Harold March, the rising reviewer and social critic, was walking vigorously across a great tableland of moors and commons, the horizon of which was fringed with the far-off woods of the famous estate of Torwood Park. He was a good-looking young man in tweeds, with very pale curly hair and pale clear eyes. Walking in wind and sun in the very landscape of liberty, he was still young enough to remember his politics and not merely try to forget them. For his errand at Torwood Park was a political one; it was the place of appointment named by no less a person than the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Howard Horne, then introducing his so-called Socialist budget, and prepared to expound it in an interview with so promising a penman. Harold March was the sort of man who knows everything about politics, and nothing about politicians. He also knew a great deal about art, letters, philosophy, and general culture; about almost everything, indeed, except the world he was living in.
Abruptly, in the middle of those sunny and windy flats, he came upon a sort of cleft almost narrow enough to be called a crack in the land. It was just large enough to be the water-course for a small stream which vanished at intervals under green tunnels of undergrowth, as if in a dwarfish forest. Indeed, he had an odd feeling as if he were a giant looking over the valley of the pygmies. When he dropped into the hollow, however, the impression was lost; the rocky banks, though hardly above the height of a cottage, hung over and had the profile of a precipice. As he began to wander down the course of the stream, in idle but romantic curiosity, and saw the water shining in short strips between the great gray boulders and bushes as soft as great green mosses, he fell into quite an opposite vein of fantasy. It was rather as if the earth had opened and swallowed him into a sort of underworld of dreams. And when he became conscious of a human figure dark against the silver stream, sitting on a large boulder and looking rather like a large bird, it was perhaps with some of the premonitions proper to a man who meets the strangest friendship of his life.
The man was apparently fishing; or at least was fixed in a fisherman’s attitude with more than a fisherman’s immobility. March was able to examine the man almost as if he had been a statue for some minutes before the statue spoke. He was a tall, fair man, cadaverous, and a little lackadaisical, with heavy eyelids and a highbridged nose. When his face was shaded with his wide white hat, his light mustache and lithe figure gave him a look of youth. But the Panama lay on the moss beside him; and the spectator could see that his brow was prematurely bald; and this, combined with a certain hollowness about the eyes, had an air of headwork and even headache. But the most curious thing about him, realized after a short scrutiny, was that, though he looked like a fisherman, he was not fishing.
He was holding, instead of a rod, something that might have been a landing-net which some fishermen use, but which was much more like the ordinary toy net which children carry, and which they generally use indifferently for shrimps or butterflies. He was dipping this into the water at intervals, gravely regarding its harvest of weed or mud, and emptying it out again.
“No, I haven’t caught anything,” he remarked, calmly, as if answering an unspoken query. “When I do I have to throw it back again; especially the big fish. But some of the little beasts interest me when I get ‘em.”
“A scientific interest, I suppose?” observed March.
“Of a rather amateurish sort, I fear,” answered the strange fisherman. “I have a sort of hobby about what they call ‘phenomena of phosphorescence.’ But it would be rather awkward to go about in society carrying stinking fish.”
“I suppose it would,” said March, with a smile.
“Rather odd to enter a drawing-room carrying a large luminous cod,” continued the stranger, in his listless way. “How quaint it would be if one could carry it about like a lantern, or have little sprats for candles. Some of the seabeasts would really be very pretty like lampshades; the blue sea-snail that glitters all over like starlight; and some of the red starfish really shine like red stars. But, naturally, I’m not looking for them here.”
March thought of asking him what he was looking for; but, feeling unequal to a technical discussion at least as deep as the deep-sea fishes, he returned to more ordinary topics.
“Delightful sort of hole this is,” he said. “This little dell and river here. It’s like those places Stevenson talks about, where something ought to happen.”
“I know,” answered the other. “I think it’s because the place itself, so to speak, seems to happen and not merely to exist. Perhaps that’s what old Picasso and some of the Cubists are trying to express by angles and jagged lines. Look at that wall like low cliffs that juts forward just at right angles to the slope of turf sweeping up to it. That’s like a silent collision. It’s like a breaker and the back-wash of a wave.”
March looked at the low-browed crag overhanging the green slope and nodded. He was interested in a man who turned so easily from the technicalities of science to those of art; and asked him if he admired the new angular artists.
“As I feel it, the Cubists are not Cubist enough,” replied the stranger. “I mean they’re not thick enough. By making things mathematical they make them thin. Take the living lines out of that landscape, simplify it to a right angle, and you flatten it out to a mere diagram on paper. Diagrams have their own beauty; but it is of just the other sort. They stand for the unalterable things; the calm, eternal, mathematical sort of truths; what somebody calls the ‘white radiance of’ — ”
He stopped, and before the next word came something had happened almost too quickly and completely to be realized. From behind the overhanging rock came a noise and rush like that of a railway train; and a great motor car appeared. It topped the crest of cliff, black against the sun, like a battle-chariot rushing to destruction in some wild epic. March automatically put out his hand in one futile gesture, as if to catch a falling tea-cup in a drawing-room.
For the fraction of a flash it seemed to leave the ledge of rock like a flying ship; then the very sky seemed to turn over like a wheel, and it lay a ruin amid the tall grasses below, a line of gray smoke going up slowly from it into the silent air. A little lower the figure of a man with gray hair lay tumbled down the steep green slope, his limbs lying all at random, and his face turned away.
The eccentric fisherman dropped his net and walked swiftly toward the spot, his new acquaintance following him. As they drew near there seemed a sort of monstrous irony in the fact that the dead machine was still throbbing and thundering as busily as a factory, while the man lay so still.
He was unquestionably dead. The blood flowed in the grass from a hopelessly fatal fracture at the back of the skull; but the face, which was turned to the sun, was uninjured and strangely arresting in itself. It was one of those cases of a strange face so unmistakable as to feel familiar. We feel, somehow, that we ought to recognize it, even though we do not. It was of the broad, square sort with great jaws, almost like that of a highly intellectual ape; the wide mouth shut so tight as to be traced by a mere line; the nose short with the sort of nostrils that seem to gape with an appetite for the air. The oddest thing about the face was that one of the eyebrows was cocked up at a much sharper angle than the other. March thought he had never seen a face so naturally alive as that dead one. And its ugly energy seemed all the stranger for its halo of hoary hair. Some papers lay half fallen out of the pocket, and from among them March extracted a card-case. He read the name on the card aloud.
“Sir Humphrey Turnbull. I’m sure I’ve heard that name somewhere.”
His companion only gave a sort of a little sigh and was silent for a moment, as if ruminating, then he merely said, “The poor fellow is quite gone,” and added some scientific terms in which his auditor once more found himself out of his depth.
“As things are,” continued the same curiously well-informed person, “it will be more legal for us to leave the body as it is until the police are informed. In fact, I think it will be well if nobody except the police is informed. Don’t be surprised if I seem to be keeping it dark from some of our neighbors round here.” Then, as if prompted to regularize his rather abrupt confidence, he said: “I’ve come down to see my cousin at Torwood; my name is Horne Fisher. Might be a pun on my pottering about here, mightn’t it?”
“Is Sir Howard Horne your cousin?” asked March. “I’m going to Torwood Park to see him myself; only about his public work, of course, and the wonderful stand he is making for his principles. I think this Budget is the greatest thing in English history. If it fails, it will be the most heroic failure in English history. Are you an admirer of your great kinsman, Mr. Fisher?”
“Rather,” said Mr. Fisher. “He’s the best shot I know.”
Then, as if sincerely repentant of his nonchalance, he added, with a sort of enthusiasm:
“No, but really, he’s a beautiful shot.”
As if fired by his own words, he took a sort of leap at the ledges of the rock above him, and scaled them with a sudden agility in startling contrast to his general lassitude. He had stood for some seconds on the headland above, with his aquiline profile under the Panama hat relieved against the sky and peering over the countryside before his companion had collected himself sufficiently to scramble up after him.
The level above was a stretch of common turf on which the tracks of the fated car were plowed plainly enough; but the brink of it was broken as with rocky teeth; broken boulders of all shapes and sizes lay near the edge; it was almost incredible that any one could have deliberately driven into such a death trap, especially in broad daylight.
“I can’t make head or tail of it,” said March. “Was he blind? Or blind drunk?”
“Neither, by the look of him,” replied the other.
“Then it was suicide.”
“It doesn’t seem a cozy way of doing it,” remarked the man called Fisher. “Besides, I don’t fancy poor old Puggy would commit suicide, somehow.”
“Poor old who?” inquired the wondering journalist. “Did you know this unfortunate man?”
“Nobody knew him exactly,” replied Fisher, with some vagueness. “But one knew him, of course. He’d been a terror in his time, in Parliament and the courts, and so on; especially in that row about the aliens who were deported as undesirables, when he wanted one of ‘em hanged for murder. He was so sick about it that he retired from the bench. Since then he mostly motored about by himself; but he was coming to Torwood, too, for the week-end; and I don’t see why he should deliberately break his neck almost at the very door. I believe Hoggs — I mean my cousin Howard — was coming down specially to meet him.”
“Torwood Park doesn’t belong to your cousin?” inquired March.
“No; it used to belong to the Winthrops, you know,” replied the other. “Now a new man’s got it; a man from Montreal named Jenkins. Hoggs comes for the shooting; I told you he was a lovely shot.”
This repeated eulogy on the great social statesman affected Harold March as if somebody had defined Napoleon as a distinguished player of nap. But he had another half-formed impression struggling in this flood of unfamiliar things, and he brought it to the surface before it could vanish.
“Jenkins,” he repeated. “Surely you don’t mean Jefferson Jenkins, the social reformer? I mean the man who’s fighting for the new cottage-estate scheme. It would be as interesting to meet him as any Cabinet Minister in the world, if you’ll excuse my saying so.”
“Yes; Hoggs told him it would have to be cottages,” said Fisher. “He said the breed of cattle had improved too often, and people were beginning to laugh. And, of course, you must hang a peerage on to something; though the poor chap hasn’t got it yet. Hullo, here’s somebody else.”
They had started walking in the tracks of the car, leaving it behind them in the hollow, still humming horribly like a huge insect that had killed a man. The tracks took them to the corner of the road, one arm of which went on in the same line toward the distant gates of the park. It was clear that the car had been driven down the long straight road, and then, instead of turning with the road to the left, had gone straight on over the turf to its doom. But it was not this discovery that had riveted Fisher’s eye, but something even more solid. At the angle of the white road a dark and solitary figure was standing almost as still as a finger post. It was that of a big man in rough shooting-clothes, bareheaded, and with tousled curly hair that gave him a rather wild look. On a nearer approach this first more fantastic impression faded; in a full light the figure took on more conventional colors, as of an ordinary gentleman who happened to have come out without a hat and without very studiously brushing his hair. But the massive stature remained, and something deep and even cavernous about the setting of the eyes redeemed his animal good looks from the commonplace. But March had no time to study the man more closely, for, much to his astonishment, his guide merely observed, “Hullo, Jack!” and walked past him as if he had indeed been a signpost, and without attempting to inform him of the catastrophe beyond the rocks. It was relatively a small thing, but it was only the first in a string of singular antics on which his new and eccentric friend was leading him.
The man they had passed looked after them in rather a suspicious fashion, but Fisher continued serenely on his way along the straight road that ran past the gates of the great estate.
“That’s John Burke, the traveler,” he condescended to explain. “I expect you’ve heard of him; shoots big game and all that. Sorry I couldn’t stop to introduce you, but I dare say you’ll meet him later on.”
“I know his book, of course,” said March, with renewed interest. “That is certainly a fine piece of description, about their being only conscious of the closeness of the elephant when the colossal head blocked out the moon.”
“Yes, young Halkett writes jolly well, I think. What? Didn’t you know Halkett wrote Burke’s book for him? Burke can’t use anything except a gun; and you can’t write with that. Oh, he’s genuine enough in his way, you know, as brave as a lion, or a good deal braver by all accounts.”
“You seem to know all about him,” observed March, with a rather bewildered laugh, “and about a good many other people.”
Fisher’s bald brow became abruptly corrugated, and a curious expression came into his eyes.
“I know too much,” he said. “That’s what’s the matter with me. That’s what’s the matter with all of us, and the whole show; we know too much. Too much about one another; too much about ourselves. That’s why I’m really interested, just now, about one thing that I don’t know.”
“And that is?” inquired the other.
“Why that poor fellow is dead.”
They had walked along the straight road for nearly a mile, conversing at intervals in this fashion; and March had a singular sense of the whole world being turned inside out. Mr. Horne Fisher did not especially abuse his friends and relatives in fashionable society; of some of them he spoke with affection. But they seemed to be an entirely new set of men and women, who happened to have the same nerves as the men and women mentioned most often in the newspapers. Yet no fury of revolt could have seemed to him more utterly revolutionary than this cold familiarity. It was like daylight on the other side of stage scenery.
They reached the great lodge gates of the park, and, to March’s surprise, passed them and continued along the interminable white, straight road. But he was himself too early for his appointment with Sir Howard, and was not disinclined to see the end of his new friend’s experiment, whatever it might be. They had long left the moorland behind them, and half the white road was gray in the great shadow of the Torwood pine forests, themselves like gray bars shuttered against the sunshine and within, amid that clear noon, manufacturing their own midnight. Soon, however, rifts began to appear in them like gleams of colored windows; the trees thinned and fell away as the road went forward, showing the wild, irregular copses in which, as Fisher said, the house-party had been blazing away all day. And about two hundred yards farther on they came to the first turn of the road.
At the corner stood a sort of decayed inn with the dingy sign of The Grapes. The signboard was dark and indecipherable by now, and hung black against the sky and the gray moorland beyond, about as inviting as a gallows. March remarked that it looked like a tavern for vinegar instead of wine.
“A good phrase,” said Fisher, “and so it would be if you were silly enough to drink wine in it. But the beer is very good, and so is the brandy.”
March followed him to the bar parlor with some wonder, and his dim sense of repugnance was not dismissed by the first sight of the innkeeper, who was widely different from the genial innkeepers of romance, a bony man, very silent behind a black mustache, but with black, restless eyes. Taciturn as he was, the investigator succeeded at last in extracting a scrap of information from him, by dint of ordering beer and talking to him persistently and minutely on the subject of motor cars. He evidently regarded the innkeeper as in some singular way an authority on motor cars; as being deep in the secrets of the mechanism, management, and mismanagement of motor cars; holding the man all the time with a glittering eye like the Ancient Mariner. Out of all this rather mysterious conversation there did emerge at last a sort of admission that one particular motor car, of a given description, had stopped before the inn about an hour before, and that an elderly man had alighted, requiring some mechanical assistance. Asked if the visitor required any other assistance, the innkeeper said shortly that the old gentleman had filled his flask and taken a packet of sandwiches. And with these words the somewhat inhospitable host had walked hastily out of the bar, and they heard him banging doors in the dark interior.
Fisher’s weary eye wandered round the dusty and dreary inn parlor and rested dreamily on a glass case containing a stuffed bird, with a gun hung on hooks above it, which seemed to be its only ornament.
“Puggy was a humorist,” he observed, “at least in his own rather grim style. But it seems rather too grim a joke for a man to buy a packet of sandwiches when he is just going to commit suicide.”