The Man Who Knew Too Much eBook: Page1
G. K. Chesterton (2004)
Scanned by Georges Allaire Etext prepared by Dianne Bean of Phoenix, Arizona.
THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCHBy Gilbert K. Chesterton
THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH: I. THE FACE IN THE TARGET II. THE VANISHING PRINCE III. THE SOUL OF THE SCHOOLBOY IV. THE BOTTOMLESS WELL V. THE FAD OF THE FISHERMAN VI. THE HOLE IN THE WALL VII. THE TEMPLE OF SILENCE VIII. THE VENGEANCE OF THE STATUE
THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH
I. THE FACE IN THE TARGET
Harold March, the rising reviewer and social critic, was walkingvigorously across a great tableland of moors and commons, thehorizon of which was fringed with the far-off woods of the famousestate of Torwood Park. He was a good-looking young man in tweeds,with very pale curly hair and pale clear eyes. Walking in wind andsun in the very landscape of liberty, he was still young enough toremember his politics and not merely try to forget them. For hiserrand at Torwood Park was a political one; it was the place ofappointment named by no less a person than the Chancellor of theExchequer, Sir Howard Horne, then introducing his so-calledSocialist budget, and prepared to expound it in an interview with sopromising a penman. Harold March was the sort of man who knowseverything about politics, and nothing about politicians. He alsoknew a great deal about art, letters, philosophy, and generalculture; about almost everything, indeed, except the world he wasliving in.
Abruptly, in the middle of those sunny and windy flats, he came upona sort of cleft almost narrow enough to be called a crack in theland. It was just large enough to be the water-course for a smallstream which vanished at intervals under green tunnels ofundergrowth, as if in a dwarfish forest. Indeed, he had an oddfeeling as if he were a giant looking over the valley of thepygmies. When he dropped into the hollow, however, the impressionwas lost; the rocky banks, though hardly above the height of acottage, hung over and had the profile of a precipice. As he beganto wander down the course of the stream, in idle but romanticcuriosity, and saw the water shining in short strips between thegreat gray boulders and bushes as soft as great green mosses, hefell into quite an opposite vein of fantasy. It was rather as if theearth had opened and swallowed him into a sort of underworld ofdreams. And when he became conscious of a human figure dark againstthe silver stream, sitting on a large boulder and looking ratherlike a large bird, it was perhaps with some of the premonitionsproper to a man who meets the strangest friendship of his life.
The man was apparently fishing; or at least was fixed in afisherman's attitude with more than a fisherman's immobility. Marchwas able to examine the man almost as if he had been a statue forsome minutes before the statue spoke. He was a tall, fair man,cadaverous, and a little lackadaisical, with heavy eyelids and ahighbridged nose. When his face was shaded with his wide white hat,his light mustache and lithe figure gave him a look of youth. Butthe Panama lay on the moss beside him; and the spectator could seethat his brow was prematurely bald; and this, combined with acertain hollowness about the eyes, had an air of headwork and evenheadache. But the most curious thing about him, realized after ashort scrutiny, was that, though he looked like a fisherman, he wasnot fishing.
He was holding, instead of a rod, something that might have been alanding-net which some fishermen use, but which was much more likethe ordinary toy net which children carry, and which they generallyuse indifferently for shrimps or butterflies. He was dipping thisinto the water at intervals, gravely regarding its harvest of weedor mud, and emptying it out again.
"No, I haven't caught anything," he remarked, calmly, as ifanswering an unspoken query. "When I do I have to throw it backagain; especially the big fish. But some of the little beastsinterest me when I get 'em."
"A scientific interest, I suppose?" observed March.
"Of a rather amateurish sort, I fear," answered the strangefisherman. "I have a sort of hobby about what they call 'phenomenaof phosphorescence.' But it would be rather awkward to go about insociety carrying stinking fish."
"I suppose it would," said March, with a smile.
"Rather odd to enter a drawing-room carrying a large luminous cod,"continued the stranger, in his listless way. "How quaint it wouldbe if one could carry it about like a lantern, or have little spratsfor candles. Some of the seabeasts would really be very pretty likelampshades; the blue sea-snail that glitters all over likestarlight; and some of the red starfish really shine like red stars.But, naturally, I'm not looking for them here."
March thought of asking him what he was looking for; but, feelingunequal to a technical discussion at least as deep as the deep-seafishes, he returned to more ordinary topics.
"Delightful sort of hole this is," he said. "This little dell andriver here. It's like those places Stevenson talks about, wheresomething ought to happen."
"I know," answered the other. "I think it's because the placeitself, so to speak, seems to happen and not merely to exist.Perhaps that's what old Picasso and some of the Cubists are tryingto express by angles and jagged lines. Look at that wall like lowcliffs that juts forward just at right angles to the slope of turfsweeping up to it. That's like a silent collision. It's like abreaker and the back-wash of a wave."
March looked at the low-browed crag overhanging the green slope andnodded. He was interested in a man who turned so easily from thetechnicalities of science to those of art; and asked him if headmired the new angular artists.
"As I feel it, the Cubists are not Cubist enough," replied thestranger. "I mean they're not thick enough. By making thingsmathematical they make them thin. Take the living lines out of thatlandscape, simplify it to a right angle, and you flatten it out to amere diagram on paper. Diagrams have their own beauty; but it is ofjust the other sort. They stand for the unalterable things; thecalm, eternal, mathematical sort of truths; what somebody calls the'white radiance of'--"
He stopped, and before the next word came something had happenedalmost too quickly and completely to be realized. From behind theoverhanging rock came a noise and rush like that of a railway train;and a great motor car appeared. It topped the crest of cliff, blackagainst the sun, like a battle-chariot rushing to destruction insome wild epic. March automatically put out his hand in one futilegesture, as if to catch a falling tea-cup in a drawing-room.
For the fraction of a flash it seemed to leave the ledge of rocklike a flying ship; then the very sky seemed to turn over like awheel, and it lay a ruin amid the tall grasses below, a line of graysmoke going up slowly from it into the silent air. A little lowerthe figure of a man with gray hair lay tumbled down the steep greenslope, his limbs lying all at random, and his face turned away.
The eccentric fisherman dropped his net and walked swiftly towardthe spot, his new acquaintance following him. As they drew nearthere seemed a sort of monstrous irony in the fact that the deadmachine was still throbbing and thundering as busily as a factory,while the man lay so still.
He was unquestionably dead. The blood flowed in the grass from ahopelessly fatal fracture at the back of the skull; but the face,which was turned to the sun, was uninjured and strangely arrestingin itself. It was one of those cases of a strange face sounmistakable as to feel familiar. We feel, somehow, that we ought torecognize it, even though we do not. It was of the broad, squaresort with great jaws, almost like that of a highly intellectual ape;the wide mouth shut so tight as to be traced by a mere line; thenose short with the sort of nostrils that seem to gape with anappetite for the air. The oddest thing about the face was that oneof the eyebrows was cocked up at a much sharper angle than theother. March thought he had never seen a face so naturally alive asthat dead one. And its ugly energy seemed all the stranger for itshalo of hoary hair. Some papers lay half fallen out of the pocket,and from among them March extracted a card-case. He read the n
"Sir Humphrey Turnbull. I'm sure I've heard that name somewhere."
His companion only gave a sort of a little sigh and was silent for amoment, as if ruminating, then he merely said, "The poor fellow isquite gone," and added some scientific terms in which his auditoronce more found himself out of his depth.
"As things are," continued the same curiously well-informed person,"it will be more legal for us to leave the body as it is until thepolice are informed. In fact, I think it will be well if nobodyexcept the police is informed. Don't be surprised if I seem to bekeeping it dark from some of our neighbors round here." Then, as ifprompted to regularize his rather abrupt confidence, he said: "I'vecome down to see my cousin at Torwood; my name is Horne Fisher.Might be a pun on my pottering about here, mightn't it?"
"Is Sir Howard Horne your cousin?" asked March. "I'm going toTorwood Park to see him myself; only about his public work, ofcourse, and the wonderful stand he is making for his principles. Ithink this Budget is the greatest thing in English history. If itfails, it will be the most heroic failure in English history. Areyou an admirer of your great kinsman, Mr. Fisher?"
"Rather," said Mr. Fisher. "He's the best shot I know."
Then, as if sincerely repentant of his nonchalance, he added, with asort of enthusiasm:
"No, but really, he's a _beautiful_ shot."
As if fired by his own words, he took a sort of leap at the ledgesof the rock above him, and scaled them with a sudden agility instartling contrast to his general lassitude. He had stood for someseconds on the headland above, with his aquiline profile under thePanama hat relieved against the sky and peering over the countrysidebefore his companion had collected himself sufficiently to scrambleup after him.
The level above was a stretch of common turf on which the tracks ofthe fated car were plowed plainly enough; but the brink of it wasbroken as with rocky teeth; broken boulders of all shapes and sizeslay near the edge; it was almost incredible that any one could havedeliberately driven into such a death trap, especially in broaddaylight.
"I can't make head or tail of it," said March. "Was he blind? Orblind drunk?"
"Neither, by the look of him," replied the other.
"Then it was suicide."
"It doesn't seem a cozy way of doing it," remarked the man calledFisher. "Besides, I don't fancy poor old Puggy would commit suicide,somehow."
"Poor old who?" inquired the wondering journalist. "Did you knowthis unfortunate man?"
"Nobody knew him exactly," replied Fisher, with some vagueness. "Butone _knew_ him, of course. He'd been a terror in his time, inParliament and the courts, and so on; especially in that row aboutthe aliens who were deported as undesirables, when he wanted one of'em hanged for murder. He was so sick about it that he retired fromthe bench. Since then he mostly motored about by himself; but he wascoming to Torwood, too, for the week-end; and I don't see why heshould deliberately break his neck almost at the very door. Ibelieve Hoggs--I mean my cousin Howard--was coming down specially tomeet him."
"Torwood Park doesn't belong to your cousin?" inquired March.
"No; it used to belong to the Winthrops, you know," replied theother. "Now a new man's got it; a man from Montreal named Jenkins.Hoggs comes for the shooting; I told you he was a lovely shot."
This repeated eulogy on the great social statesman affected HaroldMarch as if somebody had defined Napoleon as a distinguished playerof nap. But he had another half-formed impression struggling in thisflood of unfamiliar things, and he brought it to the surface beforeit could vanish.
"Jenkins," he repeated. "Surely you don't mean Jefferson Jenkins,the social reformer? I mean the man who's fighting for the newcottage-estate scheme. It would be as interesting to meet him as anyCabinet Minister in the world, if you'll excuse my saying so."
"Yes; Hoggs told him it would have to be cottages," said Fisher."He said the breed of cattle had improved too often, and people werebeginning to laugh. And, of course, you must hang a peerage on tosomething; though the poor chap hasn't got it yet. Hullo, here'ssomebody else."
They had started walking in the tracks of the car, leaving it behindthem in the hollow, still humming horribly like a huge insect thathad killed a man. The tracks took them to the corner of the road,one arm of which went on in the same line toward the distant gatesof the park. It was clear that the car had been driven down the longstraight road, and then, instead of turning with the road to theleft, had gone straight on over the turf to its doom. But it was notthis discovery that had riveted Fisher's eye, but something evenmore solid. At the angle of the white road a dark and solitaryfigure was standing almost as still as a finger post. It was that ofa big man in rough shooting-clothes, bareheaded, and with tousledcurly hair that gave him a rather wild look. On a nearer approachthis first more fantastic impression faded; in a full light thefigure took on more conventional colors, as of an ordinary gentlemanwho happened to have come out without a hat and without verystudiously brushing his hair. But the massive stature remained, andsomething deep and even cavernous about the setting of the eyesredeemed his animal good looks from the commonplace. But March hadno time to study the man more closely, for, much to hisastonishment, his guide merely observed, "Hullo, Jack!" and walkedpast him as if he had indeed been a signpost, and without attemptingto inform him of the catastrophe beyond the rocks. It was relativelya small thing, but it was only the first in a string of singularantics on which his new and eccentric friend was leading him.
The man they had passed looked after them in rather a suspiciousfashion, but Fisher continued serenely on his way along the straightroad that ran past the gates of the great estate.
"That's John Burke, the traveler," he condescended to explain. "Iexpect you've heard of him; shoots big game and all that. Sorry Icouldn't stop to introduce you, but I dare say you'll meet him lateron."
"I know his book, of course," said March, with renewed interest."That is certainly a fine piece of description, about their beingonly conscious of the closeness of the elephant when the colossalhead blocked out the moon."
"Yes, young Halkett writes jolly well, I think. What? Didn't youknow Halkett wrote Burke's book for him? Burke can't use anythingexcept a gun; and you can't write with that. Oh, he's genuine enoughin his way, you know, as brave as a lion, or a good deal braver byall accounts."
"You seem to know all about him," observed March, with a ratherbewildered laugh, "and about a good many other people."
Fisher's bald brow became abruptly corrugated, and a curiousexpression came into his eyes.
"I know too much," he said. "That's what's the matter with me.That's what's the matter with all of us, and the whole show; we knowtoo much. Too much about one another; too much about ourselves.That's why I'm really interested, just now, about one thing that Idon't know."
"And that is?" inquired the other.
"Why that poor fellow is dead."
They had walked along the straight road for nearly a mile,conversing at intervals in this fashion; and March had a singularsense of the whole world being turned inside out. Mr. Horne Fisherdid not especially abuse his friends and relatives in fashionablesociety; of some of them he spoke with affection. But they seemed tobe an entirely new set of men and women, who happened to have thesame nerves as the men and women mentioned most often in thenewspapers. Yet no fury of revolt could have seemed to him moreutterly revolutionary than this cold familiarity. It was likedaylight on the other side of stage scenery.
They reached the great lodge gates of the park, and, to March'ssurprise, passed them and continued along the interminable white,straight road. But he was himself too early for his appointment withSir Howard, and was not disinclined to see the end of his newfriend's experiment, whatever it might be. They had long left themoorland behind them, and half the white road was gray in the greatshadow of the Torwood pine forests, themselves like gray barsshuttered against the sunshine and within, amid that clear noon,manufacturing their own midnight. Soon, however, rifts b
At the corner stood a sort of decayed inn with the dingy sign of TheGrapes. The signboard was dark and indecipherable by now, and hungblack against the sky and the gray moorland beyond, about asinviting as a gallows. March remarked that it looked like a tavernfor vinegar instead of wine.
"A good phrase," said Fisher, "and so it would be if you were sillyenough to drink wine in it. But the beer is very good, and so is thebrandy."
March followed him to the bar parlor with some wonder, and his dimsense of repugnance was not dismissed by the first sight of theinnkeeper, who was widely different from the genial innkeepers ofromance, a bony man, very silent behind a black mustache, but withblack, restless eyes. Taciturn as he was, the investigator succeededat last in extracting a scrap of information from him, by dint ofordering beer and talking to him persistently and minutely on thesubject of motor cars. He evidently regarded the innkeeper as insome singular way an authority on motor cars; as being deep in thesecrets of the mechanism, management, and mismanagement of motorcars; holding the man all the time with a glittering eye like theAncient Mariner. Out of all this rather mysterious conversationthere did emerge at last a sort of admission that one particularmotor car, of a given description, had stopped before the inn aboutan hour before, and that an elderly man had alighted, requiring somemechanical assistance. Asked if the visitor required any otherassistance, the innkeeper said shortly that the old gentleman hadfilled his flask and taken a packet of sandwiches. And with thesewords the somewhat inhospitable host had walked hastily out of thebar, and they heard him banging doors in the dark interior.
Fisher's weary eye wandered round the dusty and dreary inn parlorand rested dreamily on a glass case containing a stuffed bird, witha gun hung on hooks above it, which seemed to be its only ornament.
"Puggy was a humorist," he observed, "at least in his own rathergrim style. But it seems rather too grim a joke for a man to buy apacket of sandwiches when he is just going to commit suicide."
"If you come to that," answered March, "it isn't very usual for aman to buy a packet of sandwiches when he's just outside the door ofa grand house he's going to stop at."
"No . . . no," repeated Fisher, almost mechanically; and thensuddenly cocked his eye at his interlocutor with a much livelierexpression.
"By Jove! that's an idea. You're perfectly right. And that suggestsa very queer idea, doesn't it?"
There was a silence, and then March started with irrationalnervousness as the door of the inn was flung open and another manwalked rapidly to the counter. He had struck it with a coin andcalled out for brandy before he saw the other two guests, who weresitting at a bare wooden table under the window. When he turnedabout with a rather wild stare, March had yet another unexpectedemotion, for his guide hailed the man as Hoggs and introduced him asSir Howard Horne.
He looked rather older than his boyish portraits in the illustratedpapers, as is the way of politicians; his flat, fair hair wastouched with gray, but his face was almost comically round, with aRoman nose which, when combined with his quick, bright eyes, raiseda vague reminiscence of a parrot. He had a cap rather at the back ofhis head and a gun under his arm. Harold March had imagined manythings about his meeting with the great political reformer, but hehad never pictured him with a gun under his arm, drinking brandy ina public house.
"So you're stopping at Jink's, too," said Fisher. "Everybody seemsto be at Jink's."
"Yes," replied the Chancellor of the Exchequer. "Jolly goodshooting. At least all of it that isn't Jink's shooting. I neverknew a chap with such good shooting that was such a bad shot. Mindyou, he's a jolly good fellow and all that; I don't say a wordagainst him. But he never learned to hold a gun when he was packingpork or whatever he did. They say he shot the cockade off his ownservant's hat; just like him to have cockades, of course. He shotthe weathercock off his own ridiculous gilded summerhouse. It's theonly cock he'll ever kill, I should think. Are you coming up therenow?"
Fisher said, rather vaguely, that he was following soon, when he hadfixed something up; and the Chancellor of the Exchequer left theinn. March fancied he had been a little upset or impatient when hecalled for the brandy; but he had talked himself back into asatisfactory state, if the talk had not been quite what his literaryvisitor had expected. Fisher, a few minutes afterward, slowly ledthe way out of the tavern and stood in the middle of the road,looking down in the direction from which they had traveled. Then hewalked back about two hundred yards in that direction and stoodstill again.
"I should think this is about the place," he said.
"What place?" asked his companion.
"The place where the poor fellow was killed," said Fisher, sadly.
"What do you mean?" demanded March.
"He was smashed up on the rocks a mile and a half from here."
"No, he wasn't," replied Fisher. "He didn't fall on the rocks atall. Didn't you notice that he only fell on the slope of soft grassunderneath? But I saw that he had a bullet in him already."
Then after a pause he added:
"He was alive at the inn, but he was dead long before he came to therocks. So he was shot as he drove his car down this strip ofstraight road, and I should think somewhere about here. After that,of course, the car went straight on with nobody to stop or turn it.It's really a very cunning dodge in its way; for the body would befound far away, and most people would say, as you do, that it was anaccident to a motorist. The murderer must have been a clever brute."
"But wouldn't the shot be heard at the inn or somewhere?" askedMarch.
"It would be heard. But it would not be noticed. That," continuedthe investigator, "is where he was clever again. Shooting was goingon all over the place all day; very likely he timed his shot so asto drown it in a number of others. Certainly he was a first-classcriminal. And he was something else as well."
"What do you mean?" asked his companion, with a creepy premonitionof something coming, he knew not why.
"He was a first-class shot," said Fisher. He had turned his backabruptly and was walking down a narrow, grassy lane, little morethan a cart track, which lay opposite the inn and marked the end ofthe great estate and the beginning of the open moors. March ploddedafter him with the same idle perseverance, and found him staringthrough a gap in giant weeds and thorns at the flat face of apainted paling. From behind the paling rose the great gray columnsof a row of poplars, which filled the heavens above them withdark-green shadow and shook faintly in a wind which had sunk slowlyinto a breeze. The afternoon was already deepening into evening, andthe titanic shadows of the poplars lengthened over a third of thelandscape.
"Are you a first-class criminal?" asked Fisher, in a friendly tone."I'm afraid I'm not. But I think I can manage to be a sort offourth-rate burglar."
And before his companion could reply he had managed to swing himselfup and over the fence; March followed without much bodily effort,but with considerable mental disturbance. The poplars grew so closeagainst the fence that they had some difficulty in slipping pastthem, and beyond the poplars they could see only a high hedge oflaurel, green and lustrous in the level sun. Something in thislimitation by a series of living walls made him feel as if he werereally entering a shattered house instead of an open field. It wasas if he came in by a disused door or window and found the wayblocked by furniture. When they had circumvented the laurel hedge,they came out on a sort of terrace of turf, which fell by one greenstep to an oblong lawn like a bowling green. Beyond this was theonly building in sight, a low conservatory, which seemed far awayfrom anywhere, like a glass cottage standing in its own fields infairyland. Fisher knew that lonely look of the outlying parts of agreat house well enough. He realized that it is more of a satire onaristocracy than if it were choked with weeds
Looking over the lawn, however, he saw one object which he had notapparently expected. It was a sort of tripod supporting a large disklike the round top of a table tipped sideways, and it was not untilthey had dropped on to the lawn and walked across to look at it thatMarch realized that it was a target. It was worn and weatherstained;the gay colors of its concentric rings were faded; possibly it hadbeen set up in those far-off Victorian days when there was a fashionof archery. March had one of his vague visions of ladies in cloudycrinolines and gentlemen in outlandish hats and whiskers revisitingthat lost garden like ghosts.
Fisher, who was peering more closely at the target, startled him byan exclamation.
"Hullo!" he said. "Somebody has been peppering this thing withshot, after all, and quite lately, too. Why, I believe old Jink'sbeen trying to improve his bad shooting here."
"Yes, and it looks as if it still wanted improving," answered March,laughing. "Not one of these shots is anywhere near the bull's-eye;they seem just scattered about in the wildest way."
"In the wildest way," repeated Fisher, still peering intently at thetarget. He seemed merely to assent, but March fancied his eye wasshining under its sleepy lid and that he straightened his stoopingfigure with a strange effort.
"Excuse me a moment," he said, feeling in his pockets. "I think I'vegot some of my chemicals; and after that we'll go up to the house."And he stooped again over the target, putting something with hisfinger over each of the shot-holes, so far as March could see merelya dull-gray smear. Then they went through the gathering twilight upthe long green avenues to the great house.
Here again, however, the eccentric investigator did not enter by thefront door. He walked round the house until he found a window open,and, leaping into it, introduced his friend to what appeared to bethe gun-room. Rows of the regular instruments for bringing downbirds stood against the walls; but across a table in the window layone or two weapons of a heavier and more formidable pattern.
"Hullo! these are Burke's big-game rifles," said Fisher. "I neverknew he kept them here." He lifted one of them, examined it briefly,and put it down again, frowning heavily. Almost as he did so astrange young man came hurriedly into the room. He was dark andsturdy, with a bumpy forehead and a bulldog jaw, and he spoke with acurt apology.
"I left Major Burke's guns here," he said, "and he wants them packedup. He's going away to-night."
And he carried off the two rifles without casting a glance at thestranger; through the open window they could see his short, darkfigure walking away across the glimmering garden. Fisher got out ofthe window again and stood looking after him.
"That's Halkett, whom I told you about," he said. "I knew he was asort of secretary and had to do with Burke's papers; but I neverknew he had anything to do with his guns. But he's just the sort ofsilent, sensible little devil who might be very good at anything;the sort of man you know for years before you find he's a chesschampion."
He had begun to walk in the direction of the disappearing secretary,and they soon came within sight of the rest of the house-partytalking and laughing on the lawn. They could see the tall figure andloose mane of the lion-hunter dominating the little group.
"By the way," observed Fisher, "when we were talking about Burke andHalkett, I said that a man couldn't very well write with a gun.Well, I'm not so sure now. Did you ever hear of an artist so cleverthat he could draw with a gun? There's a wonderful chap loose abouthere."
Sir Howard hailed Fisher and his friend the journalist with almostboisterous amiability. The latter was presented to Major Burke andMr. Halkett and also (by way of a parenthesis) to his host, Mr.Jenkins, a commonplace little man in loud tweeds, whom everybodyelse seemed to treat with a sort of affection, as if he were a baby.
The irrepressible Chancellor of the Exchequer was still talkingabout the birds he had brought down, the birds that Burke andHalkett had brought down, and the birds that Jenkins, their host,had failed to bring down. It seemed to be a sort of sociablemonomania.
"You and your big game," he ejaculated, aggressively, to Burke."Why, anybody could shoot big game. You want to be a shot to shootsmall game."
"Quite so," interposed Horne Fisher. "Now if only a hippopotamuscould fly up in the air out of that bush, or you preserved flyingelephants on the estate, why, then--"
"Why even Jink might hit that sort of bird," cried Sir Howard,hilariously slapping his host on the back. "Even he might hit ahaystack or a hippopotamus."
"Look here, you fellows," said Fisher. "I want you to come alongwith me for a minute and shoot at something else. Not ahippopotamus. Another kind of queer animal I've found on the estate.It's an animal with three legs and one eye, and it's all the colorsof the rainbow."
"What the deuce are you talking about?" asked Burke.
"You come along and see," replied Fisher, cheerfully.
Such people seldom reject anything nonsensical, for they are alwaysseeking for something new. They gravely rearmed themselves from thegun-room and trooped along at the tail of their guide, Sir Howardonly pausing, in a sort of ecstasy, to point out the celebrated giltsummerhouse on which the gilt weathercock still stood crooked. Itwas dusk turning to dark by the time they reached the remote greenby the poplars and accepted the new and aimless game of shooting atthe old mark.
The last light seemed to fade from the lawn, and the poplars againstthe sunset were like great plumes upon a purple hearse, when thefutile procession finally curved round, and came out in front of thetarget. Sir Howard again slapped his host on the shoulder, shovinghim playfully forward to take the first shot. The shoulder and armhe touched seemed unnaturally stiff and angular. Mr. Jenkins washolding his gun in an attitude more awkward than any that hissatiric friends had seen or expected.
At the same instant a horrible scream seemed to come from nowhere.It was so unnatural and so unsuited to the scene that it might havebeen made by some inhuman thing flying on wings above them oreavesdropping in the dark woods beyond. But Fisher knew that it hadstarted and stopped on the pale lips of Jefferson Jenkins, ofMontreal, and no one at that moment catching sight of JeffersonJenkins's face would have complained that it was commonplace. Thenext moment a torrent of guttural but good-humored oaths came fromMajor Burke as he and the two other men saw what was in front ofthem. The target stood up in the dim grass like a dark goblingrinning at them, and it was literally grinning. It had two eyeslike stars, and in similar livid points of light were picked out thetwo upturned and open nostrils and the two ends of the wide andtight mouth. A few white dots above each eye indicated the hoaryeyebrows; and one of them ran upward almost erect. It was abrilliant caricature done in bright dotted lines and March knew ofwhom. It shone in the shadowy grass, smeared with sea fire as if oneof the submarine monsters had crawled into the twilight garden; butit had the head of a dead man.
"It's only luminous paint," said Burke. "Old Fisher's been having ajoke with that phosphorescent stuff of his."
"Seems to be meant for old Puggy"' observed Sir Howard. "Hits himoff very well."
With that they all laughed, except Jenkins. When they had all done,he made a noise like the first effort of an animal to laugh, andHorne Fisher suddenly strode across to him and said:
"Mr. Jenkins, I must speak to you at once in private."
It was by the little watercourse in the moors, on the slope underthe hanging rock, that March met his new friend Fisher, byappointment, shortly after the ugly and almost grotesque scene thathad broken up the group in the garden.
"It was a monkey-trick of mine," observed Fisher, gloomily, "puttingphosphorus on the target; but the only chance to make him jump wasto give him the horrors suddenly. And when he saw the face he'd shotat shining on the target he practiced on, all lit up with aninfernal light, he did jump. Quite enough for my own intellectualsatisfaction."
"I'm afraid I don't qui
"You ought to," replied Fisher, with his rather dreary smile, "foryou gave me the first suggestion yourself. Oh yes, you did; and itwas a very shrewd one. You said a man wouldn't take sandwiches withhim to dine at a great house. It was quite true; and the inferencewas that, though he was going there, he didn't mean to dine there.Or, at any rate, that he might not be dining there. It occurred tome at once that he probably expected the visit to be unpleasant, orthe reception doubtful, or something that would prevent hisaccepting hospitality. Then it struck me that Turnbull was a terrorto certain shady characters in the past, and that he had come downto identify and denounce one of them. The chances at the startpointed to the host--that is, Jenkins. I'm morally certain now thatJenkins was the undesirable alien Turnbull wanted to convict inanother shooting-affair, but you see the shooting gentleman hadanother shot in his locker."
"But you said he would have to be a very good shot," protestedMarch.
"Jenkins is a very good shot," said Fisher. "A very good shot whocan pretend to be a very bad shot. Shall I tell you the second hintI hit on, after yours, to make me think it was Jenkins? It was mycousin's account of his bad shooting. He'd shot a cockade off a hatand a weathercock off a building. Now, in fact, a man must shootvery well indeed to shoot so badly as that. He must shoot veryneatly to hit the cockade and not the head, or even the hat. If theshots had really gone at random, the chances are a thousand to onethat they would not have hit such prominent and picturesque objects.They were chosen because they were prominent and picturesqueobjects. They make a story to go the round of society. He keeps thecrooked weathercock in the summerhouse to perpetuate the story of alegend. And then he lay in wait with his evil eye and wicked gun,safely ambushed behind the legend of his own incompetence.
"But there is more than that. There is the summerhouse itself. Imean there is the whole thing. There's all that Jenkins gets chaffedabout, the gilding and the gaudy colors and all the vulgarity that'ssupposed to stamp him as an upstart. Now, as a matter of fact,upstarts generally don't do this. God knows there's enough of 'em insociety; and one knows 'em well enough. And this is the very lastthing they do. They're generally only too keen to know the rightthing and do it; and they instantly put themselves body and soulinto the hands of art decorators and art experts, who do the wholething for them. There's hardly another millionaire alive who has themoral courage to have a gilt monogram on a chair like that one inthe gun-room. For that matter, there's the name as well as themonogram. Names like Tompkins and Jenkins and Jinks are funnywithout being vulgar; I mean they are vulgar without being common.If you prefer it, they are commonplace without being common. Theyare just the names to be chosen to _look_ ordinary, but they'rereally rather extraordinary. Do you know many people calledTompkins? It's a good deal rarer than Talbot. It's pretty much thesame with the comic clothes of the parvenu. Jenkins dresses like acharacter in Punch. But that's because he is a character in Punch. Imean he's a fictitious character. He's a fabulous animal. He doesn'texist.
"Have you ever considered what it must be like to be a man whodoesn't exist? I mean to be a man with a fictitious character thathe has to keep up at the expense not merely of personal talents: Tobe a new kind of hypocrite hiding a talent in a new kind of napkin.This man has chosen his hypocrisy very ingeniously; it was really anew one. A subtle villain has dressed up as a dashing gentleman anda worthy business man and a philanthropist and a saint; but the loudchecks of a comical little cad were really rather a new disguise.But the disguise must be very irksome to a man who can really dothings. This is a dexterous little cosmopolitan guttersnipe who cando scores of things, not only shoot, but draw and paint, andprobably play the fiddle. Now a man like that may find the hiding ofhis talents useful; but he could never help wanting to use themwhere they were useless. If he can draw, he will draw absent-mindedlyon blotting paper. I suspect this rascal has often drawn poor oldPuggy's face on blotting paper. Probably he began doing it in blotsas he afterward did it in dots, or rather shots. It was the samesort of thing; he found a disused target in a deserted yard andcouldn't resist indulging in a little secret shooting, like secretdrinking. You thought the shots all scattered and irregular, and sothey were; but not accidental. No two distances were alike; but thedifferent points were exactly where he wanted to put them. There'snothing needs such mathematical precision as a wild caricature. I'vedabbled a little in drawing myself, and I assure you that to put onedot where you want it is a marvel with a pen close to a piece ofpaper. It was a miracle to do it across a garden with a gun. But aman who can work those miracles will always itch to work them, ifit's only in the dark."
After a pause March observed, thoughtfully, "But he couldn't havebrought him down like a bird with one of those little guns."
"No; that was why I went into the gun-room," replied Fisher. "Hedid it with one of Burke's rifles, and Burke thought he knew thesound of it. That's why he rushed out without a hat, looking sowild. He saw nothing but a car passing quickly, which he followedfor a little way, and then concluded he'd made a mistake."
There was another silence, during which Fisher sat on a great stoneas motionless as on their first meeting, and watched the gray andsilver river eddying past under the bushes. Then March said,abruptly, "Of course he knows the truth now."
"Nobody knows the truth but you and I," answered Fisher, with acertain softening in his voice. "And I don't think you and I willever quarrel."
"What do you mean?" asked March, in an altered accent. "What haveyou done about it?"
Horne Fisher continued to gaze steadily at the eddying stream. Atlast he said, "The police have proved it was a motor accident."
"But you know it was not."
"I told you that I know too much," replied Fisher, with his eye onthe river. "I know that, and I know a great many other things. Iknow the atmosphere and the way the whole thing works. I know thisfellow has succeeded in making himself something incurablycommonplace and comic. I know you can't get up a persecution of oldToole or Little Tich. If I were to tell Hoggs or Halkett that oldJink was an assassin, they would almost die of laughter before myeyes. Oh, I don't say their laughter's quite innocent, though it'sgenuine in its way. They want old Jink, and they couldn't do withouthim. I don't say I'm quite innocent. I like Hoggs; I don't want himto be down and out; and he'd be done for if Jink can't pay for hiscoronet. They were devilish near the line at the last election. Butthe only real objection to it is that it's impossible. Nobody wouldbelieve it; it's not in the picture. The crooked weathercock wouldalways turn it into a joke."
"Don't you think this is infamous?" asked March, quietly.
"I think a good many things," replied the other. "If you peopleever happen to blow the whole tangle of society to hell withdynamite, I don't know that the human race will be much the worse.But don't be too hard on me merely because I know what society is.That's why I moon away my time over things like stinking fish."
There was a pause as he settled himself down again by the stream;and then he added:
"I told you before I had to throw back the big fish."