Chapter VIII: The Asylum of Adventure
A VERY small funeral procession passed through a very small churchyard on the rocky coast of Cornwall; carrying a coffin to its grave under the low and windy wall. The coffin was quite formal and unobtrusive; but the knot of fishermen and labourers eyed it with the slanted eyes of superstition; almost as if it had been the misshapen coffin of legend that was said to contain a monster. For it contained the body of a near neighbour, who had long lived a stone's throw from them, and whom they had never seen.
The figure following the coffin, the chief and only mourner, they had seen fairly often. He had a habit of disappearing into his late friend's house and being invisible for long periods, but he came and went openly. No one knew when the dead man had first come, but he probably came in the night; and he went out in the coffin. The figure following it was a tall figure in black, bare-headed, with the sea-blast whistling through his wisps of yellow hair as through the pale sea grasses. He was still young and none could have said that his mourning suit sat ill upon him; but some who knew him would have seen it with involuntary surprise and felt that it showed him in a new phase. When he was dressed, as he generally was, in the negligent tweeds and stockings of the pedestrian landscape-painter, he looked merely amiable and absent-minded; but the black brought out something more angular and fixed about his face. With his black garb and yellow hair he might have been the traditional Hamlet; and indeed the look in his eyes was visionary and vague; but the traditional Hamlet would hardly have had so long and straight a chin as that which rested unconsciously on his black cravat. After the ceremony, he left the village church and walked towards the village post office, gradually lengthening and lightening his stride, like a man who, with all care for decency, can hardly conceal that he is rid of a duty.
"It's a horrible thing to say," he said to himself, "but I feel like a happy widower."
He then went in to the post office and sent off a telegram addressed to a Lady Diana Westermaine, Westermaine Abbey: a telegram that said: "I am coming tomorrow to keep my promise and tell you the story of a strange friendship."
Then he went out of the little shop again and walked eastwards out of the village, with undisguised briskness, till he had left the houses far behind, and his funeral hat and habit were an almost incongruous black spot upon great green uplands and the motley forests of autumn. He had walked for about half a day, lunched on bread and cheese and ale at a little public-house, and resumed his march with unabated cheerfulness, when the first event of that strange day befell him. He was threading his way by a river that ran in a hollow of the green hills; and at one point his path narrowed and ran under a high stone wall. The wall was built of very large flat stones of ragged outline, and a row of them ran along the top like the teeth of a giant. He would not normally have taken so much notice of the structure of the wall; indeed he did not take any notice of it at all until after something had happened. Until (in fact) there was a great gap in the row of craggy teeth, and one of the crags lay flat at his feet, shaking up dust like the smoke of an explosion. It had just brushed one of his long wisps of light hair as it fell.
Looking up, a shade bewildered by the shock of his hairbreadth escape, he saw for an instant in the dark gap left in the stone-work a face, peering and malignant. He called out promptly:
"I see you; I could send you to jail for that!"
"No you can't," retorted the stranger, and vanished into the twilight of trees as swiftly as a squirrel.
The gentleman in black, whose name was Gabriel Gale, looked up thoughtfully at the wall, which was rather too high and smooth to scale; besides the fugitive had already far too much of a start. Mr. Gale finally said aloud, in a reflective fashion: "Now I wonder why he did that!" Then he frowned with an entirely new sort of gravity, and after a moment or two of grim silence he added: "But after all its much more odd and mysterious that he should say that."
In truth, though the three words uttered by the unknown person seemed trivial enough, they sufficed to lead Gale's memories backwards to the beginning of the whole business that ended in the little Cornish churchyard; and as he went briskly on his way he rehearsed all the details of that old story, which he was to tell to the lady at his journey's end.
Nearly fourteen years before, Gabriel Gale had come of age and inherited the moderate debts and the small freehold of a rather unsuccessful gentleman farmer. But though he grew up with the traditions of a sort of small squire, he was not the sort of person, especially at that age, to have no opinions except those traditions. In early youth his politics were the very reverse of squires' politics; he was very much of a revolutionary and locally rather a firebrand. He intervened on behalf of poachers and gipsies: he wrote letters to the local papers which the editors thought too eloquent to be printed. He denounced the county magistracy in controversies that had to be impartially adjudged by the county magistrates. Finding, curiously enough, that all these authorities were against him, and seemed to be in legal control of all his methods of self-expression, he invented a method of his own which gave him great amusement and the authorities great annoyance. He fell, in fact, to employing a talent for drawing and painting which he was conscious of possessing, along with another talent for guessing people's thoughts and getting a rapid grasp of their characters, which he was less conscious of possessing, but which he certainly possessed. It is a talent very valuable to a portrait-painter: in this case, however, he became a rather peculiar sort of portrait-painter. It was not exactly what is generally called a fashionable portrait-painter. Gale's small estate contained several outhouses with white-washed walls or palings abutting on the high road; and whenever a magnate or magistrate did anything that Gale disapproved of, Gale was in the habit of painting his portrait in public and on a large scale. His pictures were hardly in the ordinary sense caricatures, but they were portraits of souls. There was nothing crude about the picture of the great merchant prince now honoured with a peerage; the eyes looking up from under lowered brows, the sleek hair parted low on the forehead, were hardly exaggerated; but the smiling lips were certainly saying: "And the next article?" One even knew that it was not really a very superior article. The picture of the formidable Colonel Ferrars did justice to the distinction of the face, with its frosty eyebrows and moustaches; but it also very distinctly discovered that it was the face of a fool, and of one sub-consciously frightened of being found to be a fool.
With these coloured proclamations did Mr. Gale beautify the countryside and make himself beloved among his equals. They could not do very much in the matter; it was not libel, for nothing was said; it was not nuisance or damage, for it was done on his own property, though in sight of the whole world. Among those who gathered every day to watch the painter at work, was a sturdy, red-faced, bushy-whiskered farmer, named Banks, seemingly one of those people who delight in any event and are more or less impenetrable by any opinion. He never could be got to bother his head about the sociological symbolism of Gale's caricatures; but he regarded the incident with exuberant interest as one of the great stories calculated to be the glory of the country, like a calf born with five legs or some pleasant ghost story about the old gallows on the moor. Though so little of a theorist he was far from being a fool, and had a whole tangle of tales both humorous and tragic, to show how rich a humanity was packed within the four corners of his countryside. Thus it happened that he and his revolutionary neighbour had many talks over the cakes and ale, and went on many expeditions together to fascinating graves or historic public-houses. And thus it happened that on one of these expeditions Banks fell in with two of his other cronies, who made a party of four, making discoveries not altogether without interest.
The first of the farmer's friends, introduced to Gale under the name of Starkey, was a lively little man with a short stubbly beard and sharp eyes, which he was in the habit however of screwing up with a quizzical smile during the greater part of a conversation. Both he and his friend Banks were eagerly interested in the story of Gale's political protests, if they regarded them only too much as practical jokes. And they were both particularly anxious to introduce a friend of theirs named Wolfe, always referred to as Sim, who had a hobby, it would seem, in such matters, and might have suggestions to make. With a sort of sleepy curiosity which was typical of him, Gale found himself trailed along in an expedition for the discovery of Sim; and Sim was discovered at a little obscure hostelry called the Grapes a mile or so up the river. The three men had taken a boat, with the small Starkey for coxswain; it was a glorious autumn morning but the river was almost hidden under high banks and overhanging woods, intersected with great gaps of glowing sunlight, in one of which the lawns of the little riverside hotel sloped down to the river. And on the bank over-hanging the river a man stood waiting for them; a remarkable looking man with a fine sallow face rather like an actor's and very curly grizzled hair. He welcomed them with a pleasant smile, and then turned towards the house with something of a habit of command or at least of direction. "I've ordered something for you," he said. "If we go in now it will be ready."
As Gabriel Gale brought up the rear of the single file of four men going up the straight paved path to the inn door, his roaming eye took in the rest of the garden, and something stirred in his spirit, which was also prone to roaming, and even in a light sense to a sort of rebellion. The steep path was lined with little trees, looking like the plan of a sampler. He did not see why he should walk straight up so very straight a path, and many things in the garden took his wandering fancy. He would much rather have had lunch at one of the little weather-stained tables standing about on the lawn. He would have been delighted to grope in the dark and tumble-down arbour in the corner, of which he could dimly see the circular table and semi-circular seat in the shadow of its curtain of creepers. He was even more attracted by the accident by which an old children's swing, with its posts and ropes and hanging seat, stood close up to the bushes of the river bank. In fact, the last infantile temptation was irresistible; and calling out, "I'm going over here," he ran across the garden towards the arbour, taking the swing with a sort of leap on his way. He landed in the wooden seat and swung twice back and forth, leaving it again with another flying leap. Just as he did so, however, the rope broke at its upper attachment, and he fell all askew, kicking his legs in the air. He was on his feet again immediately, and found himself confronted by his three companions who had followed in doubt or remonstrance. But the smiling Starkey was foremost, and his screwed-up eyes expressed good humour and even sympathy.
"Rotten sort of swing of yours," he said. "These things are all falling to pieces," and he gave the other rope a twitch, bringing that down also. Then he added: "Want to feast in the arbour, do you? Very well; you go in first and break the cobwebs. When you've collected all the spiders, I'll follow you."
Gale dived laughing into the dark corner in question and sat down in the centre of the crescent-shaped seat. The practical Mr. Banks had apparently entirely refused to carouse in this leafy cavern; but the figures of the two other men soon darkened the entrance and they sat down, one at each horn of the crescent.
"I suppose that was a sudden impulse of yours," said the man named Wolfe, smiling. "You poets often have sudden impulses, don't you?"
"It's not for me to say it was a poet's impulse," replied Gale; "but I'm sure it would need a poet to describe it. Perhaps I'm not one; anyhow I never could describe those impulses. The only way to do it would be to write a poem about the swing and a poem about the arbour, and put them both into a longer poem about the garden. And poems aren't produced quite so quickly as all that, though I've always had a notion that a real poet would never talk prose. He would talk about the weather in rolling stanzas like the storm-clouds, or ask you to pass the potatoes in an impromptu lyric as beautiful as the blue flower of the potato."
"Make it a prose poem, then," said the man whose name was Simeon Wolfe, "and tell us how you felt about the garden and the garden-swing."
Gabriel Gale was both sociable and talkative; he talked a great deal about himself because he was not an egoist. He talked a great deal about himself on the present occasion. He was pleased to find these two intelligent men interested and attentive; and he tried to put into words the impalpable impulses to which he was always provoked by particular shapes or colours or corners of the straggling road of life. He tried to analyse the attraction of a swing, with its rudiments of aviation; and how it made a man feel more like a boy, because it made a boy feel more like a bird. He explained that the arbour was fascinating precisely because it was a den. He told them at some length of the psychological truth; that dismal and decayed objects raise a man's spirits higher, if they really are already high. His two companions talked in turn; and as luncheon progressed and passed they turned over between them many strange strata of personal experience, and Gale began to understand their personalities and their point of view. Wolfe had travelled a great deal, especially in the East; Starkey's experiences had been more local but equally curious, and they both had known many psychological cases and problems about which to compare notes. They both agreed that Gale's mental processes in the matter, though unusual, were not unique.
"In fact," observed Wolfe, "I think your mind belongs to a particular class, and one of which I have had some experience. Don't you think so, Starkey?"
"I quite agree," said the other man, nodding.
It was at that moment that Gale looked out dreamily at the light upon the lawn, and in the stillness of his inmost mind a light broke on him like lightning; one of the terrible intuitions of his life.
Against the silver light on the river the dark frame of the forsaken swing stood up like a gallows. There was no trace of the seat or the ropes, not merely in their proper place, but even on the ground where they had fallen. Sweeping his eye slowly and searchingly round the scene, he saw them at last, huddled and hidden in a heap behind the bench where Starkey was sitting. In an instant he understood everything. He knew the profession of the two men on each side of him. He knew why they were asking him to describe the processes of his mind. Soon they would be taking out a document and signing it. He would not leave that arbour a free man.
"So you are both doctors," he observed cheerfully, "and you both think I am mad."
"The word is really very unscientific," said Simeon Wolfe in a soothing fashion. "You are of a certain type which friends and admirers will be wise to treat in a certain way, but it need in no sense be an unfriendly or uncomfortable way. You are an artist with that form of the artistic temperament which is necessarily a mode of modified megalomania, and which expresses itself in the form of exaggeration. You cannot see a large blank wall without having an uncontrollable appetite for covering it with large pictures. You cannot see a swing hung in the air without thinking of flying ships careering through the air. I will venture to guess that you never see a cat without thinking of a tiger or a lizard without thinking of a dragon."
"That is perfectly correct," said Gale gravely; "I never do."
Then his mouth twisted a little, as if a whimsical idea had come into his mind. "Psychology is certainly very valuable," he said. "It seems to teach us how to see into each other's minds. You, for instance, have a mind which is very interesting: you have reached a condition which I think I recognize. You are in that particular attitude in which the subject, when he thinks of anything, never thinks of the centre of anything. You see only edges eaten away. Your malady is the opposite to mine, to what you call making a tiger out of a cat, or what some call making a mountain out of a molehill. You do not go on and make a cat more of a cat; you are always trying to work back and prove that it is less than a cat; that it is a defective cat or a mentally deficient cat. But a cat is a cat; that is the supreme sanity which is so thickly clouded in your mind. After all, a molehill is a hill and a mountain is a hill. But you have got into the state of the mad queen, who said she knew hills compared with which this was a valley. You can't grasp the thing called a thing. Nothing for you has a central stalk of sanity. There is no core to your cosmos. Your trouble began with being an atheist."
"I have not confessed to being an atheist," said Wolfe staring.
"I have not confessed to being an artist," replied Gale, "or to have uncontrolled artistic appetites or any of that stuff. But I will tell you one thing: I can only exaggerate things the way they are going. But I'm not often wrong about the way they are going. You may be as sleek as a cat but I knew you were evolving into a tiger. And I guessed this little lizard could be turned by black magic into a dragon."
As he spoke he was looking grimly at Starkey and out under the dark arch of the arbour, as out of a closing prison, with these two ghouls sitting on each side of the gate. Beyond was the gaunt shape like a gallows and beyond that the green and silver of the garden and the stream shone like a lost paradise of liberty. But it was characteristic of him that even when he was practically hopeless, he liked being logically triumphant; he liked turning the tables on his critics even when, so to speak, they were as abstract as multiplication tables.
"Why, my learned friends," he went on contemptuously, "do you really suppose you are any fitter to write a report on my mind than I am on yours? You can't see any further into me than I can into you. Not half so far. Didn't you know a portrait-painter has to value people at sight as much as a doctor? And I do it better than you; I have a knack that way. That's why I can paint those pictures on the wall; and I could paint your pictures as big as a house. I know what is at the back of your mind, Doctor Simeon Wolfe; and it's a chaos of exceptions with no rule. You could find anything abnormal, because you have no normal. You could find anybody mad; and as for why you specially want to find me mad… why that is another disadvantage of being an atheist. You do not think anything will smite you for the vile treachery you have sold yourself to do today."
"There is no doubt about your condition now," said Dr. Wolfe with a sneer.
"You look like an actor, but you are not a very good actor," answered Gale calmly. "I can see that my guess was correct. These rack-renters and usurers who oppress the poor, in my own native valley, could not find any pettifogging law to prevent me from painting the colours of their souls in hell. So they have bribed you and another cheap doctor to certify me for a madhouse. I know the sort of man you are. I know this is not the first dirty trick you have done to help the rich out of a hole. You would do anything for your paymasters. Possibly the murder of the unborn."
Wolfe's face was still wrinkled with its Semitic sneer, but his olive tint had turned to a sort of loathsome yellow. Starkey called out with sudden shrillness, as abrupt as the bark of a dog.
"Speak more respectfully!"
"There is Dr. Starkey, too," continued the poet lazily. "Let us turn our medical attention to the mental state of Dr. Starkey."
As he rolled his eyes with ostentatious languor in the new direction, he was arrested by a change in the scene without. A strange man was standing under the frame of the swing, looking up at it with his head on one side like a bird's. He was a small, sturdy figure, quite conventionally clad; and Gale could only suppose he was a stray guest of the hotel. His presence did not help very much; for the law was probably on the side of the doctors; and Gale continued his address to them.
"The mental deficiency of Dr. Starkey," he said, "consists in having forgotten the truth. You, Starkey, have no sceptical philosophy like your friend. You are a practical man, my dear Starkey; but you have told lies so incessantly and from so early an age that you never see anything as it is, but only as it could be made to look. Beside each thing stands the unreal thing that is its shadow; and you see the shadow first. You are very quick in seeing it; you go direct to the deceptive potentialities of anything; you see at once if anything could be used as anything else. You are the original man who went straight down the crooked lane. I could see how quickly you saw that the swing would provide ropes to tie me up if I were violent; and that going first into this arbour, I should be cornered, with you on each side of me. Yet the swing and the arbour were my own idea; and that again is typical of you. You're not a scientific thinker like the other scoundrel; you have always picked up other men's ideas, but you pick as swiftly as a pickpocket. In fact, when you see an idea sticking out of a pocket you can hardly help picking it. That's where you're mad; you can't resist being clever, or rather borrowing cleverness. Which means you have sometimes been too clever to be lucky. You are a shabbier sort of scamp; and I rather fancy you have been in prison."
Starkey sprang to his feet, snatching up the ropes and throwing them on the table.
"Tie him up and gag him," he cried; "he is raving."
"There again," observed Gale, "I enter with sympathy into your thoughts. You mean that I must be gagged at once; for if I were free for half a day, or perhaps half an hour, I could find out the facts about you and tear your reputation to rags."
As he spoke he again followed with an interested eye the movements of the strange man outside. The man had recrossed the garden, calmly picking up a chair from one of the little tables, and returned carrying it lightly in the direction of the arbour. To the surprise of all, he set it down at the round table in the very entrance of that retreat, and sat down on it with his hands in his pockets, staring at Gabriel Gale. With his face in shadow, his square head, short hair and bulk of shoulders took on a new touch of mystery.
"Hope I don't interrupt," he said. "Perhaps it would be more honest to say I hope I do interrupt. Because I want to interrupt. Honestly, I think you medical gentlemen would be very unwise to gag your friend here, or try to carry him off."
"And why?" asked Starkey sharply.
"Only because I should kill you if you did," replied the stranger.
They all stared at him; and Wolfe sneered again as he said: "You might find it awkward to kill us both at once."
The stranger took his hands out of his pockets; and with the very gesture there was a double flash of metal. For the hands held two revolvers which pointed at them, fixed them like two large fingers of steel.
"I shall only kill you if you run or call out," said the strange gentleman pleasantly.
"If you do you'll be hanged," cried Wolfe violently.
"Oh, no, I shan't," said the stranger; "not unless two dead men can get up and hang me on that nursery gallows in the garden. I'm allowed to kill people. There's a special Act of Parliament permitting me to go about killing anybody I like. I'm never punished, whatever I do. In fact, to tell you the truth, I'm the King of England, and the Constitution says I can do no wrong."
"What are you talking about?" demanded the doctor. "You must be mad."
The stranger uttered a sudden shout of laughter that shook the shed and the nerves of all three hearers.
"You've hit it first shot," he cried. "He said you were quick, didn't he? Yes, I'm mad all right; I've just escaped from the same sanatorium next door, where you want to take your friend to. I escaped in a way of my own; through the chief doctor's private apartments; and he's kind enough to keep two pistols in his drawer. I may be recaptured; but I shan't be hanged. I may be recaptured; but I particularly don't want your young friend to be captured at all. He's got his life before him; I don't choose he should suffer as I've suffered. I like the look of him; I like the way he turned all your medical tomfoolery upside down. So you'll understand I am at present wielding the power of a perfectly irresponsible sultan. I shall merely be rounding off a very pleasant holiday by blowing both your brains out, unless you will sit quite still and allow your young friend to tie you up with the ropes. That will give us a good start for our escape."
How he passed through the topsy-turvy transformation scene that followed Gale could afterwards barely remember; it seemed like a sort of dream pantomime, but its results were solid enough. Ten minutes later he and his strange deliverer were walking free in the woods beyond the last hedge of the garden, leaving the two medical gentlemen behind them in the arbour, tied up like two sacks of potatoes.
For Gabriel Gale the wood in which he walked was a new world of wonders. Every tree was a Christmas tree bearing gifts; and every gap in the woods was like a glimpse through the curtain for a child with a toy theatre. For a few moments before all these things had nearly disappeared in the darkness of something worse than death; till heaven had sent him a guardian angel in the shape of an escaped lunatic.
Gale was very young and his youth had not then found its vent and vocation by falling in love. There was in him something of those young Crusaders who made wild vows not to cut their hair till they found the Holy City. His liberty was looking and longing for something to bind itself; and at this moment he could think of but one thing in the world.
Two hundred yards along the path by the river he halted and spoke to his companion:
"It is you who have given me all this," he said. "Under God, and so far as my life goes, it is you who have created heaven and earth. You set up along my triumphal way these trees like seven-branched candlesticks with their grey branches silver in the sun. You spread before my feet these red leaves that are better than roses. You shaped clouds. You invented birds. Do you think I could enjoy all these things when I knew you were back again in the hell that you hate? I should feel I had tricked you out of everything you have given me. I should feel like a thief who had stolen the stars. You shan't go back there if I can help it; you saved me and I am going to save you. I owe you my life and I give it you; I vow I will share anything you suffer; God do so to me and more also, if aught but death part thee and me."
Thus were spoken in that wild place the wild words that determined the life of Gabriel Gale for so many years afterwards; and the walk that began in that wood turned into a wandering over the whole country by those two fantastic outlaws. As a matter of fact a sort of armed truce fell between them and their enemies, for each had something to fear from the other. Gale did not use all he discovered against the two doctors lest they should press the pursuit of his friend; and they did not press it lest he should retaliate with his own revelations. Thus the two came to roam practically unmolested until the day of that adventure, already described in the beginning of all these things, when he fell in love, and his crazy companion fell into a paroxysm which went very near to murder.
In every sense that dreadful day had changed all. That murderous outbreak had at last convinced a sadder and wiser Gabriel that he had other responsibilities besides those of his chivalric vow to his companion-in-arms; and he concluded that their companionship could only be rightly continued in some safe and more secluded form. Then it was that he put his friend into the comfortable and secret house in Cornwall, and spent most of his own time there, leaving a trustworthy servant on guard during his brief absences. His companion, whose name was James Hurrel, had been a business man of great ability and even audacity, until his schemes grew a little too big for his brain; and he lived happily enough in Cornwall, covering the tables with prospectuses and the walls with posters relative to various financial enterprises of the most promising kind. There he died, to all appearance equally happily; and Gale walked back from his funeral a free man.
Next morning, after a few hours' walking a rise and change in the rolling and wooded country told him that he was on the borders of his enchanted ground. He remembered something in the grouping of the trees, and how they seemed to huddle and stand on tiptoe with their backs to him, looking into the happy valley. He came to where the road curved over the hill, as he had come with his friend in former times; and saw below him the meadows falling steeply as thatched roofs and flattening out till they reached the wide and shallow river, and the ford and the dark inn called the Rising Sun.
The gloomy inn-keeper of old days was gone, having found it less gloomy to take service in some stables in the neighbourhood; and a brisker individual with the look of a groom was the recipient of Gale's expansive praises of the beauty of the scene. Gale was good enough to inform the inn-keeper of the beauty of the skies in the neighbourhood of his own inn, telling how he, Gale, had once seen a sunset in that valley quite peculiar to it and unequalled anywhere in the world; and how even the storm that had followed the sunset had been something very sublime in that style. His generalizations however were somewhat checked and diverted by a note which the inn-keeper put into his hand, a note from the great house across the river. It was without any formal opening, as if the writer had hesitated about a form of address; and it ran:
"I want to hear the story and hope you will come over tomorrow (Thursday). I fear I shall be out today, as I have to go to see a Dr. Wilson in Wimbledon about some work I have a chance of doing. I suppose you know we are pretty hard up in these days. D.W."
The whole landscape seemed to him to darken for an instant as he read the letter, but he did not lose his brisk demeanour and breezy mode of speech.
"I find I made a mistake," he said, putting the note in his pocket, "and I must leave here almost at once. I have to visit another spot, if possible more picturesque and poetical than this one. It is Wimbledon that has skies of a strange and unique character at the present time. The sunsets of Wimbledon are famous throughout the world. A storm in Wimbledon would be an apocalypse. But I hope I shall come back here again sooner or later. Good-bye."
The proceedings of Mr. Gale after this were rather more calculated and peculiar. First he sat on a stile and frowned heavily as if thinking hard. Then he sent off a telegram to a certain Dr. Garth, who was a friend of his, and one or two other telegrams to persons in rather responsible positions. When he got to London he went into the offices of the vulgarest and most sensational newspaper he knew, and looked up the back files for the details of forgotten crimes. When he got to Wimbledon he had a long interview with a local house agent and ended up towards evening, outside a high garden wall with a green door, in a wide but empty and silent suburban road. He went quietly up to the door and barely touched it with his finger, as if seeing if the paint were wet. But the door, which was barred across with bands of decorative metal work and had every appearance of being shut, immediately fell ajar, showing the patchy colours of garden beds within. "I thought so," said Gale to himself and slipped into the garden, leaving the door ajar behind him.
The suburban family which he was presumably visiting, and with which the impoverished Diana Westermaine was presumably to take some post as governess or secretary, was evidently the sort who combined a new neatness with a certain early Victorian comfort and indifference to cost. The conservatories were of antiquated pattern, but full of rich and exotic things; there were things still more old-fashioned, such as a grey and rather featureless classical statue in the centre. Within a few yards of it were things so Victorian as croquet hoops and croquet mallets, as if a game had been in progress, and beyond it under the tree was a table set out with tea things, for people for whom tea was not a trifle. All these human things, unused at the moment by human beings, seemed to emphasize the emptiness of the garden. Or rather, so far as he was concerned, they emphasized the fact that it was almost empty, save for the one thing that could so strangely fill it with life. For far away down one of the paths pointing towards the kitchen garden he saw a figure moving as yet unconsciously towards him. It came out under an arch crowned with creepers and there, after so many years, they met. There seemed something symbolical of seriousness and crisis in the accident that they were both in black.
He had always been able to call up the memory of her dark vivid eyebrows and the high-tinted distinction of her face in connexion with corners of the blue dress she had worn; but when he saw her again he wondered that the face had not always annihilated all its lesser associations. She looked at him for a moment with bright motionless eyes and then said:
"Well, really. You seem to be a rather impatient person."
"Possibly," he replied; "and yet I have waited four years."
"They are coming out to tea in a moment," she said somewhat awkwardly. "I suppose I must introduce you to them. I only accepted the post this morning; but they asked me to stay. I was going to wire to you."
"Thank God I followed you," he answered. "I doubt if the wire would have reached me… from this house."
"What do you mean?" she asked, "and how did you follow?"
"I did not like your Wimbledon address," he said: and with that, strange figures began to fill the garden, and she walked across to the tea-table. Her face was somewhat paler and more severe than it used to be, but in her grey eyes there was a light not altogether extinguished, curiosity still shot with defiance. By the time they reached the table two or three people had collected round it; and the somewhat irregular visitor had saluted them in a regular and even punctilious fashion.
The host or hostess had apparently not yet become visible; there were only three gentlemen, presumably guests and perhaps members of a house-party. One was introduced as Mr. Wolmer, a young man with a fair moustache and a tall fine figure that made his head look small; with a fine bridged nose that ought to have been like a hawk's if the prominence of the eyes and some deficiency of the chin had not somehow made it more like a parrot's. The second was a Major Bruce, a very short man with a very long head streaked with iron grey hair, and an expression which suggested, truly enough, that he very seldom opened his mouth. The third was an elderly person with a black skull-cap on his bald head and a fringe or fan of red beard or whiskers; he was evidently a person of some importance and known as Professor Patterson.
Gale partook of tea and indulged in polite conversation in quite an animated fashion, wondering all the time who it was who ought to have been at the head of the table, where Diana Westermaine was pouring out the tea. The demeanour of the man named Wolmer was rather restless; and in a little while he stood up and began, as if from the necessity of doing something, to knock the croquet balls about on the lawn. Gale, who was watching him with some interest, followed suit by picking up a mallet and trying some particular trick of putting two balls through a hoop. It was a trick which needed a test of some minuteness, for he went down on his hands and knees to examine the position more closely.
"Going to put your head through the hoop?" asked Wolmer rudely; for he had been growing more and more impatient, almost as if he had taken a mysterious dislike to the newcomer.
"Not quite," answered Gale good-humouredly as he rolled the balls away. "Uncomfortable position, I should think. Like being guillotined."
Wolmer was glaring balefully at the hoop and said something in a thick voice that sounded like "Serve you right." Then he suddenly whirled his mallet above his head like a battle-axe and brought it down with a crash on the hoop, driving it deep into the turf. There was something indescribably shocking about the pantomime, following instantly on the image that had just been suggested of a human head in the hoop. They felt as if an act of decapitation had been done before their very eyes.
"Better put down that mallet now," said the professor in a soothing voice, putting a rather shaky hand on the other's arm.
"Oh, I'll put it down then," said Wolmer, and slung it away over his shoulder like a man putting the hammer at the Highland Sports. It flew through the air like a thunderbolt, striking the forlorn plaster statue in the centre and breaking it off short at the top. Mr. Wolmer laughed in a rather uncontrolled fashion; and then strode away into the house.
The girl had been watching these things with her dark brows bent and her pallor growing somewhat more marked. There was an unpleasant silence, and then Major Bruce spoke for the first time.
"It's the atmosphere of this place," he said. "It is not very wholesome."
The atmosphere of the suburban garden as a matter of fact was very clear, sunny and pleasant, and Diana looked round with a growing and even creeping mystification at the gay flower-pots and the lawns golden in the evening light.
"Perhaps it is my own misfortune," resumed the Major reflectively. "The truth is there is something serious the matter with me. I have a malady which makes this particular place rather awful."
"What do you mean?" she asked quickly.
There was a short silence and then he answered stolidly.
"I am sane."
Then she looked once more at the warm sunshiny garden and began to shudder as if with cold. A thousand things came back to her out of the last few hours. She knew why she had dimly distrusted her new home. She knew now that there is only one place in the world where men say that they are sane.
As the little man with the long head walked away as stiffly as a wooden automaton, she looked round for Gale and found he had vanished. An appalling emptiness, a vast vacuum of terror, opened around her on every side. In that moment she had admitted many things to herself that had been but half conscious: and no one on earth mattered but the man who had vanished into a void. For the moment she balanced the possibility that she was really mad against the possibility that nobody else was sane; when she caught sight, through the gap of a hedge, of figures moving at the other end of the garden. The old professor in the skull-cap was moving rapidly but with trepidation, as if running on tiptoe, his long lean hands flapping like fins and his red chin-beard wagging in the wind. And behind him following, equally softly and swiftly, at the distance of a few yards, was the long grey figure of Gabriel Gale. She could fit together no fancy about what it all meant; she could only continue to stare across the flower-beds at the glass-houses full of monstrous flowers and be vaguely conscious of a sort of symbol in the headless statue in the centre; the god of that garden of unreason.
The next moment she saw Gale reappear at the other extremity of the long hedge and come towards her smiling in the sunshine. He stopped when he saw her white face.
"Do you know what this place is?" she whispered. "It is a madhouse."
"It's a very easy one to escape from," said Gale in a serene manner. "I've just seen the professor escape from it. He escapes regularly; probably on Wednesdays and Saturdays."
"This is no time for your jokes," she cried. "I tell you we've been trapped inside a madhouse."
"And I tell you we shall soon be outside the madhouse," he replied firmly. "And under those circumstances, I don't mind telling you that I regret to say it is not a madhouse."
"What do you mean?"
"It is something worse," replied Gale.
"Tell me what you mean," she repeated. "Tell me what you know about this horrible place."
"For me it will always be a holy place," he said. "Was it not under that arch there that you appeared out of the abyss of memory? And after all, it's a beautiful garden and I'm almost sorry to leave it. The house, too, makes a romantic background; and really we might be very comfortable here… if only it were a madhouse." And he sighed with regret.
Then after a pause he added, "I might say all I want to say to you in a nice, friendly, comfortable lunatic asylum… but not in a place like this. There are practical things to be done now; and here come the people who will do them!"
She was never able to fit together again the fragments of that bad dream and its wilder way of breaking up. To her astonishment she beheld a new group advancing up the garden path; in front was a red-haired man in a top hat, whose shrewd and good-humoured features were faintly familiar to her; behind were two stalwart figures, obviously in "plain clothes", and between them the unexpected apparition of Professor Patterson in handcuffs.
"Caught him setting fire to a house," said the red-haired man briefly. "Valuable documents."
Later in that bewildering stretch of hours, the friends seated themselves on a garden seat for explanations. "You remember Dr. Garth, I think," said Gale to the lady. "He has been helping me to clear up this queer business. The truth is, the police have suspected the nature of this Wimbledon retreat for some time. No; it is not a lunatic asylum; it is a den of very accomplished professional criminals. They have hit on the ingenious idea of being certified as irresponsible by a medical confederate; so that the worst that can happen is that he may be censured for laxity in letting them escape. Look up the records, and you will find them responsible, or irresponsible, for quite a long catalogue of crimes. I happened to follow the notion up, because I happened to guess where the notion came from. By the way, I suppose this is the gentleman who engaged you as a typist."
As he spoke a small alert figure strode out of the house and across the lawns; his short beard thrust forward with something of the gesture of a terrier.
"Yes, that is Dr. Wilson; I made arrangements with him only this morning," answered Diana, still staring.
The doctor came to a halt in front of them, turning his head right and left in the terrier fashion, and looking at them with wrinkled brows and lids.
"So this is Dr. Wilson," said Gale politely. "Good day, Dr. Starkey."
Then as the plain-clothes men shifted and closed round the doctor, Gale added reflectively:
"I knew you would never fail to take a hint."
A street or two away from the strange madhouse there was a sort of toy park, not much bigger than a back garden, but laid out in ornamental paths and planted with flowering shrubs, as an oasis for nomadic nurses trailing about the babies of that suburb. It was also ornamented with long seats with curly backs, and one of these seats in its turn was ornamented by a couple clad in black and endeavouring, with some bewilderment, to appear respectable. Wild as were the events of that afternoon, they had moved very rapidly and it was barely evening. The sunset was settling down about the corners of the sky and of the quaint little public garden, and there was little noise except the shrill but faint calling of some children lingering over some long-drawn-out-game.
It was here that he told her the whole story of the rash vow and all that happened between the rescue in the riverside garden and the funeral in the Cornish churchyard.
"The only thing I don't understand," she said at last, "is why you thought they had got me to that place; or why you thought there was any such place."
"Why, because," he said looking at the gravel path with a slight embarrassment, "because I really was not bragging when I told Starkey at the beginning that I understood the sort of mind he had, and could exaggerate it in the way it was going. Starkey never missed a chance of applying or misapplying an idea, especially anybody else's idea. When poor Jimmy Hurrel boasted of being free from punishment because he was an escaped lunatic, I was sure that a seed had been sown in Starkey's mind that would sprout. I was sure he would follow it up and use it, as he used my fancy for the swing or the arbour. While Jim was alive he knew I had a motive for silence; but the moment Jim died he struck. He was very quick; his mind is like a flash of lightning; quick but crooked. He sent one of his chartered maniacs to brain me with a stone on my way to you. He intercepted my telegram, and lured you away before you could be told the whole story. But what I want to know is what you think of the whole story."
"The vow was certainly rash enough," she said. "All that time you might have been painting pictures and doing all sorts of good. It doesn't seem right that a genius should be tied to a lunatic by a few words."
He sat up very suddenly. "For God's sake don't say that!" he cried. "Don't say one oughtn't to tie oneself to a lunatic by a few words! Don't say that's wrong, I implore you, whatever else you say! A shocking thought! A perfectly foul idea!"
"What do you mean?" she asked. "Why not?"
"Because," he said, "I want you to make a rash vow. I want you to tie yourself with a few words to a lunatic."
There was a silence, at the end of which she smiled suddenly and put her hand on his arm.
"No," she said, "only a silly… I always liked you, even when I thought you really were a lunatic; that day when you stood on your head. But now I don't think my vow will be so very rash…. What on earth are you doing now?… Oh, I say… for heaven's sake…."
"What else should I do," he answered calmly, "after what you have just said? I'm going to stand on my head again."
The children in the corner of the little garden gazed with interest at a gentleman in funeral full-dress behaving in a somewhat unusual manner.