word. The young man rushed from the room and into the street. He vanished through a side door into the brewery.

Drunken Silas Linden was coming home. He was in a gloomy, sulken state of befuddlement. A sense of injury filled his mind. He had not gained the billet he sought. His injured hand had been against him. He had hung about the bar waiting for drinks and had got some, but not enough. Now he was in a dangerous mood. Woe to the man, woman or child, who crossed his path! He thought savagely of the Jewess who lived in that darkened house. He thought savagely of all his neighbours. They would stand between him and his children, would they? He would show them. The very next morning he would take them both out into the street and strap them within an inch of their lives. That would show them all what Silas Linden thought of their opinions. Why should he not do it now? If he were to waken the neighbours up with the shrieks of his children, it would show them once for all that they could not defy him with impunity. The idea pleased him. He stepped more briskly out. He was almost at his door when . . .

It was never quite clear how it was that the cellar-flap was not securely fastened that night. The jury were inclined to blame the brewery, but the coroner pointed out that Linden was a heavy man, that he might have fallen on it if he were drunk, and that all reasonable care had been taken. It was an eighteen-foot fall upon jagged stones, and his back was broken. They did not find him till next morning, for, curiously enough, his neighbour, the Jewess, never heard the sound of the accident. The doctor seemed to think that death had not come quickly. There were horrible signs that he had lingered. Down in the darkness, vomiting blood and beer, the man ended his filthy life with a filthy death.

One need not waste words or pity over the woman whom he had left. Relieved from her terrible mate, she returned to that music-hall stage from which he, by force of his virility and bull-like strength, had lured her. She tried to regain her place with:

“Hi! Hi! Hi! I’m the dernier cri, The girl with the cart-wheel hat.”

which was the ditty which had won her her name. But it became too painfully evident that she was anything but the dernier cri, and that she could never get back. Slowly she sank from big halls to small halls, from small halls to pubs, and so ever deeper and deeper, sucked into the awful silent quicksands of life which drew her down and down until that vacuous painted face and frowsy head were seen no more.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:33