|« Prev||VII. The Temple of Silence||Next »|
VII. THE TEMPLE OF SILENCE
Harold March and the few who cultivated the friendship of Horne Fisher, especially if they saw something of him in his own social setting, were conscious of a certain solitude in his very sociability. They seemed to be always meeting his relations and never meeting his family. Perhaps it would be truer to say that they saw much of his family and nothing of his home. His cousins and connections ramified like a labyrinth all over the governing class of Great Britain, and he seemed to be on good, or at least on good-humored, terms with most of them. For Horne Fisher was remarkable for a curious impersonal information and interest touching all sorts of topics, so that one could sometimes fancy that his culture, like his colorless, fair mustache and pale, drooping features, had the neutral nature of a chameleon. Anyhow, he could always get on with viceroys and Cabinet Ministers and all the great men responsible for great departments, and talk to each of them on his own subject, on the branch of study with which he was most seriously concerned. Thus he could converse with the Minister for War about silkworms, with the Minister of Education about detective stories, with the Minister of Labor about Limoges enamel, and with the Minister of Missions and Moral Progress (if that be his correct title) about the pantomime boys of the last four decades. And as the first was his first cousin, the second his second cousin, the third his brother-in-law, and the fourth his uncle by marriage, this conversational versatility certainly served in one sense to create a happy family. But March never seemed to get a glimpse of that domestic interior to which men of the middle classes are accustomed in their friendships, and which is indeed the foundation of friendship and love and everything else in any sane and stable society. He wondered whether Horne Fisher was both an orphan and an only child.
It was, therefore, with something like a start that he found that Fisher had a brother, much more prosperous and powerful than himself, though hardly, March thought, so entertaining. Sir Henry Harland Fisher, with half the alphabet after his name, was something at the Foreign Office far more tremendous than the Foreign Secretary. Apparently, it ran in the family, after all; for it seemed there was another brother, Ashton Fisher, in India, rather more tremendous than the Viceroy. Sir Henry Fisher was a heavier, but handsomer edition of his brother, with a brow equally bald, but much more smooth. He was very courteous, but a shade patronizing, not only to March, but even, as March fancied, to Horne Fisher as well. The latter gentleman, who had many intuitions about the half-formed thoughts of others, glanced at the topic himself as they came away from the great house in Berkeley Square.
“Why, don’t you know,” he observed quietly, “that I am the fool of the family?”
“It must be a clever family,” said Harold March, with a smile.
“Very gracefully expressed,” replied Fisher; “that is the best of having a literary training. Well, perhaps it is an exaggeration to say I am the fool of the family. It’s enough to say I am the failure of the family.”
“It seems queer to me that you should fail especially,” remarked the journalist. “As they say in the examinations, what did you fail in?”
“Politics,” replied his friend. “I stood for Parliament when I was quite a young man and got in by an enormous majority, with loud cheers and chairing round the town. Since then, of course, I’ve been rather under a cloud.”
“I’m afraid I don’t quite understand the ‘of course,’” answered March, laughing.
“That part of it isn’t worth understanding,” said Fisher. “But as a matter of fact, old chap, the other part of it was rather odd and interesting. Quite a detective story in its way, as well as the first lesson I had in what modern politics are made of. If you like, I’ll tell you all about it.” And the following, recast in a less allusive and conversational manner, is the story that he told.
Nobody privileged of late years to meet Sir Henry Harland Fisher would believe that he had ever been called Harry. But, indeed, he had been boyish enough when a boy, and that serenity which shone on him through life, and which now took the form of gravity, had once taken the form of gayety. His friends would have said that he was all the more ripe in his maturity for having been young in his youth. His enemies would have said that he was still light minded, but no longer light hearted. But in any case, the whole of the story Horne Fisher had to tell arose out of the accident which had made young Harry Fisher private secretary to Lord Saltoun. Hence his later connection with the Foreign Office, which had, indeed, come to him as a sort of legacy from his lordship when that great man was the power behind the throne. This is not the place to say much about Saltoun, little as was known of him and much as there was worth knowing. England has had at least three or four such secret statesmen. An aristocratic polity produces every now and then an aristocrat who is also an accident, a man of intellectual independence and insight, a Napoleon born in the purple. His vast work was mostly invisible, and very little could be got out of him in private life except a crusty and rather cynical sense of humor. But it was certainly the accident of his presence at a family dinner of the Fishers, and the unexpected opinion he expressed, which turned what might have been a dinner-table joke into a sort of small sensational novel.
Save for Lord Saltoun, it was a family party of Fishers, for the only other distinguished stranger had just departed after dinner, leaving the rest to their coffee and cigars. This had been a figure of some interest—a young Cambridge man named Eric Hughes who was the rising hope of the party of Reform, to which the Fisher family, along with their friend Saltoun, had long been at least formally attached. The personality of Hughes was substantially summed up in the fact that he talked eloquently and earnestly through the whole dinner, but left immediately after to be in time for an appointment. All his actions had something at once ambitious and conscientious; he drank no wine, but was slightly intoxicated with words. And his face and phrases were on the front page of all the newspapers just then, because he was contesting the safe seat of Sir Francis Verner in the great by-election in the west. Everybody was talking about the powerful speech against squirarchy which he had just delivered; even in the Fisher circle everybody talked about it except Horne Fisher himself who sat in a corner, lowering over the fire.
“We jolly well have to thank him for putting some new life into the old party,” Ashton Fisher was saying. “This campaign against the old squires just hits the degree of democracy there is in this county. This act for extending county council control is practically his bill; so you may say he’s in the government even before he’s in the House.”
“One’s easier than the other,” said Harry, carelessly. “I bet the squire’s a bigger pot than the county council in that county. Verner is pretty well rooted; all these rural places are what you call reactionary. Damning aristocrats won’t alter it.”
“He damns them rather well,” observed Ashton. “We never had a better meeting than the one in Barkington, which generally goes Constitutional. And when he said, ‘Sir Francis may boast of blue blood; let us show we have red blood,’ and went on to talk about manhood and liberty, the room simply rose at him.”
“Speaks very well,” said Lord Saltoun, gruffly, making his only contribution to the conversation so far.
Then the almost equally silent Horne Fisher suddenly spoke, without, taking his brooding eyes off the fire.
“What I can’t understand,” he said, “is why nobody is ever slanged for the real reason.”
“Hullo!” remarked Harry, humorously, “you beginning to take notice?”
“Well, take Verner,” continued Horne Fisher. “If we want to attack Verner, why not attack him? Why compliment him on being a romantic reactionary aristocrat? Who is Verner? Where does he come from? His name sounds old, but I never heard of it before, as the man said of the Crucifixion. Why talk about his blue blood? His blood may be gamboge yellow with green spots, for all anybody knows. All we know is that the old squire, Hawker, somehow ran through his money (and his second wife’s, I suppose, for she was rich enough), and sold the estate to a man named Verner. What did he make his money in? Oil? Army contracts?”
“I don’t know,” said Saltoun, looking at him thoughtfully.
“First thing I ever knew you didn’t know,” cried the exuberant Harry.
“And there’s more, besides,” went on Horne Fisher, who seemed to have suddenly found his tongue. “If we want country people to vote for us, why don’t we get somebody with some notion about the country? We don’t talk to people in Threadneedle Street about nothing but turnips and pigsties. Why do we talk to people in Somerset about nothing but slums and socialism? Why don’t we give the squire’s land to the squire’s tenants, instead of dragging in the county council?”
“Three acres and a cow,” cried Harry, emitting what the Parliamentary reports call an ironical cheer.
“Yes,” replied his brother, stubbornly. “Don’t you think agricultural laborers would rather have three acres and a cow than three acres of printed forms and a committee? Why doesn’t somebody start a yeoman party in politics, appealing to the old traditions of the small landowner? And why don’t they attack men like Verner for what they are, which is something about as old and traditional as an American oil trust?”
“You’d better lead the yeoman party yourself,” laughed Harry. “Don’t you think it would be a joke, Lord Saltoun, to see my brother and his merry men, with their bows and bills, marching down to Somerset all in Lincoln green instead of Lincoln and Bennet hats?”
“No,” answered Old Saltoun, “I don’t think it would be a joke. I think it would be an exceedingly serious and sensible idea.”
“Well, I’m jiggered!” cried Harry Fisher, staring at him. “I said just now it was the first fact you didn’t know, and I should say this is the first joke you didn’t see.”
“I’ve seen a good many things in my time,” said the old man, in his rather sour fashion. “I’ve told a good many lies in my time, too, and perhaps I’ve got rather sick of them. But there are lies and lies, for all that. Gentlemen used to lie just as schoolboys lie, because they hung together and partly to help one another out. But I’m damned if I can see why we should lie for these cosmopolitan cads who only help themselves. They’re not backing us up any more; they’re simply crowding us out. If a man like your brother likes to go into Parliament as a yeoman or a gentleman or a Jacobite or an Ancient Briton, I should say it would be a jolly good thing.”
In the rather startled silence that followed Horne Fisher sprang to his feet and all his dreary manner dropped off him.
“I’m ready to do it to-morrow,” he cried. “I suppose none of you fellows would back me up.”
Then Harry Fisher showed the finer side of his impetuosity. He made a sudden movement as if to shake hands.
“You’re a sport,” he said, “and I’ll back you up, if nobody else will. But we can all back you up, can’t we? I see what Lord Saltoun means, and, of course, he’s right. He’s always right.”
“So I will go down to Somerset,” said Horne Fisher.
“Yes, it is on the way to Westminster,” said Lord Saltoun, with a smile.
And so it happened that Horne Fisher arrived some days later at the little station of a rather remote market town in the west, accompanied by a light suitcase and a lively brother. It must not be supposed, however, that the brother’s cheerful tone consisted entirely of chaff. He supported the new candidate with hope as well as hilarity; and at the back of his boisterous partnership there was an increasing sympathy and encouragement. Harry Fisher had always had an affection for his more quiet and eccentric brother, and was now coming more and more to have a respect for him. As the campaign proceeded the respect increased to ardent admiration. For Harry was still young, and could feel the sort of enthusiasm for his captain in electioneering that a schoolboy can feel for his captain in cricket.
Nor was the admiration undeserved. As the new three-cornered contest developed it became apparent to others besides his devoted kinsman that there was more in Horne Fisher than had ever met the eye. It was clear that his outbreak by the family fireside had been but the culmination of a long course of brooding and studying on the question. The talent he retained through life for studying his subject, and even somebodys else’s subject, had long been concentrated on this idea of championing a new peasantry against a new plutocracy. He spoke to a crowd with eloquence and replied to an individual with humor, two political arts that seemed to come to him naturally. He certainly knew much more about rural problems than either Hughes, the Reform candidate, or Verner, the Constitutional candidate. And he probed those problems with a human curiosity, and went below the surface in a way that neither of them dreamed of doing. He soon became the voice of popular feelings that are never found in the popular press. New angles of criticism, arguments that had never before been uttered by an educated voice, tests and comparisons that had been made only in dialect by men drinking in the little local public houses, crafts half forgotten that had come down by sign of hand and tongue from remote ages when their fathers were free all this created a curious and double excitement. It startled the well informed by being a new and fantastic idea they had never encountered. It startled the ignorant by being an old and familiar idea they never thought to have seen revived. Men saw things in a new light, and knew not even whether it was the sunset or the dawn.
Practical grievances were there to make the movement formidable. As Fisher went to and fro among the cottages and country inns, it was borne in on him without difficulty that Sir Francis Verner was a very bad landlord. Nor was the story of his acquisition of the land any more ancient and dignified than he had supposed; the story was well known in the county and in most respects was obvious enough. Hawker, the old squire, had been a loose, unsatisfactory sort of person, had been on bad terms with his first wife (who died, as some said, of neglect), and had then married a flashy South American Jewess with a fortune. But he must have worked his way through this fortune also with marvelous rapidity, for he had been compelled to sell the estate to Verner and had gone to live in South America, possibly on his wife’s estates. But Fisher noticed that the laxity of the old squire was far less hated than the efficiency of the new squire. Verner’s history seemed to be full of smart bargains and financial flutters that left other people short of money and temper. But though he heard a great deal about Verner, there was one thing that continually eluded him; something that nobody knew, that even Saltoun had not known. He could not find out how Verner had originally made his money.
“He must have kept it specially dark,” said Horne Fisher to himself. “It must be something he’s really ashamed of. Hang it all! what IS a man ashamed of nowadays?”
And as he pondered on the possibilities they grew darker and more distorted in his mind; he thought vaguely of things remote and repulsive, strange forms of slavery or sorcery, and then of ugly things yet more unnatural but nearer home. The figure of Verner seemed to be blackened and transfigured in his imagination, and to stand against varied backgrounds and strange skies.
As he strode up a village street, brooding thus, his eyes encountered a complete contrast in the face of his other rival, the Reform candidate. Eric Hughes, with his blown blond hair and eager undergraduate face, was just getting into his motor car and saying a few final words to his agent, a sturdy, grizzled man named Gryce. Eric Hughes waved his hand in a friendly fashion; but Gryce eyed him with some hostility. Eric Hughes was a young man with genuine political enthusiasms,, but he knew that political opponents are people with whom one may have to dine any day. But Mr. Gryce was a grim little local Radical, a champion of the chapel, and one of those happy people whose work is also their hobby. He turned his back as the motor car drove away, and walked briskly up the sunlit high street of the little town, whistling, with political papers sticking out of his pocket.
Fisher looked pensively after the resolute figure for a moment, and then, as if by an impulse, began to follow it. Through the busy market place, amid the baskets and barrows of market day, under the painted wooden sign of the Green Dragon, up a dark side entry, under an arch, and through a tangle of crooked cobbled streets the two threaded their way, the square, strutting figure in front and the lean, lounging figure behind him, like his shadow in the sunshine. At length they came to a brown brick house with a brass plate, on which was Mr. Gryce’s name, and that individual turned and beheld his pursuer with a stare.
“Could I have a word with you, sir?” asked Horne Fisher, politely. The agent stared still more, but assented civilly, and led the other into an office littered with leaflets and hung all round with highly colored posters which linked the name of Hughes with all the higher interests of humanity.
“Mr. Horne Fisher, I believe,” said Mr. Gryce. “Much honored by the call, of course. Can’t pretend to congratulate you on entering the contest, I’m afraid; you won’t expect that. Here we’ve been keeping the old flag flying for freedom and reform, and you come in and break the battle line.”
For Mr. Elijah Gryce abounded in military metaphors and in denunciations of militarism. He was a square-jawed, blunt-featured man with a pugnacious cock of the eyebrow. He had been pickled in the politics of that countryside from boyhood, he knew everybody’s secrets, and electioneering was the romance of his life.
“I suppose you think I’m devoured with ambition,” said Horne Fisher, in his rather listless voice, “aiming at a dictatorship and all that. Well, I think I can clear myself of the charge of mere selfish ambition. I only want certain things done. I don’t want to do them. I very seldom want to do anything. And I’ve come here to say that I’m quite willing to retire from the contest if you can convince me that we really want to do the same thing.”
The agent of the Reform party looked at him with an odd and slightly puzzled expression, and before he could reply, Fisher went on in the same level tones:
“You’d hardly believe it, but I keep a conscience concealed about me; and I am in doubt about several things. For instance, we both want to turn Verner out of Parliament, but what weapon are we to use? I’ve heard a lot of gossip against him, but is it right to act on mere gossip? Just as I want to be fair to you, so I want to be fair to him. If some of the things I’ve heard are true he ought to be turned out of Parliament and every other club in London. But I don’t want to turn him out of Parliament if they aren’t true.”
At this point the light of battle sprang into Mr. Gryce’s eyes and he became voluble, not to say violent. He, at any rate, had no doubt that the stories were true; he could testify, to his own knowledge, that they were true. Verner was not only a hard landlord, but a mean landlord, a robber as well as a rackrenter; any gentleman would be justified in hounding him out. He had cheated old Wilkins out of his freehold by a trick fit for a pickpocket; he had driven old Mother Biddle to the workhouse; he had stretched the law against Long Adam, the poacher, till all the magistrates were ashamed of him.
“So if you’ll serve under the old banner,” concluded Mr. Gryce, more genially, “and turn out a swindling tyrant like that, I’m sure you’ll never regret it.”
“And if that is the truth,” said Horne Fisher, “are you going to tell it?”
“What do you mean? Tell the truth?” demanded Gryce.
“I mean you are going to tell the truth as you have just told it,” replied Fisher. “You are going to placard this town with the wickedness done to old Wilkins. You are going to fill the newspapers with the infamous story of Mrs. Biddle. You are going to denounce Verner from a public platform, naming him for what he did and naming the poacher he did it to. And you’re going to find out by what trade this man made the money with which he bought the estate; and when you know the truth, as I said before, of course you are going to tell it. Upon those terms I come under the old flag, as you call it, and haul down my little pennon.”
The agent was eying him with a curious expression, surly but not entirely unsympathetic. “Well,” he said, slowly, “you have to do these things in a regular way, you know, or people don’t understand. I’ve had a lot of experience, and I’m afraid what you say wouldn’t do. People understand slanging squires in a general way, but those personalities aren’t considered fair play. Looks like hitting below the belt.”
“Old Wilkins hasn’t got a belt, I suppose,” replied Horne Fisher. “Verner can hit him anyhow, and nobody must say a word. It’s evidently very important to have a belt. But apparently you have to be rather high up in society to have one. Possibly,” he added, thoughtfully—“possibly the explanation of the phrase ‘a belted earl,’ the meaning of which has always escaped me.”
“I mean those personalities won’t do,” returned Gryce, frowning at the table.
“And Mother Biddle and Long Adam, the poacher, are not personalities,” said Fisher, “and suppose we mustn’t ask how Verner made all the money that enabled him to become—a personality.”
Gryce was still looking at him under lowering brows, but the singular light in his eyes had brightened. At last he said, in another and much quieter voice:
“Look here, sir. I like you, if you don’t mind my saying so. I think you are really on the side of the people and I’m sure you’re a brave man. A lot braver than you know, perhaps. We daren’t touch what you propose with a barge pole; and so far from wanting you in the old party, we’d rather you ran your own risk by yourself. But because I like you and respect your pluck, I’ll do you a good turn before we part. I don’t want you to waste time barking up the wrong tree. You talk about how the new squire got the money to buy, and the ruin of the old squire, and all the rest of it. Well, I’ll give you a hint about that, a hint about something precious few people know.”
“I am very grateful,” said Fisher, gravely. “What is it?”
“It’s in two words,” said the other. “The new squire was quite poor when he bought. The old squire was quite rich when he sold.”
Horne Fisher looked at him thoughtfully as he turned away abruptly and busied himself with the papers on his desk. Then Fisher uttered a short phrase of thanks and farewell, and went out into the street, still very thoughtful.
His reflection seemed to end in resolution, and, falling into a more rapid stride, he passed out of the little town along a road leading toward the gate of the great park, the country seat of Sir Francis Verner. A glitter of sunlight made the early winter more like a late autumn, and the dark woods were touched here and there with red and golden leaves, like the last rays of a lost sunset. From a higher part of the road he had seen the long, classical facade of the great house with its many windows, almost immediately beneath him, but when the road ran down under the wall of the estate, topped with towering trees behind, he realized that it was half a mile round to the lodge gates, After walking for a few minutes along the lane, however, he came to a place where the wall had cracked and was in process of repair. As it was, there was a great gap in the gray masonry that looked at first as black as a cavern and only showed at a second glance the twilight of the twinkling trees. There was something fascinating about that unexpected gate, like the opening of a fairy tale.
Horne Fisher had in him something of the aristocrat, which is very near to the anarchist. It was characteristic of him that he turned into this dark and irregular entry as casually as into his own front door, merely thinking that it would be a short cut to the house. He made his way through the dim wood for some distance and with some difficulty, until there began to shine through the trees a level light, in lines of silver, which he did not at first understand. The next moment he had come out into the daylight at the top of a steep bank, at the bottom of which a path ran round the rim of a large ornamental lake. The sheet of water which he had seen shimmering through the trees was of considerable extent, but was walled in on every side with woods which were not only dark, but decidedly dismal. At one end of the path was a classical statue of some nameless nymph, and at the other end it was flanked by two classical urns; but the marble was weather-stained and streaked with green and gray. A hundred other signs, smaller but more significant, told him that he had come on some outlying corner of the grounds neglected and seldom visited. In the middle of the lake was what appeared to be an island, and on the island what appeared to be meant for a classical temple, not open like a temple of the winds, but with a blank wall between its Doric pillars. We may say it only seemed like an island, because a second glance revealed a low causeway of flat stones running up to it from the shore and turning it into a peninsula. And certainly it only seemed like a temple, for nobody knew better than Horne Fisher that no god had ever dwelt in that shrine.
“That’s what makes all this classical landscape gardening so desolate,” he said to himself. “More desolate than Stonehenge or the Pyramids. We don’t believe in Egyptian mythology, but the Egyptians did; and I suppose even the Druids believed in Druidism. But the eighteenth-century gentleman who built these temples didn’t believe in Venus or Mercury any more than we do; that’s why the reflection of those pale pillars in the lake is truly only the shadow of a shade. They were men of the age of Reason; they, who filled their gardens with these stone nymphs, had less hope than any men in all history of really meeting a nymph in the forest.”
His monologue stopped aruptly with a sharp noise like a thundercrack that rolled in dreary echoes round the dismal mere. He knew at once what it was—somebody had fired off a gun. But as to the meaning of it he was momentarily staggered, and strange thoughts thronged into his mind. The next moment he laughed; for he saw lying a little way along the path below him the dead bird that the shot had brought down.
At the same moment, however, he saw something else, which interested him more. A ring of dense trees ran round the back of the island temple, framing the facade of it in dark foliage, and he could have sworn he saw a stir as of something moving among the leaves. The next moment his suspicion was confirmed, for a rather ragged figure came from under the shadow of the temple and began to move along the causeway that led to the bank. Even at that distance the figure was conspicuous by its great height and Fisher could see that the man carried a gun under his arm. There came back into his memory at once the name Long Adam, the poacher.
With a rapid sense of strategy he sometimes showed, Fisher sprang from the bank and raced round the lake to the head of the little pier of stones. If once a man reached the mainland he could easily vanish into the woods. But when Fisher began to advance along the stones toward the island, the man was cornered in a blind alley and could only back toward the temple. Putting his broad shoulders against it, he stood as if at bay; he was a comparatively young man, with fine lines in his lean face and figure and a mop of ragged red hair. The look in his eyes might well have been disquieting to anyone left alone with him on an island in the middle of a lake.
“Good morning,” said Horne Fisher, pleasantly. “I thought at first you were a murderer. But it seems unlikely, somehow, that the partridge rushed between us and died for love of me, like the heroines in the romances; so I suppose you are a poacher.”
“I suppose you would call me a poacher,” answered the man; and his voice was something of a surprise coming from such a scarecrow; it had that hard fastidiousness to be found in those who have made a fight for their own refinement among rough surroundings. “I consider I have a perfect right to shoot game in this place. But I am well aware that people of your sort take me for a thief, and I suppose you will try to land me in jail.”
“There are preliminary difficulties,” replied Fisher. “To begin with, the mistake is flattering, but I am not a gamekeeper. Still less am I three gamekeepers, who would be, I imagine, about your fighting weight. But I confess I have another reason for not wanting to jail you.”
“And what is that?” asked the other.
“Only that I quite agree with you,” answered Fisher. “I don’t exactly say you have a right to poach, but I never could see that it was as wrong as being a thief. It seems to me against the whole normal notion of property that a man should own something because it flies across his garden. He might as well own the wind, or think he could write his name on a morning cloud. Besides, if we want poor people to respect property we must give them some property to respect. You ought to have land of your own; and I’m going to give you some if I can.”
“Going to give me some land!” repeated Long Adam.
“I apologize for addressing you as if you were a public meeting,” said Fisher, “but I am an entirely new kind of public man who says the same thing in public and in private. I’ve said this to a hundred huge meetings throughout the country, and I say it to you on this queer little island in this dismal pond. I would cut up a big estate like this into small estates for everybody, even for poachers. I would do in England as they did in Ireland— buy the big men out, if possible; get them out, anyhow. A man like you ought to have a little place of his own. I don’t say you could keep pheasants, but you might keep chickens.”
The man stiffened suddenly and he seemed at once to blanch and flame at the promise as if it were a threat.
“Chickens!” he repeated, with a passion of contempt.
“Why do you object?” asked the placid candidate. “Because keeping hens is rather a mild amusement for a poacher? What about poaching eggs?”
“Because I am not a poacher,” cried Adam, in a rending voice that rang round the hollow shrines and urns like the echoes of his gun. “Because the partridge lying dead over there is my partridge. Because the land you are standing on is my land. Because my own land was only taken from me by a crime, and a worse crime than poaching. This has been a single estate for hundreds and hundreds of years, and if you or any meddlesome mountebank comes here and talks of cutting it up like a cake, if I ever hear a word more of you and your leveling lies—”
“You seem to be a rather turbulent public,” observed Horne Fisher, “but do go on. What will happen if I try to divide this estate decently among decent people?”
The poacher had recovered a grim composure as he replied. “There will be no partridge to rush in between.”
With that he turned his back, evidently resolved to say no more, and walked past the temple to the extreme end of the islet, where he stood staring into the water. Fisher followed him, but, when his repeated questions evoked no answer, turned back toward the shore. In doing so he took a second and closer look at the artificial temple, and noted some curious things about it. Most of these theatrical things were as thin as theatrical scenery, and he expected the classic shrine to be a shallow thing, a mere shell or mask. But there was some substantial bulk of it behind, buried in the trees, which had a gray, labyrinthian look, like serpents of stone, and lifted a load of leafy towers to the sky. But what arrested Fisher’s eye was that in this bulk of gray-white stone behind there was a single door with great, rusty bolts outside; the bolts, however, were not shot across so as to secure it. Then he walked round the small building, and found no other opening except one small grating like a ventilator, high up in the wall. He retraced his steps thoughtfully along the causeway to the banks of the lake, and sat down on the stone steps between the two sculptured funeral urns. Then he lit a cigarette and smoked it in ruminant manner; eventually he took out a notebook and wrote down various phrases, numbering and renumbering them till they stood in the following order: “(1) Squire Hawker disliked his first wife. (2) He married his second wife for her money. (3) Long Adam says the estate is really his. (4) Long Adam hangs round the island temple, which looks like a prison. (5) Squire Hawker was not poor when he gave up the estate. (6) Verner was poor when he got the estate.”
He gazed at these notes with a gravity which gradually turned to a hard smile, threw away his cigarette, and resumed his search for a short cut to the great house. He soon picked up the path which, winding among clipped hedges and flower beds, brought him in front of its long Palladian facade. It had the usual appearance of being, not a private house, but a sort of public building sent into exile in the provinces.
He first found himself in the presence of the butler, who really looked much older than the building, for the architecture was dated as Georgian; but the man’s face, under a highly unnatural brown wig, was wrinkled with what might have been centuries. Only his prominent eyes were alive and alert, as if with protest. Fisher glanced at him, and then stopped and said:
“Excuse me. Weren’t you with the late squire, Mr. Hawker?”
’Yes, sir, said the man, gravely. “Usher is my name. What can I do for you?”
“Only take me into Sir Francis Verner,” replied the visitor.
Sir Francis Verner was sitting in an easy chair beside a small table in a large room hung with tapestries. On the table were a small flask and glass, with the green glimmer of a liqueur and a cup of black coffee. He was clad in a quiet gray suit with a moderately harmonious purple tie; but Fisher saw something about the turn of his fair mustache and the lie of his flat hair—it suddenly revealed that his name was Franz Werner.
“You are Mr. Horne Fisher,” he said. “Won’t you sit down?”
“No, thank you,” replied Fisher. “I fear this is not a friendly occasion, and I shall remain standing. Possibly you know that I am already standing—standing for Parliament, in fact—”
“I am aware we are political opponents,” replied Verner, raising his eyebrows. “But I think it would be better if we fought in a sporting spirit; in a spirit of English fair play.”
“Much better,” assented Fisher. “It would be much better if you were English and very much better if you had ever played fair. But what I’ve come to say can be said very shortly. I don’t quite know how we stand with the law about that old Hawker story, but my chief object is to prevent England being entirely ruled by people like you. So whatever the law would say, I will say no more if you will retire from the election at once.”
“You are evidently a lunatic,” said Verner.
“My psychology may be a little abnormal,” replied Horne Fisher, in a rather hazy manner. “I am subject to dreams, especially day-dreams. Sometimes what is happening to me grows vivid in a curious double way, as if it had happened before. Have you ever had that mystical feeling that things have happened before?”
“I hope you are a harmless lunatic,” said Verner.
But Fisher was still staring in an absent fashion at the golden gigantic figures and traceries of brown and red in the tapestries on the walls; then he looked again at Verner and resumed: “I have a feeling that this interview has happened before, here in this tapestried room, and we are two ghosts revisiting a haunted chamber. But it was Squire Hawker who sat where you sit and it was you who stood where I stand.” He paused a moment and then added, with simplicity, “I suppose I am a blackmailer, too.”
“If you are,” said Sir Francis, “I promise you you shall go to jail.” But his face had a shade on it that looked like the reflection of the green wine gleaming on the table. Horne Fisher regarded him steadily and answered, quietly enough:
“Blackmailers do not always go to jail. Sometimes they go to Parliament. But, though Parliament is rotten enough already, you shall not go there if I can help it. I am not so criminal as you were in bargaining with crime. You made a squire give up his country seat. I only ask you to give up your Parliamentary seat.”
Sir Francis Verner sprang to his feet and looked about for one of the bell ropes of the old-fashioned, curtained room.
“Where is Usher?” he cried, with a livid face.
“And who is Usher?” said Fisher, softly. “I wonder how much Usher knows of the truth.”
Verner’s hand fell from the bell rope and, after standing for a moment with rolling eyes, he strode abruptly from the room. Fisher went but by the other door, by which he had entered, and, seeing no sign of Usher, let himself out and betook himself again toward the town.
That night he put an electric torch in his pocket and set out alone in the darkness to add the last links to his argument. There was much that he did not know yet; but he thought he knew where he could find the knowledge. The night closed dark and stormy and the black gap in the wall looked blacker than ever; the wood seemed to have grown thicker and darker in a day. If the deserted lake with its black woods and gray urns and images looked desolate even by daylight, under the night and the growing storm it seemed still more kke the pool of Acheron in the land of lost souls. As he stepped carefully along the jetty stones he seemed to be traveling farther and farther into the abyss of night, and to have left behind him the last points from which it would be possible to signal to the land of the living. The lake seemed to have grown larger than a sea, but a sea of black and slimy waters that slept with abominable serenity, as if they had washed out the world. There was so much of this nightmare sense of extension and expansion that he was strangely surprised to come to his desert island so soon. But he knew it for a place of inhuman silence and solitude; and he felt as if he had been walking for years.
Nerving himself to a more normal mood, he paused under one of the dark dragon trees that branched out above him, and, taking out his torch, turned in the direction of the door at the back of the temple. It was unbolted as before, and the thought stirred faintly in him that it was slightly open, though only by a crack. The more he thought of it, however, the more certain he grew that this was but one of the common illusions of light coming from a different angle. He studied in a more scientific spirit the details of the door, with its rusty bolts and hinges, when he became conscious of something very near him—indeed, nearly above his head. Something was dangling from the tree that was not a broken branch. For some seconds he stood as still as a stone, and as cold. What he saw above him were the legs of a man hanging, presumably a dead man hanged. But the next moment he knew better. The man was literally alive and kicking; and an instant after he had dropped to the ground and turned on the intruder. Simultaneously three or four other trees seemed to come to life in the same fashion. Five or six other figures had fallen on their feet from these unnatural nests. It was as if the place were an island of monkeys. But a moment after they had made a stampede toward him, and when they laid their hands on him he knew that they were men.
With the electric torch in his hand he struck the foremost of them so furiously in the face that the man stumbled and rolled over on the slimy grass; but the torch was broken and extinguished, leaving everything in a denser obscurity. He flung another man flat against the temple wall, so that he slid to the ground; but a third and fourth carried Fisher off his feet and began to bear him, struggling, toward the doorway. Even in the bewilderment of the battle he was conscious that the door was standing open. Somebody was summoning the roughs from inside.
The moment they were within they hurled him upon a sort of bench or bed with violence, but no damage; for the settee, or whatever it was, seemed to be comfortably cushioned for his reception. Their violence had in it a great element of haste, and before he could rise they had all rushed for the door to escape. Whatever bandits they were that infested this desert island, they were obviously uneasy about their job and very anxious to be quit of it. He had the flying fancy that regular criminals would hardly be in such a panic. The next moment the great door crashed to and he could hear the bolts shriek as they shot into their place, and the feet of the retreating men scampering and stumbling along the causeway. But rapidly as it happened, it did not happen before Fisher had done something that he wanted to to. Unable to rise from his sprawling attitude in that flash of time, he had shot out one of his long legs and hooked it round the ankle of the last man disappearing through the door. The man swayed and toppled over inside the prison chamber, and the door closed between him and his fleeing companions. Clearly they were in too much haste to realize that they had left one of their company behind.
The man sprang to his feet again and hammered and kicked furiously at the door. Fisher’s sense of humor began to recover from the struggle and he sat up on his sofa with something of his native nonchalance. But as he listened to the captive captor beating on the door of the prison, a new and curious reflection came to him.
The natural course for a man thus wishing to attract his friends’ attention would be to call out, to shout as well as kick. This man was making as much noise as he could with his feet and hands, but not a sound came from his throat. Why couldn’t he speak? At first he thought the man might be gagged, which was manifestly absurd. Then his fancy fell back on the ugly idea that the man was dumb. He hardly knew why it was so ugly an idea, but it affected his imagination in a dark and disproportionate fashion. There seemed to be something creepy about the idea of being left in a dark room with a deaf mute. It was almost as if such a defect were a deformity. It was almost as if it went with other and worse deformities. It was as if the shape he could not trace in the darkness were some shape that should not see the sun.
Then he had a flash of sanity and also of insight. The explanation was very simple, but rather interesting. Obviously the man did not use his voice because he did not wish his voice to be recognized. He hoped to escape from that dark place before Fisher found out who he was. And who was he? One thing at least was clear. He was one or other of the four or five men with whom Fisher had already talked in these parts, and in the development of that strange story.
“Now I wonder who you are,” he said, aloud, with all his old lazy urbanity. “I suppose it’s no use trying to throttle you in order to find out; it would be displeasing to pass the night with a corpse. Besides I might be the corpse. I’ve got no matches and I’ve smashed my torch, so I can only speculate. Who could you be, now? Let us think.”
The man thus genially addressed had desisted from drumming on the door and retreated sullenly into a corner as Fisher continued to address him in a flowing monologue.
“Probably you are the poacher who says he isn’t a poacher. He says he’s a landed proprietor; but he will permit me to inform him that, whatever he is, he’s a fool. What hope can there ever be of a free peasantry in England if the peasants themselves are such snobs as to want to be gentlemen? How can we make a democracy with no democrats? As it is, you want to be a landlord and so you consent to be a criminal. And in that, you know, you are rather like somebody else. And, now I think of it, perhaps you are somebody else.”
There was a silence broken by breathing from the corner and the murmur of the rising storm, that came in through the small grating above the man’s head. Horne Fisher continued:
“Are you only a servant, perhaps, that rather sinister old servant who was butler to Hawker and Verner? If so, you are certainly the only link between the two periods. But if so, why do you degrade yourself to serve this dirty foreigner, when you at least saw the last of a genuine national gentry? People like you are generally at least patriotic. Doesn’t England mean anything to you, Mr. Usher? All of which eloquence is possibly wasted, as perhaps you are not Mr. Usher.
“More likely you are Verner himself; and it’s no good wasting eloquence to make you ashamed of yourself. Nor is it any good to curse you for corrupting England; nor are you the right person to curse. It is the English who deserve to be cursed, and are cursed, because they allowed such vermin to crawl into the high places of their heroes and their kings. I won’t dwell on the idea that you’re Verner, or the throttling might begin, after all. Is there anyone else you could be? Surely you’re not some servant of the other rival organization. I can’t believe you’re Gryce, the agent; and yet Gryce had a spark of the fanatic in his eye, too; and men will do extraordinary things in these paltry feuds of politics. Or if not the servant, is it the . . . No, I can’t believe it . . . not the red blood of manhood and liberty . . . not the democratic ideal . . .”
He sprang up in excitement, and at the same moment a growl of thunder came through the grating beyond. The storm had broken, and with it a new light broke on his mind. There was something else that might happen in a moment.
“Do you know what that means?” he cried. “It means that God himself may hold a candle to show me your infernal face.”
Then next moment came a crash of thunder; but before the thunder a white light had filled the whole room for a single split second.
Fisher had seen two things in front of him. One was the black-and-white pattern of the iron grating against the sky; the other was the face in the corner. It was the face of his brother.
Nothing came from Horne Fisher’s lips except a Christian name, which was followed by a silence more dreadful than the dark. At last the other figure stirred and sprang up, and the voice of Harry Fisher was heard for the first time in that horrible room.
“You’ve seen me, I suppose,” he said, “and we may as well have a light now. You could have turned it on at any time, if you’d found the switch.”
He pressed a button in the wall and all the details of that room sprang into something stronger than daylight. Indeed, the details were so unexpected that for a moment they turned the captive’s rocking mind from the last personal revelation. The room, so far from being a dungeon cell, was more like a drawing-room, even a lady’s drawing-room, except for some boxes of cigars and bottles of wine that were stacked with books and magazines on a side table. A second glance showed him that the more masculine fittings were quite recent, and that the more feminine background was quite old. His eye caught a strip of faded tapestry, which startled him into speech, to the momentary oblivion of bigger matters.
“This place was furnished from the great house,” he said.
“Yes,” replied the other, “and I think you know why.”
“I think I do,” said Horne Fisher, “and before I go on to more extraordinary things I will, say what I think. Squire Hawker played both the bigamist and the bandit. His first wife was not dead when he married the Jewess; she was imprisoned on this island. She bore him a child here, who now haunts his birthplace under the name of Long Adam. A bankruptcy company promoter named Werner discovered the secret and blackmailed the squire into surrendering the estate. That’s all quite clear and very easy. And now let me go on to something more difficult. And that is for you to explain what the devil you are doing kidnaping your born brother.”
After a pause Henry Fisher answered:
“I suppose you didn’t expect to see me,” he said. “But, after all, what could you expect?”’
“I’m afraid I don’t follow,” said Horne Fisher.
“I mean what else could you expect, after making such a muck of it?” said his brother, sulkily. “We all thought you were so clever. How could we know you were going to be—well, really, such a rotten failure?”
“This is rather curious,” said the candidate, frowning. “Without vanity, I was not under the impression that my candidature was a failure. All the big meetings were successful and crowds of people have promised me votes.”
“I should jolly well think they had,” said’ Henry, grimly. “You’ve made a landslide with your confounded acres and a cow, and Verner can hardly get a vote anywhere. Oh, it’s too rotten for anything!”
“What on earth do you mean?”
“Why, you lunatic,” cried Henry, in tones of ringing sincerity, “you don’t suppose you were meant to WIN the seat, did you? Oh, it’s too childish! I tell you Verner’s got to get in. Of course he’s got to get in. He’s to have the Exchequer next session, and there’s the Egyptian loan and Lord knows what else. We only wanted you to split the Reform vote because accidents might happen after Hughes had made a score at Barkington.”
“I see,” said Fisher, “and you, I think, are a pillar and ornament of the Reform party. As you say, I am not clever.”
The appeal to party loyalty fell on deaf ears; for the pillar of Reform was brooding on other things. At last he said, in a more troubled voice:
“I didn’t want you to catch me; I knew it would be a shock. But I tell you what, you never would have caught me if I hadn’t come here myself, to see they didn’t ill treat you and to make sure everything was as comfortable as it could be.” There was even a sort of break in his voice as he added, “I got those cigars because I knew you liked them.”
Emotions are queer things, and the idiocy of this concession suddenly softened Horne Fisher like an unfathomable pathos.
“Never mind, old chap,” he said; “we’ll say no more about it. I’ll admit that you’re really as kind-hearted and affectionate a scoundrel and hypocrite as ever sold himself to ruin his country. There, I can’t say handsomer than that. Thank you for the cigars, old man. I’ll have one if you don’t mind.”
By the time that Horne Fisher had ended his telling of this story to Harold March they had come out into one of the public parks and taken a seat on a rise of ground overlooking wide green spaces under a blue and empty sky; and there was something incongruous in the words with which the narration ended.
“I have been in that room ever since,” said Horne Fisher. “I am in it now. I won the election, but I never went to the House. My life has been a life in that little room on that lonely island. Plenty of books and cigars and luxuries, plenty of knowledge and interest and information, but never a voice out of that tomb to reach the world outside. I shall probably die there.” And he smiled as he looked across the vast green park to the gray horizon.
|« Prev||VII. The Temple of Silence||Next »|