R. Austin Freeman.

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"'One more question,' our correspondent urged. 'The ground landlord, Mr.
John Bellingham; is not he the gentleman who disappeared so mysteriously
some time ago?'

"'So I understand,' Dr. Brandon replied.

"'Can you tell me if Mr. Bellingham had lost the third finger of his
left hand?'

"'I cannot say,' said Dr. Brandon; and he added with a smile, 'you had
better ask the police.'

"That is how the matter stands at present. But we understand that the
police are making active inquiries for any missing man who has lost the
third finger of his left hand, and if any of our readers know of such a
person, they are earnestly requested to communicate at once, either with
us or with the authorities.

"Also we believe that a systematic search is to be made for further

I laid the newspaper down and fell into a train of reflection. It was
certainly a most mysterious affair. The thought that had evidently come
to the reporter's mind stole naturally into mine. Could these remains be
those of John Bellingham? It was obviously possible, though I could not
but see that the fact of the bones having been found on his land, while
it undoubtedly furnished the suggestion, did not in any way add to its
probability. The connection was accidental and in no wise relevant.

Then, too, there was the missing finger. No reference to any such injury
or deformity had been made in the original report of the disappearance,
though it could hardly have been overlooked. But it was useless to
speculate without facts. I should be seeing Thorndyke in the course of
the next few days, and, undoubtedly, if the discovery had any bearing
upon the disappearance of John Bellingham, I should hear of it. With
which reflection I rose from the table, and, adopting the advice
contained in the spurious Johnsonian quotation proceeded to "take a walk
in Fleet Street" before settling down for the evening.



The association of coal with potatoes is one upon which I have
frequently speculated, without arriving at any more satisfactory
explanation than that both products are of the earth, earthy. Of the
connection itself Barnard's practice furnished several instances besides
Mrs. Jablett's establishment in Fleur-de-Lys Court, one of which was a
dark and mysterious cavern a foot below the level of the street, that
burrowed under an ancient house on the west side of Fetter Lane - a
crinkly, timber house of the three-decker type that leaned back
drunkenly from the road as if about to sit down in its own back yard.

Passing this repository of the associated products about ten o'clock in
the morning, I perceived in the shadow of the cavern no less a person
than Miss Oman. She saw me at the same moment, and beckoned peremptorily
with a hand that held a large Spanish onion. I approached with a
deferential smile.

"What a magnificent onion, Miss Oman! and how generous of you to offer
it to me - "

"I wasn't offering it to you. But there! Isn't it just like a man - "

"Isn't what just like a man?" I interrupted. "If you mean the onion - "

"I don't!" she snapped; "and I wish you wouldn't talk such a parcel of
nonsense. A grown man and a member of a serious profession, too! You
ought to know better."

"I suppose I ought," I said reflectively. And she continued:

"I called in at the surgery just now."

"To see me?"

"What else should I come for? Do you suppose that I called to consult
the bottle-boy?"

"Certainly not, Miss Oman. So you find the lady doctor no use, after

Miss Oman gnashed her teeth at me (and very fine teeth they were, too).

"I called," she said majestically, "on behalf of Miss Bellingham."

My facetiousness evaporated instantly. "I hope Miss Bellingham is not
ill," I said with a sudden anxiety that elicited a sardonic smile from
Miss Oman.

"No," was the reply, "she is not ill, but she has cut her hand rather
badly. It's her right hand, too, and she can't afford to lose the use of
it, not being a great, hulking, lazy, lolloping man. So you had better
go and put some stuff on it."

With this advice, Miss Oman whisked to the right-about and vanished into
the depths of the cavern like the Witch of Wokey, while I hurried on to
the surgery to provide myself with the necessary instruments and
materials, and thence proceeded to Nevill's Court.

Miss Oman's juvenile maid-servant, who opened the door to me, stated the
existing conditions with epigrammatic conciseness:

"Mr. Bellingham is hout, sir; but Miss Bellingham is hin."

Having thus delivered herself she retreated towards the kitchen and I
ascended the stairs, at the head of which I found Miss Bellingham
awaiting me with her right hand encased in what looked like a white

"I am glad you have come," she said. "Phyllis - Miss Oman, you know - has
kindly bound up my hand, but I should like you to see that it is all

We went into the sitting-room, where I laid out my paraphernalia on the
table while I inquired into the particulars of the accident.

"It is most unfortunate that it should have happened just now," she
said, as I wrestled with one of those remarkable feminine knots that,
while they seem to defy the utmost efforts of human ingenuity to untie,
yet have a singular habit of untying themselves at inopportune moments.

"Why just now, in particular?" I asked.

"Because I have some specially important work to do. A very learned lady
who is writing a historical book has commissioned me to collect all the
literature relating to the Tell el Amarna letters - the cuneiform
tablets, you know, of Amenhotep the Fourth."

"Well," I said soothingly, "I expect your hand will soon be well."

"Yes, but that won't do. The work has to be done immediately. I have to
send in the completed notes not later than this day week, and it will be
quite impossible. I am dreadfully disappointed."

By this time I had unwound the voluminous wrappings and exposed the
injury - a deep gash in the palm that must have narrowly missed a
good-sized artery. Obviously the hand would be useless for fully a week.

"I suppose," she said, "you couldn't patch it up so that I could write
with it?"

I shook my head.

"No, Miss Bellingham. I shall have to put it on a splint. We can't run
any risks with a deep wound like this."

"Then I shall have to give up the commission, and I don't know how my
client will get the work done in the time. You see, I am pretty well up
in the literature of Ancient Egypt; in fact, I was to receive special
payment on that account. And it would have been such an interesting
task, too. However, it can't be helped."

I proceeded methodically with the application of the dressings, and
meanwhile reflected. It was evident that she was deeply disappointed.
Loss of work meant loss of money, and it needed but a glance at her
rusty black dress to see that there was little margin for that.
Possibly, too, there was some special need to be met. Her manner seemed
almost to imply that there was. And at this point I had a brilliant

"I'm not sure that it can't be helped," said I.

She looked at me inquiringly, and I continued: "I am going to make a
proposition, and I shall ask you to consider it with an open mind."

"That sounds rather portentous," said she; "but I promise. What is it?"

"It is this: When I was a student I acquired the useful art of writing
shorthand. I am not a lightning reporter, you understand, but I can take
matter down from dictation at quite respectable speed."


"Well, I have several hours free every day - usually, the whole of the
afternoon up to six or half-past - and it occurs to me that if you were
to go to the Museum in the mornings you could get out your books, look
up passages (you could do that without using your right hand), and put
in book-marks. Then I could come along in the afternoon and you could
read out the selected passages to me, and I could take them down in
shorthand. We should get through as much in a couple of hours as you
could in a day using longhand."

"Oh, but how kind of you, Doctor Berkeley!" she exclaimed. "How very
kind! Of course, I couldn't think of taking up all your leisure in that
way; but I do appreciate your kindness very much."

I was rather chapfallen at this very definite refusal, but persisted

"I wish you would. It may seem rather cheek for a comparative stranger
like me to make such a proposal to a lady; but if you'd been a man - in
these special circumstances - I should have made it all the same, and you
would have accepted as a matter of course."

"I doubt that. At any rate, I am not a man. I sometimes wish I were."

"Oh, I am sure you are much better as you are!" I exclaimed, with such
earnestness that we both laughed. And at this moment Mr. Bellingham
entered the room carrying several large and evidently brand-new books in
a strap.

"Well, I'm sure!" he exclaimed genially; "here are pretty goings on.
Doctor and patient giggling like a pair of schoolgirls! What's the

He thumped his parcel of books down on the table and listened smilingly
while my unconscious witticism was expounded.

"The Doctor's quite right," he said. "You'll do as you are, chick; but
the Lord knows what sort of man you would make. You take his advice and
let well alone."

Finding him in this genial frame of mind, I ventured to explain my
proposition to him and to enlist his support. He considered it with
attentive approval, and when I had finished turned to his daughter.

"What is your objection, chick?" he asked.

"It would give Doctor Berkeley such a fearful lot of work," she

"It would give him a fearful lot of pleasure," I said. "It would,

"Then why not?" said Mr. Bellingham. "We don't mind being under an
obligation to the Doctor, do we?"

"Oh, it wasn't that!" she exclaimed hastily.

"Then take him at his word. He means it. It is a kind action and he'll
like doing it, I'm sure. That's all right, Doctor; she accepts, don't
you, chick?"

"Yes, if you say so, I do; and most thankfully."

She accompanied the acceptance with a gracious smile that was in itself
a large payment on account, and when we had made the necessary
arrangements, I hurried away in a state of the most perfect satisfaction
to finish my morning's work and order an early lunch.

When I called for her a couple of hours later I found her waiting in the
garden with the shabby handbag, of which I relieved her, and we set
forth together, watched jealously by Miss Oman, who had accompanied her
to the gate.

As I walked up the court with this wonderful maid by my side I could
hardly believe in my good fortune. By her presence and my own resulting
happiness the mean surroundings became glorified and the commonest
objects transfigured into things of beauty. What a delightful
thoroughfare, for instance, was Fetter Lane, with its quaint charm and
mediaeval grace! I snuffed the cabbage-laden atmosphere and seemed to
breathe the scent of the asphodel. Holborn was even as the Elysian
Fields; the omnibus that bore us westward was a chariot of glory; and
the people who swarmed verminously on the pavements bore the semblance
of the children of light.

Love is a foolish thing judged by workaday standards, and the thoughts
and actions of lovers foolish beyond measure. But the workaday standard
is the wrong one, after all; for the utilitarian mind does but busy
itself with the trivial and transitory interests of life, behind which
looms the great and everlasting reality of the love of man and woman.
There is more significance in a nightingale's song in the hush of a
summer night than in all the wisdom of Solomon (who, by the way, was not
without his little experiences of the tender passion).

The janitor in the little glass box by the entrance to the library
inspected us and passed us on, with a silent benediction, to the lobby,
whence (when I had handed my stick to a bald-headed demigod and received
a talismanic disc in exchange) we entered the enormous rotunda of the

I have often thought that, if some lethal vapour of highly preservative
properties - such as formaldehyde, for instance - could be shed into the
atmosphere of this apartment, the entire and complete collection of
books and bookworms would be well worth preserving, for the
enlightenment of posterity, as a sort of anthropological appendix to the
main collection of the Museum. For, surely, nowhere else in the world
are so many strange and abnormal human beings gathered together in one
place. And a curious question that must have occurred to many observers
is: Whence do these singular creatures come, and whither do they go when
the very distinct-faced clock (adjusted to literary eye-sight) proclaims
closing time? The tragic-faced gentleman, for instance, with the
corkscrew ringlets that bob up and down like spiral springs as he walks?
Or the short, elderly gentleman in the black cassock and bowler hat, who
shatters your nerves by turning suddenly and revealing himself as a
middle-aged woman? Whither do they go? One never sees them elsewhere. Do
they steal away at closing time into the depths of the Museum and hide
themselves until morning in sarcophagi or mummy cases? Or do they creep
through spaces in the book-shelves and spend the night behind the
volumes in a congenial atmosphere of leather and antique paper? Who can
say? What I do know is that when Ruth Bellingham entered the
reading-room she appeared in comparison with these like a creature of
another order; even as the head of Antinous, which formerly stood (it
has since been moved) amidst the portrait-busts of the Roman Emperors,
seemed like the head of a god set in a portrait gallery of illustrious

"What have we got to do?" I asked when we had found a vacant seat. "Do
you want to look up the catalogue?"

"No, I have the tickets in my bag. The books are waiting in the 'kept
books' department."

I placed my hat on the leather-covered shelf, dropped her gloves into
it - how delightfully intimate and companionable it seemed! - altered the
numbers on the tickets, and then we proceeded together to the "kept
books" desk to collect the volumes that contained the material for our
day's work.

It was a blissful afternoon. Two and a half hours of happiness unalloyed
did I spend at that shiny, leather-clad desk, guiding my nimble pen
across the pages of the note-book. It introduced me to a new world - a
world in which love and learning, sweet intimacy and crusted
archaeology, were mingled into the oddest, most whimsical, and most
delicious confection that the mind of man can conceive. Hitherto, these
recondite histories had been far beyond my ken. Of the wonderful
heretic, Amenhotep the Fourth, I had barely heard - at the most he had
been a mere name; the Hittites a mythical race of undetermined habitat;
while cuneiform tablets had presented themselves to my mind merely as an
uncouth kind of fossil biscuit suited to the digestion of a pre-historic

Now all this was changed. As we sat with our chairs creaking together
and she whispered the story of those stirring times into my receptive
ear - talking is strictly forbidden in the reading-room - the disjointed
fragments arranged themselves into a romance of supreme fascination.
Egyptian, Babylonian, Aramaean, Hittite, Memphis, Babylon, Hamath,
Megiddo - I swallowed them all thankfully, wrote them down and asked for
more. Only once did I disgrace myself. An elderly clergyman of ascetic
and acidulous aspect had passed us with a glance of evident disapproval,
clearly setting us down as intruding philanderers; and when I
contrasted the parson's probable conception of the whispered
communications that were being poured into my ear so tenderly and
confidentially with the dry reality, I chuckled aloud. But my fair
task-mistress only paused, with her finger on the page, smilingly to
rebuke me, and then went on with the dictation. She was certainly a
Tartar for work.

It was a proud moment for me when, in response to my interrogative
"Yes?" my companion said "That is all" and closed the book. We had
extracted the pith and marrow of six considerable volumes in two hours
and a half.

"You have been better than your word," she said. "It would have taken me
two full days of really hard work to make the notes that you have
written down since we commenced. I don't know how to thank you."

"There's no need to. I've enjoyed myself and polished up my shorthand.
What is the next thing? We shall want some books for to-morrow, shan't

"Yes. I have made out a list, so if you will come with me to the
catalogue desk I will look out the numbers and ask you to write the

The selection of a fresh batch of authorities occupied us for another
quarter of an hour, and then, having handed in the volumes that we had
squeezed dry, we took our way out of the reading-room.

"Which way shall we go?" she asked as we passed out of the gate, where
stood a massive policeman, like the guardian angel at the gate of
Paradise (only, thank Heaven! he bore no flaming sword forbidding

"We are going," I replied, "to Museum Street, where is a milkshop in
which one can get an excellent cup of tea."

She looked as if she would have demurred, but eventually followed
obediently, and we were soon seated side by side at a little
marble-topped table, retracing the ground that we had covered in the
afternoon's work and discussing various points of interest over a joint

"Have you been doing this sort of work long?" I asked as she handed me
my second cup of tea.

"Professionally," she answered, "only about two years; since we broke up
our home, in fact. But long before that I used to come to the Museum
with my Uncle John - the one who disappeared, you know, in that
dreadfully mysterious way - and help him to look up references. We were
quite good friends, he and I."

"I suppose he was a very learned man?" I suggested.

"Yes, in a certain way; in the way of the better-class collector he was
very learned indeed. He knew the contents of every museum in the world,
in so far as they were connected with Egyptian antiquities, and had
studied them specimen by specimen. Consequently, as Egyptology is
largely a museum science, he was a learned Egyptologist. But his real
interest was in things rather than events. Of course, he knew a great
deal - a very great deal - about Egyptian history, but still he was,
before all, a collector."

"And what will happen to his collection if he is really dead?"

"The greater part of it goes to the British Museum by his will, and the
remainder he has left to his solicitor, Mr. Jellicoe."

"To Mr. Jellicoe! Why, what will Mr. Jellicoe do with Egyptian

"Oh, he is an Egyptologist, too, and quite an enthusiast. He has a
really fine collection of scarabs and other small objects such as it is
possible to keep in a private house. I have always thought that it was
his enthusiasm for everything Egyptian that brought him and my uncle
together on terms of such intimacy; though I believe he is an excellent
lawyer, and he is certainly a very discreet, cautious man."

"Is he? I shouldn't have thought so, judging by your uncle's will."

"Oh, but that was not Mr. Jellicoe's fault. He assures us that he
entreated my uncle to let him draw up a fresh document with more
reasonable provisions. But he says Uncle John was immovable; and he
really _was_ a rather obstinate man. Mr. Jellicoe repudiates any
responsibility in the matter. He washes his hands of the whole affair,
and says that it is the will of a lunatic. And so it is. I was glancing
through it only a night or two ago, and really I cannot conceive how a
sane man could have written such nonsense."

"You have a copy, then?" I asked eagerly, remembering Thorndyke's
parting instructions.

"Yes. Would you like to see it? I know my father has told you about it,
and it is worth reading as a curiosity of perverseness."

"I should very much like to show it to my friend, Doctor Thorndyke," I
replied. "He said that he would be interested to read it and learn the
exact provisions; and it might be well to let him, and hear what he has
to say about it."

"I see no objection," she rejoined; "but you know what my father is:
his horror, I mean, of what he calls 'cadging for advice gratis.'"

"Oh, but he need have no scruples on that score. Doctor Thorndyke wants
to see the will because the case interests him. He is an enthusiast, you
know, and he put the request as a personal favour to himself."

"That is very nice and delicate of him, and I will explain the position
to my father. If he is willing for Doctor Thorndyke to see the copy, I
will send or bring it over this evening. Have we finished?"

I regretfully admitted that we had, and, when I had paid the modest
reckoning, we sallied forth, turning back with one accord into Great
Russell Street to avoid the noise and bustle of the larger thoroughfare.

"What sort of man was your uncle?" I asked presently, as we walked along
the quiet, dignified street. And then I added hastily: "I hope you don't
think me inquisitive, but, to my mind, he presents himself as a kind of
mysterious abstraction; the unknown quantity of a legal problem."

"My Uncle John," she answered reflectively, "was a very peculiar man,
rather obstinate, very self-willed, what people call 'masterful,' and
decidedly wrong-headed and unreasonable."

"That is certainly the impression that the terms of his will convey," I

"Yes; and not the will only. There was the absurd allowance that he made
my father. That was a ridiculous arrangement, and very unfair, too. He
ought to have divided up the property as my grandfather intended. And
yet he was by no means ungenerous, only he would have his own way, and
his own way was very commonly the wrong way.

"I remember," she continued, after a short pause, "a very odd instance
of his wrong-headedness and obstinacy. It was a small matter, but very
typical of him. He had in his collection a beautiful little ring of the
eighteenth dynasty. It was said to have belonged to Queen Ti, the mother
of our friend Amenhotep the Fourth; but I don't think that could have
been so, because the device on it was the Eye of Osiris, and Ti, as you
know, was an Aten-worshipper. However, it was a very charming ring, and
Uncle John, who had a queer sort of devotion to the mystical Eye of
Osiris, commissioned a very clever goldsmith to make two exact copies of
it, one for himself and one for me. The goldsmith naturally wanted to
take the measurements of our fingers, but this Uncle John would not hear
of; the rings were to be exact copies, and an exact copy must be the
same size as the original. You can imagine the result; my ring was so
loose that I couldn't keep it on my finger, and Uncle John's was so
tight that, though he did manage to get it on, he was never able to get
it off again. And it was only the circumstance that his left hand was
decidedly smaller than his right that made it possible for him to wear
it at all."

"So you never wore your copy?"

"No. I wanted to have it altered to make it fit, but he objected
strongly; so I put it away, and have it in a box still."

"He must have been an extraordinarily pig-headed old fellow," I

"Yes; he was very tenacious. He annoyed my father a good deal, too, by
making unnecessary alterations in the house in Queen Square when he
fitted up his museum. We have a certain sentiment with regard to that
house. Our people have lived in it ever since it was built, when the
square was first laid out in the reign of Queen Anne, after whom the
square was named. It is a dear old house. Would you like to see it? We
are quite near it now."

I assented eagerly. If it had been a coal-shed or a fried-fish shop I
would still have visited it with pleasure, for the sake of prolonging
our walk; but I was also really interested in this old house as a part
of the background of the mystery of the vanished John Bellingham.

We crossed into Cosmo Place, with its quaint row of the, now rare,
cannon-shaped iron posts, and passing through stood for a few moments
looking into the peaceful, stately old square. A party of boys disported
themselves noisily on the range of stone posts that form a bodyguard
round the ancient lamp-surmounted pump, but otherwise the place was
wrapped in dignified repose suited to its age and station. And very
pleasant it looked on this summer afternoon, with the sunlight gilding
the foliage of its wide-spreading plane trees and lighting up the
warm-toned brick of the house-fronts. We walked slowly down the shady

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Online LibraryR. Austin FreemanThe Vanishing Man → online text (page 5 of 22)