Somerset in vain strove to attach a meaning to these words. He had, in the meanwhile, applied himself assiduously to the flagon; the plotter began to melt in twain, and seemed to expand and hover on his seat; and with a vague sense of nightmare, the young man rose unsteadily to his feet, and, refusing the proffer of a third grog, insisted that the hour was late and he must positively get to bed.
‘Dear me,’ observed Zero, ‘I find you very temperate. But I will not be oppressive. Suffice it that we are now fast friends; and, my dear landlord, au revoir!’
So saying the plotter once more shook hands; and with the politest ceremonies, and some necessary guidance, conducted the bewildered young gentleman to the top of the stair.
Precisely, how he got to bed, was a point on which Somerset remained in utter darkness; but the next morning when, at a blow, he started broad awake, there fell upon his mind a perfect hurricane of horror and wonder. That he should have suffered himself to be led into the semblance of intimacy with such a man as his abominable lodger, appeared, in the cold light of day, a mystery of human weakness. True, he was caught in a situation that might have tested the aplomb of Talleyrand. That was perhaps a palliation; but it was no excuse. For so wholesale a capitulation of principle, for such a fall into criminal familiarity, no excuse indeed was possible; nor any remedy, but to withdraw at once from the relation.
As soon as he was dressed, he hurried upstairs, determined on a rupture. Zero hailed him with the warmth of an old friend.
‘Come in,’ he cried, ‘dear Mr. Somerset! Come in, sit down, and, without ceremony, join me at my morning meal.’
‘Sir,’ said Somerset, ‘you must permit me first to disengage my honour. Last night, I was surprised into a certain appearance of complicity; but once for all, let me inform you that I regard you and your machinations with unmingled horror and disgust, and I will leave no stone unturned to crush your vile conspiracy.’
‘My dear fellow,’ replied Zero, with an air of some complacency, ‘I am well accustomed to these human weaknesses. Disgust? I have felt it myself; it speedily wears off. I think none the worse, I think the more of you, for this engaging frankness. And in the meanwhile, what are you to do? You find yourself, if I interpret rightly, in very much the same situation as Charles the Second (possibly the least degraded of your British sovereigns) when he was taken into the confidence of the thief. To denounce me, is out of the question; and what else can you attempt? No, dear Mr. Somerset, your hands are tied; and you find yourself condemned, under pain of behaving like a cad, to be that same charming and intellectual companion who delighted me last night.’
‘At least,’ cried Somerset, ‘I can, and do, order you to leave this house.’
‘Ah!’ cried the plotter, ‘but there I fail to follow you. You may, if you please, enact the part of Judas; but if, as I suppose, you recoil from that extremity of meanness, I am, on my side, far too intelligent to leave these lodgings, in which I please myself exceedingly, and from which you lack the power to drive me. No, no, dear sir; here I am, and here I propose to stay.’
‘I repeat,’ cried Somerset, beside himself with a sense of his own weakness, ‘I repeat that I give you warning. I am the master of this house; and I emphatically give you warning.’
‘A week’s warning?’ said the imperturbable conspirator. ‘Very well: we will talk of it a week from now. That is arranged; and in the meanwhile, I observe my breakfast growing cold. Do, dear Mr. Somerset, since you find yourself condemned, for a week at least, to the society of a very interesting character, display some of that open favour, some of that interest in life’s obscurer sides, which stamp the character of the true artist. Hang me, if you will, to-morrow; but to-day show yourself divested of the scruples of the burgess, and sit down pleasantly to share my meal.’
‘Man!’ cried Somerset, ‘do you understand my sentiments?’
‘Certainly,’ replied Zero; ‘and I respect them! Would you be outdone in such a contest? will you alone be partial? and in this nineteenth century, cannot two gentlemen of education agree to differ on a point of politics? Come, sir: all your hard words have left me smiling; judge then, which of us is the philosopher!’
Somerset was a young man of a very tolerant disposition and by nature easily amenable to sophistry. He threw up his hands with a gesture of despair, and took the seat to which the conspirator invited him. The meal was excellent; the host not only affable, but primed with curious information. He seemed, indeed, like one who had too long endured the torture of silence, to exult in the most wholesale disclosures. The interest of what he had to tell was great; his character, besides, developed step by step; and Somerset, as the time fled, not only outgrew some of the discomfort of his false position, but began to regard the conspirator with a familiarity that verged upon contempt. In any circumstances, he had a singular inability to leave the society in which he found himself; company, even if distasteful, held him captive like a limed sparrow; and on this occasion, he suffered hour to follow hour, was easily persuaded to sit down once more to table, and did not even attempt to withdraw till, on the approach of evening, Zero, with many apologies, dismissed his guest. His fellow-conspirators, the dynamiter handsomely explained, as they were unacquainted with the sterling qualities of the young man, would be alarmed at the sight of a strange face.
As soon as he was alone, Somerset fell back upon the humour of the morning. He raged at the thought of his facility; he paced the dining-room, forming the sternest resolutions for the future; he wrung the hand which had been dishonoured by the touch of an assassin; and among all these whirling thoughts, there flashed in from time to time, and ever with a chill of fear, the thought of the confounded ingredients with which the house was stored. A powder magazine seemed a secure smoking-room alongside of the Superfluous Mansion.
He sought refuge in flight, in locomotion, in the flowing bowl. As long as the bars were open, he travelled from one to another, seeking light, safety, and the companionship of human faces; when these resources failed him, he fell back on the belated baked-potato man; and at length, still pacing the streets, he was goaded to fraternise with the police. Alas, with what a sense of guilt he conversed with these guardians of the law; how gladly had he wept upon their ample bosoms; and how the secret fluttered to his lips and was still denied an exit! Fatigue began at last to triumph over remorse; and about the hour of the first milkman, he returned to the door of the mansion; looked at it with a horrid expectation, as though it should have burst that instant into flames; drew out his key, and when his foot already rested on the steps, once more lost heart and fled for repose to the grisly shelter of a coffee-shop.
It was on the stroke of noon when he awoke. Dismally searching in his pockets, he found himself reduced to half-a-crown; and when he had paid the price of his distasteful couch, saw himself obliged to return to the Superfluous Mansion. He sneaked into the hall and stole on tiptoe to the cupboard where he kept his money. Yet half a minute, he told himself, and he would be free for days from his obseding lodger, and might decide at leisure on the course he should pursue. But fate had otherwise designed: there came a tap at the door and Zero entered.
‘Have I caught you?’ he cried, with innocent gaiety. ‘Dear fellow, I was growing quite impatient.’ And on the speaker’s somewhat stolid face, there came a glow of genuine affection. ‘I am so long unused to have a friend,’ he continued, ‘that I begin to be afraid I may prove jealous.’ And he wrung the hand of his landlord.
Somerset was, of all men, least fit to deal with such a greeting. To reject these kind advances was beyond his strength. That he could not return cordiality for cordiality, was already almost more than he could carry. That inequality between kind sentiments which, to generous characters, will always seem to be a sort of guilt, oppressed him to the ground; and he stammered vague and lying words.
‘That is all right,’ cried Zero —‘that is as it should be — say no more! I had a vague alarm; I feared you had deserted me; but I now own that fear to have been unworthy, and apologise. To doubt of your forgiveness were to repeat my sin. Come, then; dinner waits; join me again and tell me your adventures of the night.’
Kindness still sealed the lips of Somerset; and he suffered himself once more to be set down to table with his innocent and criminal acquaintance. Once more, the plotter plunged up to the neck in damaging disclosures: now it would be the name and biography of an individual, now the address of some important centre, that rose, as if by accident, upon his lips; and each word was like another turn of the thumbscrew to his unhappy guest. Finally, the course of Zero’s bland monologue led him to the young lady of two days ago: that young lady, who had flashed on Somerset for so brief a while but with so conquering a charm; and whose engaging grace, communicative eyes, and admirable conduct of the sweeping skirt, remained imprinted on his memory.
‘You saw her?’ said Zero. ‘Beautiful, is she not? She, too, is one of ours: a true enthusiast: nervous, perhaps, in presence of the chemicals; but in matters of intrigue, the very soul of skill and daring. Lake, Fonblanque, de Marly, Valdevia, such are some of the names that she employs; her true name — but there, perhaps, I go too far. Suffice it, that it is to her I owe my present lodging, and, dear Somerset, the pleasure of your acquaintance. It appears she knew the house. You see dear fellow, I make no concealment: all that you can care to hear, I tell you openly.’
‘For God’s sake,’ cried the wretched Somerset, ‘hold your tongue! You cannot imagine how you torture me!’
A shade of serious discomposure crossed the open countenance of Zero.
‘There are times,’ he said, ‘when I begin to fancy that you do not like me. Why, why, dear Somerset, this lack of cordiality? I am depressed; the touchstone of my life draws near; and if I fail’— he gloomily nodded —‘from all the height of my ambitious schemes, I fall, dear boy, into contempt. These are grave thoughts, and you may judge my need of your delightful company. Innocent prattler, you relieve the weight of my concerns. And yet . . . and yet . . .’ The speaker pushed away his plate, and rose from table. ‘Follow me,’ said he, ‘follow me. My mood is on; I must have air, I must behold the plain of battle.’
So saying, he led the way hurriedly to the top flat of the mansion, and thence, by ladder and trap, to a certain leaded platform, sheltered at one end by a great stalk of chimneys and occupying the actual summit of the roof. On both sides, it bordered, without parapet or rail, on the incline of slates; and, northward above all, commanded an extensive view of housetops, and rising through the smoke, the distant spires of churches.
‘Here,’ cried Zero, ‘you behold this field of city, rich, crowded, laughing with the spoil of continents; but soon, how soon, to be laid low! Some day, some night, from this coign of vantage, you shall perhaps be startled by the detonation of the judgment gun — not sharp and empty like the crack of cannon, but deep-mouthed and unctuously solemn. Instantly thereafter, you shall behold the flames break forth. Ay,’ he cried, stretching forth his hand, ‘ay, that will be a day of retribution. Then shall the pallid constable flee side by side with the detected thief. Blaze!’ he cried, ‘blaze, derided city! Fall, flatulent monarchy, fall like Dagon!’
With these words his foot slipped upon the lead; and but for Somerset’s quickness, he had been instantly precipitated into space. Pale as a sheet, and limp as a pocket-handkerchief, he was dragged from the edge of downfall by one arm; helped, or rather carried, down the ladder; and deposited in safety on the attic landing. Here he began to come to himself, wiped his brow, and at length, seizing Somerset’s hand in both of his, began to utter his acknowledgments.
‘This seals it,’ said he. ‘Ours is a life and death connection. You have plucked me from the jaws of death; and if I were before attracted by your character, judge now of the ardour of my gratitude and love! But I perceive I am still greatly shaken. Lend me, I beseech you, lend me your arm as far as my apartment.’
A dram of spirits restored the plotter to something of his customary self-possession; and he was standing, glass in hand and genially convalescent, when his eye was attracted by the dejection of the unfortunate young man.
‘Good heavens, dear Somerset,’ he cried, ‘what ails you? Let me offer you a touch of spirits.’
But Somerset had fallen below the reach of this material comfort.
‘Let me be,’ he said. ‘I am lost; you have caught me in the toils. Up to this moment, I have lived all my life in the most reckless manner, and done exactly what I pleased, with the most perfect innocence. And now — what am I? Are you so blind and wooden that you do not see the loathing you inspire me with? Is it possible you can suppose me willing to continue to exist upon such terms? To think,’ he cried, ‘that a young man, guilty of no fault on earth but amiability, should find himself involved in such a damned imbroglio!’ And placing his knuckles in his eyes, Somerset rolled upon the sofa.
‘My God,’ said Zero, ‘is this possible? And I so filled with tenderness and interest! Can it be, dear Somerset, that you are under the empire of these out-worn scruples? or that you judge a patriot by the morality of the religious tract? I thought you were a good agnostic.’
‘Mr. Jones,’ said Somerset, ‘it is in vain to argue. I boast myself a total disbeliever, not only in revealed religion, but in the data, method, and conclusions of the whole of ethics. Well! what matters it? what signifies a form of words? I regard you as a reptile, whom I would rejoice, whom I long, to stamp under my heel. You would blow up others? Well then, understand: I want, with every circumstance of infamy and agony, to blow up you!’
‘Somerset, Somerset!’ said Zero, turning very pale, ‘this is wrong; this is very wrong. You pain, you wound me, Somerset.’
‘Give me a match!’ cried Somerset wildly. ‘Let me set fire to this incomparable monster! Let me perish with him in his fall!’
‘For God’s sake,’ cried Zero, clutching hold of the young man, ‘for God’s sake command yourself! We stand upon the brink; death yawns around us; a man — a stranger in this foreign land — one whom you have called your friend —’
‘Silence!’ cried Somerset, ‘you are no friend, no friend of mine. I look on you with loathing, like a toad: my flesh creeps with physical repulsion; my soul revolts against the sight of you.’
Zero burst into tears. ‘Alas!’ he sobbed, ‘this snaps the last link that bound me to humanity. My friend disowns — he insults me. I am indeed accurst.’
Somerset stood for an instant staggered by this sudden change of front. The next moment, with a despairing gesture, he fled from the room and from the house. The first dash of his escape carried him hard upon half-way to the next police-office: but presently began to droop; and before he reached the house of lawful intervention, he fell once more among doubtful counsels. Was he an agnostic? had he a right to act? Away with such nonsense, and let Zero perish! ran his thoughts. And then again: had he not promised, had he not shaken hands and broken bread? and that with open eyes? and if so how could he take action, and not forfeit honour? But honour? what was honour? A figment, which, in the hot pursuit of crime, he ought to dash aside. Ay, but crime? A figment, too, which his enfranchised intellect discarded. All day, he wandered in the parks, a prey to whirling thoughts; all night, patrolled the city; and at the peep of day he sat down by the wayside in the neighbourhood of Peckham and bitterly wept. His gods had fallen. He who had chosen the broad, daylit, unencumbered paths of universal scepticism, found himself still the bondslave of honour. He who had accepted life from a point of view as lofty as the predatory eagle’s, though with no design to prey; he who had clearly recognised the common moral basis of war, of commercial competition, and of crime; he who was prepared to help the escaping murderer or to embrace the impenitent thief, found, to the overthrow of all his logic, that he objected to the use of dynamite. The dawn crept among the sleeping villas and over the smokeless fields of city; and still the unfortunate sceptic sobbed over his fall from consistency.
At length, he rose and took the rising sun to witness. ‘There is no question as to fact,’ he cried; ‘right and wrong are but figments and the shadow of a word; but for all that, there are certain things that I cannot do, and there are certain others that I will not stand.’ Thereupon he decided to return to make one last effort of persuasion, and, if he could not prevail on Zero to desist from his infernal trade, throw delicacy to the winds, give the plotter an hour’s start, and denounce him to the police. Fast as he went, being winged by this resolution, it was already well on in the morning when he came in sight of the Superfluous Mansion. Tripping down the steps, was the young lady of the various aliases; and he was surprised to see upon her countenance the marks of anger and concern.
‘Madam,’ he began, yielding to impulse and with no clear knowledge of what he was to add.
But at the sound of his voice she seemed to experience a shock of fear or horror; started back; lowered her veil with a sudden movement; and fled, without turning, from the square.
Here then, we step aside a moment from following the fortunes of Somerset, and proceed to relate the strange and romantic episode of THE BROWN BOX.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00