The Club of Queer Trades eBook: Page1
G. K. Chesterton (1999)
THE CLUB OF QUEER TRADES
by G. K. Chesterton
Chapter 1. The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown
Rabelais, or his wild illustrator Gustave Dore, must have had somethingto do with the designing of the things called flats in Englandand America. There is something entirely Gargantuan in the idea ofeconomising space by piling houses on top of each other, front doorsand all. And in the chaos and complexity of those perpendicular streetsanything may dwell or happen, and it is in one of them, I believe, thatthe inquirer may find the offices of the Club of Queer Trades. It may bethought at the first glance that the name would attract and startle thepasser-by, but nothing attracts or startles in these dim immense hives.The passer-by is only looking for his own melancholy destination, theMontenegro Shipping Agency or the London office of the Rutland Sentinel,and passes through the twilight passages as one passes through thetwilight corridors of a dream. If the Thugs set up a Strangers'Assassination Company in one of the great buildings in Norfolk Street,and sent in a mild man in spectacles to answer inquiries, no inquirieswould be made. And the Club of Queer Trades reigns in a great edificehidden like a fossil in a mighty cliff of fossils.
The nature of this society, such as we afterwards discovered it to be,is soon and simply told. It is an eccentric and Bohemian Club, of whichthe absolute condition of membership lies in this, that the candidatemust have invented the method by which he earns his living. It must bean entirely new trade. The exact definition of this requirement is givenin the two principal rules. First, it must not be a mere application orvariation of an existing trade. Thus, for instance, the Club wouldnot admit an insurance agent simply because instead of insuring men'sfurniture against being burnt in a fire, he insured, let us say, theirtrousers against being torn by a mad dog. The principle (as Sir BradcockBurnaby-Bradcock, in the extraordinarily eloquent and soaring speechto the club on the occasion of the question being raised in the StormbySmith affair, said wittily and keenly) is the same. Secondly, thetrade must be a genuine commercial source of income, the support of itsinventor. Thus the Club would not receive a man simply because he choseto pass his days collecting broken sardine tins, unless he could drivea roaring trade in them. Professor Chick made that quite clear. And whenone remembers what Professor Chick's own new trade was, one doesn't knowwhether to laugh or cry.
The discovery of this strange society was a curiously refreshing thing;to realize that there were ten new trades in the world was like lookingat the first ship or the first plough. It made a man feel what he shouldfeel, that he was still in the childhood of the world. That I shouldhave come at last upon so singular a body was, I may say without vanity,not altogether singular, for I have a mania for belonging to as manysocieties as possible: I may be said to collect clubs, and I haveaccumulated a vast and fantastic variety of specimens ever since, in myaudacious youth, I collected the Athenaeum. At some future day, perhaps,I may tell tales of some of the other bodies to which I have belonged.I will recount the doings of the Dead Man's Shoes Society (thatsuperficially immoral, but darkly justifiable communion); I will explainthe curious origin of the Cat and Christian, the name of which has beenso shamefully misinterpreted; and the world shall know at last why theInstitute of Typewriters coalesced with the Red Tulip League. Of the TenTeacups, of course I dare not say a word. The first of my revelations,at any rate, shall be concerned with the Club of Queer Trades, which, asI have said, was one of this class, one which I was almost bound to comeacross sooner or later, because of my singular hobby. The wild youth ofthe metropolis call me facetiously 'The King of Clubs'. They also callme 'The Cherub', in allusion to the roseate and youthful appearance Ihave presented in my declining years. I only hope the spirits in thebetter world have as good dinners as I have. But the finding of the Clubof Queer Trades has one very curious thing about it. The most curiousthing about it is that it was not discovered by me; it was discoveredby my friend Basil Grant, a star-gazer, a mystic, and a man who scarcelystirred out of his attic.
Very few people knew anything of Basil; not because he was in the leastunsociable, for if a man out of the street had walked into his rooms hewould have kept him talking till morning. Few people knew him, because,like all poets, he could do without them; he welcomed a human face as hemight welcome a sudden blend of colour in a sunset; but he no more feltthe need of going out to parties than he felt the need of altering thesunset clouds. He lived in a queer and comfortable garret in the roofsof Lambeth. He was surrounded by a chaos of things that were inodd contrast to the slums around him; old fantastic books, swords,armour--the whole dust-hole of romanticism. But his face, amid all thesequixotic relics, appeared curiously keen and modern--a powerful, legalface. And no one but I knew who he was.
Long ago as it is, everyone remembers the terrible and grotesque scenethat occurred in--, when one of the most acute and forcible of theEnglish judges suddenly went mad on the bench. I had my own view of thatoccurrence; but about the facts themselves there is no question at all.For some months, indeed for some years, people had detected somethingcurious in the judge's conduct. He seemed to have lost interest in thelaw, in which he had been beyond expression brilliant and terrible asa K.C., and to be occupied in giving personal and moral advice to thepeople concerned. He talked more like a priest or a doctor, and a veryoutspoken one at that. The first thrill was probably given when he saidto a man who had attempted a crime of passion: "I sentence you tothree years imprisonment, under the firm, and solemn, and God-givenconviction, that what you require is three months at the seaside." Heaccused criminals from the bench, not so much of their obvious legalcrimes, but of things that had never been heard of in a court ofjustice, monstrous egoism, lack of humour, and morbidity deliberatelyencouraged. Things came to a head in that celebrated diamond case inwhich the Prime Minister himself, that brilliant patrician, had to comeforward, gracefully and reluctantly, to give evidence against his valet.After the detailed life of the household had been thoroughly exhibited,the judge requested the Premier again to step forward, which he did withquiet dignity. The judge then said, in a sudden, grating voice: "Get anew soul. That thing's not fit for a dog. Get a new soul." All this, ofcourse, in the eyes of the sagacious, was premonitory of that melancholyand farcical day when his wits actually deserted him in open court.It was a libel case between two very eminent and powerful financiers,against both of whom charges of considerable defalcation were brought.The case was long and complex; the advocates were long and eloquent; butat last, after weeks of work and rhetoric, the time came for the greatjudge to give a summing-up; and one of his celebrated masterpieces oflucidity and pulverizing logic was eagerly looked for. He had spokenvery little during the prolonged affair, and he looked sad and loweringat the end of it. He was silent for a few moments, and then burst into astentorian song. His remarks (as reported) were as follows:
"O Rowty-owty tiddly-owty Tiddly-owty tiddly-owty Highty-ightytiddly-ighty Tiddly-ighty ow."
He then retired from public life and took the garret in Lambeth.
I was sitting there one evening, about six o'clock, over a glass of thatgorgeous Burgundy which he kept behind a pile of black-letter folios; hewas striding about the room, fingering, after a habit of his, one of thegreat swords in his collection; the red glare of the strong fire struckhis square features and his fierce grey hair; his blue eyes were evenunusually full of dreams, and he had opened his mouth to speak dreamily,when the door was flung open, and a pale, fiery man, with red hair and ahuge furred overcoat, swung himself panting into the room.
"Sorry to bother you, Basil," he gasped. "I took a liberty--made anappointment here with a man--a client--in five minutes--I beg yourpardon, sir," and he gave me a bow of apology.
Basil smiled at m
"I am and have been for some time," said Rupert, with some dignity, "aprivate detective, and there's my client."
A loud rap at the door had cut him short, and, on permission beinggiven, the door was thrown sharply open and a stout, dapper man walkedswiftly into the room, set his silk hat with a clap on the table, andsaid, "Good evening, gentlemen," with a stress on the last syllable thatsomehow marked him out as a martinet, military, literary and social.He had a large head streaked with black and grey, and an abrupt blackmoustache, which gave him a look of fierceness which was contradicted byhis sad sea-blue eyes.
Basil immediately said to me, "Let us come into the next room, Gully,"and was moving towards the door, but the stranger said:
"Not at all. Friends remain. Assistance possibly."
The moment I heard him speak I remembered who he was, a certain MajorBrown I had met years before in Basil's society. I had forgottenaltogether the black dandified figure and the large solemn head, but Iremembered the peculiar speech, which consisted of only saying about aquarter of each sentence, and that sharply, like the crack of a gun. Ido not know, it may have come from giving orders to troops.
Major Brown was a V.C., and an able and distinguished soldier, but hewas anything but a warlike person. Like many among the iron men whorecovered British India, he was a man with the natural beliefs andtastes of an old maid. In his dress he was dapper and yet demure; in hishabits he was precise to the point of the exact adjustment of a tea-cup.One enthusiasm he had, which was of the nature of a religion--thecultivation of pansies. And when he talked about his collection, hisblue eyes glittered like a child's at a new toy, the eyes that hadremained untroubled when the troops were roaring victory round Robertsat Candahar.
"Well, Major," said Rupert Grant, with a lordly heartiness, flinginghimself into a chair, "what is the matter with you?"
"Yellow pansies. Coal-cellar. P. G. Northover," said the Major, withrighteous indignation.
We glanced at each other with inquisitiveness. Basil, who had his eyesshut in his abstracted way, said simply:
"I beg your pardon."
"Fact is. Street, you know, man, pansies. On wall. Death to me.Something. Preposterous."
We shook our heads gently. Bit by bit, and mainly by the seeminglysleepy assistance of Basil Grant, we pieced together the Major'sfragmentary, but excited narration. It would be infamous to submit thereader to what we endured; therefore I will tell the story of MajorBrown in my own words. But the reader must imagine the scene. The eyesof Basil closed as in a trance, after his habit, and the eyes of Rupertand myself getting rounder and rounder as we listened to one of themost astounding stories in the world, from the lips of the little man inblack, sitting bolt upright in his chair and talking like a telegram.
Major Brown was, I have said, a successful soldier, but by no means anenthusiastic one. So far from regretting his retirement on half-pay,it was with delight that he took a small neat villa, very like a doll'shouse, and devoted the rest of his life to pansies and weak tea. Thethought that battles were over when he had once hung up his sword inthe little front hall (along with two patent stew-pots and a badwater-colour), and betaken himself instead to wielding the rake in hislittle sunlit garden, was to him like having come into a harbour inheaven. He was Dutch-like and precise in his taste in gardening, andhad, perhaps, some tendency to drill his flowers like soldiers. He wasone of those men who are capable of putting four umbrellas in the standrather than three, so that two may lean one way and two another; he sawlife like a pattern in a freehand drawing-book. And assuredly he wouldnot have believed, or even understood, any one who had told him thatwithin a few yards of his brick paradise he was destined to be caughtin a whirlpool of incredible adventure, such as he had never seen ordreamed of in the horrible jungle, or the heat of battle.
One certain bright and windy afternoon, the Major, attired in his usualfaultless manner, had set out for his usual constitutional. In crossingfrom one great residential thoroughfare to another, he happened to passalong one of those aimless-looking lanes which lie along the back-gardenwalls of a row of mansions, and which in their empty and discolouredappearance give one an odd sensation as of being behind the scenes of atheatre. But mean and sulky as the scene might be in the eyes of most ofus, it was not altogether so in the Major's, for along the coarsegravel footway was coming a thing which was to him what the passing ofa religious procession is to a devout person. A large, heavy man, withfish-blue eyes and a ring of irradiating red beard, was pushing beforehim a barrow, which was ablaze with incomparable flowers. There weresplendid specimens of almost every order, but the Major's own favouritepansies predominated. The Major stopped and fell into conversation, andthen into bargaining. He treated the man after the manner of collectorsand other mad men, that is to say, he carefully and with a sort ofanguish selected the best roots from the less excellent, praised some,disparaged others, made a subtle scale ranging from a thrilling worthand rarity to a degraded insignificance, and then bought them all. Theman was just pushing off his barrow when he stopped and came close tothe Major.
"I'll tell you what, sir," he said. "If you're interested in themthings, you just get on to that wall."
"On the wall!" cried the scandalised Major, whose conventional soulquailed within him at the thought of such fantastic trespass.
"Finest show of yellow pansies in England in that there garden, sir,"hissed the tempter. "I'll help you up, sir."
How it happened no one will ever know but that positive enthusiasm ofthe Major's life triumphed over all its negative traditions, and withan easy leap and swing that showed that he was in no need of physicalassistance, he stood on the wall at the end of the strange garden. Thesecond after, the flapping of the frock-coat at his knees made him feelinexpressibly a fool. But the next instant all such trifling sentimentswere swallowed up by the most appalling shock of surprise the oldsoldier had ever felt in all his bold and wandering existence. His eyesfell upon the garden, and there across a large bed in the centre of thelawn was a vast pattern of pansies; they were splendid flowers, but foronce it was not their horticultural aspects that Major Brown beheld, forthe pansies were arranged in gigantic capital letters so as to form thesentence:
DEATH TO MAJOR BROWN
A kindly looking old man, with white whiskers, was watering them. Brownlooked sharply back at the road behind him; the man with the barrow hadsuddenly vanished. Then he looked again at the lawn with its incredibleinscription. Another man might have thought he had gone mad, but Browndid not. When romantic ladies gushed over his V.C. and his militaryexploits, he sometimes felt himself to be a painfully prosaic person,but by the same token he knew he was incurably sane. Another man, again,might have thought himself a victim of a passing practical joke,but Brown could not easily believe this. He knew from his own quaintlearning that the garden arrangement was an elaborate and expensive one;he thought it extravagantly improbable that any one would pour out moneylike water for a joke against him. Having no explanation whatever tooffer, he admitted the fact to himself, like a clear-headed man, andwaited as he would have done in the presence of a man with six legs.
At this moment the stout old man with white whiskers looked up, andthe watering can fell from his hand, shooting a swirl of water down thegravel path.
"Who on earth are you?" he gasped, trembling violently.
"I am Major Brown," said that individual, who was always cool in thehour of action.
The old man gaped helplessly like some monstrous fish. At last hestammered wildly, "Come down--come down here!"
"At your service," said the Major, and alighted at a bound on the grassbeside him, without disarranging his silk hat.
The old man tu
"For heaven's sake," he said, "don't mention jackals."
Then he threw open the door, releasing a burst of red lamplight, and randownstairs with a clatter.
The Major stepped into a rich, glowing room, full of red copper, andpeacock and purple hangings, hat in hand. He had the finest manners inthe world, and, though mystified, was not in the least embarrassed tosee that the only occupant was a lady, sitting by the window, lookingout.
"Madam," he said, bowing simply, "I am Major Brown."
"Sit down," said the lady; but she did not turn her head.
She was a graceful, green-clad figure, with fiery red hair and a flavourof Bedford Park. "You have come, I suppose," she said mournfully, "totax me about the hateful title-deeds."
"I have come, madam," he said, "to know what is the matter. To know whymy name is written across your garden. Not amicably either."
He spoke grimly, for the thing had hit him. It is impossible to describethe effect produced on the mind by that quiet and sunny garden scene,the frame for a stunning and brutal personality. The evening air wasstill, and the grass was golden in the place where the little flowers hestudied cried to heaven for his blood.
"You know I must not turn round," said the lady; "every afternoon tillthe stroke of six I must keep my face turned to the street."
Some queer and unusual inspiration made the prosaic soldier resolute toaccept these outrageous riddles without surprise.
"It is almost six," he said; and even as he spoke the barbaric copperclock upon the wall clanged the first stroke of the hour. At the sixththe lady sprang up and turned on the Major one of the queerest andyet most attractive faces he had ever seen in his life; open, and yettantalising, the face of an elf.
"That makes the third year I have waited," she cried. "This is ananniversary. The waiting almost makes one wish the frightful thing wouldhappen once and for all."
And even as she spoke, a sudden rending cry broke the stillness. Fromlow down on the pavement of the dim street (it was already twilight) avoice cried out with a raucous and merciless distinctness:
"Major Brown, Major Brown, where does the jackal dwell?"
Brown was decisive and silent in action. He strode to the front doorand looked out. There was no sign of life in the blue gloaming of thestreet, where one or two lamps were beginning to light their lemonsparks. On returning, he found the lady in green trembling.
"It is the end," she cried, with shaking lips; "it may be death for bothof us. Whenever--"
But even as she spoke her speech was cloven by another hoarseproclamation from the dark street, again horribly articulate.
"Major Brown, Major Brown, how did the jackal die?"
Brown dashed out of the door and down the steps, but again he wasfrustrated; there was no figure in sight, and the street was far toolong and empty for the shouter to have run away. Even the rationalMajor was a little shaken as he returned in a certain time to thedrawing-room. Scarcely had he done so than the terrific voice came:
"Major Brown, Major Brown, where did--"
Brown was in the street almost at a bound, and he was in time--intime to see something which at first glance froze the blood. The criesappeared to come from a decapitated head resting on the pavement.
The next moment the pale Major understood. It was the head of a manthrust through the coal-hole in the street. The next moment, again,it had vanished, and Major Brown turned to the lady. "Where's yourcoal-cellar?" he said, and stepped out into the passage.
She looked at him with wild grey eyes. "You will not go down," shecried, "alone, into the dark hole, with that beast?"
"Is this the way?" replied Brown, and descended the kitchen stairs threeat a time. He flung open the door of a black cavity and stepped in,feeling in his pocket for matches. As his right hand was thus occupied,a pair of great slimy hands came out of the darkness, hands clearlybelonging to a man of gigantic stature, and seized him by the back ofthe head. They forced him down, down in the suffocating darkness, abrutal image of destiny. But the Major's head, though upside down, wasperfectly clear and intellectual. He gave quietly under the pressureuntil he had slid down almost to his hands and knees. Then finding theknees of the invisible monster within a foot of him, he simply put outone of his long, bony, and skilful hands, and gripping the leg by amuscle pulled it off the ground and laid the huge living man, with acrash, along the floor. He strove to rise, but Brown was on top like acat. They rolled over and over. Big as the man was, he had evidently nowno desire but to escape; he made sprawls hither and thither to get pastthe Major to the door, but that tenacious person had him hard by thecoat collar and hung with the other hand to a beam. At length there camea strain in holding back this human bull, a strain under which Brownexpected his hand to rend and part from the arm. But something elserent and parted; and the dim fat figure of the giant vanished out of thecellar, leaving the torn coat in the Major's hand; the only fruit of hisadventure and the only clue to the mystery. For when he went up and outat the front door, the lady, the rich hangings, and the whole equipmentof the house had disappeared. It had only bare boards and whitewashedwalls.
"The lady was in the conspiracy, of course," said Rupert, nodding. MajorBrown turned brick red. "I beg your pardon," he said, "I think not."
Rupert raised his eyebrows and looked at him for a moment, but saidnothing. When next he spoke he asked:
"Was there anything in the pockets of the coat?"
"There was sevenpence halfpenny in coppers and a threepenny-bit," saidthe Major carefully; "there was a cigarette-holder, a piece of string,and this letter," and he laid it on the table. It ran as follows:
Dear Mr Plover,
I am annoyed to hear that some delay has occurred in the arrangements reMajor Brown. Please see that he is attacked as per arrangement tomorrowThe coal-cellar, of course.
Yours faithfully, P. G. Northover.
Rupert Grant was leaning forward listening with hawk-like eyes. He cutin:
"Is it dated from anywhere?"
"No--oh, yes!" replied Brown, glancing upon the paper; "14 Tanner'sCourt, North--"
Rupert sprang up and struck his hands together.
"Then why are we hanging here? Let's get along. Basil, lend me yourrevolver."
Basil was staring into the embers like a man in a trance; and it wassome time before he answered:
"I don't think you'll need it."
"Perhaps not," said Rupert, getting into his fur coat. "One never knows.But going down a dark court to see criminals--"
"Do you think they are criminals?" asked his brother.
Rupert laughed stoutly. "Giving orders to a subordinate to strangle aharmless stranger in a coal-cellar may strike you as a very blamelessexperiment, but--"
"Do you think they wanted to strangle the Major?" asked Basil, in thesame distant and monotonous voice.
"My dear fellow, you've been asleep. Look at the letter."
"I am looking at the letter," said the mad judge calmly; though, as amatter of fact, he was looking at the fire. "I don't think it's the sortof letter one criminal would write to another."
"My dear boy, you are glorious," cried Rupert, turning round, withlaughter in his blue bright eyes. "Your methods amaze me. Why, thereis the letter. It is written, and it does give orders for a crime. Youmight as well say that the Nelson Column was not at all the sort ofthing that was likely to be set up in Trafalgar Square."
Basil Grant shook all over with a sort of silent laughter, but did nototherwise move.
"That's rather good," he said; "but, of course, logic like that's notwhat is really wanted. It's a question of spiritual atmosphere. It's nota criminal letter."
"It is. It's a matte
"Facts," murmured Basil, like one mentioning some strange, far-offanimals, "how facts obscure the truth. I may be silly--in fact, I'moff my head--but I never could believe in that man--what's his name,in those capital stories?--Sherlock Holmes. Every detail points tosomething, certainly; but generally to the wrong thing. Facts point inall directions, it seems to me, like the thousands of twigs on a tree.It's only the life of the tree that has unity and goes up--only thegreen blood that springs, like a fountain, at the stars."
"But what the deuce else can the letter be but criminal?"
"We have eternity to stretch our legs in," replied the mystic. "It canbe an infinity of things. I haven't seen any of them--I've only seen theletter. I look at that, and say it's not criminal."
"Then what's the origin of it?"
"I haven't the vaguest idea."
"Then why don't you accept the ordinary explanation?"
Basil continued for a little to glare at the coals, and seemedcollecting his thoughts in a humble and even painful way. Then he said:
"Suppose you went out into the moonlight. Suppose you passed throughsilent, silvery streets and squares until you came into an open anddeserted space, set with a few monuments, and you beheld one dressed asa ballet girl dancing in the argent glimmer. And suppose you looked, andsaw it was a man disguised. And suppose you looked again, and saw it wasLord Kitchener. What would you think?"
He paused a moment, and went on:
"You could not adopt the ordinary explanation. The ordinary explanationof putting on singular clothes is that you look nice in them; you wouldnot think that Lord Kitchener dressed up like a ballet girl out ofordinary personal vanity. You would think it much more likely thathe inherited a dancing madness from a great grandmother; or had beenhypnotised at a seance; or threatened by a secret society with death ifhe refused the ordeal. With Baden-Powell, say, it might be a bet--butnot with Kitchener. I should know all that, because in my public daysI knew him quite well. So I know that letter quite well, and criminalsquite well. It's not a criminal's letter. It's all atmospheres." And heclosed his eyes and passed his hand over his forehead.
Rupert and the Major were regarding him with a mixture of respect andpity. The former said,
"Well, I'm going, anyhow, and shall continue to think--until yourspiritual mystery turns up--that a man who sends a note recommending acrime, that is, actually a crime that is actually carried out, atleast tentatively, is, in all probability, a little casual in his moraltastes. Can I have that revolver?"
"Certainly," said Basil, getting up. "But I am coming with you." And heflung an old cape or cloak round him, and took a sword-stick from thecorner.
"You!" said Rupert, with some surprise, "you scarcely ever leave yourhole to look at anything on the face of the earth."
Basil fitted on a formidable old white hat.
"I scarcely ever," he said, with an unconscious and colossal arrogance,"hear of anything on the face of the earth that I do not understand atonce, without going to see it."
And he led the way out into the purple night.
We four swung along the flaring Lambeth streets, across WestminsterBridge, and along the Embankment in the direction of that part of FleetStreet which contained Tanner's Court. The erect, black figure of MajorBrown, seen from behind, was a quaint contrast to the hound-like stoopand flapping mantle of young Rupert Grant, who adopted, with childlikedelight, all the dramatic poses of the detective of fiction. The finestamong his many fine qualities was his boyish appetite for the colour andpoetry of London. Basil, who walked behind, with his face turned blindlyto the stars, had the look of a somnambulist.
Rupert paused at the corner of Tanner's Court, with a quiver of delightat danger, and gripped Basil's revolver in his great-coat pocket.
"Shall we go in now?" he asked.
"Not get police?" asked Major Brown, glancing sharply up and down thestreet.
"I am not sure," answered Rupert, knitting his brows. "Of course, it'squite clear, the thing's all crooked. But there are three of us, and--"
"I shouldn't get the police," said Basil in a queer voice. Rupertglanced at him and stared hard.
"Basil," he cried, "you're trembling. What's the matter--are youafraid?"
"Cold, perhaps," said the Major, eyeing him. There was no doubt that hewas shaking.
At last, after a few moments' scrutiny, Rupert broke into a curse.
"You're laughing," he cried. "I know that confounded, silent, shakylaugh of yours. What the deuce is the amusement, Basil? Here we are, allthree of us, within a yard of a den of ruffians--"
"But I shouldn't call the police," said Basil. "We four heroes are quiteequal to a host," and he continued to quake with his mysterious mirth.
Rupert turned with impatience and strode swiftly down the court, therest of us following. When he reached the door of No. 14 he turnedabruptly, the revolver glittering in his hand.
"Stand close," he said in the voice of a commander. "The scoundrel maybe attempting an escape at this moment. We must fling open the door andrush in."
The four of us cowered instantly under the archway, rigid, except forthe old judge and his convulsion of merriment.
"Now," hissed Rupert Grant, turning his pale face and burning eyessuddenly over his shoulder, "when I say 'Four', follow me with a rush.If I say 'Hold him', pin the fellows down, whoever they are. If I say'Stop', stop. I shall say that if there are more than three. Ifthey attack us I shall empty my revolver on them. Basil, have yoursword-stick ready. Now--one, two three, four!"
With the sound of the word the door burst open, and we fell into theroom like an invasion, only to stop dead.
The room, which was an ordinary and neatly appointed office, appeared,at the first glance, to be empty. But on a second and more carefulglance, we saw seated behind a very large desk with pigeonholes anddrawers of bewildering multiplicity, a small man with a black waxedmoustache, and the air of a very average clerk, writing hard. He lookedup as we came to a standstill.
"Did you knock?" he asked pleasantly. "I am sorry if I did not hear.What can I do for you?"
There was a doubtful pause, and then, by general consent, the Majorhimself, the victim of the outrage, stepped forward.
The letter was in his hand, and he looked unusually grim.
"Is your name P. G. Northover?" he asked.
"That is my name," replied the other, smiling.
"I think," said Major Brown, with an increase in the dark glow of hisface, "that this letter was written by you." And with a loud clap hestruck open the letter on the desk with his clenched fist. The mancalled Northover looked at it with unaffected interest and merelynodded.
"Well, sir," said the Major, breathing hard, "what about that?"
"What about it, precisely," said the man with the moustache.
"I am Major Brown," said that gentleman sternly.
Northover bowed. "Pleased to meet you, sir. What have you to say to me?"
"Say!" cried the Major, loosing a sudden tempest; "why, I want thisconfounded thing settled. I want--"
"Certainly, sir," said Northover, jumping up with a slight elevation ofthe eyebrows. "Will you take a chair for a moment." And he pressedan electric bell just above him, which thrilled and tinkled in a roombeyond. The Major put his hand on the back of the chair offered him, butstood chafing and beating the floor with his polished boot.
The next moment an inner glass door was opened, and a fair, weedy, youngman, in a frock-coat, entered from within.
"Mr Hopson," said Northover, "this is Major Brown. Will you pleasefinish that thing for him I gave you this morning and bring it in?"
"Yes, sir," said Mr Hopson, and vanished like lightning.
"You will excuse me, gentlemen," said the egregious Northover, with hisradiant smile, "if I continue to work until Mr Hopson is ready. I havesome books that must be cleared up before I get away on my holidaytomorrow. And we all like a whiff of the country, don't we?
The criminal took up his pen with a childlike laugh, and a silenceensued; a placid and busy silence on the part of Mr P. G. Northover; araging silence on the part of everybody else.
At length the scratching of Northover's pen in the stillness was mingledwith a knock at the door, almost simultaneous with the turning of thehandle, and Mr Hopson came in again with the same silent rapidity,placed a paper before his principal, and disappeared again.
The man at the desk pulled and twisted his spiky moustache for a fewmoments as he ran his eye up and down the paper presented to him.He took up his pen, with a slight, instantaneous frown, and alteredsomething, muttering--"Careless." Then he read it again with the sameimpenetrable reflectiveness, and finally handed it to the frantic Brown,whose hand was beating the devil's tattoo on the back of the chair.
"I think you will find that all right, Major," he said briefly.
The Major looked at it; whether he found it all right or not will appearlater, but he found it like this:
Major Brown to P. G. Northover. L s. d. January 1, to account rendered 5 6 0 May 9, to potting and embedding of zoo pansies 2 0 0 To cost of trolley with flowers 0 15 0 To hiring of man with trolley 0 5 0 To hire of house and garden for one day 1 0 0 To furnishing of room in peacock curtains, copper ornaments, etc. 3 0 0 To salary of Miss Jameson 1 0 0 To salary of Mr Plover 1 0 0 ---------- Total L14 6 0 A Remittance will oblige.
"What," said Brown, after a dead pause, and with eyes that seemed slowlyrising out of his head, "What in heaven's name is this?"
"What is it?" repeated Northover, cocking his eyebrow with amusement."It's your account, of course."
"My account!" The Major's ideas appeared to be in a vague stampede. "Myaccount! And what have I got to do with it?"
"Well," said Northover, laughing outright, "naturally I prefer you topay it."
The Major's hand was still resting on the back of the chair as the wordscame. He scarcely stirred otherwise, but he lifted the chair bodily intothe air with one hand and hurled it at Northover's head.
The legs crashed against the desk, so that Northover only got a blow onthe elbow as he sprang up with clenched fists, only to be seized by theunited rush of the rest of us. The chair had fallen clattering on theempty floor.
"Let me go, you scamps," he shouted. "Let me--"
"Stand still," cried Rupert authoritatively. "Major Brown's action isexcusable. The abominable crime you have attempted--"
"A customer has a perfect right," said Northover hotly, "to question analleged overcharge, but, confound it all, not to throw furniture."
"What, in God's name, do you mean by your customers and overcharges?"shrieked Major Brown, whose keen feminine nature, steady in painor danger, became almost hysterical in the presence of a long andexasperating mystery. "Who are you? I've never seen you or your insolenttomfool bills. I know one of your cursed brutes tried to choke me--"
"Mad," said Northover, gazing blankly round; "all of them mad. I didn'tknow they travelled in quartettes."
"Enough of this prevarication," said Rupert; "your crimes arediscovered. A policeman is stationed at the corner of the court. Thoughonly a private detective myself, I will take the responsibility oftelling you that anything you say--"
"Mad," repeated Northover, with a weary air.
And at this moment, for the first time, there struck in among them thestrange, sleepy voice of Basil Grant.
"Major Brown," he said, "may I ask you a question?"
The Major turned his head with an increased bewilderment.
"You?" he cried; "certainly, Mr Grant."
"Can you tell me," said the mystic, with sunken head and lowering brow,as he traced a pattern in the dust with his sword-stick, "can you tellme what was the name of the man who lived in your house before you?"
The unhappy Major was only faintly more disturbed by this last andfutile irrelevancy, and he answered vaguely:
"Yes, I think so; a man named Gurney something--a name with ahyphen--Gurney-Brown; that was it."
"And when did the house change hands?" said Basil, looking up sharply.His strange eyes were burning brilliantly.
"I came in last month," said the Major.
And at the mere word the criminal Northover suddenly fell into his greatoffice chair and shouted with a volleying laughter.
"Oh! it's too perfect--it's too exquisite," he gasped, beating the armswith his fists. He was laughing deafeningly; Basil Grant was laughingvoicelessly; and the rest of us only felt that our heads were likeweathercocks in a whirlwind.
"Confound it, Basil," said Rupert, stamping. "If you don't want me to gomad and blow your metaphysical brains out, tell me what all this means."
"Permit me, sir, to explain," he said. "And, first of all, permit me toapologize to you, Major Brown, for a most abominable and unpardonableblunder, which has caused you menace and inconvenience, in which, if youwill allow me to say so, you have behaved with astonishing courage anddignity. Of course you need not trouble about the bill. We will standthe loss." And, tearing the paper across, he flung the halves into thewaste-paper basket and bowed.
Poor Brown's face was still a picture of distraction. "But I don't evenbegin to understand," he cried. "What bill? what blunder? what loss?"
Mr P. G. Northover advanced in the centre of the room, thoughtfully, andwith a great deal of unconscious dignity. On closer consideration,there were apparent about him other things beside a screwed moustache,especially a lean, sallow face, hawk-like, and not without a carewornintelligence. Then he looked up abruptly.
"Do you know where you are, Major?" he said.
"God knows I don't," said the warrior, with fervour.
"You are standing," replied Northover, "in the office of the Adventureand Romance Agency, Limited."
"And what's that?" blankly inquired Brown.
The man of business leaned over the back of the chair, and fixed hisdark eyes on the other's face.
"Major," said he, "did you ever, as you walked along the empty streetupon some idle afternoon, feel the utter hunger for something tohappen--something, in the splendid words of Walt Whitman: 'Somethingpernicious and dread; something far removed from a puny and pious life;something unproved; something in a trance; something loosed from itsanchorage, and driving free.' Did you ever feel that?"
"Certainly not," said the Major shortly.
"Then I must explain with more elaboration," said Mr Northover, with asigh. "The Adventure and Romance Agency has been started to meet a greatmodern desire. On every side, in conversation and in literature, we hearof the desire for a larger theatre of events for something to waylay usand lead us splendidly astray. Now the man who feels this desire fora varied life pays a yearly or a quarterly sum to the Adventure andRomance Agency; in return, the Adventure and Romance Agency undertakesto surround him with startling and weird events. As a man is leaving hisfront door, an excited sweep approaches him and assures him of a plotagainst his life; he gets into a cab, and is driven to an opium den; hereceives a mysterious telegram or a dramatic visit, and is immediatelyin a vortex of incidents. A very picturesque and moving story is firstwritten by one of the staff of distinguished novelists who are atpresent hard at work in the adjoining room. Yours, Major Brown (designedby our Mr Grigsby), I consider peculiarly forcible and pointed; it isalmost a pity you did not see the end of it. I need scarcely explainfurther the monstrous mistake. Your predecessor in your present house,Mr Gurney-Brown, was a subscriber to our agency, and our foolish clerks,ignoring alike the dignity of the hyphen and the glory of military rank,positively imagined that Major Brown and M
"How on earth does the thing work?" asked Rupert Grant, with bright andfascinated eyes.
"We believe that we are doing a noble work," said Northover warmly. "Ithas continually struck us that there is no element in modern life thatis more lamentable than the fact that the modern man has to seek allartistic existence in a sedentary state. If he wishes to float intofairyland, he reads a book; if he wishes to dash into the thick ofbattle, he reads a book; if he wishes to soar into heaven, he reads abook; if he wishes to slide down the banisters, he reads a book. Wegive him these visions, but we give him exercise at the same time, thenecessity of leaping from wall to wall, of fighting strange gentlemen,of running down long streets from pursuers--all healthy and pleasantexercises. We give him a glimpse of that great morning world of RobinHood or the Knights Errant, when one great game was played under thesplendid sky. We give him back his childhood, that godlike time when wecan act stories, be our own heroes, and at the same instant dance anddream."
Basil gazed at him curiously. The most singular psychological discoveryhad been reserved to the end, for as the little business man ceasedspeaking he had the blazing eyes of a fanatic.
Major Brown received the explanation with complete simplicity and goodhumour.
"Of course; awfully dense, sir," he said. "No doubt at all, the schemeexcellent. But I don't think--" He paused a moment, and looked dreamilyout of the window. "I don't think you will find me in it. Somehow, whenone's seen--seen the thing itself, you know--blood and men screaming,one feels about having a little house and a little hobby; in the Bible,you know, 'There remaineth a rest'."
Northover bowed. Then after a pause he said:
"Gentlemen, may I offer you my card. If any of the rest of you desire,at any time, to communicate with me, despite Major Brown's view of thematter--"
"I should be obliged for your card, sir," said the Major, in his abruptbut courteous voice. "Pay for chair."
The agent of Romance and Adventure handed his card, laughing.
It ran, "P. G. Northover, B.A., C.Q.T., Adventure and Romance Agency, 14Tanner's Court, Fleet Street."
"What on earth is 'C.QT.'?" asked Rupert Grant, looking over the Major'sshoulder.
"Don't you know?" returned Northover. "Haven't you ever heard of theClub of Queer Trades?"
"There seems to be a confounded lot of funny things we haven't heardof," said the little Major reflectively. "What's this one?"
"The Club of Queer Trades is a society consisting exclusively of peoplewho have invented some new and curious way of making money. I was one ofthe earliest members."
"You deserve to be," said Basil, taking up his great white hat, with asmile, and speaking for the last time that evening.
When they had passed out the Adventure and Romance agent wore a queersmile, as he trod down the fire and locked up his desk. "A fine chap,that Major; when one hasn't a touch of the poet one stands some chanceof being a poem. But to think of such a clockwork little creature of allpeople getting into the nets of one of Grigsby's tales," and he laughedout aloud in the silence.
Just as the laugh echoed away, there came a sharp knock at the door. Anowlish head, with dark moustaches, was thrust in, with deprecating andsomewhat absurd inquiry.
"What! back again, Major?" cried Northover in surprise. "What can I dofor you?"
The Major shuffled feverishly into the room.
"It's horribly absurd," he said. "Something must have got started inme that I never knew before. But upon my soul I feel the most desperatedesire to know the end of it all."
"The end of it all?"
"Yes," said the Major. "'Jackals', and the title-deeds, and 'Death toMajor Brown'."
The agent's face grew grave, but his eyes were amused.
"I am terribly sorry, Major," said he, "but what you ask is impossible.I don't know any one I would sooner oblige than you; but the rulesof the agency are strict. The Adventures are confidential; you are anoutsider; I am not allowed to let you know an inch more than I can help.I do hope you understand--"
"There is no one," said Brown, "who understands discipline better than Ido. Thank you very much. Good night."
And the little man withdrew for the last time.
He married Miss Jameson, the lady with the red hair and the greengarments. She was an actress, employed (with many others) by the RomanceAgency; and her marriage with the prim old veteran caused some stir inher languid and intellectualized set. She always replied very quietlythat she had met scores of men who acted splendidly in the charadesprovided for them by Northover, but that she had only met one man whowent down into a coal-cellar when he really thought it contained amurderer.
The Major and she are living as happily as birds, in an absurd villa,and the former has taken to smoking. Otherwise he is unchanged--except,perhaps, there are moments when, alert and full of feminineunselfishness as the Major is by nature, he falls into a trance ofabstraction. Then his wife recognizes with a concealed smile, bythe blind look in his blue eyes, that he is wondering what were thetitle-deeds, and why he was not allowed to mention jackals. But, like somany old soldiers, Brown is religious, and believes that he will realizethe rest of those purple adventures in a better world.