The pleasant scene was Neuchatel; the pleasant month was April; the pleasant place was a notary’s office; the pleasant person in it was the notary: a rosy, hearty, handsome old man, chief notary of Neuchatel, known far and wide in the canton as Maitre Voigt. Professionally and personally, the notary was a popular citizen. His innumerable kindnesses and his innumerable oddities had for years made him one of the recognised public characters of the pleasant Swiss town. His long brown frock-coat and his black skull- cap, were among the institutions of the place: and he carried a snuff-box which, in point of size, was popularly believed to be without a parallel in Europe.
There was another person in the notary’s office, not so pleasant as the notary. This was Obenreizer.
An oddly pastoral kind of office it was, and one that would never have answered in England. It stood in a neat back yard, fenced off from a pretty flower-garden. Goats browsed in the doorway, and a cow was within half-a-dozen feet of keeping company with the clerk. Maitre Voigt’s room was a bright and varnished little room, with panelled walls, like a toy-chamber. According to the seasons of the year, roses, sunflowers, hollyhocks, peeped in at the windows. Maitre Voigt’s bees hummed through the office all the summer, in at this window and out at that, taking it frequently in their day’s work, as if honey were to be made from Maitre Voigt’s sweet disposition. A large musical box on the chimney-piece often trilled away at the Overture to Fra Diavolo, or a Selection from William Tell, with a chirruping liveliness that had to be stopped by force on the entrance of a client, and irrepressibly broke out again the moment his back was turned.
“Courage, courage, my good fellow!” said Maitre Voigt, patting Obenreizer on the knee, in a fatherly and comforting way. “You will begin a new life to-morrow morning in my office here.”
Obenreizer — dressed in mourning, and subdued in manner — lifted his hand, with a white handkerchief in it, to the region of his heart. “The gratitude is here,” he said. “But the words to express it are not here.”
“Ta-ta-ta! Don’t talk to me about gratitude!” said Maitre Voigt. “I hate to see a man oppressed. I see you oppressed, and I hold out my hand to you by instinct. Besides, I am not too old yet, to remember my young days. Your father sent me my first client. (It was on a question of half an acre of vineyard that seldom bore any grapes.) Do I owe nothing to your father’s son? I owe him a debt of friendly obligation, and I pay it to you. That’s rather neatly expressed, I think,” added Maitre Voigt, in high good humour with himself. “Permit me to reward my own merit with a pinch of snuff!”
Obenreizer dropped his eyes to the ground, as though he were not even worthy to see the notary take snuff.
“Do me one last favour, sir,” he said, when he raised his eyes. “Do not act on impulse. Thus far, you have only a general knowledge of my position. Hear the case for and against me, in its details, before you take me into your office. Let my claim on your benevolence be recognised by your sound reason as well as by your excellent heart. In THAT case, I may hold up my head against the bitterest of my enemies, and build myself a new reputation on the ruins of the character I have lost.”
“As you will,” said Maitre Voigt. “You speak well, my son. You will be a fine lawyer one of these days.”
“The details are not many,” pursued Obenreizer. “My troubles begin with the accidental death of my late travelling companion, my lost dear friend Mr. Vendale.”
“Mr. Vendale,” repeated the notary. “Just so. I have heard and read of the name, several times within these two months. The name of the unfortunate English gentleman who was killed on the Simplon. When you got that scar upon your cheek and neck.”
“— From my own knife,” said Obenreizer, touching what must have been an ugly gash at the time of its infliction.
“From your own knife,” assented the notary, “and in trying to save him. Good, good, good. That was very good. Vendale. Yes. I have several times, lately, thought it droll that I should once have had a client of that name.”
“But the world, sir,” returned Obenreizer, “is SO small!” Nevertheless he made a mental note that the notary had once had a client of that name.
“As I was saying, sir, the death of that dear travelling comrade begins my troubles. What follows? I save myself. I go down to Milan. I am received with coldness by Defresnier and Company. Shortly afterwards, I am discharged by Defresnier and Company. Why? They give no reason why. I ask, do they assail my honour? No answer. I ask, what is the imputation against me? No answer. I ask, where are their proofs against me? No answer. I ask, what am I to think? The reply is, ‘M. Obenreizer is free to think what he will. What M. Obenreizer thinks, is of no importance to Defresnier and Company.’ And that is all.”
“Perfectly. That is all,” asserted the notary, taking a large pinch of snuff.
“But is that enough, sir?”
“That is not enough,” said Maitre Voigt. “The House of Defresnier are my fellow townsmen — much respected, much esteemed — but the House of Defresnier must not silently destroy a man’s character. You can rebut assertion. But how can you rebut silence?”
“Your sense of justice, my dear patron,” answered Obenreizer, “states in a word the cruelty of the case. Does it stop there? No. For, what follows upon that?”
“True, my poor boy,” said the notary, with a comforting nod or two; “your ward rebels upon that.”
“Rebels is too soft a word,” retorted Obenreizer. “My ward revolts from me with horror. My ward defies me. My ward withdraws herself from my authority, and takes shelter (Madame Dor with her) in the house of that English lawyer, Mr. Bintrey, who replies to your summons to her to submit herself to my authority, that she will not do so.”
“— And who afterwards writes,” said the notary, moving his large snuffbox to look among the papers underneath it for the letter, “that he is coming to confer with me.”
“Indeed?” replied Obenreizer, rather checked. “Well, sir. Have I no legal rights?”
“Assuredly, my poor boy,” returned the notary. “All but felons have their legal rights.”
“And who calls me felon?” said Obenreizer, fiercely.
“No one. Be calm under your wrongs. If the House of Defresnier would call you felon, indeed, we should know how to deal with them.”
While saying these words, he had handed Bintrey’s very short letter to Obenreizer, who now read it and gave it back.
“In saying,” observed Obenreizer, with recovered composure, “that he is coming to confer with you, this English lawyer means that he is coming to deny my authority over my ward.”
“You think so?”
“I am sure of it. I know him. He is obstinate and contentious. You will tell me, my dear sir, whether my authority is unassailable, until my ward is of age?”
“I will enforce it. I will make her submit herself to it. For,” said Obenreizer, changing his angry tone to one of grateful submission, “I owe it to you, sir; to you, who have so confidingly taken an injured man under your protection, and into your employment.”
“Make your mind easy,” said Maitre Voigt. “No more of this now, and no thanks! Be here to-morrow morning, before the other clerk comes — between seven and eight. You will find me in this room; and I will myself initiate you in your work. Go away! go away! I have letters to write. I won’t hear a word more.”
Dismissed with this generous abruptness, and satisfied with the favourable impression he had left on the old man’s mind, Obenreizer was at leisure to revert to the mental note he had made that Maitre Voigt once had a client whose name was Vendale.
“I ought to know England well enough by this time;” so his meditations ran, as he sat on a bench in the yard; “and it is not a name I ever encountered there, except —” he looked involuntarily over his shoulder —“as HIS name. Is the world so small that I cannot get away from him, even now when he is dead? He confessed at the last that he had betrayed the trust of the dead, and misinherited a fortune. And I was to see to it. And I was to stand off, that my face might remind him of it. Why MY face, unless it concerned ME? I am sure of his words, for they have been in my ears ever since. Can there be anything bearing on them, in the keeping of this old idiot? Anything to repair my fortunes, and blacken his memory? He dwelt upon my earliest remembrances, that night at Basle. Why, unless he had a purpose in it?”
Maitre Voigt’s two largest he-goats were butting at him to butt him out of the place, as if for that disrespectful mention of their master. So he got up and left the place. But he walked alone for a long time on the border of the lake, with his head drooped in deep thought.
Between seven and eight next morning, he presented himself again at the office. He found the notary ready for him, at work on some papers which had come in on the previous evening. In a few clear words, Maitre Voigt explained the routine of the office, and the duties Obenreizer would be expected to perform. It still wanted five minutes to eight, when the preliminary instructions were declared to be complete.
“I will show you over the house and the offices,” said Maitre Voigt, “but I must put away these papers first. They come from the municipal authorities, and they must be taken special care of.”
Obenreizer saw his chance, here, of finding out the repository in which his employer’s private papers were kept.
“Can’t I save you the trouble, sir?” he asked. “Can’t I put those documents away under your directions?”
Maitre Voigt laughed softly to himself; closed the portfolio in which the papers had been sent to him; handed it to Obenreizer.
“Suppose you try,” he said. “All my papers of importance are kept yonder.”
He pointed to a heavy oaken door, thickly studded with nails, at the lower end of the room. Approaching the door, with the portfolio, Obenreizer discovered, to his astonishment, that there were no means whatever of opening it from the outside. There was no handle, no bolt, no key, and (climax of passive obstruction!) no keyhole.
“There is a second door to this room?” said Obenreizer, appealing to the notary.
“No,” said Maitre Voigt. “Guess again.”
“There is a window?”
“Nothing of the sort. The window has been bricked up. The only way in, is the way by that door. Do you give it up?” cried Maitre Voigt, in high triumph. “Listen, my good fellow, and tell me if you hear nothing inside?”
Obenreizer listened for a moment, and started back from the door.
“I know! “ he exclaimed. “I heard of this when I was apprenticed here at the watchmaker’s. Perrin Brothers have finished their famous clock-lock at last — and you have got it?”
“Bravo!” said Maitre Voigt. “The clock-lock it is! There, my son! There you have one more of what the good people of this town call, ‘Daddy Voigt’s follies.’ With all my heart! Let those laugh who win. No thief can steal MY keys. No burglar can pick MY lock. No power on earth, short of a battering-ram or a barrel of gunpowder, can move that door, till my little sentinel inside — my worthy friend who goes ‘Tick, Tick,’ as I tell him — says, ‘Open!’ The big door obeys the little Tick, Tick, and the little Tick, Tick, obeys ME. That!” cried Daddy Voigt, snapping his fingers, “for all the thieves in Christendom!”
“May I see it in action?” asked Obenreizer. “Pardon my curiosity, dear sir! You know that I was once a tolerable worker in the clock trade.”
“Certainly you shall see it in action,” said Maitre Voigt. “What is the time now? One minute to eight. Watch, and in one minute you will see the door open of itself.”
In one minute, smoothly and slowly and silently, as if invisible hands had set it free, the heavy door opened inward, and disclosed a dark chamber beyond. On three sides, shelves filled the walls, from floor to ceiling. Arranged on the shelves, were rows upon rows of boxes made in the pretty inlaid woodwork of Switzerland, and bearing inscribed on their fronts (for the most part in fanciful coloured letters) the names of the notary’s clients.
Maitre Voigt lighted a taper, and led the way into the room.
“You shall see the clock,” he said proudly. “I possess the greatest curiosity in Europe. It is only a privileged few whose eyes can look at it. I give the privilege to your good father’s son — you shall be one of the favoured few who enter the room with me. See! here it is, on the right-hand wall at the side of the door.”
“An ordinary clock,” exclaimed Obenreizer. “No! Not an ordinary clock. It has only one hand.”
“Aha!” said Maitre Voigt. “Not an ordinary clock, my friend. No, no. That one hand goes round the dial. As I put it, so it regulates the hour at which the door shall open. See! The hand points to eight. At eight the door opened, as you saw for yourself.”
“Does it open more than once in the four-and-twenty hours?” asked Obenreizer.
“More than once?” repeated the notary, with great scorn. “You don’t know my good friend, Tick-Tick! He will open the door as often as I ask him. All he wants is his directions, and he gets them here. Look below the dial. Here is a half-circle of steel let into the wall, and here is a hand (called the regulator) that travels round it, just as MY hand chooses. Notice, if you please, that there are figures to guide me on the half-circle of steel. Figure I. means: Open once in the four-and-twenty hours. Figure II. means: Open twice; and so on to the end. I set the regulator every morning, after I have read my letters, and when I know what my day’s work is to be. Would you like to see me set it now? What is to-day? Wednesday. Good! This is the day of our rifle-club; there is little business to do; I grant a half-holiday. No work here to-day, after three o’clock. Let us first put away this portfolio of municipal papers. There! No need to trouble Tick-Tick to open the door until eight tomorrow. Good! I leave the dial-hand at eight; I put back the regulator to I.; I close the door; and closed the door remains, past all opening by anybody, till to-morrow morning at eight.”
Obenreizer’s quickness instantly saw the means by which he might make the clock-lock betray its master’s confidence, and place its master’s papers at his disposal.
“Stop, sir!” he cried, at the moment when the notary was closing the door. “Don’t I see something moving among the boxes — on the floor there?”
(Maitre Voigt turned his back for a moment to look. In that moment, Obenreizer’s ready hand put the regulator on, from the figure “I.” to the figure “II.” Unless the notary looked again at the half- circle of steel, the door would open at eight that evening, as well as at eight next morning, and nobody but Obenreizer would know it.)
“There is nothing!” said Maitre Voigt. Your troubles have shaken your nerves, my son. Some shadow thrown by my taper; or some poor little beetle, who lives among the old lawyer’s secrets, running away from the light. Hark! I hear your fellow-clerk in the office. To work! to work! and build to-day the first step that leads to your new fortunes!”
He good-humouredly pushed Obenreizer out before him; extinguished the taper, with a last fond glance at his clock which passed harmlessly over the regulator beneath; and closed the oaken door.
At three, the office was shut up. The notary and everybody in the notary’s employment, with one exception, went to see the rifle- shooting. Obenreizer had pleaded that he was not in spirits for a public festival. Nobody knew what had become of him. It was believed that he had slipped away for a solitary walk.
The house and offices had been closed but a few minutes, when the door of a shining wardrobe in the notary’s shining room opened, and Obenreizer stopped out. He walked to a window, unclosed the shutters, satisfied himself that he could escape unseen by way of the garden, turned back into the room, and took his place in the notary’s easy-chair. He was locked up in the house, and there were five hours to wait before eight o’clock came.
He wore his way through the five hours: sometimes reading the books and newspapers that lay on the table: sometimes thinking: sometimes walking to and fro. Sunset came on. He closed the window-shutters before he kindled a light. The candle lighted, and the time drawing nearer and nearer, he sat, watch in hand, with his eyes on the oaken door.
At eight, smoothly and softly and silently the door opened.
One after another, he read the names on the outer rows of boxes. No such name as Vendale! He removed the outer row, and looked at the row behind. These were older boxes, and shabbier boxes. The four first that he examined, were inscribed with French and German names. The fifth bore a name which was almost illegible. He brought it out into the room, and examined it closely. There, covered thickly with time-stains and dust, was the name: “Vendale.”
The key hung to the box by a string. He unlocked the box, took out four loose papers that were in it, spread them open on the table, and began to read them. He had not so occupied a minute, when his face fell from its expression of eagerness and avidity, to one of haggard astonishment and disappointment. But, after a little consideration, he copied the papers. He then replaced the papers, replaced the box, closed the door, extinguished the candle, and stole away.
As his murderous and thievish footfall passed out of the garden, the steps of the notary and some one accompanying him stopped at the front door of the house. The lamps were lighted in the little street, and the notary had his door-key in his hand.
“Pray do not pass my house, Mr. Bintrey,” he said. “Do me the honour to come in. It is one of our town half-holidays — our Tir — but my people will be back directly. It is droll that you should ask your way to the Hotel of me. Let us eat and drink before you go there.”
“Thank you; not to-night,” said Bintrey. “Shall I come to you at ten to-morrow?”
“I shall be enchanted, sir, to take so early an opportunity of redressing the wrongs of my injured client,” returned the good notary.
“Yes,” retorted Bintrey; “your injured client is all very well — but — a word in your ear.”
He whispered to the notary and walked off. When the notary’s housekeeper came home, she found him standing at his door motionless, with the key still in his hand, and the door unopened.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07