“He’s gone,” said Ethel.
“Who’s gone? What! Not Chaffery?”
Mrs. Chaffery, with a keen eye to Lewisham’s behaviour, nodded tearfully over an experienced handkerchief.
Lewisham grasped the essentials of the situation forthwith, and trembled on the brink of an expletive. Ethel handed him a letter.
For a moment Lewisham held this in his hand asking; questions. Mrs. Chaffery had come upon it in the case of her eight-day clock when the time to wind it came round. Chaffery, it seemed, had not been home since Saturday night. The letter was an open one addressed to Lewisham, a long rambling would-be clever letter, oddly inferior in style to Chaffery’s conversation. It had been written some hours before Chaffery’s last visit his talk then had been perhaps a sort of codicil.
“The inordinate stupidity of that man Lagune is driving me out of the country,” Lewisham saw. “It has been at last a definite stumbling block—even a legal stumbling block. I fear. I am off. I skedaddle. I break ties. I shall miss our long refreshing chats—you had found me out and I could open my mind. I am sorry to part from Ethel also, but thank Heaven she has you to look to! And indeed they both have you to look to, though the ‘both’ may be a new light to you.”
Lewisham growled, went from page 1 to page 3—conscious of their both looking to him now—even intensely—and discovered Chaffery in a practical vein.
“There is but little light, and portable property in that house in Clapham that has escaped my lamentable improvidence, but there are one or two things—the iron-bound chest, the bureau with a broken hinge, and the large air pump—distinctly pawnable if only you can contrive to get them to a pawnshop. You have more Will power than I—I never could get the confounded things downstairs. That iron-bound box was originally mine, before I married your mother-in-law, so that I am not altogether regardless of your welfare and the necessity of giving some equivalent. Don’t judge me too harshly.”
Lewisham turned over sharply without finishing that page.
“My life at Clapham,” continued the letter, “has irked me for some time, and to tell you the truth, the spectacle of your vigorous young happiness—you are having a very good time, you know, fighting the world—reminded me of the passing years. To be frank in self-criticism, there is more than a touch of the New Woman about me, and I feel I have still to live my own life. What a beautiful phrase that is—to live one’s own life!—redolent of honest scorn for moral plagiarism. No Imitatio Christi in that . . . I long to see more of men and cities. . . . I begin late, I know, to live my own life, bald as I am and grey-whiskered; but better late than never. Why should the educated girl have the monopoly of the game? And after all, the whiskers will dye. . . .
“There are things—I touch upon them lightly—that will presently astonish Lagune.” Lewisham became more attentive. “I marvel at that man, grubbing hungry for marvels amidst the almost incredibly marvellous. What can be the nature of a man who gapes after Poltergeists with the miracle of his own silly existence (inconsequent, reasonless, unfathomably weird) nearer to him than breathing and closer than hands and feet. What is he for, that he should wonder at Poltergeists? I am astonished these by no means flimsy psychic phenomena do not turn upon their investigators, and that a Research Society of eminent illusions and hallucinations does not pursue Lagune with sceptical! inquiries. Take his house—expose the alleged man of Chelsea! A priori they might argue that a thing so vain, so unmeaning, so strongly beset by cackle, could only be the diseased imagining of some hysterical phantom. Do you believe that such a thing as Lagune exists? I must own to the gravest doubts. But happily his banker is of a more credulous type than I. . . . Of all that Lagune will tell you soon enough.”
Lewisham read no more. “I suppose he thought himself clever when he wrote that rot,” said Lewisham bitterly, throwing the sheets forcibly athwart the table. “The simple fact is, he’s stolen, or forged, or something—and bolted.”
There was a pause. “What will become of Mother?” said Ethel.
Lewisham looked at Mother and thought for a moment. Then he glanced at Ethel.
“We’re all in the same boat,” said Lewisham.
“I don’t want to give any trouble to a single human being,” said Mrs. Chaffery.
“I think you might get a man his tea, Ethel,” said Lewisham, sitting down suddenly; “anyhow.” He drummed on the table with his fingers. “I have to get to Walham Green by a quarter to seven.”
“We’re all in the same boat,” he repeated after an interval, and continued drumming. He was chiefly occupied by the curious fact that they were all in the same boat. What an extraordinary faculty he had for acquiring responsibility! He looked up suddenly and caught Mrs. Chaffery’s tearful eye directed to Ethel and full of distressful interrogation, and his perplexity was suddenly changed to pity. “It’s all right, Mother,” he said. “I’m not going to be unreasonable. I’ll stand by you.”
“Ah!” said Mrs. Chaffery. “As if I didn’t know!” and Ethel came and kissed him.
He seemed in imminent danger of universal embraces.
“I wish you’d let me have my tea,” he said. And while he had his tea he asked Mrs. Chaffery questions and tried to get the new situation into focus.
But even at ten o’clock, when he was returning hot and jaded from Walham Green, he was still trying to get the situation into focus. There were vague ends and blank walls of interrogation in the matter, that perplexed him.
He knew that his supper would be only the prelude to an interminable “talking over,” and indeed he did not get to bed until nearly two. By that time a course of action was already agreed upon. Mrs. Chaffery was tied to the house in Clapham by a long lease, and thither they must go. The ground floor and first floor were let unfurnished, and the rent of these practically paid the rent of the house. The Chafferys occupied basement and second floor. There was a bedroom on the second floor, formerly let to the first floor tenants, that he and Ethel could occupy, and in this an old toilet table could be put for such studies as were to be prosecuted at home. Ethel could have her typewriter in the subterranean breakfast-room. Mrs. Chaffery and Ethel must do the catering and the bulk of the housework, and as soon as possible, since letting lodgings would not square with Lewisham’s professional pride, they must get rid of the lease that bound them and take some smaller and more suburban residence. If they did that without leaving any address it might save their feelings from any return of the prodigal Chaffery.
Mrs. Chaffery’s frequent and pathetic acknowledgments of Lewisham’s goodness only partly relieved his disposition to a philosophical bitterness. And the practical issues were complicated by excursions upon the subject of Chaffery, what he might have done, and where he might have gone, and whether by any chance he might not return.
When at last Mrs. Chaffery, after a violent and tearful kissing and blessing of them both—they were “good dear children,” she said—had departed, Mr. and Mrs. Lewisham returned into their sitting-room. Mrs. Lewisham’s little face was enthusiastic. “You’re a Trump,” she said, extending the willing arms that were his reward. “I know,” she said, “I know, and all to-night I have been loving you. Dear! Dear! Dear. . . . ”
The next day Lewisham was too full of engagements to communicate with Lagune, but the following morning he called and found the psychic investigator busy with the proofs of Hesperus. He welcomed the young man cordially nevertheless, conceiving him charged with the questions that had been promised long ago—it was evident he knew nothing of Lewisham’s marriage. Lewisham stated his case with some bluntness.
“He was last here on Saturday,” said Lagune. “You have always been inclined to suspicion about him. Have you any grounds?”
“You’d better read this,” said Lewisham, repressing a grim smile, and he handed Lagune Chaffery’s letter.
He glanced at the little man ever and again to see if he had come to the personal portion, and for the rest of the time occupied himself with an envious inventory of the writing appointments about him. No doubt the boy with the big ears had had the same sort of thing . . .
When Lagune came to the question of his real identity he blew out his cheeks in the most astonishing way, but made no other sign.
“Dear, dear!” he said at last. “My bankers!”
He looked at Lewisham with the exaggerated mildness of his spectacled eye. “What do you think it means?” he asked. “Has he gone mad? We have been conducting some experiments involving—considerable mental strain. He and I and a lady. Hypnotic—“
“I should look at my cheque-book if I were you.”
Lagune produced some keys and got out his cheque book. He turned over the counterfoils. “There’s nothing wrong here,” he said, and handed the book to Lewisham.
“Um,” said Lewisham. “I suppose this—I say, is this right?”
He handed back the book to Lagune, open at the blank counterfoil of a cheque that had been removed. Lagune stared and passed his hand over his forehead in a confused way. “I can’t see this,” he said.
Lewisham had never heard of post hypnotic suggestion and he stood incredulous. “You can’t see that?” he said. “What nonsense!”
“I can’t see it,” repeated Lagune.
For some seconds Lewisham could not get away from stupid repetitions of his inquiry. Then he hit upon a collateral proof. “But look here! Can you see this counterfoil?”
“Plainly,” said Lagune.
“Can you read the number?”
“Five thousand two hundred and seventy-nine.”
“Well, and this?”
“Five thousand two hundred and eighty-one.”
“Well—where’s five thousand two hundred and eighty?”
Lagune began to look uncomfortable. “Surely,” he said, “he has not—Will you read it out—the cheque, the counterfoil I mean, that I am unable to see?”
“It’s blank,” said Lewisham with an irresistible grin.
“Surely,” said Lagune, and the discomfort of his expression deepened. “Do you mind if I call in a servant to confirm—?”
Lewisham did not mind, and the same girl who had admitted him to the séance appeared. When she had given her evidence she went again. As she left the room by the door behind Lagune her eyes met Lewisham’s, and she lifted her eyebrows, depressed her mouth, and glanced at Lagune with a meaning expression.
“I’m afraid,” said Lagune, “that I have been shabbily treated. Mr. Chaffery is a man of indisputable powers—indisputable powers; but I am afraid—I am very much afraid he has abused the conditions of the experiment. All this—and his insults—touch me rather nearly.”
He paused. Lewisham rose. “Do you mind if you come again?” asked Lagune with gentle politeness.
Lewisham was surprised to find himself sorry.
“He was a man of extraordinary gifts,” said Lagune. “I had come to rely upon him. . . . My cash balance has been rather heavy lately. How he came to know of that I am unable to say. Without supposing, that is, that he had very remarkable gifts.”
When Lewisham saw Lagune again he learnt the particulars of Chaffery’s misdeed and the additional fact that the “lady” had also disappeared. “That’s a good job,” he remarked selfishly. “There’s no chance of his coming back.” He spent a moment trying to imagine the “lady”; he realised more vividly than he had ever done before the narrow range of his experience, the bounds of his imagination. These people also—with grey hair and truncated honour—had their emotions! Even it may be glowing! He came back to facts. Chaffery had induced Lagune when hypnotised to sign a blank cheque as an “autograph.” “The strange thing is,” explained Lagune, “it’s doubtful if he’s legally accountable. The law is so peculiar about hypnotism and I certainly signed the cheque, you know.”
The little man, in spite of his losses, was now almost cheerful again on account of a curious side issue. “You may say it is coincidence,” he said, “you may call it a fluke, but I prefer to look for some other interpretation! Consider this. The amount of my balance is a secret between me and my bankers. He never had it from me, for I did not know it—I hadn’t looked at my passbook for months. But he drew it all in one cheque, within seventeen and sixpence of the total. And the total was over five hundred pounds!”
He seemed quite bright again as he culminated.
“Within seventeen and sixpence,” he said. “Now how do you account for that, eh? Give me a materialistic explanation that will explain away all that. You can’t. Neither can I.”
“I think I can,” said Lewisham.
“Well—what is it?”
Lewisham nodded towards a little drawer of the bureau. “Don’t you think—perhaps”—a little ripple of laughter passed across his mind—“he had a skeleton key?”
Lagune’s face lingered amusingly in Lewisham’s mind as he returned to Clapham. But after a time that amusement passed away. He declined upon the extraordinary fact that Chaffery was his father-in-law, Mrs. Chaffery his mother-in-law, that these two and Ethel constituted his family, his clan, and that grimy graceless house up the Clapham hillside was to be his home. Home! His connexion with these things as a point of worldly departure was as inexorable now as though he had been born to it. And a year ago, except for a fading reminiscence of Ethel, none of these people had existed for him. The ways of Destiny! The happenings of the last few months, foreshortened in perspective, seemed to have almost a pantomimic rapidity. The thing took him suddenly as being laughable; and he laughed.
His laugh marked an epoch. Never before had Lewisham laughed at any fix in which he had found himself! The enormous seriousness of adolescence was coming to an end; the days of his growing were numbered. It was a laugh of infinite admissions.