As soon as the old lady had finished her relation, Somerset made haste to offer her his compliments.
‘Madam,’ said he, ‘your story is not only entertaining but instructive; and you have told it with infinite vivacity. I was much affected towards the end, as I held at one time very liberal opinions, and should certainly have joined a secret society if I had been able to find one. But the whole tale came home to me; and I was the better able to feel for you in your various perplexities, as I am myself of somewhat hasty temper.’
‘I do not understand you,’ said Mrs. Luxmore, with some marks of irritation. ‘You must have strangely misinterpreted what I have told you. You fill me with surprise.’
Somerset, alarmed by the old lady’s change of tone and manner, hurried to recant.
‘Dear Mrs. Luxmore,’ said he, ‘you certainly misconstrue my remark. As a man of somewhat fiery humour, my conscience repeatedly pricked me when I heard what you had suffered at the hands of persons similarly constituted.’
‘Oh, very well indeed,’ replied the old lady; ‘and a very proper spirit. I regret that I have met with it so rarely.’
‘But in all this,’ resumed the young man, ‘I perceive nothing that concerns myself.’
‘I am about to come to that,’ she returned. ‘And you have already before you, in the pledge I gave Prince Florizel, one of the elements of the affair. I am a woman of the nomadic sort, and when I have no case before the courts I make it a habit to visit continental spas: not that I have ever been ill; but then I am no longer young, and I am always happy in a crowd. Well, to come more shortly to the point, I am now on the wing for Evian; this incubus of a house, which I must leave behind and dare not let, hangs heavily upon my hands; and I propose to rid myself of that concern, and do you a very good turn into the bargain, by lending you the mansion, with all its fittings, as it stands. The idea was sudden; it appealed to me as humorous: and I am sure it will cause my relatives, if they should ever hear of it, the keenest possible chagrin. Here, then, is the key; and when you return at two to-morrow afternoon, you will find neither me nor my cats to disturb you in your new possession.’
So saying, the old lady arose, as if to dismiss her visitor; but Somerset, looking somewhat blankly on the key, began to protest.
‘Dear Mrs. Luxmore,’ said he, ‘this is a most unusual proposal. You know nothing of me, beyond the fact that I displayed both impudence and timidity. I may be the worst kind of scoundrel; I may sell your furniture —’
‘You may blow up the house with gunpowder, for what I care!’ cried Mrs. Luxmore. ‘It is in vain to reason. Such is the force of my character that, when I have one idea clearly in my head, I do not care two straws for any side consideration. It amuses me to do it, and let that suffice. On your side, you may do what you please — let apartments, or keep a private hotel; on mine, I promise you a full month’s warning before I return, and I never fail religiously to keep my promises.’
The young man was about to renew his protest, when he observed a sudden and significant change in the old lady’s countenance.
‘If I thought you capable of disrespect!’ she cried.
‘Madam,’ said Somerset, with the extreme fervour of asseveration, ‘madam, I accept. I beg you to understand that I accept with joy and gratitude.’
‘Ah well,’ returned Mrs. Luxmore, ‘if I am mistaken, let it pass. And now, since all is comfortably settled, I wish you a good-night.’
Thereupon, as if to leave him no room for repentance, she hurried Somerset out of the front door, and left him standing, key in hand, upon the pavement.
The next day, about the hour appointed, the young man found his way to the square, which I will here call Golden Square, though that was not its name. What to expect, he knew not; for a man may live in dreams, and yet be unprepared for their realisation. It was already with a certain pang of surprise that he beheld the mansion, standing in the eye of day, a solid among solids. The key, upon trial, readily opened the front door; he entered that great house, a privileged burglar; and, escorted by the echoes of desertion, rapidly reviewed the empty chambers. Cats, servant, old lady, the very marks of habitation, like writing on a slate, had been in these few hours obliterated. He wandered from floor to floor, and found the house of great extent; the kitchen offices commodious and well appointed; the rooms many and large; and the drawing-room, in particular, an apartment of princely size and tasteful decoration. Although the day without was warm, genial, and sunny, with a ruffling wind from the quarter of Torquay, a chill, as it were, of suspended animation inhabited the house. Dust and shadows met the eye; and but for the ominous procession of the echoes, and the rumour of the wind among the garden trees, the ear of the young man was stretched in vain.
Behind the dining-room, that pleasant library, referred to by the old lady in her tale, looked upon the flat roofs and netted cupolas of the kitchen quarters; and on a second visit, this room appeared to greet him with a smiling countenance. He might as well, he thought, avoid the expense of lodging: the library, fitted with an iron bedstead which he had remarked, in one of the upper chambers, would serve his purpose for the night; while in the dining-room, which was large, airy, and lightsome, looking on the square and garden, he might very agreeably pass his days, cook his meals, and study to bring himself to some proficiency in that art of painting which he had recently determined to adopt. It did not take him long to make the change: he had soon returned to the mansion with his modest kit; and the cabman who brought him was readily induced, by the young man’s pleasant manner and a small gratuity, to assist him in the installation of the iron bed. By six in the evening, when Somerset went forth to dine, he was able to look back upon the mansion with a sense of pride and property. Four-square it stood, of an imposing frontage, and flanked on either side by family hatchments. His eye, from where he stood whistling in the key, with his back to the garden railings, reposed on every feature of reality; and yet his own possession seemed as flimsy as a dream.
In the course of a few days, the genteel inhabitants of the square began to remark the customs of their neighbour. The sight of a young gentleman discussing a clay pipe, about four o’clock of the afternoon, in the drawing-room balcony of so discreet a mansion; and perhaps still more, his periodical excursion to a decent tavern in the neighbourhood, and his unabashed return, nursing the full tankard: had presently raised to a high pitch the interest and indignation of the liveried servants of the square. The disfavour of some of these gentlemen at first proceeded to the length of insult; but Somerset knew how to be affable with any class of men; and a few rude words merrily accepted, and a few glasses amicably shared, gained for him the right of toleration.
The young man had embraced the art of Raphael, partly from a notion of its ease, partly from an inborn distrust of offices. He scorned to bear the yoke of any regular schooling; and proceeded to turn one half of the dining-room into a studio for the reproduction of still life. There he amassed a variety of objects, indiscriminately chosen from the kitchen, the drawing-room, and the back garden; and there spent his days in smiling assiduity. Meantime, the great bulk of empty building overhead lay, like a load, upon his imagination. To hold so great a stake and to do nothing, argued some defect of energy; and he at length determined to act upon the hint given by Mrs. Luxmore herself, and to stick, with wafers, in the window of the dining-room, a small handbill announcing furnished lodgings. At half-past six of a fine July morning, he affixed the bill, and went forth into the square to study the result. It seemed, to his eye, promising and unpretentious; and he returned to the drawing-room balcony, to consider, over a studious pipe, the knotty problem of how much he was to charge.
Thereupon he somewhat relaxed in his devotion to the art of painting. Indeed, from that time forth, he would spend the best part of the day in the front balcony, like the attentive angler poring on his float; and the better to support the tedium, he would frequently console himself with his clay pipe. On several occasions, passers-by appeared to be arrested by the ticket, and on several others ladies and gentlemen drove to the very doorstep by the carriageful; but it appeared there was something repulsive in the appearance of the house; for with one accord, they would cast but one look upward, and hastily resume their onward progress or direct the driver to proceed. Somerset had thus the mortification of actually meeting the eye of a large number of lodging-seekers; and though he hastened to withdraw his pipe, and to compose his features to an air of invitation, he was never rewarded by so much as an inquiry. ‘Can there,’ he thought, ‘be anything repellent in myself?’ But a candid examination in one of the pier-glasses of the drawing-room led him to dismiss the fear.
Something, however, was amiss. His vast and accurate calculations on the fly-leaves of books, or on the backs of playbills, appeared to have been an idle sacrifice of time. By these, he had variously computed the weekly takings of the house, from sums as modest as five-and-twenty shillings, up to the more majestic figure of a hundred pounds; and yet, in despite of the very elements of arithmetic, here he was making literally nothing.
This incongruity impressed him deeply and occupied his thoughtful leisure on the balcony; and at last it seemed to him that he had detected the error of his method. ‘This,’ he reflected, ‘is an age of generous display: the age of the sandwich-man, of Griffiths, of Pears’ legendary soap, and of Eno’s fruit salt, which, by sheer brass and notoriety, and the most disgusting pictures I ever remember to have seen, has overlaid that comforter of my childhood, Lamplough’s pyretic saline. Lamplough was genteel, Eno was omnipresent; Lamplough was trite, Eno original and abominably vulgar; and here have I, a man of some pretensions to knowledge of the world, contented myself with half a sheet of note-paper, a few cold words which do not directly address the imagination, and the adornment (if adornment it may be called) of four red wafers! Am I, then, to sink with Lamplough, or to soar with Eno? Am I to adopt that modesty which is doubtless becoming in a duke? or to take hold of the red facts of life with the emphasis of the tradesman and the poet?’
Pursuant upon these meditations, he procured several sheets of the very largest size of drawing-paper; and laying forth his paints, proceeded to compose an ensign that might attract the eye, and at the same time, in his own phrase, directly address the imagination of the passenger. Something taking in the way of colour, a good, savoury choice of words, and a realistic design setting forth the life a lodger might expect to lead within the walls of that palace of delight: these, he perceived, must be the elements of his advertisement. It was possible, upon the one hand, to depict the sober pleasures of domestic life, the evening fire, blond-headed urchins and the hissing urn; but on the other, it was possible (and he almost felt as if it were more suited to his muse) to set forth the charms of an existence somewhat wider in its range or, boldly say, the paradise of the Mohammedan. So long did the artist waver between these two views, that, before he arrived at a conclusion, he had finally conceived and completed both designs. With the proverbially tender heart of the parent, he found himself unable to sacrifice either of these offsprings of his art; and decided to expose them on alternate days. ‘In this way,’ he thought, ‘I shall address myself indifferently to all classes of the world.’
The tossing of a penny decided the only remaining point; and the more imaginative canvas received the suffrages of fortune, and appeared first in the window of the mansion. It was of a high fancy, the legend eloquently writ, the scheme of colour taking and bold; and but for the imperfection of the artist’s drawing, it might have been taken for a model of its kind. As it was, however, when viewed from his favourite point against the garden railings, and with some touch of distance, it caused a pleasurable rising of the artist’s heart. ‘I have thrown away,’ he ejaculated, ‘an invaluable motive; and this shall be the subject of my first academy picture.’
The fate of neither of these works was equal to its merit. A crowd would certainly, from time to time, collect before the area-railings; but they came to jeer and not to speculate; and those who pushed their inquiries further, were too plainly animated by the spirit of derision. The racier of the two cartoons displayed, indeed, no symptom of attractive merit; and though it had a certain share of that success called scandalous, failed utterly of its effect. On the day, however, of the second appearance of the companion work, a real inquirer did actually present himself before the eyes of Somerset.
This was a gentlemanly man, with some marks of recent merriment, and his voice under inadequate control.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said he, ‘but what is the meaning of your extraordinary bill?’
‘I beg yours,’ returned Somerset hotly. ‘Its meaning is sufficiently explicit.’ And being now, from dire experience, fearful of ridicule, he was preparing to close the door, when the gentleman thrust his cane into the aperture.
‘Not so fast, I beg of you,’ said he. ‘If you really let apartments, here is a possible tenant at your door; and nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see the accommodation and to learn your terms.’
His heart joyously beating, Somerset admitted the visitor, showed him over the various apartments, and, with some return of his persuasive eloquence, expounded their attractions. The gentleman was particularly pleased by the elegant proportions of the drawing-room.
‘This,’ he said, ‘would suit me very well. What, may I ask, would be your terms a week, for this floor and the one above it?’
‘I was thinking,’ returned Somerset, ‘of a hundred pounds.’
‘Surely not,’ exclaimed the gentleman.
‘Well, then,’ returned Somerset, ‘fifty.’
The gentleman regarded him with an air of some amazement. ‘You seem to be strangely elastic in your demands,’ said he. ‘What if I were to proceed on your own principle of division, and offer twenty-five?’
‘Done!’ cried Somerset; and then, overcome by a sudden embarrassment, ‘You see,’ he added apologetically, ‘it is all found money for me.’
‘Really?’ said the stranger, looking at him all the while with growing wonder. ‘Without extras, then?’
‘I— I suppose so,’ stammered the keeper of the lodging-house.
‘Service included?’ pursued the gentleman.
‘Service?’ cried Somerset. ‘Do you mean that you expect me to empty your slops?’
The gentleman regarded him with a very friendly interest. ‘My dear fellow,’ said he, ‘if you take my advice, you will give up this business.’ And thereupon he resumed his hat and took himself away.
This smarting disappointment produced a strong effect on the artist of the cartoons; and he began with shame to eat up his rosier illusions. First one and then the other of his great works was condemned, withdrawn from exhibition, and relegated, as a mere wall-picture, to the decoration of the dining-room. Their place was taken by a replica of the original wafered announcement, to which, in particularly large letters, he had added the pithy rubric: ‘NO SERVICE.’ Meanwhile he had fallen into something as nearly bordering on low spirits as was consistent with his disposition; depressed, at once by the failure of his scheme, the laughable turn of his late interview, and the judicial blindness of the public to the merit of the twin cartoons.
Perhaps a week had passed before he was again startled by the note of the knocker. A gentleman of a somewhat foreign and somewhat military air, yet closely shaven and wearing a soft hat, desired in the politest terms to visit the apartments. He had (he explained) a friend, a gentleman in tender health, desirous of a sedate and solitary life, apart from interruptions and the noises of the common lodging-house. ‘The unusual clause,’ he continued, ‘in your announcement, particularly struck me. “This,” I said, “is the place for Mr. Jones.” You are yourself, sir, a professional gentleman?’ concluded the visitor, looking keenly in Somerset’s face.
‘I am an artist,’ replied the young man lightly.
‘And these,’ observed the other, taking a side glance through the open door of the dining-room, which they were then passing, ‘these are some of your works. Very remarkable.’ And he again and still more sharply peered into the countenance of the young man.
Somerset, unable to suppress a blush, made the more haste to lead his visitor upstairs and to display the apartments.
‘Excellent,’ observed the stranger, as he looked from one of the back windows. ‘Is that a mews behind, sir? Very good. Well, sir: see here. My friend will take your drawing-room floor; he will sleep in the back drawing-room; his nurse, an excellent Irish widow, will attend on all his wants and occupy a garret; he will pay you the round sum of ten dollars a week; and you, on your part, will engage to receive no other lodger? I think that fair.’
Somerset had scarcely words in which to clothe his gratitude and joy.
‘Agreed,’ said the other; ‘and to spare you trouble, my friend will bring some men with him to make the changes. You will find him a retiring inmate, sir; receives but few, and rarely leaves the house, except at night.’
‘Since I have been in this house,’ returned Somerset, ‘I have myself, unless it were to fetch beer, rarely gone abroad except in the evening. But a man,’ he added, ‘must have some amusement.’
An hour was then agreed on; the gentleman departed; and Somerset sat down to compute in English money the value of the figure named. The result of this investigation filled him with amazement and disgust; but it was now too late; nothing remained but to endure; and he awaited the arrival of his tenant, still trying, by various arithmetical expedients, to obtain a more favourable quotation for the dollar. With the approach of dusk, however, his impatience drove him once more to the front balcony. The night fell, mild and airless; the lamps shone around the central darkness of the garden; and through the tall grove of trees that intervened, many warmly illuminated windows on the farther side of the square, told their tale of white napery, choice wine, and genial hospitality. The stars were already thickening overhead, when the young man’s eyes alighted on a procession of three four-wheelers, coasting round the garden railing and bound for the Superfluous Mansion. They were laden with formidable boxes; moved in a military order, one following another; and, by the extreme slowness of their advance, inspired Somerset with the most serious ideas of his tenant’s malady.
By the time he had the door open, the cabs had drawn up beside the pavement; and from the two first, there had alighted the military gentleman of the morning and two very stalwart porters. These proceeded instantly to take possession of the house; with their own hands, and firmly rejecting Somerset’s assistance, they carried in the various crates and boxes; with their own hands dismounted and transferred to the back drawing-room the bed in which the tenant was to sleep; and it was not until the bustle of arrival had subsided, and the arrangements were complete, that there descended, from the third of the three vehicles, a gentleman of great stature and broad shoulders, leaning on the shoulder of a woman in a widow’s dress, and himself covered by a long cloak and muffled in a coloured comforter.
Somerset had but a glimpse of him in passing; he was soon shut into the back drawing-room; the other men departed; silence redescended on the house; and had not the nurse appeared a little before half-past ten, and, with a strong brogue, asked if there were a decent public-house in the neighbourhood, Somerset might have still supposed himself to be alone in the Superfluous Mansion.
Day followed day; and still the young man had never come by speech or sight of his mysterious lodger. The doors of the drawing-room flat were never open; and although Somerset could hear him moving to and fro, the tall man had never quitted the privacy of his apartments. Visitors, indeed, arrived; sometimes in the dusk, sometimes at intempestuous hours of night or morning; men, for the most part; some meanly attired, some decently; some loud, some cringing; and yet all, in the eyes of Somerset, displeasing. A certain air of fear and secrecy was common to them all; they were all voluble, he thought, and ill at ease; even the military gentleman proved, on a closer inspection, to be no gentleman at all; and as for the doctor who attended the sick man, his manners were not suggestive of a university career. The nurse, again, was scarcely a desirable house-fellow. Since her arrival, the fall of whisky in the young man’s private bottle was much accelerated; and though never communicative, she was at times unpleasantly familiar. When asked about the patient’s health, she would dolorously shake her head, and declare that the poor gentleman was in a pitiful condition.
Yet somehow Somerset had early begun to entertain the notion that his complaint was other than bodily. The ill-looking birds that gathered to the house, the strange noises that sounded from the drawing-room in the dead hours of night, the careless attendance and intemperate habits of the nurse, the entire absence of correspondence, the entire seclusion of Mr. Jones himself, whose face, up to that hour, he could not have sworn to in a court of justice — all weighed unpleasantly upon the young man’s mind. A sense of something evil, irregular and underhand, haunted and depressed him; and this uneasy sentiment was the more firmly rooted in his mind, when, in the fulness of time, he had an opportunity of observing the features of his tenant. It fell in this way. The young landlord was awakened about four in the morning by a noise in the hall. Leaping to his feet, and opening the door of the library, he saw the tall man, candle in hand, in earnest conversation with the gentleman who had taken the rooms. The faces of both were strongly illuminated; and in that of his tenant, Somerset could perceive none of the marks of disease, but every sign of health, energy, and resolution. While he was still looking, the visitor took his departure; and the invalid, having carefully fastened the front door, sprang upstairs without a trace of lassitude.
That night upon his pillow, Somerset began to kindle once more into the hot fit of the detective fever; and the next morning resumed the practice of his art with careless hand and an abstracted mind. The day was destined to be fertile in surprises; nor had he long been seated at the easel ere the first of these occurred. A cab laden with baggage drew up before the door; and Mrs. Luxmore in person rapidly mounted the steps and began to pound upon the knocker. Somerset hastened to attend the summons.
‘My dear fellow,’ she said, with the utmost gaiety, ‘here I come dropping from the moon. I am delighted to find you faithful; and I have no doubt you will be equally pleased to be restored to liberty.’
Somerset could find no words, whether of protest or welcome; and the spirited old lady pushed briskly by him and paused on the threshold of the dining-room. The sight that met her eyes was one well calculated to inspire astonishment. The mantelpiece was arrayed with saucepans and empty bottles; on the fire some chops were frying; the floor was littered from end to end with books, clothes, walking-canes and the materials of the painter’s craft; but what far outstripped the other wonders of the place was the corner which had been arranged for the study of still-life. This formed a sort of rockery; conspicuous upon which, according to the principles of the art of composition, a cabbage was relieved against a copper kettle, and both contrasted with the mail of a boiled lobster.
‘My gracious goodness!’ cried the lady of the house; and then, turning in wrath on the young man, ‘From what rank in life are you sprung?’ she demanded. ‘You have the exterior of a gentleman; but from the astonishing evidences before me, I should say you can only be a greengrocer’s man. Pray, gather up your vegetables, and let me see no more of you.’
‘Madam,’ babbled Somerset, ‘you promised me a month’s warning.’
‘That was under a misapprehension,’ returned the old lady. ‘I now give you warning to leave at once.’
‘Madam,’ said the young man, ‘I wish I could; and indeed, as far as I am concerned, it might be done. But then, my lodger!’
‘Your lodger?’ echoed Mrs. Luxmore.
‘My lodger: why should I deny it?’ returned Somerset. ‘He is only by the week.’
The old lady sat down upon a chair. ‘You have a lodger? — you?’ she cried. ‘And pray, how did you get him?’
‘By advertisement,’ replied the young man. ‘O madam, I have not lived unobservantly. I adopted’— his eyes involuntarily shifted to the cartoons —‘I adopted every method.’
Her eyes had followed his; for the first time in Somerset’s experience, she produced a double eye-glass; and as soon as the full merit of the works had flashed upon her, she gave way to peal after peal of her trilling and soprano laughter.
‘Oh, I think you are perfectly delicious!’ she cried. ‘I do hope you had them in the window. M’Pherson,’ she continued, crying to her maid, who had been all this time grimly waiting in the hall, ‘I lunch with Mr. Somerset. Take the cellar key and bring some wine.’
In this gay humour she continued throughout the luncheon; presented Somerset with a couple of dozen of wine, which she made M’Pherson bring up from the cellar —‘as a present, my dear,’ she said, with another burst of tearful merriment, ‘for your charming pictures, which you must be sure to leave me when you go;’ and finally, protesting that she dared not spoil the absurdest houseful of madmen in the whole of London, departed (as she vaguely phrased it) for the continent of Europe.
She was no sooner gone, than Somerset encountered in the corridor the Irish nurse; sober, to all appearance, and yet a prey to singularly strong emotion. It was made to appear, from her account, that Mr. Jones had already suffered acutely in his health from Mrs. Luxmore’s visit, and that nothing short of a full explanation could allay the invalid’s uneasiness. Somerset, somewhat staring, told what he thought fit of the affair.
‘Is that all?’ cried the woman. ‘As God sees you, is that all?’
‘My good woman,’ said the young man, ‘I have no idea what you can be driving at. Suppose the lady were my friend’s wife, suppose she were my fairy godmother, suppose she were the Queen of Portugal; and how should that affect yourself or Mr. Jones?’
‘Blessed Mary!’ cried the nurse, ‘it’s he that will be glad to hear it!’
And immediately she fled upstairs.
Somerset, on his part, returned to the dining-room, and with a very thoughtful brow and ruminating many theories, disposed of the remainder of the bottle. It was port; and port is a wine, sole among its equals and superiors, that can in some degree support the competition of tobacco. Sipping, smoking, and theorising, Somerset moved on from suspicion to suspicion, from resolve to resolve, still growing braver and rosier as the bottle ebbed. He was a sceptic, none prouder of the name; he had no horror at command, whether for crimes or vices, but beheld and embraced the world, with an immoral approbation, the frequent consequence of youth and health. At the same time, he felt convinced that he dwelt under the same roof with secret malefactors; and the unregenerate instinct of the chase impelled him to severity. The bottle had run low; the summer sun had finally withdrawn; and at the same moment, night and the pangs of hunger recalled him from his dreams.
He went forth, and dined in the Criterion: a dinner in consonance, not so much with his purse, as with the admirable wine he had discussed. What with one thing and another, it was long past midnight when he returned home. A cab was at the door; and entering the hall, Somerset found himself face to face with one of the most regular of the few who visited Mr. Jones: a man of powerful figure, strong lineaments, and a chin-beard in the American fashion. This person was carrying on one shoulder a black portmanteau, seemingly of considerable weight. That he should find a visitor removing baggage in the dead of night, recalled some odd stories to the young man’s memory; he had heard of lodgers who thus gradually drained away, not only their own effects, but the very furniture and fittings of the house that sheltered them; and now, in a mood between pleasantry and suspicion, and aping the manner of a drunkard, he roughly bumped against the man with the chin-beard and knocked the portmanteau from his shoulder to the floor. With a face struck suddenly as white as paper, the man with the chin-beard called lamentably on the name of his maker, and fell in a mere heap on the mat at the foot of the stairs. At the same time, though only for a single instant, the heads of the sick lodger and the Irish nurse popped out like rabbits over the banisters of the first floor; and on both the same scare and pallor were apparent.
The sight of this incredible emotion turned Somerset to stone, and he continued speechless, while the man gathered himself together, and, with the help of the handrail and audibly thanking God, scrambled once more upon his feet.
‘What in Heaven’s name ails you?’ gasped the young man as soon as he could find words and utterance.
‘Have you a drop of brandy?’ returned the other. ‘I am sick.’
Somerset administered two drams, one after the other, to the man with the chin-beard; who then, somewhat restored, began to confound himself in apologies for what he called his miserable nervousness, the result, he said, of a long course of dumb ague; and having taken leave with a hand that still sweated and trembled, he gingerly resumed his burthen and departed.
Somerset retired to bed but not to sleep. What, he asked himself, had been the contents of the black portmanteau? Stolen goods? the carcase of one murdered? or — and at the thought he sat upright in bed — an infernal machine? He took a solemn vow that he would set these doubts at rest; and with the next morning, installed himself beside the dining-room window, vigilant with eye; and ear, to await and profit by the earliest opportunity.
The hours went heavily by. Within the house there was no circumstance of novelty; unless it might be that the nurse more frequently made little journeys round the corner of the square, and before afternoon was somewhat loose of speech and gait. A little after six, however, there came round the corner of the gardens a very handsome and elegantly dressed young woman, who paused a little way off, and for some time, and with frequent sighs, contemplated the front of the Superfluous Mansion. It was not the first time that she had thus stood afar and looked upon it, like our common parents at the gates of Eden; and the young man had already had occasion to remark the lively slimness of her carriage, and had already been the butt of a chance arrow from her eye. He hailed her coming, then, with pleasant feelings, and moved a little nearer to the window to enjoy the sight. What was his surprise, however, when, as if with a sensible effort, she drew near, mounted the steps and tapped discreetly at the door! He made haste to get before the Irish nurse, who was not improbably asleep, and had the satisfaction to receive this gracious visitor in person.
She inquired for Mr. Jones; and then, without transition, asked the young man if he were the person of the house (and at the words, he thought he could perceive her to be smiling), ‘because,’ she added, ‘if you are, I should like to see some of the other rooms.’ Somerset told her he was under an engagement to receive no other lodgers; but she assured him that would be no matter, as these were friends of Mr. Jones’s. ‘And,’ she continued, moving suddenly to the dining-room door, ‘let us begin here.’ Somerset was too late to prevent her entering, and perhaps he lacked the courage to essay. ‘Ah!’ she cried, ‘how changed it is!’
‘Madam,’ cried the young man, ‘since your entrance, it is I who have the right to say so.’
She received this inane compliment with a demure and conscious droop of the eyelids, and gracefully steering her dress among the mingled litter, now with a smile, now with a sigh, reviewed the wonders of the two apartments. She gazed upon the cartoons with sparkling eyes, and a heightened colour, and in a somewhat breathless voice, expressed a high opinion of their merits. She praised the effective disposition of the rockery, and in the bedroom, of which Somerset had vainly endeavoured to defend the entry, she fairly broke forth in admiration. ‘How simple and manly!’ she cried: ‘none of that effeminacy of neatness, which is so detestable in a man!’ Hard upon this, telling him, before he had time to reply, that she very well knew her way, and would trouble him no further, she took her leave with an engaging smile, and ascended the staircase alone.
For more than an hour the young lady remained closeted with Mr. Jones; and at the end of that time, the night being now come completely, they left the house in company. This was the first time since the arrival of his lodger, that Somerset had found himself alone with the Irish widow; and without the loss of any more time than was required by decency, he stepped to the foot of the stairs and hailed her by her name. She came instantly, wreathed in weak smiles and with a nodding head; and when the young man politely offered to introduce her to the treasures of his art, she swore that nothing could afford her greater pleasure, for, though she had never crossed the threshold, she had frequently observed his beautiful pictures through the door. On entering the dining-room, the sight of a bottle and two glasses prepared her to be a gentle critic; and as soon as the pictures had been viewed and praised, she was easily persuaded to join the painter in a single glass. ‘Here,’ she said, ‘are my respects; and a pleasure it is, in this horrible house, to see a gentleman like yourself, so affable and free, and a very nice painter, I am sure.’ One glass so agreeably prefaced, was sure to lead to the acceptance of a second; at the third, Somerset was free to cease from the affectation of keeping her company; and as for the fourth, she asked it of her own accord. ‘For indeed,’ said she, ‘what with all these clocks and chemicals, without a drop of the creature life would be impossible entirely. And you seen yourself that even M’Guire was glad to beg for it. And even himself, when he is downhearted with all these cruel disappointments, though as temperate a man as any child, will be sometimes crying for a glass of it. And I’ll thank you for a thimbleful to settle what I got.’ Soon after, she began with tears to narrate the deathbed dispositions and lament the trifling assets of her husband. Then she declared she heard ‘the master’ calling her, rose to her feet, made but one lurch of it into the still-life rockery, and with her head upon the lobster, fell into stertorous slumbers.
Somerset mounted at once to the first story, and opened the door of the drawing-room, which was brilliantly lit by several lamps. It was a great apartment; looking on the square with three tall windows, and joined by a pair of ample folding-doors to the next room; elegant in proportion, papered in sea-green, furnished in velvet of a delicate blue, and adorned with a majestic mantelpiece of variously tinted marbles. Such was the room that Somerset remembered; that which he now beheld was changed in almost every feature: the furniture covered with a figured chintz; the walls hung with a rhubarb-coloured paper, and diversified by the curtained recesses for no less than seven windows. It seemed to himself that he must have entered, without observing the transition, into the adjoining house. Presently from these more specious changes, his eye condescended to the many curious objects with which the floor was littered. Here were the locks of dismounted pistols; clocks and clockwork in every stage of demolition, some still busily ticking, some reduced to their dainty elements; a great company of carboys, jars and bottles; a carpenter’s bench and a laboratory-table.
The back drawing-room, to which Somerset proceeded, had likewise undergone a change. It was transformed to the exact appearance of a common lodging-house bedroom; a bed with green curtains occupied one corner; and the window was blocked by the regulation table and mirror. The door of a small closet here attracted the young man’s attention; and striking a vesta, he opened it and entered. On a table several wigs and beards were lying spread; about the walls hung an incongruous display of suits and overcoats; and conspicuous among the last the young man observed a large overall of the most costly sealskin. In a flash his mind reverted to the advertisement in the Standard newspaper. The great height of his lodger, the disproportionate breadth of his shoulders, and the strange particulars of his instalment, all pointed to the same conclusion.
The vesta had now burned to his fingers; and taking the coat upon his arm, Somerset hastily returned to the lighted drawing-room. There, with a mixture of fear and admiration, he pored upon its goodly proportions and the regularity and softness of the pile. The sight of a large pier-glass put another fancy in his head. He donned the fur-coat; and standing before the mirror in an attitude suggestive of a Russian prince, he thrust his hands into the ample pockets. There his fingers encountered a folded journal. He drew it out, and recognised the type and paper of the Standard; and at the same instant, his eyes alighted on the offer of two hundred pounds. Plainly then, his lodger, now no longer mysterious, had laid aside his coat on the very day of the appearance of the advertisement.
He was thus standing, the tell-tale coat upon his back, the incriminating paper in his hand, when the door opened and the tall lodger, with a firm but somewhat pallid face, stepped into the room and closed the door again behind him. For some time, the two looked upon each other in perfect silence; then Mr. Jones moved forward to the table, took a seat, and still without once changing the direction of his eyes, addressed the young man.
‘You are right,’ he said. ‘It is for me the blood money is offered. And now what will you do?’
It was a question to which Somerset was far from being able to reply. Taken as he was at unawares, masquerading in the man’s own coat, and surrounded by a whole arsenal of diabolical explosives, the keeper of the lodging-house was silenced.
‘Yes,’ resumed the other, ‘I am he. I am that man, whom with impotent hate and fear, they still hunt from den to den, from disguise to disguise. Yes, my landlord, you have it in your power, if you be poor, to lay the basis of your fortune; if you be unknown, to capture honour at one snatch. You have hocussed an innocent widow; and I find you here in my apartment, for whose use I pay you in stamped money, searching my wardrobe, and your hand — shame, sir! — your hand in my very pocket. You can now complete the cycle of your ignominious acts, by what will be at once the simplest, the safest, and the most remunerative.’ The speaker paused as if to emphasise his words; and then, with a great change of tone and manner, thus resumed: ‘And yet, sir, when I look upon your face, I feel certain that I cannot be deceived: certain that in spite of all, I have the honour and pleasure of speaking to a gentleman. Take off my coat, sir — which but cumbers you. Divest yourself of this confusion: that which is but thought upon, thank God, need be no burthen to the conscience; we have all harboured guilty thoughts: and if it flashed into your mind to sell my flesh and blood, my anguish in the dock, and the sweat of my death agony — it was a thought, dear sir, you were as incapable of acting on, as I of any further question of your honour.’ At these words, the speaker, with a very open, smiling countenance, like a forgiving father, offered Somerset his hand.
It was not in the young man’s nature to refuse forgiveness or dissect generosity. He instantly, and almost without thought, accepted the proffered grasp.
‘And now,’ resumed the lodger, ‘now that I hold in mine your loyal hand, I lay by my apprehensions, I dismiss suspicion, I go further — by an effort of will, I banish the memory of what is past. How you came here, I care not: enough that you are here — as my guest. Sit ye down; and let us, with your good permission, improve acquaintance over a glass of excellent whisky.’
So speaking, he produced glasses and a bottle: and the pair pledged each other in silence.
‘Confess,’ observed the smiling host, ‘you were surprised at the appearance of the room.’
‘I was indeed,’ said Somerset; ‘nor can I imagine the purpose of these changes.’
‘These,’ replied the conspirator, ‘are the devices by which I continue to exist. Conceive me now, accused before one of your unjust tribunals; conceive the various witnesses appearing, and the singular variety of their reports! One will have visited me in this drawing-room as it originally stood; a second finds it as it is to-night; and to-morrow or next day, all may have been changed. If you love romance (as artists do), few lives are more romantic than that of the obscure individual now addressing you. Obscure yet famous. Mine is an anonymous, infernal glory. By infamous means, I work towards my bright purpose. I found the liberty and peace of a poor country, desperately abused; the future smiles upon that land; yet, in the meantime, I lead the existence of a hunted brute, work towards appalling ends, and practice hell’s dexterities.’
Somerset, glass in hand, contemplated the strange fanatic before him, and listened to his heated rhapsody, with indescribable bewilderment. He looked him in the face with curious particularity; saw there the marks of education; and wondered the more profoundly.
‘Sir,’ he said —‘for I know not whether I should still address you as Mr. Jones —’
‘Jones, Breitman, Higginbotham, Pumpernickel, Daviot, Henderland, by all or any of these you may address me,’ said the plotter; ‘for all I have at some time borne. Yet that which I most prize, that which is most feared, hated, and obeyed, is not a name to be found in your directories; it is not a name current in post-offices or banks; and, indeed, like the celebrated clan M’Gregor, I may justly describe myself as being nameless by day. But,’ he continued, rising to his feet, ‘by night, and among my desperate followers, I am the redoubted Zero.’
Somerset was unacquainted with the name, but he politely expressed surprise and gratification. ‘I am to understand,’ he continued, ‘that, under this alias, you follow the profession of a dynamiter?’ *
* The Arabian author of the original has here a long passage conceived in a style too oriental for the English reader. We subjoin a specimen, and it seems doubtful whether it should be printed as prose or verse: ‘Any writard who writes dynamitard shall find in me a never-resting fightard;’ and he goes on (if we correctly gather his meaning) to object to such elegant and obviously correct spellings as lamp-lightard, corn-dealard, apple-filchard (clearly justified by the parallel — pilchard) and opera dancard. ‘Dynamitist,’ he adds, ‘I could understand.’
The plotter had resumed his seat and now replenished the glasses.
‘I do,’ he said. ‘In this dark period of time, a star — the star of dynamite — has risen for the oppressed; and among those who practise its use, so thick beset with dangers and attended by such incredible difficulties and disappointments, few have been more assiduous, and not many —’ He paused, and a shade of embarrassment appeared upon his face —‘not many have been more successful than myself.’
‘I can imagine,’ observed Somerset, ‘that, from the sweeping consequences looked for, the career is not devoid of interest. You have, besides, some of the entertainment of the game of hide and seek. But it would still seem to me — I speak as a layman — that nothing could be simpler or safer than to deposit an infernal machine and retire to an adjacent county to await the painful consequences.’
‘You speak, indeed,’ returned the plotter, with some evidence of warmth, ‘you speak, indeed, most ignorantly. Do you make nothing, then, of such a peril as we share this moment? Do you think it nothing to occupy a house like this one, mined, menaced, and, in a word, literally tottering to its fall?’
‘Good God!’ ejaculated Somerset.
‘And when you speak of ease,’ pursued Zero, ‘in this age of scientific studies, you fill me with surprise. Are you not aware that chemicals are proverbially fickle as woman, and clockwork as capricious as the very devil? Do you see upon my brow these furrows of anxiety? Do you observe the silver threads that mingle with my hair? Clockwork, clockwork has stamped them on my brow — chemicals have sprinkled them upon my locks! No, Mr. Somerset,’ he resumed, after a moment’s pause, his voice still quivering with sensibility, ‘you must not suppose the dynamiter’s life to be all gold. On the contrary, you cannot picture to yourself the bloodshot vigils and the staggering disappointments of a life like mine. I have toiled (let us say) for months, up early and down late; my bag is ready, my clock set; a daring agent has hurried with white face to deposit the instrument of ruin; we await the fall of England, the massacre of thousands, the yell of fear and execration; and lo! a snap like that of a child’s pistol, an offensive smell, and the entire loss of so much time and plant! If,’ he concluded, musingly, ‘we had been merely able to recover the lost bags, I believe with but a touch or two, I could have remedied the peccant engine. But what with the loss of plant and the almost insuperable scientific difficulties of the task, our friends in France are almost ready to desert the chosen medium. They propose, instead, to break up the drainage system of cities and sweep off whole populations with the devastating typhoid pestilence: a tempting and a scientific project: a process, indiscriminate indeed, but of idyllical simplicity. I recognise its elegance; but, sir, I have something of the poet in my nature; something, possibly, of the tribune. And, for my small part, I shall remain devoted to that more emphatic, more striking, and (if you please) more popular method, of the explosive bomb. Yes,’ he cried, with unshaken hope, ‘I will still continue, and, I feel it in my bosom, I shall yet succeed.’
‘Two things I remark,’ said Somerset. ‘The first somewhat staggers me. Have you, then — in all this course of life, which you have sketched so vividly — have you not once succeeded?’
‘Pardon me,’ said Zero. ‘I have had one success. You behold in me the author of the outrage of Red Lion Court.’
‘But if I remember right,’ objected Somerset, ‘the thing was a fiasco. A scavenger’s barrow and some copies of the Weekly Budget — these were the only victims.’
‘You will pardon me again,’ returned Zero with positive asperity: ‘a child was injured.’
‘And that fitly brings me to my second point,’ said Somerset. ‘For I observed you to employ the word “indiscriminate.” Now, surely, a scavenger’s barrow and a child (if child there were) represent the very acme and top pin-point of indiscriminate, and, pardon me, of ineffectual reprisal.’
‘Did I employ the word?’ asked Zero. ‘Well, I will not defend it. But for efficiency, you touch on graver matters; and before entering upon so vast a subject, permit me once more to fill our glasses. Disputation is dry work,’ he added, with a charming gaiety of manner.
Once more accordingly the pair pledged each other in a stalwart grog; and Zero, leaning back with an air of some complacency, proceeded more largely to develop his opinions.
‘The indiscriminate?’ he began. ‘War, my dear sir, is indiscriminate. War spares not the child; it spares not the barrow of the harmless scavenger. No more,’ he concluded, beaming, ‘no more do I. Whatever may strike fear, whatever may confound or paralyse the activities of the guilty nation, barrow or child, imperial Parliament or excursion steamer, is welcome to my simple plans. You are not,’ he inquired, with a shade of sympathetic interest, ‘you are not, I trust, a believer?’
‘Sir, I believe in nothing,’ said the young man.
‘You are then,’ replied Zero, ‘in a position to grasp my argument. We agree that humanity is the object, the glorious triumph of humanity; and being pledged to labour for that end, and face to face with the banded opposition of kings, parliaments, churches, and the members of the force, who am I— who are we, dear sir — to affect a nicety about the tools employed? You might, perhaps, expect us to attack the Queen, the sinister Gladstone, the rigid Derby, or the dexterous Granville; but there you would be in error. Our appeal is to the body of the people; it is these that we would touch and interest. Now, sir, have you observed the English housemaid?’
‘I should think I had,’ cried Somerset.
‘From a man of taste and a votary of art, I had expected it,’ returned the conspirator politely. ‘A type apart; a very charming figure; and thoroughly adapted to our ends. The neat cap, the clean print, the comely person, the engaging manner; her position between classes, parents in one, employers in another; the probability that she will have at least one sweet-heart, whose feelings we shall address:— yes, I have a leaning — call it, if you will, a weakness — for the housemaid. Not that I would be understood to despise the nurse. For the child is a very interesting feature: I have long since marked out the child as the sensitive point in society.’ He wagged his head, with a wise, pensive smile. ‘And talking, sir, of children and of the perils of our trade, let me now narrate to you a little incident of an explosive bomb, that fell out some weeks ago under my own observation. It fell out thus.’
And Zero, leaning back in his chair, narrated the following simple tale.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00