In an oasis, or green island, in the red and yellow seas of sand that stretch beyond Europe toward the sunrise, there can be found a rather fantastic contrast, which is none the less typical of such a place, since international treaties have made it an outpost of the British occupation. The site is famous among archaeologists for something that is hardly a monument, but merely a hole in the ground. But it is a round shaft, like that of a well, and probably a part of some great irrigation works of remote and disputed date, perhaps more ancient than anything in that ancient land. There is a green fringe of palm and prickly pear round the black mouth of the well; but nothing of the upper masonry remains except two bulky and battered stones standing like the pillars of a gateway of nowhere, in which some of the more transcendental archaeologists, in certain moods at moonrise or sunset, think they can trace the faint lines of figures or features of more than Babylonian monstrosity; while the more rationalistic archaeologists, in the more rational hours of daylight, see nothing but two shapeless rocks. It may have been noticed, however, that all Englishmen are not archaeologists. Many of those assembled in such a place for official and military purposes have hobbies other than archaeology. And it is a solemn fact that the English in this Eastern exile have contrived to make a small golf links out of the green scrub and sand; with a comfortable clubhouse at one end of it and this primeval monument at the other. They did not actually use this archaic abyss as a bunker, because it was by tradition unfathomable, and even for practical purposes unfathomed. Any sporting projectile sent into it might be counted most literally as a lost ball. But they often sauntered round it in their interludes of talking and smoking cigarettes, and one of them had just come down from the clubhouse to find another gazing somewhat moodily into the well.
Both the Englishmen wore light clothes and white pith helmets and puggrees, but there, for the most part, their resemblance ended. And they both almost simultaneously said the same word, but they said it on two totally different notes of the voice.
“Have you heard the news?” asked the man from the club. “Splendid.”
“Splendid,” replied the man by the well. But the first man pronounced the word as a young man might say it about a woman, and the second as an old man might say it about the weather, not without sincerity, but certainly without fervor.
And in this the tone of the two men was sufficiently typical of them. The first, who was a certain Captain Boyle, was of a bold and boyish type, dark, and with a sort of native heat in his face that did not belong to the atmosphere of the East, but rather to the ardors and ambitions of the West. The other was an older man and certainly an older resident, a civilian official — Horne Fisher; and his drooping eyelids and drooping light mustache expressed all the paradox of the Englishman in the East. He was much too hot to be anything but cool.
Neither of them thought it necessary to mention what it was that was splendid. That would indeed have been superfluous conversation about something that everybody knew. The striking victory over a menacing combination of Turks and Arabs in the north, won by troops under the command of Lord Hastings, the veteran of so many striking victories, was already spread by the newspapers all over the Empire, let alone to this small garrison so near to the battlefield.
“Now, no other nation in the world could have done a thing like that,” cried Captain Boyle, emphatically.
Horne Fisher was still looking silently into the well; a moment later he answered: “We certainly have the art of unmaking mistakes. That’s where the poor old Prussians went wrong. They could only make mistakes and stick to them. There is really a certain talent in unmaking a mistake.”
“What do you mean,” asked Boyle, “what mistakes?”
“Well, everybody knows it looked like biting off more than he could chew,” replied Horne Fisher. It was a peculiarity of Mr. Fisher that he always said that everybody knew things which about one person in two million was ever allowed to hear of. “And it was certainly jolly lucky that Travers turned up so well in the nick of time. Odd how often the right thing’s been done for us by the second in command, even when a great man was first in command. Like Colborne at Waterloo.”
“It ought to add a whole province to the Empire,” observed the other.
“Well, I suppose the Zimmernes would have insisted on it as far as the canal,” observed Fisher, thoughtfully, “though everybody knows adding provinces doesn’t always pay much nowadays.”
Captain Boyle frowned in a slightly puzzled fashion. Being cloudily conscious of never having heard of the Zimmernes in his life, he could only remark, stolidly:
“Well, one can’t be a Little Englander.”
Horne Fisher smiled, and he had a pleasant smile.
“Every man out here is a Little Englander,” he said. “He wishes he were back in Little England.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’m afraid,” said the younger man, rather suspiciously. “One would think you didn’t really admire Hastings or — or — anything.”
“I admire him no end,” replied Fisher. “He’s by far the best man for this post; he understands the Moslems and can do anything with them. That’s why I’m all against pushing Travers against him, merely because of this last affair.”
“I really don’t understand what you’re driving at,” said the other, frankly.
“Perhaps it isn’t worth understanding,” answered Fisher, lightly, “and, anyhow, we needn’t talk politics. Do you know the Arab legend about that well?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know much about Arab legends,” said Boyle, rather stiffly.
“That’s rather a mistake,” replied Fisher, “especially from your point of view. Lord Hastings himself is an Arab legend. That is perhaps the very greatest thing he really is. If his reputation went it would weaken us all over Asia and Africa. Well, the story about that hole in the ground, that goes down nobody knows where, has always fascinated me, rather. It’s Mohammedan in form now, but I shouldn’t wonder if the tale is a long way older than Mohammed. It’s all about somebody they call the Sultan Aladdin, not our friend of the lamp, of course, but rather like him in having to do with genii or giants or something of that sort. They say he commanded the giants to build him a sort of pagoda, rising higher and higher above all the stars. The Utmost for the Highest, as the people said when they built the Tower of Babel. But the builders of the Tower of Babel were quite modest and domestic people, like mice, compared with old Aladdin. They only wanted a tower that would reach heaven — a mere trifle. He wanted a tower that would pass heaven and rise above it, and go on rising for ever and ever. And Allah cast him down to earth with a thunderbolt, which sank into the earth, boring a hole deeper and deeper, till it made a well that was without a bottom as the tower was to have been without a top. And down that inverted tower of darkness the soul of the proud Sultan is falling forever and ever.”
“What a queer chap you are,” said Boyle. “You talk as if a fellow could believe those fables.”
“Perhaps I believe the moral and not the fable,” answered Fisher. “But here comes Lady Hastings. You know her, I think.”
The clubhouse on the golf links was used, of course, for many other purposes besides that of golf. It was the only social center of the garrison beside the strictly military headquarters; it had a billiard room and a bar, and even an excellent reference library for those officers who were so perverse as to take their profession seriously. Among these was the great general himself, whose head of silver and face of bronze, like that of a brazen eagle, were often to be found bent over the charts and folios of the library. The great Lord Hastings believed in science and study, as in other severe ideals of life, and had given much paternal advice on the point to young Boyle, whose appearances in that place of research were rather more intermittent. It was from one of these snatches of study that the young man had just come out through the glass doors of the library on to the golf links. But, above all, the club was so appointed as to serve the social conveniences of ladies at least as much as gentlemen, and Lady Hastings was able to play the queen in such a society almost as much as in her own ballroom. She was eminently calculated and, as some said, eminently inclined to play such a part. She was much younger than her husband, an attractive and sometimes dangerously attractive lady; and Mr. Horne Fisher looked after her a little sardonically as she swept away with the young soldier. Then his rather dreary eye strayed to the green and prickly growths round the well, growths of that curious cactus formation in which one thick leaf grows directly out of the other without stalk or twig. It gave his fanciful mind a sinister feeling of a blind growth without shape or purpose. A flower or shrub in the West grows to the blossom which is its crown, and is content. But this was as if hands could grow out of hands or legs grow out of legs in a nightmare. “Always adding a province to the Empire,” he said, with a smile, and then added, more sadly, “but I doubt if I was right, after all!”
A strong but genial voice broke in on his meditations and he looked up and smiled, seeing the face of an old friend. The voice was, indeed, rather more genial than the face, which was at the first glance decidedly grim. It was a typically legal face, with angular jaws and heavy, grizzled eyebrows; and it belonged to an eminently legal character, though he was now attached in a semimilitary capacity to the police of that wild district. Cuthbert Grayne was perhaps more of a criminologist than either a lawyer or a policeman, but in his more barbarous surroundings he had proved successful in turning himself into a practical combination of all three. The discovery of a whole series of strange Oriental crimes stood to his credit. But as few people were acquainted with, or attracted to, such a hobby or branch of knowledge, his intellectual life was somewhat solitary. Among the few exceptions was Horne Fisher, who had a curious capacity for talking to almost anybody about almost anything.
“Studying botany, or is it archaeology?” inquired Grayne. “I shall never come to the end of your interests, Fisher. I should say that what you don’t know isn’t worth knowing.”
“You are wrong,” replied Fisher, with a very unusual abruptness, and even bitterness. “It’s what I do know that isn’t worth knowing. All the seamy side of things, all the secret reasons and rotten motives and bribery and blackmail they call politics. I needn’t be so proud of having been down all these sewers that I should brag about it to the little boys in the street.”
“What do you mean? What’s the matter with you?” asked his friend. “I never knew you taken like this before.”
“I’m ashamed of myself,” replied Fisher. “I’ve just been throwing cold water on the enthusiasms of a boy.”
“Even that explanation is hardly exhaustive,” observed the criminal expert.
“Damned newspaper nonsense the enthusiasms were, of course,” continued Fisher, “but I ought to know that at that age illusions can be ideals. And they’re better than the reality, anyhow. But there is one very ugly responsibility about jolting a young man out of the rut of the most rotten ideal.”
“And what may that be?” inquired his friend.
“It’s very apt to set him off with the same energy in a much worse direction,” answered Fisher; “a pretty endless sort of direction, a bottomless pit as deep as the bottomless well.”
Fisher did not see his friend until a fortnight later, when he found himself in the garden at the back of the clubhouse on the opposite side from the links, a garden heavily colored and scented with sweet semitropical plants in the glow of a desert sunset. Two other men were with him, the third being the now celebrated second in command, familiar to everybody as Tom Travers, a lean, dark man, who looked older than his years, with a furrow in his brow and something morose about the very shape of his black mustache. They had just been served with black coffee by the Arab now officiating as the temporary servant of the club, though he was a figure already familiar, and even famous, as the old servant of the general. He went by the name of Said, and was notable among other Semites for that unnatural length of his yellow face and height of his narrow forehead which is sometimes seen among them, and gave an irrational impression of something sinister, in spite of his agreeable smile.
“I never feel as if I could quite trust that fellow,” said Grayne, when the man had gone away. “It’s very unjust, I take it, for he was certainly devoted to Hastings, and saved his life, they say. But Arabs are often like that, loyal to one man. I can’t help feeling he might cut anybody else’s throat, and even do it treacherously.”
“Well,” said Travers, with a rather sour smile, “so long as he leaves Hastings alone the world won’t mind much.”
There was a rather embarrassing silence, full of memories of the great battle, and then Horne Fisher said, quietly:
“The newspapers aren’t the world, Tom. Don’t you worry about them. Everybody in your world knows the truth well enough.”
“I think we’d better not talk about the general just now,” remarked Grayne, “for he’s just coming out of the club.”
“He’s not coming here,” said Fisher. “He’s only seeing his wife to the car.”
As he spoke, indeed, the lady came out on the steps of the club, followed by her husband, who then went swiftly in front of her to open the garden gate. As he did so she turned back and spoke for a moment to a solitary man still sitting in a cane chair in the shadow of the doorway, the only man left in the deserted club save for the three that lingered in the garden. Fisher peered for a moment into the shadow, and saw that it was Captain Boyle.
The next moment, rather to their surprise, the general reappeared and, remounting the steps, spoke a word or two to Boyle in his turn. Then he signaled to Said, who hurried up with two cups of coffee, and the two men reentered the club, each carrying his cup in his hand. The next moment a gleam of white light in the growing darkness showed that the electric lamps had been turned on in the library beyond.
“Coffee and scientific researches,” said Travers, grimly. “All the luxuries of learning and theoretical research. Well, I must be going, for I have my work to do as well.” And he got up rather stiffly, saluted his companions, and strode away into the dusk.
“I only hope Boyle is sticking to scientific researches,” said Horne Fisher. “I’m not very comfortable about him myself. But let’s talk about something else.”
They talked about something else longer than they probably imagined, until the tropical night had come and a splendid moon painted the whole scene with silver; but before it was bright enough to see by Fisher had already noted that the lights in the library had been abruptly extinguished. He waited for the two men to come out by the garden entrance, but nobody came.
“They must have gone for a stroll on the links,” he said.
“Very possibly,” replied Grayne. “It’s going to be a beautiful night.”
A moment or two after he had spoken they heard a voice hailing them out of the shadow of the clubhouse, and were astonished to perceive Travers hurrying toward them, calling out as he came:
“I shall want your help, you fellows,” he cried. “There’s something pretty bad out on the links.”
They found themselves plunging through the club smoking room and the library beyond, in complete darkness, mental as well as material. But Horne Fisher, in spite of his affectation of indifference, was a person of a curious and almost transcendental sensibility to atmospheres, and he already felt the presence of something more than an accident. He collided with a piece of furniture in the library, and almost shuddered with the shock, for the thing moved as he could never have fancied a piece of furniture moving. It seemed to move like a living thing, yielding and yet striking back. The next moment Grayne had turned on the lights, and he saw he had only stumbled against one of the revolving bookstands that had swung round and struck him; but his involuntary recoil had revealed to him his own subconscious sense of something mysterious and monstrous. There were several of these revolving bookcases standing here and there about the library; on one of them stood the two cups of coffee, and on another a large open book. It was Budge’s book on Egyptian hieroglyphics, with colored plates of strange birds and gods, and even as he rushed past, he was conscious of something odd about the fact that this, and not any work of military science, should be open in that place at that moment. He was even conscious of the gap in the well-lined bookshelf from which it had been taken, and it seemed almost to gape at him in an ugly fashion, like a gap in the teeth of some sinister face.
A run brought them in a few minutes to the other side of the ground in front of the bottomless well, and a few yards from it, in a moonlight almost as broad as daylight, they saw what they had come to see.
The great Lord Hastings lay prone on his face, in a posture in which there was a touch of something strange and stiff, with one elbow erect above his body, the arm being doubled, and his big, bony hand clutching the rank and ragged grass. A few feet away was Boyle, almost as motionless, but supported on his hands and knees, and staring at the body. It might have been no more than shock and accident; but there was something ungainly and unnatural about the quadrupedal posture and the gaping face. It was as if his reason had fled from him. Behind, there was nothing but the clear blue southern sky, and the beginning of the desert, except for the two great broken stones in front of the well. And it was in such a light and atmosphere that men could fancy they traced in them enormous and evil faces, looking down.
Horne Fisher stooped and touched the strong hand that was still clutching the grass, and it was as cold as a stone. He knelt by the body and was busy for a moment applying other tests; then he rose again, and said, with a sort of confident despair:
“Lord Hastings is dead.”
There was a stony silence, and then Travers remarked, gruffly: “This is your department, Grayne; I will leave you to question Captain Boyle. I can make no sense of what he says.”
Boyle had pulled himself together and risen to his feet, but his face still wore an awful expression, making it like a new mask or the face of another man.
“I was looking at the well,” he said, “and when I turned he had fallen down.”
Grayne’s face was very dark. “As you say, this is my affair,” he said. “I must first ask you to help me carry him to the library and let me examine things thoroughly.”
When they had deposited the body in the library, Grayne turned to Fisher and said, in a voice that had recovered its fullness and confidence, “I am going to lock myself in and make a thorough examination first. I look to you to keep in touch with the others and make a preliminary examination of Boyle. I will talk to him later. And just telephone to headquarters for a policeman, and let him come here at once and stand by till I want him.”
Without more words the great criminal investigator went into the lighted library, shutting the door behind him, and Fisher, without replying, turned and began to talk quietly to Travers. “It is curious,” he said, “that the thing should happen just in front of that place.”
“It would certainly be very curious,” replied Travers, “if the place played any part in it.”
“I think,” replied Fisher, “that the part it didn’t play is more curious still.”
And with these apparently meaningless words he turned to the shaken Boyle and, taking his arm, began to walk him up and down in the moonlight, talking in low tones.
Dawn had begun to break abrupt and white when Cuthbert Grayne turned out the lights in the library and came out on to the links. Fisher was lounging about alone, in his listless fashion; but the police messenger for whom he had sent was standing at attention in the background.
“I sent Boyle off with Travers,” observed Fisher, carelessly; “he’ll look after him, and he’d better have some sleep, anyhow.”
“Did you get anything out of him?” asked Grayne. “Did he tell you what he and Hastings were doing?”
“Yes,” answered Fisher, “he gave me a pretty clear account, after all. He said that after Lady Hastings went off in the car the general asked him to take coffee with him in the library and look up a point about local antiquities. He himself was beginning to look for Budge’s book in one of the revolving bookstands when the general found it in one of the bookshelves on the wall. After looking at some of the plates they went out, it would seem, rather abruptly, on to the links, and walked toward the old well; and while Boyle was looking into it he heard a thud behind him, and turned round to find the general lying as we found him. He himself dropped on his knees to examine the body, and then was paralyzed with a sort of terror and could not come nearer to it or touch it. But I think very little of that; people caught in a real shock of surprise are sometimes found in the queerest postures.”
Grayne wore a grim smile of attention, and said, after a short silence:
“Well, he hasn’t told you many lies. It’s really a creditably clear and consistent account of what happened, with everything of importance left out.”
“Have you discovered anything in there?” asked Fisher.
“I have discovered everything,” answered Grayne.
Fisher maintained a somewhat gloomy silence, as the other resumed his explanation in quiet and assured tones.
“You were quite right, Fisher, when you said that young fellow was in danger of going down dark ways toward the pit. Whether or no, as you fancied, the jolt you gave to his view of the general had anything to do with it, he has not been treating the general well for some time. It’s an unpleasant business, and I don’t want to dwell on it; but it’s pretty plain that his wife was not treating him well, either. I don’t know how far it went, but it went as far as concealment, anyhow; for when Lady Hastings spoke to Boyle it was to tell him she had hidden a note in the Budge book in the library. The general overheard, or came somehow to know, and he went straight to the book and found it. He confronted Boyle with it, and they had a scene, of course. And Boyle was confronted with something else; he was confronted with an awful alternative, in which the life of one old man meant ruin and his death meant triumph and even happiness.”
“Well,” observed Fisher, at last, “I don’t blame him for not telling you the woman’s part of the story. But how do you know about the letter?”
“I found it on the general’s body,” answered Grayne, “but I found worse things than that. The body had stiffened in the way rather peculiar to poisons of a certain Asiatic sort. Then I examined the coffee cups, and I knew enough chemistry to find poison in the dregs of one of them. Now, the General went straight to the bookcase, leaving his cup of coffee on the bookstand in the middle of the room. While his back was turned, and Boyle was pretending to examine the bookstand, he was left alone with the coffee cup. The poison takes about ten minutes to act, and ten minutes’ walk would bring them to the bottomless well.”
“Yes,” remarked Fisher, “and what about the bottomless well?”
“What has the bottomless well got to do with it?” asked his friend.
“It has nothing to do with it,” replied Fisher. “That is what I find utterly confounding and incredible.”
“And why should that particular hole in the ground have anything to do with it?”
“It is a particular hole in your case,” said Fisher. “But I won’t insist on that just now. By the way, there is another thing I ought to tell you. I said I sent Boyle away in charge of Travers. It would be just as true to say I sent Travers in charge of Boyle.”
“You don’t mean to say you suspect Tom Travers?” cried the other.
“He was a deal bitterer against the general than Boyle ever was,” observed Horne Fisher, with a curious indifference.
“Man, you’re not saying what you mean,” cried Grayne. “I tell you I found the poison in one of the coffee cups.”
“There was always Said, of course,” added Fisher, “either for hatred or hire. We agreed he was capable of almost anything.”
“And we agreed he was incapable of hurting his master,” retorted Grayne.
“Well, well,” said Fisher, amiably, “I dare say you are right; but I should just like to have a look at the library and the coffee cups.”
He passed inside, while Grayne turned to the policeman in attendance and handed him a scribbled note, to be telegraphed from headquarters. The man saluted and hurried off; and Grayne, following his friend into the library, found him beside the bookstand in the middle of the room, on which were the empty cups.
“This is where Boyle looked for Budge, or pretended to look for him, according to your account,” he said.
As Fisher spoke he bent down in a half-crouching attitude, to look at the volumes in the low, revolving shelf, for the whole bookstand was not much higher than an ordinary table. The next moment he sprang up as if he had been stung.
“Oh, my God!” he cried.
Very few people, if any, had ever seen Mr. Horne Fisher behave as he behaved just then. He flashed a glance at the door, saw that the open window was nearer, went out of it with a flying leap, as if over a hurdle, and went racing across the turf, in the track of the disappearing policeman. Grayne, who stood staring after him, soon saw his tall, loose figure, returning, restored to all its normal limpness and air of leisure. He was fanning himself slowly with a piece of paper, the telegram he had so violently intercepted.
“Lucky I stopped that,” he observed. “We must keep this affair as quiet as death. Hastings must die of apoplexy or heart disease.”
“What on earth is the trouble?” demanded the other investigator.
“The trouble is,” said Fisher, “that in a few days we should have had a very agreeable alternative — of hanging an innocent man or knocking the British Empire to hell.”
“Do you mean to say,” asked Grayne, “that this infernal crime is not to be punished?”
Fisher looked at him steadily.
“It is already punished,” he said.
After a moment’s pause he went on. “You reconstructed the crime with admirable skill, old chap, and nearly all you said was true. Two men with two coffee cups did go into the library and did put their cups on the bookstand and did go together to the well, and one of them was a murderer and had put poison in the other’s cup. But it was not done while Boyle was looking at the revolving bookcase. He did look at it, though, searching for the Budge book with the note in it, but I fancy that Hastings had already moved it to the shelves on the wall. It was part of that grim game that he should find it first.
“Now, how does a man search a revolving bookcase? He does not generally hop all round it in a squatting attitude, like a frog. He simply gives it a touch and makes it revolve.”
He was frowning at the floor as he spoke, and there was a light under his heavy lids that was not often seen there. The mysticism that was buried deep under all the cynicism of his experience was awake and moving in the depths. His voice took unexpected turns and inflections, almost as if two men were speaking.
“That was what Boyle did; he barely touched the thing, and it went round as easily as the world goes round. Yes, very much as the world goes round, for the hand that turned it was not his. God, who turns the wheel of all the stars, touched that wheel and brought it full circle, that His dreadful justice might return.”
“I am beginning,” said Grayne, slowly, “to have some hazy and horrible idea of what you mean.”
“It is very simple,” said Fisher, “when Boyle straightened himself from his stooping posture, something had happened which he had not noticed, which his enemy had not noticed, which nobody had noticed. The two coffee cups had exactly changed places.”
The rocky face of Grayne seemed to have sustained a shock in silence; not a line of it altered, but his voice when it came was unexpectedly weakened.
“I see what you mean,” he said, “and, as you say, the less said about it the better. It was not the lover who tried to get rid of the husband, but — the other thing. And a tale like that about a man like that would ruin us here. Had you any guess of this at the start?”
“The bottomless well, as I told you,” answered Fisher, quietly; “that was what stumped me from the start. Not because it had anything to do with it, because it had nothing to do with it.”
He paused a moment, as if choosing an approach, and then went on: “When a man knows his enemy will be dead in ten minutes, and takes him to the edge of an unfathomable pit, he means to throw his body into it. What else should he do? A born fool would have the sense to do it, and Boyle is not a born fool. Well, why did not Boyle do it? The more I thought of it the more I suspected there was some mistake in the murder, so to speak. Somebody had taken somebody there to throw him in, and yet he was not thrown in. I had already an ugly, unformed idea of some substitution or reversal of parts; then I stooped to turn the bookstand myself, by accident, and I instantly knew everything, for I saw the two cups revolve once more, like moons in the sky.”
After a pause, Cuthbert Grayne said, “And what are we to say to the newspapers?”
“My friend, Harold March, is coming along from Cairo today,” said Fisher. “He is a very brilliant and successful journalist. But for all that he’s a thoroughly honorable man, so you must not tell him the truth.”
Half an hour later Fisher was again walking to and fro in front of the clubhouse, with Captain Boyle, the latter by this time with a very buffeted and bewildered air; perhaps a sadder and a wiser man.
“What about me, then?” he was saying. “Am I cleared? Am I not going to be cleared?”
“I believe and hope,” answered Fisher, “that you are not going to be suspected. But you are certainly not going to be cleared. There must be no suspicion against him, and therefore no suspicion against you. Any suspicion against him, let alone such a story against him, would knock us endways from Malta to Mandalay. He was a hero as well as a holy terror among the Moslems. Indeed, you might almost call him a Moslem hero in the English service. Of course he got on with them partly because of his own little dose of Eastern blood; he got it from his mother, the dancer from Damascus; everybody knows that.”
“Oh,” repeated Boyle, mechanically, staring at him with round eyes, “everybody knows that.”
“I dare say there was a touch of it in his jealousy and ferocious vengeance,” went on Fisher. “But, for all that, the crime would ruin us among the Arabs, all the more because it was something like a crime against hospitality. It’s been hateful for you and it’s pretty horrid for me. But there are some things that damned well can’t be done, and while I’m alive that’s one of them.”
“What do you mean?” asked Boyle, glancing at him curiously. “Why should you, of all people, be so passionate about it?”
Horne Fisher looked at the young man with a baffling expression.
“I suppose,” he said, “it’s because I’m a Little Englander.”
“I can never make out what you mean by that sort of thing,” answered Boyle, doubtfully.
“Do you think England is so little as all that?” said Fisher, with a warmth in his cold voice, “that it can’t hold a man across a few thousand miles. You lectured me with a lot of ideal patriotism, my young friend; but it’s practical patriotism now for you and me, and with no lies to help it. You talked as if everything always went right with us all over the world, in a triumphant crescendo culminating in Hastings. I tell you everything has gone wrong with us here, except Hastings. He was the one name we had left to conjure with, and that mustn’t go as well, no, by God! It’s bad enough that a gang of infernal Jews should plant us here, where there’s no earthly English interest to serve, and all hell beating up against us, simply because Nosey Zimmern has lent money to half the Cabinet. It’s bad enough that an old pawnbroker from Bagdad should make us fight his battles; we can’t fight with our right hand cut off. Our one score was Hastings and his victory, which was really somebody else’s victory. Tom Travers has to suffer, and so have you.”
Then, after a moment’s silence, he pointed toward the bottomless well and said, in a quieter tone:
“I told you that I didn’t believe in the philosophy of the Tower of Aladdin. I don’t believe in the Empire growing until it reaches the sky; I don’t believe in the Union Jack going up and up eternally like the Tower. But if you think I am going to let the Union Jack go down and down eternally, like the bottomless well, down into the blackness of the bottomless pit, down in defeat and derision, amid the jeers of the very Jews who have sucked us dry — no I won’t, and that’s flat; not if the Chancellor were blackmailed by twenty millionaires with their gutter rags, not if the Prime Minister married twenty Yankee Jewesses, not if Woodville and Carstairs had shares in twenty swindling mines. If the thing is really tottering, God help it, it mustn’t be we who tip it over.”
Boyle was regarding him with a bewilderment that was almost fear, and had even a touch of distaste.
“Somehow,” he said, “there seems to be something rather horrid about the things you know.”
“There is,” replied Horne Fisher. “I am not at all pleased with my small stock of knowledge and reflection. But as it is partly responsible for your not being hanged, I don’t know that you need complain of it.”
And, as if a little ashamed of his first boast, he turned and strolled away toward the bottomless well.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52