Sir Dominick Ferrand by Henry James
"There are several objections to it, but I'll take it if you'll alter
it," Mr. Locket's rather curt note had said; and there was no waste
of words in the postscript in which he had added: "If you'll come in
and see me, I'll show you what I mean." This communication had
reached Jersey Villas by the first post, and Peter Baron had scarcely
swallowed his leathery muffin before he got into motion to obey the
editorial behest. He knew that such precipitation looked eager, and
he had no desire to look eager--it was not in his interest; but how
could he maintain a godlike calm, principled though he was in favour
of it, the first time one of the great magazines had accepted, even
with a cruel reservation, a specimen of his ardent young genius?
It was not till, like a child with a sea-shell at his ear, he began
to be aware of the great roar of the "underground," that, in his
third-class carriage, the cruelty of the reservation penetrated, with
the taste of acrid smoke, to his inner sense. It was really
degrading to be eager in the face of having to "alter." Peter Baron
tried to figure to himself at that moment that he was not flying to
betray the extremity of his need, but hurrying to fight for some of
those passages of superior boldness which were exactly what the
conductor of the "Promiscuous Review" would be sure to be down upon.
He made believe--as if to the greasy fellow-passenger opposite--that
he felt indignant; but he saw that to the small round eye of this
still more downtrodden brother he represented selfish success. He
would have liked to linger in the conception that he had been
"approached" by the Promiscuous; but whatever might be thought in the
office of that periodical of some of his flights of fancy, there was
no want of vividness in his occasional suspicion that he passed there
for a familiar bore. The only thing that was clearly flattering was
the fact that the Promiscuous rarely published fiction. He should
therefore be associated with a deviation from a solemn habit, and
that would more than make up to him for a phrase in one of Mr.
Locket's inexorable earlier notes, a phrase which still rankled,
about his showing no symptom of the faculty really creative. "You
don't seem able to keep a character together," this pitiless monitor
had somewhere else remarked. Peter Baron, as he sat in his corner
while the train stopped, considered, in the befogged gaslight, the
bookstall standard of literature and asked himself whose character
had fallen to pieces now. Tormenting indeed had always seemed to him
such a fate as to have the creative head without the creative hand.
It should be mentioned, however, that before he started on his
mission to Mr. Locket his attention had been briefly engaged by an
incident occurring at Jersey Villas. On leaving the house (he lived
at No. 3, the door of which stood open to a small front garden), he
encountered the lady who, a week before, had taken possession of the
rooms on the ground floor, the "parlours" of Mrs. Bundy's
terminology. He had heard her, and from his window, two or three
times, had even seen her pass in and out, and this observation had
created in his mind a vague prejudice in her favour. Such a
prejudice, it was true, had been subjected to a violent test; it had
been fairly apparent that she had a light step, but it was still less
to be overlooked that she had a cottage piano. She had furthermore a
little boy and a very sweet voice, of which Peter Baron had caught
the accent, not from her singing (for she only played), but from her
gay admonitions to her child, whom she occasionally allowed to amuse
himself--under restrictions very publicly enforced--in the tiny black
patch which, as a forecourt to each house, was held, in the humble
row, to be a feature. Jersey Villas stood in pairs, semi-detached,
and Mrs. Ryves--such was the name under which the new lodger
presented herself--had been admitted to the house as confessedly
musical. Mrs. Bundy, the earnest proprietress of No. 3, who
considered her "parlours" (they were a dozen feet square), even more
attractive, if possible, than the second floor with which Baron had
had to content himself--Mrs. Bundy, who reserved the drawing-room for
a casual dressmaking business, had threshed out the subject of the
new lodger in advance with our young man, reminding him that her
affection for his own person was a proof that, other things being
equal, she positively preferred tenants who were clever.
This was the case with Mrs. Ryves; she had satisfied Mrs. Bundy that
she was not a simple strummer. Mrs. Bundy admitted to Peter Baron
that, for herself, she had a weakness for a pretty tune, and Peter
could honestly reply that his ear was equally sensitive. Everything
would depend on the "touch" of their inmate. Mrs. Ryves's piano
would blight his existence if her hand should prove heavy or her
selections vulgar; but if she played agreeable things and played them
in an agreeable way she would render him rather a service while he
smoked the pipe of "form." Mrs. Bundy, who wanted to let her rooms,
guaranteed on the part of the stranger a first-class talent, and Mrs.
Ryves, who evidently knew thoroughly what she was about, had not
falsified this somewhat rash prediction. She never played in the
morning, which was Baron's working-time, and he found himself
listening with pleasure at other hours to her discreet and melancholy
strains. He really knew little about music, and the only criticism
he would have made of Mrs. Ryves's conception of it was that she
seemed devoted to the dismal. It was not, however, that these
strains were not pleasant to him; they floated up, on the contrary,
as a sort of conscious response to some of his broodings and doubts.
Harmony, therefore, would have reigned supreme had it not been for
the singularly bad taste of No. 4. Mrs. Ryves's piano was on the
free side of the house and was regarded by Mrs. Bundy as open to no
objection but that of their own gentleman, who was so reasonable. As
much, however, could not be said of the gentleman of No. 4, who had
not even Mr. Baron's excuse of being "littery"(he kept a bull-terrier
and had five hats--the street could count them), and whom, if you had
listened to Mrs. Bundy, you would have supposed to be divided from
the obnoxious instrument by walls and corridors, obstacles and
intervals, of massive structure and fabulous extent. This gentleman
had taken up an attitude which had now passed into the phase of
correspondence and compromise; but it was the opinion of the
immediate neighbourhood that he had not a leg to stand upon, and on
whatever subject the sentiment of Jersey Villas might have been
vague, it was not so on the rights and the wrongs of landladies.
Mrs. Ryves's little boy was in the garden as Peter Baron issued from
the house, and his mother appeared to have come out for a moment,
bareheaded, to see that he was doing no harm. She was discussing
with him the responsibility that he might incur by passing a piece of
string round one of the iron palings and pretending he was in command
of a "geegee"; but it happened that at the sight of the other lodger
the child was seized with a finer perception of the drivable. He
rushed at Baron with a flourish of the bridle, shouting, "Ou geegee!"
in a manner productive of some refined embarrassment to his mother.
Baron met his advance by mounting him on a shoulder and feigning to
prance an instant, so that by the time this performance was over--it
took but a few seconds--the young man felt introduced to Mrs. Ryves.
Her smile struck him as charming, and such an impression shortens
many steps. She said, "Oh, thank you--you mustn't let him worry
you"; and then as, having put down the child and raised his hat, he
was turning away, she added: "It's very good of you not to complain
of my piano."
"I particularly enjoy it--you play beautifully," said Peter Baron.
"I have to play, you see--it's all I can do. But the people next
door don't like it, though my room, you know, is not against their
wall. Therefore I thank you for letting me tell them that you, in
the house, don't find me a nuisance."
She looked gentle and bright as she spoke, and as the young man's
eyes rested on her the tolerance for which she expressed herself
indebted seemed to him the least indulgence she might count upon.
But he only laughed and said "Oh, no, you're not a nuisance!" and
felt more and more introduced.
The little boy, who was handsome, hereupon clamoured for another
ride, and she took him up herself, to moderate his transports. She
stood a moment with the child in her arms, and he put his fingers
exuberantly into her hair, so that while she smiled at Baron she
slowly, permittingly shook her head to get rid of them.
"If they really make a fuss I'm afraid I shall have to go," she went
"Oh, don't go!" Baron broke out, with a sudden expressiveness which
made his voice, as it fell upon his ear, strike him as the voice of
another. She gave a vague exclamation and, nodding slightly but not
unsociably, passed back into the house. She had made an impression
which remained till the other party to the conversation reached the
railway-station, when it was superseded by the thought of his
prospective discussion with Mr. Locket. This was a proof of the
intensity of that interest.
The aftertaste of the later conference was also intense for Peter
Baron, who quitted his editor with his manuscript under his arm. He
had had the question out with Mr. Locket, and he was in a flutter
which ought to have been a sense of triumph and which indeed at first
he succeeded in regarding in this light. Mr. Locket had had to admit
that there was an idea in his story, and that was a tribute which
Baron was in a position to make the most of. But there was also a
scene which scandalised the editorial conscience and which the young
man had promised to rewrite. The idea that Mr. Locket had been so
good as to disengage depended for clearness mainly on this scene; so
it was easy to see his objection was perverse. This inference was
probably a part of the joy in which Peter Baron walked as he carried
home a contribution it pleased him to classify as accepted. He
walked to work off his excitement and to think in what manner he
should reconstruct. He went some distance without settling that
point, and then, as it began to worry him, he looked vaguely into
shop-windows for solutions and hints. Mr. Locket lived in the depths
of Chelsea, in a little panelled, amiable house, and Baron took his
way homeward along the King's Road. There was a new amusement for
him, a fresher bustle, in a London walk in the morning; these were
hours that he habitually spent at his table, in the awkward attitude
engendered by the poor piece of furniture, one of the rickety
features of Mrs. Bundy's second floor, which had to serve as his
altar of literary sacrifice. If by exception he went out when the
day was young he noticed that life seemed younger with it; there were
livelier industries to profit by and shop-girls, often rosy, to look
at; a different air was in the streets and a chaff of traffic for the
observer of manners to catch. Above all, it was the time when poor
Baron made his purchases, which were wholly of the wandering mind;
his extravagances, for some mysterious reason, were all matutinal,
and he had a foreknowledge that if ever he should ruin himself it
would be well before noon. He felt lavish this morning, on the
strength of what the Promiscuous would do for him; he had lost sight
for the moment of what he should have to do for the Promiscuous.
Before the old bookshops and printshops, the crowded panes of the
curiosity-mongers and the desirable exhibitions of mahogany "done
up," he used, by an innocent process, to commit luxurious follies.
He refurnished Mrs. Bundy with a freedom that cost her nothing, and
lost himself in pictures of a transfigured second floor.
On this particular occasion the King's Road proved almost
unprecedentedly expensive, and indeed this occasion differed from
most others in containing the germ of real danger. For once in a way
he had a bad conscience--he felt himself tempted to pick his own
pocket. He never saw a commodious writing-table, with elbow-room and
drawers and a fair expanse of leather stamped neatly at the edge with
gilt, without being freshly reminded of Mrs. Bundy's dilapidations.
There were several such tables in the King's Road--they seemed indeed
particularly numerous today. Peter Baron glanced at them all through
the fronts of the shops, but there was one that detained him in
supreme contemplation. There was a fine assurance about it which
seemed a guarantee of masterpieces; but when at last he went in and,
just to help himself on his way, asked the impossible price, the sum
mentioned by the voluble vendor mocked at him even more than he had
feared. It was far too expensive, as he hinted, and he was on the
point of completing his comedy by a pensive retreat when the shopman
bespoke his attention for another article of the same general
character, which he described as remarkably cheap for what it was.
It was an old piece, from a sale in the country, and it had been in
stock some time; but it had got pushed out of sight in one of the
upper rooms--they contained such a wilderness of treasures--and
happened to have but just come to light. Peter suffered himself to
be conducted into an interminable dusky rear, where he presently
found himself bending over one of those square substantial desks of
old mahogany, raised, with the aid of front legs, on a sort of
retreating pedestal which is fitted with small drawers, contracted
conveniences known immemorially to the knowing as davenports. This
specimen had visibly seen service, but it had an old-time solidity
and to Peter Baron it unexpectedly appealed.
He would have said in advance that such an article was exactly what
he didn't want, but as the shopman pushed up a chair for him and he
sat down with his elbows on the gentle slope of the large, firm lid,
he felt that such a basis for literature would be half the battle.
He raised the lid and looked lovingly into the deep interior; he sat
ominously silent while his companion dropped the striking words:
"Now that's an article I personally covet!" Then when the man
mentioned the ridiculous price (they were literally giving it away),
he reflected on the economy of having a literary altar on which one
could really kindle a fire. A davenport was a compromise, but what
was all life but a compromise? He could beat down the dealer, and at
Mrs. Bundy's he had to write on an insincere card-table. After he
had sat for a minute with his nose in the friendly desk he had a
queer impression that it might tell him a secret or two--one of the
secrets of form, one of the sacrificial mysteries--though no doubt
its career had been literary only in the sense of its helping some
old lady to write invitations to dull dinners. There was a strange,
faint odour in the receptacle, as if fragrant, hallowed things had
once been put away there. When he took his head out of it he said to
the shopman: "I don't mind meeting you halfway." He had been told
by knowing people that that was the right thing. He felt rather
vulgar, but the davenport arrived that evening at Jersey Villas.
"I daresay it will be all right; he seems quiet now," said the poor
lady of the "parlours" a few days later, in reference to their
litigious neighbour and the precarious piano. The two lodgers had
grown regularly acquainted, and the piano had had much to do with it.
Just as this instrument served, with the gentleman at No. 4, as a
theme for discussion, so between Peter Baron and the lady of the
parlours it had become a basis of peculiar agreement, a topic, at any
rate, of conversation frequently renewed. Mrs. Ryves was so
prepossessing that Peter was sure that even if they had not had the
piano he would have found something else to thresh out with her.
Fortunately however they did have it, and he, at least, made the most
of it, knowing more now about his new friend, who when, widowed and
fatigued, she held her beautiful child in her arms, looked dimly like
a modern Madonna. Mrs. Bundy, as a letter of furnished lodgings, was
characterised in general by a familiar domestic severity in respect
to picturesque young women, but she had the highest confidence in
Mrs. Ryves. She was luminous about her being a lady, and a lady who
could bring Mrs. Bundy back to a gratified recognition of one of
those manifestations of mind for which she had an independent esteem.
She was professional, but Jersey Villas could be proud of a
profession that didn't happen to be the wrong one--they had seen
something of that. Mrs. Ryves had a hundred a year (Baron wondered
how Mrs. Bundy knew this; he thought it unlikely Mrs. Ryves had told
her), and for the rest she depended on her lovely music. Baron
judged that her music, even though lovely, was a frail dependence; it
would hardly help to fill a concert-room, and he asked himself at
first whether she played country-dances at children's parties or gave
lessons to young ladies who studied above their station.
Very soon, indeed, he was sufficiently enlightened; it all went fast,
for the little boy had been almost as great a help as the piano.
Sidney haunted the doorstep of No. 3 he was eminently sociable, and
had established independent relations with Peter, a frequent feature
of which was an adventurous visit, upstairs, to picture books
criticised for not being ALL geegees and walking sticks happily more
conformable. The young man's window, too, looked out on their
acquaintance; through a starched muslin curtain it kept his neighbour
before him, made him almost more aware of her comings and goings than
he felt he had a right to be. He was capable of a shyness of
curiosity about her and of dumb little delicacies of consideration.
She did give a few lessons; they were essentially local, and he ended
by knowing more or less what she went out for and what she came in
from. She had almost no visitors, only a decent old lady or two,
and, every day, poor dingy Miss Teagle, who was also ancient and who
came humbly enough to governess the infant of the parlours. Peter
Baron's window had always, to his sense, looked out on a good deal of
life, and one of the things it had most shown him was that there is
nobody so bereft of joy as not to be able to command for twopence the
services of somebody less joyous. Mrs. Ryves was a struggler (Baron
scarcely liked to think of it), but she occupied a pinnacle for Miss
Teagle, who had lived on--and from a noble nursery--into a period of
diplomas and humiliation.
Mrs. Ryves sometimes went out, like Baron himself, with manuscripts
under her arm, and, still more like Baron, she almost always came
back with them. Her vain approaches were to the music-sellers; she
tried to compose--to produce songs that would make a hit. A
successful song was an income, she confided to Peter one of the first
times he took Sidney, blase and drowsy, back to his mother. It was
not on one of these occasions, but once when he had come in on no
better pretext than that of simply wanting to (she had after all
virtually invited him), that she mentioned how only one song in a
thousand was successful and that the terrible difficulty was in
getting the right words. This rightness was just a vulgar "fluke"--
there were lots of words really clever that were of no use at all.
Peter said, laughing, that he supposed any words he should try to
produce would be sure to be too clever; yet only three weeks after
his first encounter with Mrs. Ryves he sat at his delightful
davenport (well aware that he had duties more pressing), trying to
string together rhymes idiotic enough to make his neighbour's
fortune. He was satisfied of the fineness of her musical gift--it
had the touching note. The touching note was in her person as well.
The davenport was delightful, after six months of its tottering
predecessor, and such a re-enforcement to the young man's style was
not impaired by his sense of something lawless in the way it had been
gained. He had made the purchase in anticipation of the money he
expected from Mr. Locket, but Mr. Locket's liberality was to depend
on the ingenuity of his contributor, who now found himself confronted
with the consequence of a frivolous optimism. The fruit of his
labour presented, as he stared at it with his elbows on his desk, an
aspect uncompromising and incorruptible. It seemed to look up at him
reproachfully and to say, with its essential finish: "How could you
promise anything so base; how could you pass your word to mutilate
and dishonour me?" The alterations demanded by Mr. Locket were
impossible; the concessions to the platitude of his conception of the
public mind were degrading. The public mind!--as if the public HAD a
mind, or any principle of perception more discoverable than the stare
of huddled sheep! Peter Baron felt that it concerned him to
determine if he were only not clever enough or if he were simply not
abject enough to rewrite his story. He might in truth have had less
pride if he had had more skill, and more discretion if he had had
more practice. Humility, in the profession of letters, was half of
practice, and resignation was half of success. Poor Peter actually
flushed with pain as he recognised that this was not success, the
production of gelid prose which his editor could do nothing with on
the one side and he himself could do nothing with on the other. The
truth about his luckless tale was now the more bitter from his having
managed, for some days, to taste it as sweet.
As he sat there, baffled and sombre, biting his pen and wondering
what was meant by the "rewards" of literature, he generally ended by
tossing away the composition deflowered by Mr. Locket and trying his
hand at the sort of twaddle that Mrs. Ryves might be able to set to
music. Success in these experiments wouldn't be a reward of
literature, but it might very well become a labour of love. The
experiments would be pleasant enough for him if they were pleasant
for his inscrutable neighbour. That was the way he thought of her
now, for he had learned enough about her, little by little, to guess
how much there was still to learn. To spend his mornings over cheap
rhymes for her was certainly to shirk the immediate question; but
there were hours when he judged this question to be altogether too
arduous, reflecting that he might quite as well perish by the sword
as by famine. Besides, he did meet it obliquely when he considered
that he shouldn't be an utter failure if he were to produce some
songs to which Mrs. Ryves's accompaniments would give a circulation.
He had not ventured to show her anything yet, but one morning, at a
moment when her little boy was in his room, it seemed to him that, by
an inspiration, he had arrived at the happy middle course (it was an
art by itself), between sound and sense. If the sense was not
confused it was because the sound was so familiar.
He had said to the child, to whom he had sacrificed barley-sugar (it
had no attraction for his own lips, yet in these days there was
always some of it about), he had confided to the small Sidney that if
he would wait a little he should be intrusted with something nice to
take down to his parent. Sidney had absorbing occupation and, while
Peter copied off the song in a pretty hand, roamed, gurgling and
sticky, about the room. In this manner he lurched like a little
toper into the rear of the davenport, which stood a few steps out
from the recess of the window, and, as he was fond of beating time to
his intensest joys, began to bang on the surface of it with a paper-
knife which at that spot had chanced to fall upon the floor. At the
moment Sidney committed this violence his kind friend had happened to
raise the lid of the desk and, with his head beneath it, was
rummaging among a mass of papers for a proper envelope. "I say, I
say, my boy!" he exclaimed, solicitous for the ancient glaze of his
most cherished possession. Sidney paused an instant; then, while
Peter still hunted for the envelope, he administered another, and
this time a distinctly disobedient, rap. Peter heard it from within
and was struck with its oddity of sound--so much so that, leaving the
child for a moment under a demoralising impression of impunity, he
waited with quick curiosity for a repetition of the stroke. It came
of course immediately, and then the young man, who had at the same
instant found his envelope and ejaculated "Hallo, this thing has a
false back!" jumped up and secured his visitor, whom with his left
arm he held in durance on his knee while with his free hand he
addressed the missive to Mrs. Ryves.
As Sidney was fond of errands he was easily got rid of, and after he
had gone Baron stood a moment at the window chinking pennies and keys
in pockets and wondering if the charming composer would think his
song as good, or in other words as bad, as he thought it. His eyes
as he turned away fell on the wooden back of the davenport, where, to
his regret, the traces of Sidney's assault were visible in three or
four ugly scratches. "Confound the little brute!" he exclaimed,
feeling as if an altar had been desecrated. He was reminded,
however, of the observation this outrage had led him to make, and,
for further assurance, he knocked on the wood with his knuckle. It
sounded from that position commonplace enough, but his suspicion was
strongly confirmed when, again standing beside the desk, he put his
head beneath the lifted lid and gave ear while with an extended arm
he tapped sharply in the same place. The back was distinctly hollow;
there was a space between the inner and the outer pieces (he could
measure it), so wide that he was a fool not to have noticed it
before. The depth of the receptacle from front to rear was so great
that it could sacrifice a certain quantity of room without detection.
The sacrifice could of course only be for a purpose, and the purpose
could only be the creation of a secret compartment. Peter Baron was
still boy enough to be thrilled by the idea of such a feature, the
more so as every indication of it had been cleverly concealed. The
people at the shop had never noticed it, else they would have called
his attention to it as an enhancement of value. His legendary lore
instructed him that where there was a hiding-place there was always a
hidden spring, and he pried and pressed and fumbled in an eager
search for the sensitive spot. The article was really a wonder of
neat construction; everything fitted with a closeness that completely
It took Baron some minutes to pursue his inquiry, during which he
reflected that the people of the shop were not such fools after all.
They had admitted moreover that they had accidentally neglected this
relic of gentility--it had been overlooked in the multiplicity of
their treasures. He now recalled that the man had wanted to polish
it up before sending it home, and that, satisfied for his own part
with its honourable appearance and averse in general to shiny
furniture, he had in his impatience declined to wait for such an
operation, so that the object had left the place for Jersey Villas,
carrying presumably its secret with it, two or three hours after his
visit. This secret it seemed indeed capable of keeping; there was an
absurdity in being baffled, but Peter couldn't find the spring. He
thumped and sounded, he listened and measured again; he inspected
every joint and crevice, with the effect of becoming surer still of
the existence of a chamber and of making up his mind that his
davenport was a rarity. Not only was there a compartment between the
two backs, but there was distinctly something IN the compartment!
Perhaps it was a lost manuscript--a nice, safe, old-fashioned story
that Mr. Locket wouldn't object to. Peter returned to the charge,
for it had occurred to him that he had perhaps not sufficiently
visited the small drawers, of which, in two vertical rows, there were
six in number, of different sizes, inserted sideways into that
portion of the structure which formed part of the support of the
desk. He took them out again and examined more minutely the
condition of their sockets, with the happy result of discovering at
last, in the place into which the third on the left-hand row was
fitted, a small sliding panel. Behind the panel was a spring, like a
flat button, which yielded with a click when he pressed it and which
instantly produced a loosening of one of the pieces of the shelf
forming the highest part of the davenport--pieces adjusted to each
other with the most deceptive closeness.
This particular piece proved to be, in its turn, a sliding panel,
which, when pushed, revealed the existence of a smaller receptacle, a
narrow, oblong box, in the false back. Its capacity was limited, but
if it couldn't hold many things it might hold precious ones. Baron,
in presence of the ingenuity with which it had been dissimulated,
immediately felt that, but for the odd chance of little Sidney
Ryves's having hammered on the outside at the moment he himself
happened to have his head in the desk, he might have remained for
years without suspicion of it. This apparently would have been a
loss, for he had been right in guessing that the chamber was not
empty. It contained objects which, whether precious or not, had at
any rate been worth somebody's hiding. These objects were a
collection of small fiat parcels, of the shape of packets of letters,
wrapped in white paper and neatly sealed. The seals, mechanically
figured, bore the impress neither of arms nor of initials; the paper
looked old--it had turned faintly sallow; the packets might have been
there for ages. Baron counted them--there were nine in all, of
different sizes; he turned them over and over, felt them curiously
and snuffed in their vague, musty smell, which affected him with the
melancholy of some smothered human accent. The little bundles were
neither named nor numbered--there was not a word of writing on any of
the covers; but they plainly contained old letters, sorted and
matched according to dates or to authorship. They told some old,
dead story--they were the ashes of fires burned out.
As Peter Baron held his discoveries successively in his hands he
became conscious of a queer emotion which was not altogether elation
and yet was still less pure pain. He had made a find, but it somehow
added to his responsibility; he was in the presence of something
interesting, but (in a manner he couldn't have defined) this
circumstance suddenly constituted a danger. It was the perception of
the danger, for instance, which caused to remain in abeyance any
impulse he might have felt to break one of the seals. He looked at
them all narrowly, but he was careful not to loosen them, and he
wondered uncomfortably whether the contents of the secret compartment
would be held in equity to be the property of the people in the
King's Road. He had given money for the davenport, but had he given
money for these buried papers? He paid by a growing consciousness
that a nameless chill had stolen into the air the penalty, which he
had many a time paid before, of being made of sensitive stuff. It
was as if an occasion had insidiously arisen for a sacrifice--a
sacrifice for the sake of a fine superstition, something like honour
or kindness or justice, something indeed perhaps even finer still--a
difficult deciphering of duty, an impossible tantalising wisdom.
Standing there before his ambiguous treasure and losing himself for
the moment in the sense of a dawning complication, he was startled by
a light, quick tap at the door of his sitting-room. Instinctively,
before answering, he listened an instant--he was in the attitude of a
miser surprised while counting his hoard. Then he answered "One
moment, please!" and slipped the little heap of packets into the
biggest of the drawers of the davenport, which happened to be open.
The aperture of the false back was still gaping, and he had not time
to work back the spring. He hastily laid a big book over the place
and then went and opened his door.
It offered him a sight none the less agreeable for being unexpected--
the graceful and agitated figure of Mrs. Ryves. Her agitation was so
visible that he thought at first that something dreadful had happened
to her child--that she had rushed up to ask for help, to beg him to
go for the doctor. Then he perceived that it was probably connected
with the desperate verses he had transmitted to her a quarter of an
hour before; for she had his open manuscript in one hand and was
nervously pulling it about with the other. She looked frightened and
pretty, and if, in invading the privacy of a fellow-lodger, she had
been guilty of a departure from rigid custom, she was at least
conscious of the enormity of the step and incapable of treating it
with levity. The levity was for Peter Baron, who endeavoured,
however, to clothe his familiarity with respect, pushing forward the
seat of honour and repeating that he rejoiced in such a visit. The
visitor came in, leaving the door ajar, and after a minute during
which, to help her, he charged her with the purpose of telling him
that he ought to be ashamed to send her down such rubbish, she
recovered herself sufficiently to stammer out that his song was
exactly what she had been looking for and that after reading it she
had been seized with an extraordinary, irresistible impulse--that of
thanking him for it in person and without delay.
"It was the impulse of a kind nature," he said, "and I can't tell you
what pleasure you give me."
She declined to sit down, and evidently wished to appear to have come
but for a few seconds. She looked confusedly at the place in which
she found herself, and when her eyes met his own they struck him as
anxious and appealing. She was evidently not thinking of his song,
though she said three or four times over that it was beautiful.
"Well, I only wanted you to know, and now I must go," she added; but
on his hearthrug she lingered with such an odd helplessness that he
felt almost sorry for her.
"Perhaps I can improve it if you find it doesn't go," said Baron.
"I'm so delighted to do anything for you I can."
"There may be a word or two that might be changed," she answered,
rather absently. "I shall have to think it over, to live with it a
little. But I like it, and that's all I wanted to say."
"Charming of you. I'm not a bit busy," said Baron.
Again she looked at him with a troubled intensity, then suddenly she
demanded: "Is there anything the matter with you?"
"The matter with me?"
"I mean like being ill or worried. I wondered if there might be; I
had a sudden fancy; and that, I think, is really why I came up."
"There isn't, indeed; I'm all right. But your sudden fancies are
"It's absurd. You must excuse me. Good-by!" said Mrs. Ryves.
"What are the words you want changed?" Baron asked.
"I don't want any--if you're all right. Good-by," his visitor
repeated, fixing her eyes an instant on an object on his desk that
had caught them. His own glanced in the same direction and he saw
that in his hurry to shuffle away the packets found in the davenport
he had overlooked one of them, which lay with its seals exposed. For
an instant he felt found out, as if he had been concerned in
something to be ashamed of, and it was only his quick second thought
that told him how little the incident of which the packet was a
sequel was an affair of Mrs. Ryves's. Her conscious eyes came back
to his as if they were sounding them, and suddenly this instinct of
keeping his discovery to himself was succeeded by a really startled
inference that, with the rarest alertness, she had guessed something
and that her guess (it seemed almost supernatural), had been her real
motive. Some secret sympathy had made her vibrate--had touched her
with the knowledge that he had brought something to light. After an
instant he saw that she also divined the very reflection he was then
making, and this gave him a lively desire, a grateful, happy desire,
to appear to have nothing to conceal. For herself, it determined her
still more to put an end to her momentary visit. But before she had
passed to the door he exclaimed: "All right? How can a fellow be
anything else who has just had such a find?"
She paused at this, still looking earnest and asking: "What have you
"Some ancient family papers, in a secret compartment of my writing-
table." And he took up the packet he had left out, holding it before
her eyes. "A lot of other things like that."
"What are they?" murmured Mrs. Ryves.
"I haven't the least idea. They're sealed."
"You haven't broken the seals?" She had come further back.
"I haven't had time; it only happened ten minutes ago."
"I knew it," said Mrs. Ryves, more gaily now.
"What did you know?"
"That you were in some predicament."
"You're extraordinary. I never heard of anything so miraculous; down
two flights of stairs."
"ARE you in a quandary?" the visitor asked.
"Yes, about giving them back." Peter Baron stood smiling at her and
rapping his packet on the palm of his hand. "What do you advise?"
She herself smiled now, with her eyes on the sealed parcel. "Back to
"The man of whom I bought the table."
"Ah then, they're not from YOUR family?"
"No indeed, the piece of furniture in which they were hidden is not
an ancestral possession. I bought it at second hand--you see it's
old--the other day in the King's Road. Obviously the man who sold it
to me sold me more than he meant; he had no idea (from his own point
of view it was stupid of him), that there was a hidden chamber or
that mysterious documents were buried there. Ought I to go and tell
him? It's rather a nice question."
"Are the papers of value?" Mrs. Ryves inquired.
"I haven't the least idea. But I can ascertain by breaking a seal."
"Don't!" said Mrs. Ryves, with much expression. She looked grave
"It's rather tantalising--it's a bit of a problem," Baron went on,
turning his packet over.
Mrs. Ryves hesitated. "Will you show me what you have in your hand?"
He gave her the packet, and she looked at it and held it for an
instant to her nose. "It has a queer, charming old fragrance," he
"Charming? It's horrid." She handed him back the packet, saying
again more emphatically "Don't!"
"Don't break a seal?"
"Don't give back the papers."
"Is it honest to keep them?"
"Certainly. They're yours as much as the people's of the shop. They
were in the hidden chamber when the table came to the shop, and the
people had every opportunity to find them out. They didn't--
therefore let them take the consequences."
Peter Baron reflected, diverted by her intensity. She was pale, with
eyes almost ardent. "The table had been in the place for years."
"That proves the things haven't been missed."
"Let me show you how they were concealed," he rejoined; and he
exhibited the ingenious recess and the working of the curious spring.
She was greatly interested, she grew excited and became familiar; she
appealed to him again not to do anything so foolish as to give up the
papers, the rest of which, in their little blank, impenetrable
covers, he placed in a row before her. "They might be traced--their
history, their ownership," he argued; to which she replied that this
was exactly why he ought to be quiet. He declared that women had not
the smallest sense of honour, and she retorted that at any rate they
have other perceptions more delicate than those of men. He admitted
that the papers might be rubbish, and she conceded that nothing was
more probable; yet when he offered to settle the point off-hand she
caught him by the wrist, acknowledging that, absurd as it was, she
was nervous. Finally she put the whole thing on the ground of his
just doing her a favour. She asked him to retain the papers, to be
silent about them, simply because it would please her. That would be
reason enough. Baron's acquaintance, his agreeable relations with
her, advanced many steps in the treatment of this question; an
element of friendly candour made its way into their discussion of it.
"I can't make out why it matters to you, one way or the other, nor
why you should think it worth talking about," the young man reasoned.
"Neither can I. It's just a whim."
"Certainly, if it will give you any pleasure, I'll say nothing at the
"That's charming of you, and I'm very grateful. I see now that this
was why the spirit moved me to come up--to save them," Mrs. Ryves
went on. She added, moving away, that now she had saved them she
must really go.
"To save them for what, if I mayn't break the seals?" Baron asked.
"I don't know--for a generous sacrifice."
"Why should it be generous? What's at stake?" Peter demanded,
leaning against the doorpost as she stood on the landing.
"I don't know what, but I feel as if something or other were in
peril. Burn them up!" she exclaimed with shining eyes.
"Ah, you ask too much--I'm so curious about them!"
"Well, I won't ask more than I ought, and I'm much obliged to you for
your promise to be quiet. I trust to your discretion. Good-by."
"You ought to REWARD my discretion," said Baron, coming out to the
She had partly descended the staircase and she stopped, leaning
against the baluster and smiling up at him. "Surely you've had your
reward in the honour of my visit."
"That's delightful as far as it goes. But what will you do for me if
I burn the papers?"
Mrs. Ryves considered a moment. "Burn them first and you'll see!"
On this she went rapidly downstairs, and Baron, to whom the answer
appeared inadequate and the proposition indeed in that form grossly
unfair, returned to his room. The vivacity of her interest in a
question in which she had discoverably nothing at stake mystified,
amused and, in addition, irresistibly charmed him. She was delicate,
imaginative, inflammable, quick to feel, quick to act. He didn't
complain of it, it was the way he liked women to be;, but he was not
impelled for the hour to commit the sealed packets to the flames. He
dropped them again into their secret well, and after that he went
out. He felt restless and excited; another day was lost for work--
the dreadful job to be performed for Mr. Locket was still further
Ten days after Mrs. Ryves's visit he paid by appointment another call
on the editor of the Promiscuous. He found him in the little
wainscoted Chelsea house, which had to Peter's sense the smoky
brownness of an old pipebowl, surrounded with all the emblems of his
office--a litter of papers, a hedge of encyclopaedias, a photographic
gallery of popular contributors--and he promised at first to consume
very few of the moments for which so many claims competed. It was
Mr. Locket himself however who presently made the interview spacious,
gave it air after discovering that poor Baron had come to tell him
something more interesting than that he couldn't after all patch up
his tale. Peter had begun with this, had intimated respectfully that
it was a case in which both practice and principle rebelled, and
then, perceiving how little Mr. Locket was affected by his audacity,
had felt weak and slightly silly, left with his heroism on his hands.
He had armed himself for a struggle, but the Promiscuous didn't even
protest, and there would have been nothing for him but to go away
with the prospect of never coming again had he not chanced to say
abruptly, irrelevantly, as he got up from his chair:
"Do you happen to be at all interested in Sir Dominick Ferrand?"
Mr. Locket, who had also got up, looked over his glasses. "The late
"The only one; you know the family's extinct."
Mr. Locket shot his young friend another sharp glance, a silent
retort to the glibness of this information. "Very extinct indeed.
I'm afraid the subject today would scarcely be regarded as
"Are you very sure?" Baron asked.
Mr. Locket leaned forward a little, with his fingertips on his table,
in the attitude of giving permission to retire. "I might consider
the question in a special connection." He was silent a minute, in a
way that relegated poor Peter to the general; but meeting the young
man's eyes again he asked: "Are you--a--thinking of proposing an
article upon him?"
"Not exactly proposing it--because I don't yet quite see my way; but
the idea rather appeals to me."
Mr. Locket emitted the safe assertion that this eminent statesman had
been a striking figure in his day; then he added: "Have you been
"I've been dipping into him."
"I'm afraid he's scarcely a question of the hour," said Mr. Locket,
shuffling papers together.
"I think I could make him one," Peter Baron declared.
Mr. Locket stared again; he was unable to repress an unattenuated
"I have some new material," said the young man, colouring a little.
"That often freshens up an old story."
"It buries it sometimes. It's often only another tombstone."
"That depends upon what it is. However," Peter added, "the documents
I speak of would be a crushing monument."
Mr. Locket, hesitating, shot another glance under his glasses. "Do
you allude to--a--revelations?"
"Very curious ones."
Mr. Locket, still on his feet, had kept his body at the bowing angle;
it was therefore easy for him after an instant to bend a little
further and to sink into his chair with a movement of his hand toward
the seat Baron had occupied. Baron resumed possession of this
convenience, and the conversation took a fresh start on a basis which
such an extension of privilege could render but little less
humiliating to our young man. He had matured no plan of confiding
his secret to Mr. Locket, and he had really come out to make him
conscientiously that other announcement as to which it appeared that
so much artistic agitation had been wasted. He had indeed during the
past days--days of painful indecision--appealed in imagination to the
editor of the Promiscuous, as he had appealed to other sources of
comfort; but his scruples turned their face upon him from quarters
high as well as low, and if on the one hand he had by no means made
up his mind not to mention his strange knowledge, he had still more
left to the determination of the moment the question of how he should
introduce the subject. He was in fact too nervous to decide; he only
felt that he needed for his peace of mind to communicate his
discovery. He wanted an opinion, the impression of somebody else,
and even in this intensely professional presence, five minutes after
he had begun to tell his queer story, he felt relieved of half his
burden. His story was very queer; he could take the measure of that
himself as he spoke; but wouldn't this very circumstance qualify it
for the Promiscuous?
"Of course the letters may be forgeries," said Mr. Locket at last.
"I've no doubt that's what many people will say."
"Have they been seen by any expert?"
"No indeed; they've been seen by nobody."
"Have you got any of them with you?"
"No; I felt nervous about bringing them out."
"That's a pity. I should have liked the testimony of my eyes."
"You may have it if you'll come to my rooms. If you don't care to do
that without a further guarantee I'll copy you out some passages."
"Select a few of the worst!" Mr. Locket laughed. Over Baron's
distressing information he had become quite human and genial. But he
added in a moment more dryly: "You know they ought to be seen by an
"That's exactly what I dread," said Peter.
"They'll be worth nothing to me if they're not."
Peter communed with his innermost spirit. "How much will they be
worth to ME if they ARE?"
Mr. Locket turned in his study-chair. "I should require to look at
them before answering that question."
"I've been to the British museum--there are many of his letters
there. I've obtained permission to see them, and I've compared
everything carefully. I repudiate the possibility of forgery. No
sign of genuineness is wanting; there are details, down to the very
postmarks, that no forger could have invented. Besides, whose
interest could it conceivably have been? A labor of unspeakable
difficulty, and all for what advantage? There are so many letters,
too--twenty-seven in all."
"Lord, what an ass!" Mr. Locket exclaimed.
"It will be one of the strangest post-mortem revelations of which
history preserves the record."
Mr. Locket, grave now, worried with a paper-knife the crevice of a
drawer. "It's very odd. But to be worth anything such documents
should be subjected to a searching criticism--I mean of the
"Certainly; that would be the task of the writer introducing them to
Again Mr. Locket considered; then with a smile he looked up. "You
had better give up original composition and take to buying old
"Do you mean because it will pay better?"
"For you, I should think, original composition couldn't pay worse.
The creative faculty's so rare."
"I do feel tempted to turn my attention to real heroes," Peter
"I'm bound to declare that Sir Dominick Ferrand was never one of
mine. Flashy, crafty, second-rate--that's how I've always read him.
It was never a secret, moreover, that his private life had its weak
spots. He was a mere flash in the pan."
"He speaks to the people of this country," said Baron.
"He did; but his voice--the voice, I mean, of his prestige--is
scarcely audible now."
"They're still proud of some of the things he did at the Foreign
Office--the famous 'exchange' with Spain, in the Mediterranean, which
took Europe so by surprise and by which she felt injured, especially
when it became apparent how much we had the best of the bargain.
Then the sudden, unexpected show of force by which he imposed on the
United States our interpretation of that tiresome treaty--I could
never make out what it was about. These were both matters that no
one really cared a straw about, but he made every one feel as if they
cared; the nation rose to the way he played his trumps--it was
uncommon. He was one of the few men we've had, in our period, who
took Europe, or took America, by surprise, made them jump a bit; and
the country liked his doing it--it was a pleasant change. The rest
of the world considered that they knew in any case exactly what we
would do, which was usually nothing at all. Say what you like, he's
still a high name; partly also, no doubt, on account of other things
his early success and early death, his political 'cheek' and wit; his
very appearance--he certainly was handsome--and the possibilities (of
future personal supremacy) which it was the fashion at the time,
which it's the fashion still, to say had passed away with him. He
had been twice at the Foreign Office; that alone was remarkable for a
man dying at forty-four. What therefore will the country think when
it learns he was venal?"
Peter Baron himself was not angry with Sir Dominick Ferrand, who had
simply become to him (he had been "reading up" feverishly for a week)
a very curious subject of psychological study; but he could easily
put himself in the place of that portion of the public whose memory
was long enough for their patriotism to receive a shock. It was some
time fortunately since the conduct of public affairs had wanted for
men of disinterested ability, but the extraordinary documents
concealed (of all places in the world--it was as fantastic as a
nightmare) in a "bargain" picked up at second-hand by an obscure
scribbler, would be a calculable blow to the retrospective mind.
Baron saw vividly that if these relics should be made public the
scandal, the horror, the chatter would be immense. Immense would be
also the contribution to truth, the rectification of history. He had
felt for several days (and it was exactly what had made him so
nervous) as if he held in his hand the key to public attention.
"There are too many things to explain," Mr. Locket went on, "and the
singular provenance of your papers would count almost overwhelmingly
against them even if the other objections were met. There would be a
perfect and probably a very complicated pedigree to trace. How did
they get into your davenport, as you call it, and how long had they
been there? What hands secreted them? what hands had, so incredibly,
clung to them and preserved them? Who are the persons mentioned in
them? who are the correspondents, the parties to the nefarious
transactions? You say the transactions appear to be of two distinct
kinds--some of them connected with public business and others
involving obscure personal relations."
"They all have this in common," said Peter Baron, "that they
constitute evidence of uneasiness, in some instances of painful
alarm, on the writer's part, in relation to exposure--the exposure in
the one case, as I gather, of the fact that he had availed himself of
official opportunities to promote enterprises (public works and that
sort of thing) in which he had a pecuniary stake. The dread of the
light in the other connection is evidently different, and these
letters are the earliest in date. They are addressed to a woman,
from whom he had evidently received money."
Mr. Locket wiped his glasses. "What woman?"
"I haven't the least idea. There are lots of questions I can't
answer, of course; lots of identities I can't establish; lots of gaps
I can't fill. But as to two points I'm clear, and they are the
essential ones. In the first place the papers in my possession are
genuine; in the second place they're compromising."
With this Peter Baron rose again, rather vexed with himself for
having been led on to advertise his treasure (it was his
interlocutor's perfectly natural scepticism that produced this
effect), for he felt that he was putting himself in a false position.
He detected in Mr. Locket's studied detachment the fermentation of
impulses from which, unsuccessful as he was, he himself prayed to be
Mr. Locket remained seated; he watched Baron go across the room for
his hat and umbrella. "Of course, the question would come up of
whose property today such documents would legally he. There are
heirs, descendants, executors to consider."
"In some degree perhaps; hut I've gone into that a little. Sir
Dominick Ferrand had no children, and he left no brothers and no
sisters. His wife survived him, but she died ten years ago. He can
have had no heirs and no executors to speak of, for he left no
''That's to his honour and against your theory,'' said Mr. Locket.
"I HAVE no theory. He left a largeish mass of debt," Peter Baron
added. At this Mr. Locket got up, while his visitor pursued: "So
far as I can ascertain, though of course my inquiries have had to be
very rapid and superficial, there is no one now living, directly or
indirectly related to the personage in question, who would be likely
to suffer from any steps in the direction of publicity. It happens
to be a rare instance of a life that had, as it were, no loose ends.
At least there are none perceptible at present."
"I see, I see," said Mr. Locket. "But I don't think I should care
much for your article."
"The one you seem to wish to write, embodying this new matter."
"Oh, I don't wish to write it!" Peter exclaimed. And then he bade
his host good-by.
"Good-by," said Mr. Locket. "Mind you, I don't say that I think
there's nothing in it."
"You would think there was something in it if you were to see my
"I should l