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The Face and the Mask/The Failure of Bradley


XXI. THE FAILURE OF BRADLEY


The skater lightly laughs and glides,
  Unknowing that beneath the ice
  On which he carves his fair device
A stiffened corpse in silence glides.

It glareth upward at his play;
  Its cold, blue, rigid fingers steal
  Beneath the tracings of his heel.
It floats along and floats away.

—Unknown Poem.

"If I only had the courage," said Bradley, as he looked over the stone parapet of the embankment at the dark waters of the Thames as they flashed for a moment under the glitter of the gaslight and then disappeared in the black night to flash again farther down.

"Very likely I would struggle to get out again the moment I went over," he muttered to himself. "But if no help came it would all be done with, in a minute. Two minutes perhaps. I'll warrant those two minutes would seem an eternity. I would see a hundred ways of making a living, if I could only get out again. Why can't I see one now while I am out. My father committed suicide, why shouldn't I? I suppose it runs in the family. There seems to come a time when it is the only way out. I wonder if he hesitated? I'm a coward, that's the trouble."

After a moment's hesitation the man slowly climbed on the top of the stone wall and then paused again. He looked with a shudder at the gloomy river.

"I'll do it," he cried aloud, and was about to slide down, when a hand grasped his arm and a voice said:

"What will you do?"

In the light of the gas-lamp Bradley saw a man whose face seemed familiar and although he thought rapidly, "Where have I seen that man before?" he could not place him.

"Nothing," answered Bradley sullenly.

"That's right," was the answer. "I'd do nothing of that kind, if I were you."

"Of course you wouldn't. You have everything that I haven't—food, clothes, shelter. Certainly you wouldn't. Why should you?"

"Why should you, if it comes to that?"

"Because ten shillings stands between me and a job. That's why, if you want to know. There's eight shillings railway fare, a shilling for something to eat to-night and a shilling for something in the morning. But I haven't the ten shillings. So that's why."

"If I give you the ten shillings what assurance have I that you will not go and get drunk on it?"

"None at all. I have not asked you for ten shillings, nor for one. I have simply answered your question."

"That is true. I will give you a pound if you will take it, and so if unfortunately you spent half of it in cheering yourself, you will still have enough left to get that job. What is the job?"

"I am a carpenter."

"You are welcome to the pound."

"I will take it gladly. But, mind you, I am not a beggar. I will take it if you give me your address, so that I may send it back to you when I earn it."

By this time Bradley had come down on the pavement. The other man laughed quietly.

"I cannot agree to that. You are welcome to the money. More if you like. I merely doubled the sum you mentioned to provide for anything unseen."

"Unless you let me return it, I will not take the money."

"I have perfect confidence in your honesty. If I had not, I would not offer the money. I cannot give you my address, or, rather, I will not. If you will pay the pound to some charity or will give it to someone who is in need, I am more than satisfied. If you give it to the right man and tell him to do the same, the pound will do more good than ever it will in my pocket or in my usual way of spending it."

"But how are you to know I will do that?"

"I am considered rather a good judge of men. I am certain you will do what you say."

"I'll take the money. I doubt if there is anyone in London to-night who needs it much worse than I do."

Bradley looked after the disappearing figure of the man who had befriended him.

"I have seen that man somewhere before," he said to himself. But in that he was wrong. He hadn't.

******

Wealth is most unevenly and most unfairly divided. All of us admit that, but few of us agree about the remedy. Some of the best minds of the century have wrestled with this question in vain. "The poor ye have always with you" is as true to-day as it was 1800 years ago. Where so many are in doubt, it is perhaps a comfort to meet men who have no uncertainty as to the cause and the remedy. Such a body of men met in a back room off Soho Square.

"We are waiting for you, Bradley," said the chairman, as the carpenter took his place and the doors were locked. He looked better than he had done a year before on the Thames embankment.

"I know I'm late, but I couldn't help it. They are rushing things at the exhibition grounds. The time is short now, and they are beginning to be anxious for fear everything will not be ready in time."

"That's it," said one of the small group, "we are slaves and must be late or early as our so-called masters choose."

"Oh, there is extra pay," said Bradley with a smile, as he took a seat.

"Comrades," said the chairman, rapping on the desk, "we will now proceed to business. The secret committee has met and made a resolution. After the lots are drawn it will be my task to inform the man chosen what the job is. It is desirable that as few as possible, even among ourselves, should know who the man is, who has drawn the marked paper. Perhaps it may be my own good fortune to be the chosen man. One of the papers is marked with a cross. Whoever draws that paper is to communicate with me at my room within two days. He is to come alone. It is commanded by the committee that no man is to look at his paper until he leaves this room and then to examine it in secret. He is bound by his oath to tell no one at any time whether or not he is the chosen man."

The papers were put into a hat and each man in the room drew one. The chairman put his in his pocket, as did the others. The doors were unlocked and each man went to his home, if he had one.

Next evening Bradley called at the room of the chairman and said: "There is the marked paper I drew last night."

*****

The exhibition building was gay with bunting and was sonorous with the sounds of a band of music. The machinery that would not stop for six months was still motionless, for it was to be started in an hour's time by His Highness. His Highness and suite had not yet arrived but the building was crowded by a well-dressed throng of invited guests—the best in the land as far as fame, title or money was concerned. Underneath the grand stand where His Highness and the distinguished guests were to make speeches and where the finger of nobility was to press the electric button, Bradley walked anxiously about, with the same haggard look on his face that was there the night he thought of slipping into the Thames. The place underneath was a wilderness of beams and braces. Bradley's wooden tool chest stood on the ground against one of the timbers. The foremen came through and struck a beam or a brace here and there.

"Everything is all right," he said to Bradley. "There will be no trouble, even if it was put up in a hurry, and in spite of the strain that will be on it to-day."

Bradley was not so sure of that, but he said nothing. When the foreman left him alone, he cautiously opened the lid of his tool chest and removed the carpenter's apron which covered something in the bottom. This something was a small box with a clockwork arrangement and a miniature uplifted hammer that hung like the sword of Damocles over a little copper cap. He threw the apron over it again, closed the lid of the chest, leaned against one of the timbers, folded his arms and waited.

Presently there was a tremendous cheer and the band struck up. "He is coming," said Bradley to himself, closing his lips tighter. "Carpenter," cried the policeman putting in his head through the little wooden door at the foot of the stage, "come here, quick. You can get a splendid sight of His Highness as he comes up the passage." Bradley walked to the opening and gazed at the distinguished procession coming toward him. Suddenly he grasped the arm of the policeman like a vice.

"Who is that man in the robes—at the head of the procession?"

"Don't you know? That is His Highness."

Bradley gasped for breath. He recognized His Highness as the man he had met on the embankment.

"Thank you," he said to the policeman, who looked at him curiously. Then he went under the grand stand among the beams and braces and leaned against one of the timbers with knitted brows.

After a few moments he stepped to his chest, pulled off the apron and carefully lifted out the machine. With a quick jerk he wrenched off the little hammer and flung it from him. The machinery inside whirred for a moment with a soft purr like a clock running down. He opened the box and shook out into his apron a substance like damp sawdust. He seemed puzzled for a moment what to do with it. Finally he took it out and scattered it along the grass-grown slope of a railway cutting. Then he returned to his tool chest, took out a chisel and grimly felt its edge with his thumb.

*****

It was admitted on all hands that His Highness never made a better speech in his life than on the occasion of the opening of that exhibition. He touched lightly on the country's unexampled prosperity, of which the marvelous collection within those walls was an indication. He alluded to the general contentment that reigned among the classes to whose handiwork was due the splendid examples of human skill there exhibited. His Highness was thankful that peace and contentment reigned over the happy land and he hoped they would long continue so to reign. Then there were a good many light touches of humor in the discourse—touches that are so pleasing when they come from people in high places. In fact, the chairman said at the club afterwards (confidentially, of course) that the man who wrote His Highness's speeches had in that case quite outdone himself.

*****

The papers had very full accounts of the opening of the exhibition next morning, and perhaps because these graphic articles occupied so much space, there was so little room for the announcement about the man who committed suicide. The papers did not say where the body was found, except that it was near the exhibition buildings, and His Highness never knew that he made that excellent speech directly over the body of a dead man.