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CHAPTER XX.

MY CLIENT—AND HER FRIEND.

The next day I was engaged. On that following I went up to Fenchurch Street, to the offices of Messrs. Staple, Wainwright and Friscoe. I had ascertained that Gardiner was out of town, and actuated by motives of curiosity thought I would learn where Mr. Lander might be found. As I was going up the steps an old gentleman came down. I knew him pretty well. His name was Curtis. He had been, and, indeed, for all I knew, was still an agent of Lloyd’s. For two or three years we had not met. After we had exchanged greetings, I put to him my question.

“Do you know a man named Lander, Max Lander?”

“Late of The Flying Scud?

An odd expression came on his face, as it were the suggestion of a grin.

“That’s the man.”

“Yes, I know something of Max Lander, Captain Max, as he likes to be called. Though there’s not much of the captain about him just at present.”

The grin came more to the front.

“He called on me about a matter of which I could make neither head nor tail. I should like to have another talk with him. Can you tell me where he’s to be found?”

Mr. Curtis shook his head.

“Just now he’s resting. It’s been a little too hot for him of late. I fancy he’s lying by till it gets a little cooler.”

“What’s wrong with the man?”

“Nothing exactly wrong, only he’s had a little experience. Sorry I can’t stay, this cab’s waiting for me.” He stepped into the hansom which was drawn up by the kerb. “If you want to know what’s wrong with Lander, you mention to him the name of Batters—Benjamin Batters.”

The cab drove off. Before I had recovered from my astonishment it was beyond recall.

Batters? Benjamin Batters? My Benjamin Batters? There could hardly be two persons possessed of that alliterative name. If I had only guessed that there was any sort of connection between him and Benjamin Batters, Mr. Lander would not have departed till we had arrived at a better understanding. Why had the idiot not dropped a hint? Why had Curtis driven off at that rate at the wrong moment?

I asked at the office for the address of Captain Max Lander. I was snubbed. The name was evidently not a popular one in that establishment. The clerk, having submitted my inquiry to someone elsewhere, informed me curtly that nothing was known of such a person there, and appeared to think that I had been guilty of an impertinence in supposing that anything was. When I followed with a request for information about a Mr. Benjamin Batters, I believe that clerk thought I was having a game with him. Somewhere in the question must have been a sting, with which I was unacquainted; for, with a scowl, he turned his back on me, not deigning to reply.

As I did not want to have an argument with Messrs. Staple, Wainwright and Friscoe’s staff, I went away. I pursued my inquiries elsewhere, both for Captain Max Lander and for Mr. Benjamin Batters. But without success. The scent had run to ground. By the evening I concluded that I had had about enough of the job. Instead of trying to find out things about Benjamin Batters, I would seek out Mary Blyth. She should have the good news. I was not sure that I had not already kept them from her longer than I was justified in doing. She should learn that she was the proud possessor of a tumble-down, disreputable house in Camford Street; though, so far as I could see, she had not a shadow of a title to it which would hold good in law; but perhaps she was not a person who would allow herself to be hampered by a trifle of that description; also of a comfortable income derived from consols—conditions being attached to both bequests which were calculated to drive her mad. Having imparted that good news, I would wash my hands of the Batters’ family for good and all. There was something about it which was, as Gregory Pryor put it, “sniffy.”

With that design I started betimes the next morning. I had no difficulty in finding the establishment of Messrs. Cardew and Slaughter, where Mr. Batters stated in his will that he had last heard of his niece as an assistant. It was an “emporium,” where they sold many things you wanted, and more which you did not, from gloves to fire-irons. After being kept waiting an unconscionable length of time, asked many uncalled-for questions, and enduring what I felt to be intentional indignities, I was ushered into the office of Mr. Slaughter.

That gentleman was disposed to mete out to me even more high-handed treatment than Messrs Staple, Wainright and Friscoe. Under the circumstances, however, that was more than I was inclined to submit to. He seemed to regard it as sheer insolence that a stranger should venture to speak to him—the great Slaughter!—of such a mere nothing as one of his assistants. As if I had wanted to! We had quite a of arms. In the midst who should come running in but the girl herself—Mary Blyth.

She had just been dismissed. I had come in the nick of time to prevent her being thrown—literally thrown—into the street. That was a partial explanation of Mr. Slaughter’s haughtiness. Pretty badly she seemed to have been used. And very hot she was with a sense of injury. She had a companion in misfortune; a prettier girl I had never seen. The pair had been sent packing at a moment’s notice. If I had been a minute or two later I should have missed them; they would have gone. In which case the most striking chapter in my life’s history might have had to be written in a very different fashion.

When it came to paying the two girls the wretched pittance which was due to them as wages, an attempt was made to keep back the larger portion of it under the guise of “fines,” that rascally system by means of which so many drapers impose upon the helpless men and women they employ. A few sharp words from me were sufficient to show that this was an occasion on which that method of roguery could hardly be safely practised. I judged that the sum paid them—fifteen shillings—represented their entire fortune. With that capital they were going out to face the world.

In the cab I had an opportunity of forming some idea of what my client was like.

Mary Blyth was big, rawboned, and, I may add, hungry looking. She gave me the impression that she had had a hard life, one in which she had had not seldom to go without enough to eat. In age I set her down as twenty-six or seven. She was not handsome; on the other hand she was not repellent. Her features were homely, but they were not unpleasing, and there was about them more than a suggestion of honesty and shrewdness. Her experience of the rougher side of life had probably given her a readiness of wit, and a coolness of head, which would cause her to find herself but little at a loss in any position in which a changeable fate would place her. That was how she struck me. I liked her clear eyes, her pleasant mouth, her determined nose and chin. Intellectuality might not be her strongest point; obviously, in a scholastic sense, her educational advantages had been but small. Her tongue betrayed her. But, unless I greatly erred, she was a woman of character for all that. Strong, enduring, clear-sighted, within her limits; sure and by no means slow. A little prone to impatience, perhaps; it is a common failing. I am impatient myself at times. Still, on the whole, on her own lines, a good type of an Englishwoman.

My client’s appearance pleased me better than I feared would have been the case. I was not so eager to wash my hands of the Batters’ connection as I had been.

But it was my client’s friend who appealed most strongly to my imagination. She took my faculties by storm. I am not easily disconcerted. Yet, in her presence, I felt ridiculously ill at ease. She was only a girl. I kept telling myself that she was only a girl. I believe that it was because she was only a girl that I was conscious of such curious sensations. She sat opposite me in the cab. Every time her knee brushed against mine, I felt as if I was turning pink and green and yellow. It was not only uncomfortable, it was undignified.

She was just the kind of girl I like to look at; yet, for some reason, I hardly dared allow my eyes to stray in her direction. I could look at Miss Blyth; stare at her, indeed, till further notice, in the most callous, cold-blooded way. But my glances studiously avoided her friend. Her name was Emily Purvis—the friend’s name, I mean. I had a general impression that she had big eyes, light brown hair, and a smile which lit up her face like sunshine. I am aware that this sounds slightly drivelling; if it were another man I should say that his language reminded me of a penny novelette. But my mood at the moment was pronouncedly imbecile; I was only capable of drivel. The girl had come upon me with such a shock of surprise. I had never expected to light on anything of that kind when pursuing the niece of Benjamin Batters.

Miss Purvis was small. I like small women. I am aware that this is an age of muscularity, and that athletics do cause women to run to size. But, for my part, I like them little. Bone, muscle, stamina, these things are excellent. From a physical point of view, no doubt, the Amazon, when she is fit, in good condition, is all that she should be. I admire such a one, even when her height is five feet eleven. But I do not like her; I never could. As to having a woman of that description for a wife—the saints forbid!

Miss Purvis was little. Not a dwarf, nor insignificant in any sense, but small enough. I am six foot one, and I judged that the top of her head would just come above my shoulder. Daintily fashioned, curves not angles. Exactly the kind of girl ninety-nine men out of a hundred would feel inclined to take into their arms at sight. The hundredth man would be a sexless idiot; and, also, most probably, stone blind. It was astonishing how afraid I felt of her.

It was an odd drive to my chambers. My client talked, Miss Purvis talked, I only dropped a boobyish remark at intervals. The idea that such a girl as that should only have fifteen shillings between her and starvation, and that to keep herself alive she should have to seek another situation in such a den of roguery, servitude, humiliation, as that from which she had just escaped, was to me most horrible. I was irritated, illogically enough, because Benjamin Batters had not left her a portion of the income which was derived from those bonds of his. I was conscious of the fact that he had had no cognisance of her existence. But, at the moment, that was not the point

Two incidents marked our progress.

The first was when Miss Blyth, putting her head out of the cab window, recognised, with every appearance of surprise, a man standing on the pavement whom she called Isaac Rudd. I observed that he saw us, and the keenness with which his gaze was fastened on us. There was a seafaring air about the fellow which recalled Max Lander to my mind. Although I said nothing of it to the ladies, I had a shrewd suspicion that he was following us in another cab, which he had hailed as soon as we had passed. Two or three times when I looked out I noticed that a second four-wheeler seemed to be keeping us in sight. In view of my recent experiences, had I been alone I should have lost no time in putting the question to the proof. Not only, however, just then, were my wits a good deal wanting, but I felt a not unnatural disinclination to cause my companions uneasiness. Especially as I more than suspected that Miss Blyth might have enough of that a little later on.

The second incident was a trifle startling.

Shortly after catching sight of the man she called Isaac Rudd, she gave a sudden exclamation. She was staring at something with wide-open eyes. I looked to see what it was.

There, on her knee, was my God of Fortune.

Her surprise at its appearance was unmistakably genuine. How it had come there she was unable to explain. It might have been “materialised,” as the Theosophists have it, out of the intangible air. But it seemed that it was not the first time she had encountered it.

It had been slipped into her hand the night before by a fantastically attired individual who was evidently my length without breadth visitor, whom I had interrupted in his pseudo service, and who had dropped out of my office window with my God of Fortune in his hand. Although I made no reference to that occurrence, I was none the less struck by the fashion in which he had chosen to introduce himself to the niece of Mr. Benjamin Batters. The singularity of the thing went further. When the doll was slipped into the lady’s hand it was cased in a piece of paper, as it was when it was slipped into mine, from, which, again exactly as had happened with me, it forced itself apparently of its own volition.

I made no comment, but, with Miss Blyth’s permission, I put the doll into my waistcoat pocket; concluding that it might prove worthy of more minute examination than I had yet bestowed on it—even to the breaking of it open to discover “the works.”

This is a sober chronicle. I trust I am a sober chronicler. I wish to set down nothing which suggests the marvellous. I have an inherent dislike to wonders, being without faith. When men speak of the inexplicable I think of trickery, and of some quality which is not perception. Therefore I desire it to be understood that the following lines are written without prejudice; and that of what happened there may be a perfectly simple explanation which escaped my notice.

I trust that there is.

I had read the missionary’s letter, and the will, and had handed to Miss Blyth the sealed enclosure. When she opened it she found that within the packet was a little wooden box. On lifting the lid of this box, the first thing she saw—which we all saw—was my God of Fortune, or its double. It was just inside the box, staring at her, as it lay face upwards. Feeling in my waistcoat pocket for the duplicate, I found that it had gone. It had, apparently, passed into that wooden box, which had, until that moment, remained inviolate within that sealed enclosure. How, I do not pretend to say.

It was but a little thing, yet it affected me more than a greater might have done. A succession of “trifles light as air” may unsettle the best balanced mind. One begins, by degrees, to have a feeling that something is taking place, or is about to take place, of a character to which one is unaccustomed. And under such circumstances the unaccustomed, particularly when one is unable to even dimly apprehend the form which it may take, one instinctively resents.

I decided that, at any rate, that should be the last appearance of the God of Fortune. Taking it from Miss Blyth, who yielded it readily enough, I walked with it to the fire, intending to make an end of it by burning. As I went something pricked my fingers so suddenly, and so sharply, that in my surprise and, I might add, pain, the doll dropped from my hand. When we came to look for it it was not to be found. We searched under tables and chairs in all possible and impossible places, with a degree of eagerness which approached the ludicrous, without success. The God of Fortune had disappeared.

I am reluctant to confess how much I was disconcerted by so trivial an occurrence.

I must have been- orbidly disposed; still liverish. That is the only explanation which I can offer why I should all at once have felt so strongly that everything connected with Mr. Benjamin Batters’ testamentary dispositions wore a malign aspect. I was even haunted—the word is used advisedly—by a wholly unreasonable conviction that Miss Blyth was being dragged into a position of imminent peril.

This foolishness of mine was rendered more ridiculous by the fact that Miss Blyth’s own mood was all the other way. And in this respect Miss Purvis was at one with her. Somewhat to my surprise they seemed to see nothing in the situation but what was pleasant.

Miss Blyth’s attitude was one of frank delight. She had never known Mr. Batters personally; all she knew of him was to the disadvantage of his character. She was enraptured by the prospect of a fortune and a house. It seemed she had a lover. In her mind, fortune, house, and lover were associated in a delightful jumble. She did not appear to realise that the acceptance of the fortune, if the attached conditions were to stand, meant the practical ostracising of the lover. Nor, at the instant, did I feel called upon to go out of the way to make the whole position plain to her understanding. It would have meant the spoiling of the happiest hour she had known.

Miss Purvis enjoyed what she regarded as her friend’s good luck to the full as much as if it had been her own. It was delightful to see her. I had plucked up courage enough to observe her so long as she did not know that I was doing so. The moment she became conscious of my scrutiny, my eyes, metaphorically, sank into my boots; actually they wandered round the room, as if the apartment had been strange to me. When she proposed to become Miss Blyth’s companion in that horrible house in Camford Street my heart thumped against my ribs in such a manner that I became positively ashamed.

Was I a lawyer, the mere mechanical exponent of an accidental situation, or was I the intimate of a lifetime? I had to ask myself the question. What right had I to throw obstacles in the way, to prevent her doing her friend a service? What right had I to even hint that she might be running a risk in doing her that service? My fears might be—were—purely imaginary. So far they certainly had no foundation in fact. They resembled nothing so much as the nervous fancies of some timorous old woman. It might be ruinous to my professional reputation to breathe a syllable which would point to their existence. People do not want shivery-shakery fools for lawyers. These two young women knew as much—and as little—about the house as I did. If they chose to live in it, let them. It was their affair, not mine. They plainly regarded the prospective tenancy as an excellent jest. I tried to persuade myself that I had no doubt whatever that that was just what they would find it.

So they entered into the occupation of No. 84 Camford Street. I went with them and saw them enter. It was a curious process, that of entry; an unreasonably, unnaturally curious process. It should be necessary to enter no honest house like that. The first step suggested, possibly, that something unsavoury was concealed within, which it was necessary, at all and any cost, to keep hidden from the light of day.

When they were in, and the door was closed, and they had gone from sight, an icy finger seemed to be pressed against my spine. I shivered as with cold. An almost irresistible longing possessed me to batter at the door and compel them to come out. But I had not sufficient courage to write myself down an ass.

Instead, I rode home in the cab which had brought us to the house to which I had taken so cordial a disrelish, oppressed by a sense of horrible foreboding which weighed upon my brain nearly to the point of stupefaction.

“Before I go to bed to-night,” I told myself, “I’ll take a dozen of somebody or other’s antibilious pills. I had no idea I was so liverish.”