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   Chapter 11 No.11

Jaffery By William John Locke Characters: 24115

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The first stages of our grievous task were accomplished. We had buried Adrian in Highgate Cemetery with the yellow fog around us. His mother had been put into a train that would carry her to the quiet country cottage wherein she longed to be alone with her sorrow. Doria still lay in the Valley of the Shadow unconscious, perhaps fortunately, of the stealthy footsteps and muffled sounds that strike a note of agony through a house of death. And it was many days before she awoke to knowledge and despair. Barbara stayed with her.

We had found Adrian's will, leaving everything to Doria and appointing Jaffery and myself joint executors and trustees for his wife and the child that was to come, among his private papers in the Louis XV cabinet in the drawing-room. We had consulted his bankers and put matters in a solicitor's hands with a view to probate. Everything was in order. We found his own personal bills and receipts filed, his old letters tied up in bundles and labelled, his contracts, his publisher's returns, his lease, his various certificates neatly docketed. It was the private desk of a careful business man, rather than that of our old unmethodical Adrian. There are few things more painful than to pry into the intimacies of those we have loved; and Jaffery and I had to pry alone, because Doria, who might have saved our obligatory search from impertinence, lay, herself, on the Borderland.

All that we required for the simple settlement of his affairs had been found in the cabinet. On the list of assets for probate we had placed the manuscript of the new book, its value estimated on the sales of "The Diamond Gate." We had not as yet examined the safe in the study, knowing that it held nothing but the manuscript, and indeed we had not entered the forbidding room in which our poor friend had died. We kept it locked, out of half foolish and half affectionate deference to his unspoken wishes. Besides, Barbara, most exquisitely balanced of women, who went in and out of the death-chamber without any morbid repulsion, hated the door of the study to be left ajar, and, when it was closed, professed relief from an inexplicable maccabre obsession, and being an inmate of the flat its deputy lady in charge of nurses and servants and household things, she had a right to spare herself unnecessary nervous strain. But, all else having been done for the dead and for the living, the time now came for us to take the manuscript from the safe and hand it over to the publisher.

So, one dark morning, Jaffery and I unlocked the study-door and entered the gloom-filled, barren room. The curtains were drawn apart, and the blinds drawn up, and the windows framed squares of unilluminating yellow. It was bitterly cold. The fire had not been laid since the morning of the tragedy and the grate was littered with dim grey ash. The stale smell of the week's fog hung about the place. I turned on the electric light. With its white distempered, pictureless walls, and its scanty office furniture, the room looked inexpressibly dreary. We went to the library table. A quill pen lay on the blotting pad, its point in the midst of a couple of square inches of idle arabesques. On three different parts of the pad marked by singularly little blotted matter the quill had scrawled "God. A Novel. By Adrian Boldero." On a brass ash-tray I noticed three cigarettes, of each of which only about an eighth of an inch had been smoked. Jaffery, who had the key that used to hang at the end of Adrian's watch-chain, unlocked the iron safe. Its heavy door swung back and revealed its contents: Three shelves crammed from bottom to top with a chaos of loose sheets of paper. Nowhere a sign of the trim block of well-ordered manuscript.

"Pretty kind of hay," growled Jaffery, surveying it with a perplexed look. "We'll have our work cut out."

"It'll be all right," said I. "Lift out the top shelf as carefully as you can. You may be sure Adrian had some sort of method."

Onto the cleared library table Jaffery deposited three loose, ragged piles. We looked through them in utter bewilderment. Some of the sheets unnumbered, unconnected one with the other, were pages of definite manuscript; these we put aside; others contained jottings, notes, fragments of dialogue, a confused multitude of names, incomprehensible memoranda of incidents. Of the latter one has stuck in my memory. "Lancelot Sinlow seduces Guinevere the false 'Immaculata' and Jehovah steps in." Other sheets were covered with meaningless phrases, the crude drawings that the writing man makes mechanically while he is thinking over his work, and arabesques such as we found on the blotting pad.

"What the blazes is all this?" muttered Jaffery, his fingers in his beard.

"I can't make it out," said I. And then suddenly I laughed in great relief, remembering the absence of the waste-paper basket. We were turning over what evidently would have been its contents. I explained Adrian's whimsy.

"What a funny devil the poor old chap was," said Jaffery, with a laugh at the harmless foible of the artist who would not give even an incurious housemaid a clue to his mystery. "Well, clear the rubbish away, and we'll look at the second shelf."

The second shelf was more or less a replica of the first. There were more pages of consecutive composition-of such we sorted out perhaps a couple of hundred, but the rest were filled with the same incoherent scribble, with the same drawings, and with bits of scenarios of a dozen stories.

"The whole damn thing seems to be waste-paper basket," said Jaffery, standing over me. There was but one chair in the room-Adrian's famous wooden writing chair with the leathern pad for which Barbara had pleaded, the chair in which the poor fellow had died, and I was sitting in it, as I sorted the manuscript which rose in masses on the table.

"There's quite a lot of completed pages," said I, putting together those found on the two shelves. "Let us see what we can make of them."

We piled the obvious rubbish on the floor, and examined the salvage. We could make nothing of it. Jaffery wrinkled a hopeless brow.

"It will take weeks to fix it up."

"What licks me," said I, "is the difference between this and the old-maidish tidiness of his other papers. Anyhow let us go on."

In a little while we tried to put the sheets together in their order, going by the grammatical sequence of the end of one page with the beginning of the next, but rarely could we obtain more than three or four of such consecutive pages. We were confused, too, by at least a dozen headed "Chapter I."

"There's another shelf, anyhow," said Jaffery, turning away.

I nodded and went on with my puzzling task of collation. But the more I examined the more did my brain reel. I could not find the nucleus of a coherent story. A great shout from Jaffery made me start in my chair.

"Hooray! At last! I've got it! Here it is!"

He came with three thick clumps of manuscript neatly pinned together in brown paper wrappers and dumped them with a bang in front of me.

"There!" he cried, bringing down his great hand on the top of the pile.

"Thank God!" said I.

He removed his hand. Then, as he told me afterwards, I sprang to my feet with a screech like a woman's. For there, staring me in the face, on a white label gummed onto the brown paper, was the hand-written inscription:

"The Diamond Gate. A Novel-by Thomas Castleton."

"Look!" I cried, pointing; and Jaffery looked. And for a second or two we both stood stock-still.

The writing was Tom Castleton's; and the writing of the script hastily flung open by Jaffery was Tom Castleton's-Tom Castleton, the one genius of our boyish brotherhood, who had died on his voyage to Australia. There was no mistake. The great square virile hand was only too familiar-as different from Adrian's precise, academical writing as Tom Castleton from Adrian.

Then our eyes met and we realized the sin that had been committed.

There was the original manuscript of "The Diamond Gate." "The Diamond Gate" was the work not of Adrian Boldero, but of Tom Castleton. Adrian had stolen "The Diamond Gate" from a dead man. Not only from a dead man, but from the dead friend who had loved and trusted in him.

We stared at each other open-mouthed. At last Jaffery threw up his hands and, without a word, cleared the lowest shelf of the safe. Quickly we ran through the mass. We could not trust ourselves to speak. There are times when words are too idle a medium for interchange of thought. We found nothing different from the contents of the two upper shelves. The apparently coherent manuscript we placed with the rest. Again we examined it. A sickening fear gripped our hearts, and steadily grew into an awful certainty.

The great epoch-making novel did not exist.

It had never existed. Even if Adrian had lived, it would have had no possibility of existing.

"What in God's name has he been playing at?" cried Jaffery, in his great, hoarse bass.

"God knows," said I.

But even as I spoke, I knew.

I looked round the room which Barbara had once called the Condemned Cell. The ghastly truth of her prescience shook me, and I began to shudder with the horror of it, and with the hitherto unnoticed cold. I was chilled to the bone. Jaffery put his arm round my shoulders and hugged me kindly.

"Go and get warm," said he.

"But this?" I pointed to the litter.

"I'll see to it and join you in a minute."

He pushed me outside the door and I went into the drawing-room, where I crouched before a blazing fire with chattering teeth and benumbed feet and hands. I was alone. Doria had taken a faint turn for the better that morning and Barbara had run down to Northlands for the day. It was just as well she had gone, I thought. I should have a few hours to compose some story in mitigation of the tragedy.

Soon Jaffery returned with a glass of brandy, which I drank. He sat down on a low chair by the fire, his elbows on his knees and his shoulders hunched up, and the leaping firelight played queer tricks with the shadows on his bearded face, making him look old and seamed with coarse and innumerable furrows. But for the blaze the room was filled with the yellow darkness that was thickening outside; yet we did not think of turning on the lights.

"What have you done?" I asked.

"Locked the stuff up again," he replied. "This afternoon I'll bring a portmanteau and take it away."

"What are you going to do with it?"

"Leave that to me," said he.

What was in his mind I did not know, but, for the moment, I was very glad to leave it to him. In a vague way I comforted myself with the reflection that Jaffery was a specialist in crises. It was his job, as he would have said. In the ordinary affairs of life he conducted himself like an overgrown child. In time of cataclysm he was a professional demigod. He reassured me further.

"That's where I come in. Don't worry about it any more."

"All right," said I.

And for a while he said nothing and stared at the fire. Presently he broke the silence.

"What was the poor devil playing at?" he repeated. "What, in God's name?"

And then I told him. It took a long time. I was still in the cold grip of the horror of that condemned cell, and my account was none too consecutive. There was also some argument and darting up side-tracks, which broke the continuity. It was also difficult to speak of Adrian in terms that did not tear our hearts. As a despoiler of the dead, his offence was rank. But we had loved him; and we still loved him, and he had expiated his crime by a year's unimaginable torture.

Often have I said that I thought I knew my Adrian, but did not. Least of all did I know my Adrian then, as I sat paralysed by the revelation of his fraud. Even now, as I write, looking at things more or less in perspective, I cannot say that I know my Adrian. With all his faults, his poses, his superficialities, his secrecies, his egotisms, I never dreamed of him as aught but a

loyal and honourable gentleman. When I think of him, I tremble before the awful isolation of the human soul. What does one man know of his brother? Yes; the coldest of poets was right: "We mortal millions live alone." It is only the unconquerable faith in Humanity by which we live that saves us from standing aghast with conjecture before those who are so near and dear to us that we feel them part of our very selves.

Adrian was dead and could not speak. What was it that in the first place made him yield to temptation? What kink in the brain warped his moral sense? God is his judge, poor boy, not I. Tom Castleton had put the manuscript of "The Diamond Gate" into his hands. Undoubtedly he was to arrange for its publication. Castleton's appointment to the professorship in Australia had been a sudden matter, as I well remember, necessitating a feverish scramble to get his affairs in order before he sailed. Why did not Adrian in the affectionate glow of parting send the manuscript straight off to a publisher? At first it was merely a question of despatching a parcel and writing a covering letter. Why were not parcel and letter sent? Merely through the sheer indolence that was characteristic of Adrian. Then came the news of Castleton's death. From that moment the poison of temptation must have begun to work. For years, in his easy way, he struggled against it, until, perhaps, desperate for Doria, he succumbed. What script, type-written or hand-written, he sent to Wittekind, the publisher of "The Diamond Gate," I did not learn till later. But why did he not destroy Tom Castleton's original manuscript? That was what Jaffery could not understand. Yet any one familiar with morbid psychology will tell you of a hundred analogical instances. Some queer superstition, some reflex action of conscience, some dim, relentless force compelling the hair shirt of penitence-that is the only way in which I, who do not pretend to be a psychologist, can explain the sustained act of folly.

And when the book blazed into instantaneous success, and he accepted it gay and debonair, what could have been the state of that man's soul? I remembered, with a shiver, the look on Adrian's face, at Mr. Jornicroft's dinner party, as if a hand had swept the joy from it, and the snapping of the stem of the wineglass. In the light of knowledge I looked back and recognised the feverishness of a demeanour that had been merely gay before. Well . . . he had been swept off his feet. If any man ever loved a woman passionately and devoutly, Adrian loved Doria. For what it may be worth, put that to his credit: he sinned for love of a woman. And the rest? The tragic rest? His undertaking to write another novel? Indomitable self-confidence was the keynote of the man. Careless, casual lover of ease that he was, everything he had definitely set himself to do heretofore, he had done.

As I have said, he had got his First Class at Cambridge, to the stupefaction of his friends. With the exception of a brilliant bar examination, he had done nothing remarkable afterwards, merely for lack of incentive. When the incentive came, the writing of a novel to eclipse "The Diamond Gate," I am absolutely certain that he had no doubt of his capacity.

When he married, I think his sunny nature dispelled the cloud of guilt. He looked forward with a gambler's eagerness to the autumn's work, the beginning of the apotheosis of his real imaginary self, the genius that was Adrian Boldero. And yet, behind all this light-hearted enthusiasm, must have run a vein of cunning, invariable symptom of an unbalanced mind, which prompted secrecy, the secrecy which he had always loved to practise, and inspired him with the idea of the mysterious, secret room. The latter originated in his brain as a fantastic plaything, an intellectual Bluebeard's chamber whose sanctity he knew his awe-stricken wife would respect. It developed into a bleak prison; and finally into the condemned cell.

As I said to Jaffery, on that morning of fog and firelight, in the midst of Adrian's artificial French Lares and Penates, dimly seen, like spindle-shanked ghosts of chairs and tables, just consider the mind-shattering facts. Here was a man whose whole literary output was a few precious essays and a few scraggy poems, who had never schemed out a novel before, not even, as far as I am aware, a short story; who had never, in any way, tested his imaginative capacity, setting out, in insane self-conceit, to write, not merely a commercial work of fiction, but a novel which would outrival a universally proclaimed work of genius. And he had no imaginative capacity. His mind was essentially critical; and the critical mind is not creative. He was a clever man. All critics are clever men; if they were just a little more, or just a little less than clever, they wouldn't be critics. Perhaps Adrian was, by a barleycorn, a little more; but he had a blind spot in his brain which prevented him from seeing that the power to do imaginative work in a literary medium is as much a special gift as the power to interpret human life on canvas. It was exactly the same thing as if you or I, who have not the remotest notion how to draw a man on horseback correctly, were to try to paint a Velasquez portrait. It did not seem to enter the poor fellow's head that the novelist, in no matter how humble a way, no matter how infinitesimal the invisible grain of muse may be, must have the especial, incommunicable gift, the queer twist of brain, if you like, but the essential quality of the artist.

And there the man had sat in that stark cell of a room, for all those months, whipping, in intolerable agony, a static imagination. He had never begun to get his central incident, his plot, his character scheme, such as all novelists must do. He had grasped at one elusive vision of life, after another. His mind had become a medley of tags of the comedy and tragedy of human things. The more confused, the more universal became the poor limited vision. The whole of illimitable life, he had told me in his flogged, crazed exaltation, was to be captured in this wondrous book. The pity of it!

How he had retained his sanity I cannot to this day understand-that is to say, if he had retained it. The hypothesis of madness comforted. I would give much to feel that he had really believed in his progress with the work, that his assurance of having come to the end was genuine. If he had deceived himself, God had been merciful. But if not, if he had sat down day after day, with the appalling consciousness of his impotence, there have been few of the sons of men to whom God had meted out, in this world, greater punishment for sin. It is incredible that he should have lasted so long alive. No wonder he could not sleep. No wonder he drank in secret. Barbara, who had gone through the household accounts, had already been staggered by the wine-merchant's bills for whisky. Had he stupefied himself day after day, night after night for the last few months? I cannot but hope that he did. At any rate God was merciful at last. He killed him.

Jaffery threw a couple of logs on the fire-the ship-logs that Adrian loved, and the sea-salts, barium, strontium and what-not, gave green and crimson and lavender flames.

"I've seen as much suffering in my time as any man living," he said. "A war-correspondent does. He sees samples of every conceivable sort of hell. But this sample I haven't struck before and it's the worst of the lot. My God! and only the day before yesterday I took him to be married."

"It was fifteen months ago, Jaff, and since then you've plucked hairs out of Prester John's beard, or been entertained by a Viceroy of China, which comes to the same thing. I was right in saying you had no idea of time or space."

He paid no attention to my poor, watery jest.

"It was the day before yesterday. And now he's dead and the child stillborn-"

I uttered a short cry which interrupted him. A memory had smitten me; that of his words in September, and of the queer slanting look in his eyes: "They'll both be born together."

I told Jaffery. "Was there ever such a ghastly prophecy?" I said. "Both stillborn together. The more one goes into the matter, the more shudderingly awful it is."

Jaffery nodded and stared into the fire.

"And she at the point of death-to complete the tragedy," he said below his breath.

Then suddenly he shook himself like a great dog.

"I would give the soul out of my body to save her," he cried with a startling quaver in his deep voice.

"I know you love her dearly, old man," said I, "but is life the best thing you can wish for her?"

"Why not?"

"Isn't it obvious? She recovers-she will, most probably, recover; Jephson said so this morning-she comes back to life to find what? The shattering of her idol. That will kill her. My dear old Jaff, it's better that she should die now."

Rugged lines that I had never seen before came into his brow, and his eyes blazed.

"What do you mean-shattering of idols?"

"She is bound to learn the truth."

He darted forward in his chair and gripped my knee in his mighty grasp, so that I winced with pain.

"She's not going to learn the truth. She's not going to have any dim suspicion of the truth. By God! I'd kill anybody, even you, who told her. She's not to know. She must never know." In his sudden fit of passion he sprang to his feet and towered over me with clenched fists,-the sputtering flames casting a weird Brocken shadow on wall and ceiling of the fog-darkened room-I shrank into my chair, for he seemed not a man but one of the primal forces of nature. He shouted in the same deep, shaken voice.

"Adrian is dead. The child is dead. But the book lives. You understand." His great fist touched my face. "The book lives. You have seen it."

"Very well," said I, "I've seen it."

"You swear you've seen it?"

"Yes," said I, in some bewilderment.

He turned away, passed his hand over his forehead and through his hair, and walked for a little about the room.

"I'm sorry, Hilary, old chap, to have lost control of myself. It's a matter of life and death. I'm all right now. But you understand clearly what I mean?"

"Certainly. I'm to swear that I saw the manuscript. I'm to lend myself to a pious fraud. That's all right for the present. But it can't last forever."

Jaffery thrust both hands in his pockets and bent and fixed the steel of his eyes on me. I should not like to be Jaffery's enemy.

"It can. And it's going to. I'll see to that."

"What do you mean?" I asked. "There's no book. We can't conjure something out of nothing."

"There is a book, damn you," he roared fiercely, "and you've seen it, and I've got it. And I'm responsible for it. And what the hell does it matter to you what becomes of it?"

"Very well," said I. "If you insist, I can wash my hands of the whole matter. I saw a completed manuscript. You are my co-executor and trustee. You took it away. That's all I know. Will that do for you?"

"Yes. And I'll give you a receipt. Whatever happens, you're not responsible. I can burn the damned thing if I like. Do anything I choose. But you've seen the outside of it."

He went to the writing table by the gloomy window and scribbled a memorandum and duplicate, which we both signed. Each pocketed a copy. Then he turned on me.

"I needn't mention that you're not going to give a hint to a human soul of what you have seen this day?"

I faced him and looked into his eyes. "What do you take me for? But you're forgetting. . . . There is one human soul who must know."

He was silent for a minute or two. Then, with his great-hearted smile:

"You and Barbara are one," said he.

Presently, after a little desultory talk, he took a folded paper from his pocket and shook it out before me. I recognized the top sheet of the blotting-pad on which Adrian had written thrice: "God: A Novel: By Adrian Boldero."

"We had better burn this," said he; and he threw it into the fire.

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