The Joss: A Reversion/Chapter 17
THE GOD OF FORTUNE.
MR FRANK PAINE TELLS THE STORY OF HIS ASSOCIATION WITH THE TESTAMENTARY DISPOSITIONS OF MR. BENJAMIN BATTERS.
THE AFFAIR OF THE FREAK.
I have not yet been able to determine if my connection with the testamentary dispositions of Mr. Benjamin Batters was or was not, in the first place, owing to what I call the Affair of the Freak in the Commercial Road. On no other hypothesis can I understand why the business should have been placed in my hands. While, at the same time, I am willing to admit that the connection, if any, was of so shadowy a nature that I am myself at a loss to perceive where it quite comes in.
What exactly took place was this.
George Kingdon had got his first command. As we have been the friends of a lifetime, and are almost of an age, he being twenty-seven and I twenty-eight, the matter had almost as much interest for me as it had for him. The vessel’s name was The Flying Scud. It was to leave the West India south dock on Tuesday, April 3. He dined with me the night before. We drank success to the voyage. The following day I went to see him start. All went well; he had a capital send off; was in the highest spirits; and the last I saw of him the ship was going down the river on the tide.
It was, I suppose, about seven o’clock in the evening. It had been a glorious day; promised to be as fine a night. The shadows were only just beginning to lengthen. I had had a drink or two with Kingdon, and felt that a walk would do me good. I strolled along Preston’s Road and High Street, into the West India Road, and thence into the Commercial Road. Before I had gone very far I came upon a number of people who were thronging round one of the entrances into Limehouse Basin. They were crowding round some central object which was apparently affording them entertainment of a somewhat equivocal kind. I asked a bystander what was the matter; a man with between his lips a clay pipe turned bowl downwards.
“It’s one of Barnum’s Freaks. They’re giving him what for.”
“What’s he done?”
“Done?” The fellow shrugged his shoulders. “He ain’t done nothing so far as I knows on; what should he ’ave done? They’re only ’aving a bit o’ fun.”
It was fun of a peculiar sort; humorous from the Commercial Road point of view only, I doubted if the “Freak” found it amusing. He was being hustled this way and that; serving as a target for remarks which were, to say the least, unflattering. All at once there came a dent in the crowd. The “Freak” had either tumbled, or been pushed, over. Three or four of his more assiduous admirers had gone down on the top of him. The others roared. Four or five of those in the front rank were shoved upon the rest. The joke expanded. Presently the “Freak” was at the bottom of a writhing heap.
Perceiving that the jest was likely to become a serious one for the point of it, I forced my way into the centre of the crowd.
“Stand back!” I cried. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves! You ought to pity the map instead of making sport of him. He is as God made him; it is not his fault that he is not like you.”
Nor, I felt as I looked at the faces which surrounded me, was it, after all, his serious misfortune either. Unless their looks belied them, in a moral, mental, and physical sense, the majority of them were “freaks,” if the word had any meaning. They gave way, however, to let me pass; it seemed that their temper was thoughtless rather than cruel. Soon I had extricated the wretched creature from his ignominious, and even perilous, position. Hailing a passing four-wheeler I put him into it, I slipped some money into the driver's hand, and bidding him take his fare to Olympia, the man drove off. The crowd booed a little, and then stared at me. Then, seeing that I paid them no sort of heed, they were so good as to suffer me to pursue my way unmolested and alone.
It was only after I had gone some little distance that I realised that I knew nothing whatever about the creature I had put into the cab, I had only the clay-piped gentleman’s word for the fact that he, she, or it was a freak at all. The creature—I call it creature for lack of more precise knowledge as to what he, she, or it, really was—was so enveloped in an odd-shaped cloak of some dark brown material, that, practically, so far as I had been able to see, nothing of it was visible. For all that I could tell the creature beneath the cloak might not have been human. There was certainly nothing to show—except the way in which it was shrouded, and that might have been owing to the action of the crowd—that it was what is commonly called a freak. Its connection with the Barnum Show at Olympia might be as remote as mine. If a mistake had been made I wondered what would happen when it was discovered. Playing the Good Samaritan in the London streets is not always a remunerative rôle for any one concerned. In my blundering haste I had probably done at least as much harm as good. I smiled, drily, at the reflection. Anyhow, I had given the cabman a liberal fare. To me, then, as now, a cab fare is a cab fare.
I had turned into Cable Street and was nearing the Tower. By now the night had fallen. In that part of the world, at that hour—I remember that a minute or two before I had heard a clock strike nine, so that either I had been longer on the road, or it had been later at the start, than I imagined—there were not many people in the streets. There seemed to be fewer the further I went. At any rate, ere long, I should have them to myself. I was, therefore, the more surprised when, as I was reaching Tower Hill, without any sort of warning, someone touched me on the shoulder from behind. I turned to see who had accosted me. It was rather dark just there, so that it was a moment or two before I perceived who it was.
It was a woman, and that was about all which, at first, I could make out. She, too, was enveloped in a cloak. It was of such ample dimensions that not only did it conceal her figure, but, drawn over her head, it almost completely concealed her features. Nearly all that I could see was a pair of what seemed unusually bright eyes, gleaming from under its folds. My impulse was to take her for a beggar, or worse, for a woman of the streets.
“What do you want?”
“Take this, it is for helping him just now.”
Before I could prevent her she had slipped something into my hand. It felt as if it were something hard, wrapped in a piece of paper.
“For helping whom?”
“The Great God.”
She dropped her voice to a whisper. I had not the vaguest inkling of her meaning.
“What do you mean?—What is this you have given me?”
“It is the God of Fortune; it will bring you good luck. Tell me your name.”
“My name? What has my name to do with you? Whatever is this? I cannot take it from you; thank you all the same.”
I held out to her the little packet she had pressed into my palm. She ignored it; repeating her inquiry.
“Tell me your name, quick!”
There was a curious insistence in her manner which tickled what I, with sufficient egotism, call my sense of humour. She spoke as if she had but to command for me to obey; I obeyed. I furnished her not only with my name, but, also, with my address. There was no harm done. I am a solicitor; figure on the law list; advertisement, of some sort, is to me something very much like bread and cheese. Without thanking me, or dropping a hint to explain her curiosity, so soon as I had supplied her with the information she demanded, turning, she flew off down the street like some wild thing. I doubt if I could have kept pace with her had I tried. I did not try. I let her go.
“This is a night of adventures,” I said to myself. “What is the present which the lady’s given me; the money which I paid the cabman?—Hallo!—That’s queer!”
I was beginning to tear open the piece of paper, and with that intent had already twisted off a corner, when, hey presto! it opened of its own accord, just as if a living thing had been inside, and, with a rapid movement, rent it from top to bottom. I was holding what seemed to be a curiosity in the way of tiny dolls. The toy, if it was a toy, was not so long as my forefinger. It seemed to have been cut out of a piece of wood, and fantastically painted to illustrate some very peculiar original. It had neither feet nor legs nor hands or arms. Its head, which was set between hunched-up shoulders, was chiefly remarkable for a pair of sparkling eyes, which I concluded to be beads, I turned it over and over without discovering anything which pointed to a hidden spring. It looked as if it had never moved, and never would. There was nothing whatever to show by what means the paper had come open.
“It’s odd, and ingenious. I suppose there is a spring of some sort; wood, even when it represents the God of Fortune—I think the lady mentioned the God of Fortune—does not move of its own volition, I’ll discover it when I get home.”
I slipped the toy into my waistcoat pocket, meaning to subject it to a searching examination later on. However, when I reached my chambers I found letters which demanded immediate attention. They occupied some time. It was only when I was thinking of a nightcap preparatory to turning into bed, and was feeling for a penknife with which to cut a cigar, that I remembered the doll. I tossed it on to the mantelshelf. There it remained,
As I have said, that was the night of April 3. Since nearly a month elapsed before the arrival of Mr. Batters’ will, and nothing in any way suggestive occurred in the interval it would seem as if the connection between the will and the events of that evening was of the slightest. Yet I felt that if it had not been for the Affair of the Freak in the Commercial Road, or if I had afterwards refused to give the woman my name and address, I should have heard nothing of Mr. Batters’ will. I do not pretend to be able to explain the feeling, but there it was. I should, perhaps, in fairness add that a queer little incident which coincided with the arrival of the will, seemed to point, whimsically enough, in the same direction.
The document came on a Thursday morning. When I entered the room which I used as an office, I found that four communications were awaiting me. The postman had brought them all. The boy I call—to shed dignity on him and on myself—a clerk, had set them out upon the table. Three letters in ordinary envelopes. The fourth was an awkward, bulky, coarse brown paper parcel. On it was the doll which the woman had given me on the night of April 3, in the lonely street near Tower Hill.
I had forgotten its existence, I took it for granted that its presence on that spot was owing to Crumper’s sense of humour. I called to him.
“Crumper!” His head appeared at the door. “What do you mean by putting this here?” He stared, as if he did not catch my meaning. There are moments when Crumper finds it convenient to be dull. “You understand me well enough; what do you mean by putting this doll upon my parcel?”
He still looked as if he did not understand. But Crumper had a capacity of being able to handle his face as if it were an indiarubber mask, on which he is able to produce any expression at will.
“Doll, sir? I don’t know anything about a doll, sir.” He came into the room, pointing with his thumb, “Do you mean that, sir? It wasn’t there when I left the room just now; to that I’ll take my affidavit.”
It is no use arguing with Crumper. The depth of his innocence is not to be easily plumbed. I sent him back to his den; knocked the doll with a fillip of my finger backwards on to the table; opened the brown paper parcel.
Of its contents I was not able, at first, to make head or tail. After prolonged examination, however, I arranged them thus:
(a) The Missionary’s Letter.
(b) The Holograph Will.
(c) The Bonds.
(d) The Enclosure.
Summed up, the contents of the packet amounted to this.
A certain Benjamin Batters was reported to have died on an island on the other side of the world of which I had never heard; why I was advised of the fact, there was nothing to show. His will was entrusted to my keeping—how my name had travelled through space so as to reach the cognisance of the Mr. Arthur Lennard who had reported the death of the said Benjamin Batters there was not the faintest hint. Bonds—“Goschens”—to the value of £20,000 accompanied the will; since they were payable to bearer this alone suggested profound confidence in an apparently perfect stranger. Finally, there was a smaller parcel which was sealed and endorsed “To be given to my niece, Mary Blyth, and to be opened by her only.”
The will—which was almost as rudimentary a document of the kind as I ever lighted on—bequeathed to the said Mary Blyth the income which was derived from the consols. As to the person in whose name the capital was to be vested not a word was said, nor did I perceive anything which would prevent her from dealing with it exactly as she chose. She was also, under curious and stringent conditions, to become the life tenant of a house in Camford Street of which, however, no title-deeds were enclosed, nor was their existence hinted at.
Had it not been for the presence of the bonds I should have set the whole thing down right away as a hoax. The heading on “Arthur Lennard’s” letter was “Great Ka Island: Lat. 5° South; Long. 134° East.” There might be such a place; the description seemed precise enough, and I had no atlas which would enable me to determine. But, at any rate, the packet in which it came had not been posted there. The postmark was Deptford; the date yesterday’s. When I held the paper on which the letter had been written up to the light I found that the watermark was “Spiers and Pond. Freshwater Mill Note, London,” which, under the circumstances, seemed odd.
It was, perhaps, nothing that the will was obviously the production of an unlettered person. Such persons do make their own wills, and, probably, will continue to do so to the crack of doom. But it was something that it was both unwitnessed and undated. And when to this was added the fact that the letter which told of Mr. Batters’ decease was undated too, the conjunction struck one a trifle forcibly.
Then the conditions under which Mary Blyth was to inherit were so puerile, not to say outrageous. She was never to be out of the precious house in Camford Street after nine at night. She was to receive no visitors; have only a woman as a companion, and if that woman left her, was to occupy the premises alone. After I had read it for the fourth time I threw the paper on to the table.
“Monstrous! monstrous! It consigns the unfortunate woman to an unnatural existence; she cannot marry; is cut off from her fellows; sentenced to life-long imprisonment. Who would care to become even a millionaire on such conditions? Even if the thing is what it pretends to be, I doubt if it would be upheld by any court in England. I’m inclined to think that someone has been having a little joke at my expense.”
But there were the bonds. My experience of such articles is regrettedly small; but, such as it was, it went to show that they were genuine. Bonds for £20,000 are not a joke. They are among the most solemn facts of life. If, then, they were real, the presumption was that the will was not less so. In which case my duty was to have it proved, and to see that to terms were carried out. Anyhow, there were the bonds on which to draw for payment of my fees. Emphatically, my practice was not of sufficient extent to permit me to treat so fat a client with indifferent scorn.
Cogitating such matters, I had been indulging in what is a habit of mine; pacing, with my hands in my pockets, up and down the room. Returning to the table, I prepared to subject the supposititious will to a still more minute examination. It was not till I stretched out my hand that I noticed that, in the centre of the sheet of blue foolscap on which it was inscribed, was—the God of Fortune, the doll in miniature which, once already, I had ejected from a similar position. How it had returned to it was a problem which, just then, was beyond my finding out. I had filliped it right to the extreme edge of the table. No one had been in the room; Crumper had not so much as put up the tip of his nose inside the door. I had not touched the thing. Yet there it was, ostentatiously perched on Mr. Batters’ will. I stared at the doll; I had an odd notion that the doll stared at me; a ridiculous feeling, indeed, that the preposterous puppet was alive. I scratched my head.
“I fancy this morning I must be a bit off colour. A penny doll alive, indeed! I shall begin seeing things if I don’t look out.”
I slipped the doll into my waistcoat pocket; noting, as I did so, that it was ugly enough to startle the most morbid-minded juvenile admirers of its kind. I glanced at the three letters which the morning post had brought me, neither of which proved to be of any account. Slipped the missionary’s letter, Mr. Batters’ will, and one of the bonds into an envelope. Locked the enclosure to be given to Mary Blyth and the rest of the bonds in a drawer; and, with the envelope in my hand, went to call on Gregory Pryor.
Pryor is a barrister of some years’ standing; a “rising junior”; hard-working, hard-headed, a sound lawyer, and a man of the world. What is more, a friend of my father’s who has transferred his friendship to me. More than once when I have found myself in a professional quandary I have laid the matter before him; on each occasion he has given me just that help and advice I needed. I felt assured that I should lose nothing by asking for his opinion on the curious case of Mr. Batters’ will.
When, however, I reached his chamber the clerk told him he was out, engaged in court. I left word that I would return later in the day. Having nothing on hand of pressing importance, I felt that I could hardly employ the interval better than by finding out all that I could with reference to the house in Camford Street which Mr. Batters claimed as his own. If the claim proved to be well founded, then the document which purported to be his will was probably no hoax.