The Man Who Lost His Identity

The Man Who Lost His Identity  (1925) 
by Hugh Walpole

Extracted from Windsor magazine, v.61, 1924-25, pp. 557-565. Accompanying illustrations by Wilmot Lunt ]omitted. "A Boniface and Co." story.


THE MAN WHO LOST
HIS IDENTITY

By HUGH WALPOLE

THE essential point about this story is to prove how eagerly and readily one's friends will join in a game or a plot if the object thereof is to make some other human being miserable and uncomfortable. In saying this I am by no means the cynic that I appear. I have tremendous belief in human nature, and am perpetually surprised at the heroisms, unselfishness, and touching gratitude shown so often against desperate odds by my fellow-mortals. But it is not surprising that we should all enjoy a game, and if that game involves the lowering in the general estimation of some unfortunate—why, then, the higher go ourselves.

Do not think that Pritchard, the hero of this story, could really be called unfortunate. Before this adventure he was a fairly happy man, the self-satisfied bachelor, and after it—well, you shall see, if you read far enough, how happy he was after it.

My attention was first drawn to Pritchard by the visit of a little man, Meening, to our office. He was a fellow-member of the Rococo Club, and there I had met him on various occasions. He was one of those little men who can attract attention only by being constantly at your side. For months and months you hear them speak, see them move, watch them eat, listen to their sighs, their laughter, and perhaps their tears, but are nevertheless unaware that they exist. Then one day, after their persistent company, you exclaim, "Why, who's that?" and in a leisurely kind of way you take steps to discover. So when Meening came to our office (I was alone there at the time), I could only vaguely remember his name, and, I am afraid, called him Menzies throughout the whole of our first interview, although he quite often, in his weak, supplicating voice, corrected me. The point was that Meening had become engaged to Pritchard's sister, that she was a dear little woman (according to Meening, devoted to him), and that he was the happiest man in the world except for one thing, and that thing was Pritchard. Miss Pritchard was apparently dominated by her brother, and not only was she so dominated, but all the Pritchard family, mother and father, other sisters, brothers, aunts and cousins, were in the same case. What was the matter, I inquired, with this domination? Was Henry Pritchard a bully? No, indeed, he was not. He was a kindly, good-natured, amiable man of forty or so; he had been apparently clever in his own way, had made a lot of money during the War, with ships or something of the kind, and had had the good sense to save it, and now did no work at all, went about the world, discursive, amiable, and desperately complacent. I gathered from Meening—who, a gentle little man by nature, nevertheless spoke with some bitterness about his future brother-in-law—that Henry Pritchard was the most complete and devastating egoist yet known to history—Napoleon, Frederick the Great, and Catherine of Russia were nothing to him in this respect. The fact was that poor little Meening simply did not think that he would be able to marry Miss Pritchard unless some change were made in Henry Pritchard's character, and yet marry Miss Pritchard of course he must.

It appeared that Henry Pritchard was very fond of his sister, and intended to see a great deal of her after her marriage, and neither Miss Pritchard nor Meening had character enough to keep him out of the way. "You see," said Meening in his mild little voice, "it has really come to this. If I hear very much more from Henry of how fine he is, how clever, how rich, how handsome, or how well he played Rugby football fifteen years ago, or why it is that he likes eggs scrambled rather than boiled, of the fun that he gets from using a certain sort of brown polish on his shoes that nobody else had yet discovered, of the extraordinary morning in his life in which he discovered that his hair looked much better without a parting than with one, there will be one day a very nice murder somewhere in the direction of Chelsea, and Daisy will be a widow almost before she's realised that she's a bride!" Little Meening has quite a sense of humour in his own particular way, and real pain and suffering lent vigour to his remarks. "You see," he went on, "I understand that you and your two friends have undertaken a number of cases of just this kind—removing people who are tiresome, changing their characters, and making them see life differently. Of course I don't want any harm to happen to Henry—Daisy would never forgive me—but you're so clever that I thought you might think of something. Tell me your terms; I am sure money will be no trouble."

"This is our general custom," I explained to him. "I must meet your future brother-in-law, consider the case for a week, and then, if I have a plan that promises success, I will tell you. Then you pay me fifty pounds down and then another fifty if I succeed within a reasonable period."

He sighed with relief. "You've already taken a weight off my mind," he said. "I am sure you will think of something, and then not only will I be grateful to you for the rest of my life, but the whole Pritchard family, and perhaps Henry himself." He spoke more truly than he knew,


II.

Shortly after this I made Henry Pritchard's acquaintance, He was a bullock of a man, one of those Englishmen who, having worshipped athletics in their youth, have in middle age allowed their muscles to run to fat. He must have been six feet three or four in height, and he was as broad as he was tall. He had one of those big round bullet heads with snub nose, large smiling mouth, and eyes looking for ever narcissus-wise at their own likeness. He was something of a dandy in his dress, and wore bright ties that represented on different days of the week various athletic clubs which had the honour of his genial membership. Genial he was: he not only slapped you on the back in the first five minutes of your meeting him, but roared with laughter at nothing at all, and then, drawing your arm through his, became instantly loudly confidential about some exciting matter connected with himself. I had luncheon with him and Meening at the Rococo Club. In the first five minutes he explained to everyone within a hundred miles radius that he liked his steak not exactly underdone, but very nearly so, and that he found that, in his experience, sauces always spoiled a fine piece of meat, that of course other people might disagree with him, but that that really didn't matter, because that was the sort of man he was—he had always been like that since quite a kid. "The fact is," he said, putting his hand on my shoulder and shaking his heavy sides at me, "that I am not quite like other fellows here. I know exactly what I want and why I want it. I attribute my success in life," he went on quite frankly, "to that very thing. You may not believe it about me, but many people have noticed that in my whole make-up, if I may say so, I never hesitate, but go straight for a thing and take it. And when I have got it I keep it," he ended with a roaring laugh, gripping my shoulder with so tight a hold that he almost lifted me from the ground. Our lunch was all like that; neither Meening nor I said very much, but we listened and admired and remembered. By the end of the meal I had conceived a plan.

What attracted me quite frankly in this case was neither Meening nor Pritchard nor the addition of a hundred pounds to our yearly income. We were doing very well now, and might pick and choose among our clients; the point was that I saw here an opportunity of settling an interesting question that had for a long time past intrigued me. The point was just this: Can a human being, if sufficient persuasion is brought to bear upon him, be led to believe that he is not himself, but somebody else? And I mean, of course, a quite normal human being, not in ill-health in any way, and in full possession of such faculties as God has given him.


III.

Within a week after my first meeting with Henry Pritchard I had evolved my plan. This case was different from any others we had had, because it needed for its successful issue the collaboration of several of our friends. We had always considered it rather a point of honour that our office should, so to speak, do its own dirty work, and Chippet and Borden and I had generally found ourselves equal to our task. But in this affair outside help was inevitable. I had better, perhaps, describe events just as they occurred. One afternoon, about tea-time, Pritchard was relaxing his enormous body in an enormous chair in the Rococo Club, reading a newspaper, when a man whom I will call Brown came up to him and said: "Hullo, Forrester! I am glad to see you. Where have you been? I haven't seen you for ages."

Now, Pritchard had never seen this man before. He was a nice-looking ordinary Englishman, just the sort of man whom Pritchard would naturally like. Pritchard, as I already have said, was the most genial of men, so he looked up smiling from his paper and remarked amiably: "Sorry, you've got the wrong man."

Brown laughed. "My dear Guy," he said, "what's the matter with you? It's true that we haven't met for eighteen months, but don't be silly. I want to talk to you'

Pritchard said rather more brusquely: "I am very sorry, sir, you've made some mistake; I have never seen you in my life before."

Brown also stiffened. "Look here, Guy, are you tight or something? Don't be a silly ass. I want to thank you for all you did for Everett; you're really wonderful, the way you take trouble——"

Pritchard's sense of his own dignity began to suffer. He rose slowly from his chair and, looking Brown full in the face, said quite sternly: "You are wrong, sir; you are mistaking me for somebody else," and walked, with great dignity, away.

He was, I think, made a little uncomfortable by this episode, because, as it appeared, there was somebody else about the place very like himself, and he had always fancied that there was no one like himself anywhere. Next morning, passing the derelict ruins of Devonshire House just where the 'buses stop, he felt himself tapped on the shoulder. He turned round and found himself confronted by a little dapper man with an eyeglass, a complete stranger. "Hullo, Forrester!" said this little man in a shrill piping voice. "I am glad to see you. Where on earth have you been all this time?"

Pritchard looked at him very haughtily. "I beg your pardon," he said. "You've made some mistake."

But the little man clutched his arm. "Don't be an ass, Forrester," he piped. "You haven't forgotten Monte Carlo. I am Bennett."

"I don't care the devil who you are," answered Pritchard. "I have never seen you before in my life, and I——"

But Bennett did not relax his hold. "Look here," he cried—and his voice was one that in its shrillness would always attract attention in a public place—"I have got to speak to you. I have been wanting to see you for weeks. That business of Emily Clay is all settled."

Pritchard roughly shook him off. "I tell you, sir, I don't know you!" he almost shouted, and turned fiercely down Piccadilly. He was angry, he was furious. There must be somebody in London exactly like him. Twice in two days! What an extraordinary thing, and why had it never happened before? And how could there be anybody exactly like him? He had never seen anybody in the least like him anywhere. He brooded about it all day. That night he was dining with the Pritchard family. He gave them a full account of the affair; they couldn't, of course, understand it. "You know, it's awful!" he cried to his mother. "If there's a fellow going about London just like me, he may be buying things at shops, leading a disgraceful life, or anything. No one's ever heard of such a thing, and it isn't as though I was just like anybody else."

"No, dear, it isn't," his mother assured him. All the family assured him of the same thing.

Two nights later, finding himself unexpectedly free, he dined at his club and went to that amusing musical comedy "The Girl With Bobbed Hair." During the first interval he went out to have a drink. There was rather a crowd at the bar, and a man, pushing past him to order something, turned round and cried: "Hullo! Why, if it isn't old Guy!"

This was serious. Pritchard looked at the man. He looked a very nice fellow indeed, thick-set, clear-eyed, jolly, with no nonsense about him. The thing was past a joke. Pritchard took his drink and led this stranger gently aside. "May I have a word with you, sir?" he said.

The man stared at him in amazement. "A word with me? My dear Guy, don't touch that drink—you've had enough already."

Pritchard stood over him, gazing into his face with intense seriousness. "Will you listen to me a moment?" he said. "My name is Pritchard—Henry Pritchard. I have chambers in Half Moon Street. I have never seen you in my life before. Within the last week three men, complete strangers to me, have addressed me as Guy Forrester; they apparently know me well. There is obviously someone in London who is exactly like me. I am sure you will do me the courtesy to believe that I am telling you the precise truth."

The other man stared back at him, his face absolutely bewildered. "Look here, Guy," he said, "don't be an ass. I know you were annoyed with me at Wimbledon the other day, and I suppose you've got some game on now to pay me off. I am sorry about the other day, but it was a crazy thing to double on that hand of yours when you knew that I hadn't any hearts."

Pritchard, holding himself in control with great difficulty, replied: "I assure you, sir, that I have never seen you in my life before to-night. Would you mind telling me who you think I am?"

"Who I think you are? "the other man answered. "Well, if you want to go on with this silly game, I'll inform you. You're Guy Forrester, and I am Anthony Bellows, with whom, three winters ago, you went out to St. Moritz, who gave you some good shooting last autumn, who wrote to you ten days ago asking where you were, whose letter you never answered, and who, weakling though he is, will give you the rottenest hiding in your life if you don't drop this silly nonsense and come to your senses!" He was laughing—obviously a charming fellow—and he meant every word that he said.

Pritchard, in an agony, began: "I assure you——" when another man came up, touched Bellows on the arm, saying:

"The bell's gone, old man. We've got to trample on millions of people to get back to our place, so we'd better go."

"You'll hear from me in the morning, Guy," Bellows said. "It's a poor joke—not a bit funny," and he went off.

Pritchard went back to his chambers. This was the most awful thing that had ever happened to him. There were several letters for him on his dining-room table. He felt a great sense of relief when he picked them up; they were all addressed to Henry Pritchard, Esq. He walked up and down the room, thinking the whole thing out. First, there was somebody in London exactly resembling him; this somebody was plainly a very agreeable fellow whom people were delighted to see. Pritchard was no fool, and he realised that these three men who had spoken to him had addressed him with an eagerness and a cordiality that was not the manner with which his own friends greeted him. We go on from year to year so thoroughly accustomed to our own habits and ways of life that it is very difficult to realise that they could ever be otherwise. Pritchard was at heart, like most Englishmen, a sentimentalist. He adored to be liked, and at one time, in earlier days, he had been extremely popular; but he had known, although he had never confessed it to himself, that of late years the increased geniality and heartiness of his own manner had covered up a little the absence of heartiness in the manners of others. All great egoists are subjectively suspicious of themselves; they have built up a great wall of defence around their personality and conditions, and at all costs this wall has to be kept absolutely intact. Let the tiniest hole appear and the whole edifice crumbles instantly, and then has at once feverishly to be built up again. Every post, every little implied criticism, every chance encounter, is a desperate danger. Pritchard, although he would never admit it for a moment, had during the last few years been feeling the loneliness of the middle-aged man whose value to the outside world is diminishing. It was, in fact, quite a long time since anybody, whether in the club or the street or the theatre, had addressed him eagerly with excited anticipation. Alone in the silence of his room that night he faced several facts about himself. He had liked extremely the look of that man Bellows at the theatre—just the sort of man he did like; it seemed a shame that here was the opportunity of a friendship exactly of the right kind offered to him in London, and yet at the same time forbidden to him. Why did not men of the Bellows type come up to him, Pritchard, in that sort of way? Could it be possible that there was something wrong with him? Let the true egoist once start on the broad road of self-suspicion, and there's no end to his horrible discoveries. Could it be that his own dear family were sometimes bored with him and wanted him elsewhere? Could it be—worse suspicion of all—that he sometimes talked too much about himself? He had, he told me afterwards, very little sleep that night. For a man of Pritchard's habit that means a great deal.

There next occurred a piece of marvellous luck for our firm. I had, as I think you will agree, laid my plans very carefully, but my final crowning success does not lie to my credit. Towards seven o'clock one evening, soon after these events, I was walking down the Haymarket, when I encountered a great friend of mine, Miss Helen Freed, one of the prettiest and nicest girls in London. She was a girl who led one of those modern independent lives at which our most up-to-date novelists are always hinting terrible things, whereas there is nothing terrible about them at all, but only a pleasant freedom and an independent disregard of Victorian silliness. I asked Helen where she was going. She told me that she was intending to have a bite of something somewhere, and afterwards would join a girl friend at the theatre. At that very moment—and surely these things are arranged by an all-watching and often benevolent Providence—Pritchard passed us, stopped one instant to look at the posters outside His Majesty's Theatre, and then vanished down the steps into the Carlton Grill. It was then that I had my inspiration. "Do you want to have a little fun," I asked Helen, "and to do some good at the same time?"

Of course she did. Without being at all priggish about it, these were her two objects in life. Then I quickly explained things to her, told her about Bellows and Brown, informed her of the imagined Guy Forrester's supposed position and attributes, assured her that Pritchard was, behind his absurdities, a thorough gentleman, that no harm could possibly come to her, and that much good might be the result. Of course she hesitated, and I think that if the evening had not been lovely, the Haymarket crammed with that spirit of romance and adventure that London, in spite of its grime and the County Council, continually provides, she would not have taken the risk. In the light of after events there was, I fancy, one other inducement—she had looked at Pritchard as he stood for a moment near the theatre. You know how quick women are to make up their minds. I think there was something about him that she liked from that very first glance. She went into the Carlton Grill—she had often been there before—and was ushered with much friendliness to a table. She looked at Pritchard for a quarter of an hour; that decided her. She told me afterwards that, in spite of his health and ruddiness, he looked helpless and desolate. She was touched by him, in a way, of course, that no man ever would have been; it was her maternal instinct. Just as Pritchard was finishing his sole and wondering gloomily why it was that in these days he was so often alone, he heard a charming voice: "Guy, my dear, how lovely to see you, and alone, too, you, the most popular man in London! What a piece of luck!"

So it had happened again! A shiver ran down Pritchard's spine, but he was not now unprepared, as on the other occasions he had been. Moreover, looking up, he saw one of the prettiest girls ever constructed by Nature (in the main), but also with a little assistance from art. He had the wildest temptation to succumb to the whole thing, to allow himself just for half an hour to be this charming Forrester, the most popular man in London, and to ask this girl to sit down beside him and to continue to smile at him in that perfectly charming way. He did stammer, "Oh, won't you sit down?" and then, when she did so, because he was a very honest man, he tried half-heartedly to explain. "You've made a mistake," he began, his heart thumping as he spoke, "but never mind—at least, never mind for a moment. I think you'd be interested to hear about the mistake. It's a most extraordinary thing," he went on, stammering a bit. "I don't want you to bother about that—at least, what I mean is that if you do bother about it you won't talk to me any longer." And then he broke off because a waiter approached, and Miss Freed gave the waiter to understand that she would have the rest of her meal at this table; she had met an old friend.

"My dear Guy," she said, "I don't know what you're talking about; you look quite upset. But it is the luckiest thing in the world that I should get you alone like this, with a chance of telling you that I think you were simply splendid about poor Lance. That you should have taken all that trouble about a man whom you scarcely know, simply because—well, because you've got a certain liking for me, I suppose—is flattering, to say the least." And then, as Pritchard tried to interrupt: "No, don't say anything about it. I know—I've heard from lots of people—it's the hardest thing in the world to get a job for anybody these days, and the trouble you must have taken about Lance is simply marvellous, and I'll never forget it."

This was indeed awful for an honest man. Oh, how he wished—how fervently he wished—that he had taken trouble about Lance, whoever Lance might be! But, indeed, it was a long time, as he now too clearly perceived, since he had taken any trouble about anybody. "Look here," he said urgently, staring at her beauty and dreading the moment when that light of pleasure and gratitude must fade from her beautiful eyes, "do believe me, do listen to me. I can't let you praise me for things I haven't done. You've made a mistake. It's happened to me several times lately. There's some man going about London who's exactly like me—he must be my very image. I'd like to be him if I could, but I can't if I'm not, can I?"

Helen Freed laughed, so that several people at tables near by looked up and smiled; she was extremely charming when she laughed. "Guy," she said, when she'd recovered a little, "are you doing this for a bet, or are you trying to tell me that you want to be by yourself this evening, or what is it? We've always been honest with one another, and we may as well go on being honest now."

"Oh, I am being honest—I am indeed!" he cried. "I tell you what I say is true. My name is Henry Pritchard, and I live in Half Moon Street. I have never seen you before, although I wish to Heaven I had. I don't know your name nor anything about you, but—but I'll be Forrester or anyone else you like, I'll take credit for any good deed in the world, if only you'll stay for a little and talk to me!"

She looked very serious then, and answered in a voice full of tender kindliness: "I don't know what your game is, Guy, but whatever it is, I'm with you. You've got some reason for this, I suppose, and if you like to be a mysterious man in Half Moon Street for the rest of our meal—why, go ahead. As a matter of fact," she went on confidentially, "I have often thought what fun it would be to take on somebody else's character for a little. I have imagined myself all sorts of people at different times, so while I eat my chicken you shall pretend to be somebody else, and if I like the person you pretend to be, I'll pretend to be somebody else, too; it will be most refreshing for both of us."

How delighted he was! How eagerly he began to tell her all about himself—what a famous footballer he had once been, how cleverly he had made his money and kept it instead of losing it, as most people did, of how nice his family was, but of how strangely, during the last few years, things had seemed in some odd way to go wrong with him, of how he was very often alone now, and of how he was beginning to wonder whether, after all, in some mysterious way it might be his own fault, and then of this extraordinary thing that had happened to him—of how four people had spoken to him in the last ten days as though he were somebody else, and of how pleased these people had been to meet him, more pleased, he was beginning to think, than anyone had been for a long time to meet the real him that was Henry Pritchard.

They sat there for an hour at least, Helen Freed treating him with a wonderful mixture of attention and kindliness, with just a hint in her smiling eyes that of course this was only a game, quite an amusing one and entirely novel. Then she had to go. She was late as it was; she must meet her friend. "You'll see me again?" he said. "You will, won't you?"

"See you again!" she cried. "You're really extraordinary to-night, Guy. Is there ever a time when I'm not delighted to see you? Come and lunch with me to-morrow—you know, the same old rooms, in Walpole Street, Chelsea, one o'clock."

"But I don't know your name," he said in an agony, "I don't really. It isn't a game. I have told you nothing but the truth. I have never seen you in my life before, but, Heaven helping me, it isn't the last time I do!"

She turned to him as she was about to go up the stairs. "Well, you shall have your way," she said, laughing. "We'll play the game to the end. My name is Helen Freed—with two 'ee's,' not with an 'a,' as you once spelt it; spelling was never your strong point, Guy." And she was gone.


IV.

Poor Pritchard had no sleep at all that night. He walked his room trying to invent pieces of poetry, and when he could see through the thick intoxicating haze that surrounded him, puzzled again and again as to how he could keep her, as to whether he couldn't in reality continue to be this strange Guy Forrester. Impossible things seem so possible at three o'clock in the morning.

He arrived at Walpole Street half an hour too early, walked down as far as the Town Hall and back again, turned off towards the river and then back once more, and then at last, trembling with a deep and really humble excitement, he climbed a flight of stairs and rang a bell. Her room was very pretty. He knew nothing about pictures, but here, in love as he was, the water-colour drawings and the orange sofa, the amber bowl with its roses, enchanted him; he was in a land of enchantment. She came in happier to see him than anyone had ever hitherto been. A moment later he was kissing her. He did not know how it had happened; he did not think that he had never seen her before yesterday, and she did not know it, and she did not think it either. "And now," he said, standing away from her, "it's Henry Pritchard who is asking you to marry him, it's Henry Pritchard, it's Henry Pritchard, it's Henry Pritchard. I don't know anything about you except that I love you, and that I believe that you love me, and surely whether my name is Pritchard or Forrester doesn't matter. If it's Forrester's character you care for, then I'll have Forrester's character; I'll be just what he was, and then I'll be better than that because he isn't married to you and I shall be."

"Wait a moment!" she cried. "We can't go as fast as that. I don't know you at all, and you don't know me."

"You don't know me?" he returned fiercely. "Why, you told me yesterday that you'd known me for years, that I was the best friend you had, that you were terribly grateful. If you don't know me, what about Lance, for whom I got a job the other day? Why were you so glad to see me if you don't know me?"

"I was glad to see you," she answered, "because I had never seen you in my life before, and you'll never want to see me again because I behaved disgracefully, and am ashamed of myself, and glad, too, because if I hadn't behaved disgracefully I never would have spoken to you and never would I have had the happiest hour of my life. And now you'd better go, and I shan't be surprised if you cut me the next time we I meet."

He asked her then to explain, and she did. She didn't know, of course, the whole of the plot; all she knew was what I'd told her in the Haymarket. At her mention of my name he was more than ever bewildered. He knew me scarcely at all, and he could not conceive what I had to do with his affairs, but dimly he saw that there was a plot. He realised at least that there was no Guy Forrester, and mixed with the relief at that there was, as he tried clumsily to explain to me afterwards, an odd sort of regret; he was beginning to like Forrester—at least, he was beginning to like the attitude to Forrester that other people had.

But it says, I think, a great deal for his amiable character that he bore no malice against anybody. How could he? He was so terribly in love that he could think only well of all the world. If somebody had played a practical joke upon him, perhaps, after all, he had deserved it. He explained to her that he had been too much alone lately, and that perhaps that had forced him to think too much about himself. With the naïveté of a child he declared: "It isn't about myself that other people want to hear; they want to talk about themselves!"

"I want to hear you talk about yourself," she told him, "for weeks and weeks."

"Yes," he answered with, for him, amazing perspicacity, "but when we've been married a year you won't want to."

"Well, let's get married and see," she said.

It is scarcely necessary to add that little Meening paid our firm the second fifty pounds without a murmur.

On Pritchard's mantelpiece there is a photograph of a man; a pleasant, smiling face he has. When people ask him as to who this is, he says: "Oh, that's Guy Forrester—my best friend." But he doesn't know who it is. He found it one day in a photographer's shop. But it has just that kindly, good-natured, jolly expression that Guy Forrester is certain to have had.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.


The author died in 1941, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.