Anthony M. Ludovici
In Thrills, Crimes and Mysteries
A Specially Selected Collection of Sixty-Three
Complete Stories by Well-Known Writers
with a foreword by John Gawsworth
- p. 274 -
It was ten o'clock at night. James Keed sat in his comfortable study trying to concentrate upon a novel.
He was a man who had always done his duty. He had not done more, because that would have been tantamount to trespassing upon other people's rights. But his own duty he had done, however disagreeable, however difficult. Now the time had come for him to sit still while someone else did her duty. His principles told him it was right. Nevertheless, the cold sweat in his hands and on his brow told him that it was also unpleasant.
Three o'clock, four o'clock, five o'clock rang out in the hall, and still the wind howled. Not a second of sleep had he enjoyed that night. Six o'clock, seven, eight and nine! A fine bright Sunday morning had dawned, and great white clouds swept over the house-tops in a westerly direction. It was ten when the doctor entered.
"A nasty easterly gale!" he muttered, as he took up his coat from the sofa where he had left it on the previous evening.
Keed rose in confusion. "Doctor, is it you?"
"I say it's a nasty easterly gale. But it has brought you a fine boy. You had better go and have a look at him!"
They called him Gordon. Keed had never gone deeply into the history of the great Gordon, but he thought it was the duty of every true Englishman to
Gordon, however, was not even a Webster! This was Mrs. Keed's secret. Even when her husband used to reproach her across the breakfast table, whenever Gordon did anything odd, she never played her trump card; she never said: "I tell you he is not a Webster!" For she wondered to whom the poor child would belong if he were neither his father's nor his mother's son. With all his oddities, therefore, she held him firmly by the hand; and he, caring little whether he were a Keed or a Webster, returned her love with a warmth that sometimes surprised her temperate English heart.
Other children were born another boy and two girls. Each of them had either the Keed nose, or the Keed eyes, or the Keed hair. James was comforted.
Poor James Keed at last had the hardest moment of his life. Gordon's birth was a trifle compared with it. His eldest son was now eighteen; he must enter his father's business. The thought of awkward, singular, unreliable Gordon in the City office almost made Mr. Keed's hair stand on end. But Mrs. Keed insisted.
"You must do your best for the boy," she would say. "He is not like the rest, therefore you must do your best for him!"
James Keed knew his duty. But he detested having private conversations with this son of his. Somehow, when Gordon stood before him, he always had an indescribable feeling that he was talking not only to his senior, but also to his superior. It was absurd, of course, and not true; nevertheless, James Keed felt it.
Gordon had done well at school, but, strange to say, he made no attempt to apply his knowledge.
"Well, duty is duty," said Mr. Keed to himself; and one evening, three days after Gordon's eighteenth birthday, he told the boy that he would like to have a word with him in the study.
By some strange coincidence an east wind was whistling round the house, just as it had done eighteen years previously. This fact did not tend to relieve James Keed's agitation, although it considerably fortified his son.
"Sit down," said Keed with unnecessary gruffness; for excessive severity is always the mask of doubtful power.
"My dear boy," began the merchant very formally, "you are eighteen, and it is time you learnt something, so that in four or five years you may be able to support yourself and, if you choose, a family as well. What would you like to do?"
"I am not sure yet what I would like to do," came the reply.
"What do you mean you are not sure yet?"
"I mean that I feel I might do anything or nothing, and would be equally satisfied."
"Come, come!" exclaimed Mr. Keed, with the normal hatred of unfamiliar ideas, "you must have some preference. You cannot be quite indifferent."
"On the other hand," Gordon replied, "I do not hanker after any particular occupation."
"That does not matter. Of course, I do not think you are such a business genius that your heart yearns for oversea commerce. But I expect a sound healthy preference."
"If I must work, I'll work," said Gordon. "But do not expect me to express any desire that I do not feel."
"You learnt German, French, book-keeping and what else at school?"
"Very well! You have an excellent foundation to start with. You will come to us as a man educated for business."
"I am not proud of what I know."
"Nonsense! Nobody should be proud of what he knows. Only prigs are proud of what they know."
"But I should like to be proud of what I know and do."
"Rubbish, I tell you!. For heaven's sake, get these silly notions out of your head, and as soon as possible!
"It depends entirely on what your duty happens to be. And what if one does not know one's real duty?"
Mr. Keed was beginning to perspire as he had perspired eighteen years previously. "Con-foun-ded rubbish, I say!" he cried, thumping his fist on the arm of his chair. "In the first place, it is your duty to obey your father. Do you agree?"
Gordon bowed his head. "Yes."
"Very well, then," continued the elder man, rising, "next Monday morning you come down to the office with me. I'll introduce you to the head of the export department, and we'll begin from the bottom. But, you understand, no talking, no arguing, no silly remarks! You must learn to listen and to obey."
As Gordon had never deliberately been disobedient to his father, he looked up just a little astonished at this last sentence.
Mr. Keed noticed the look and understood its meaning. But by this time his strength had run out, he was exhausted. So he simply left the room, shrugging his shoulders.
Three years elapsed. Gordon was twenty-one. Everything that had been expected of him at business he had done. Everybody knew, however, that he was not in his proper place. The lustre died out of his eyes as he passed the timekeeper in the morning, and reappeared as he passed him again at night. His mother's one fear was that he had some love trouble, and Keed was sad because he felt strong objections to the lad and yet could find no peg on which to hang them. Sometimes he would mutter to Mrs. Keed: "The boy hasn't his heart in his work!" And Mrs. Keed would frown, and her
"Does he satisfy you and his immediate superiors?" she would ask.
"Yes," Keed would reply.
"What more can you want then?" she said.
"I want no more," he would say sadly. "I want no more."
But there were red-letter days for Gordon notwithstanding, though no one ever knew or heard of them. Only the meanest packers in the basement had an inkling of the truth. These were the days when the cases from China came in. It was then that he would steal an hour from his office work upstairs (which, by the by, he would make up by curtailing his luncheon and teatime), and creep stealthily down into the twilight of the underground cellars, in order to help the men with the unpacking. "It's Master Gordon again!" they would whisper, as the strange figure crept down the rickety wooden staircase. And they would nudge each other as he stood for some seconds, taking deep breaths of the cellar air, laden as it was with the fragrant odour of sandalwood exhaled from the goods fresh from China. Often among the packing materials he would find a piece of paper with a picture upon it, a face, a flower, or a little wooden house. Such finds he invariably relegated with great care to the inner pockets of his coat, while the workmen who were his father's employees pretended not to notice anything. As soon as his hour was up, with the punctuality of a machine he would brush himself, wash his hands, tip the men all round, and retire. And the cellar would not see him again until another consignment of Chinese goods appeared.
"That boy is not well," said Keed one night to his wife, after Gordon had gone to bed. "It is not healthy to be constantly sighing, and carving cabalistic signs on wood and ivory and stone."
"Have you seen what he has just carved in ivory for an inlay over his bookshelf?"
"Yes, he showed it to me with great pride."
"Did you understand it?"
"I confess I did not."
"Did you ask him what it meant?"
The loving mother looked for a moment as if she were hesitating. "Yes, I did," she said at last.
"What did he say?"
"He said he would like people to understand that these signs stood for his mark, his name, just as the painter Whistler had a mark for his name."
"I don't care what you say," replied Keed, "it is not healthy."
And then suddenly his first romance dawned upon Gordon's life. A certain girl had found his eyes too irresistible and his mouth and hands to attractive, and she had fallen at his feet. It had happened at a dance. For eighteen months already he had been called the priestly Don Juan, priestly, because he was austere and chaste and unresponsive; Don Juan, because the Keeds, including his father, were astonished at the success he had with girls. But now a particular girl had shown herself oblivious to his coldness, and had openly proclaimed herself his slave. What had passed between them it is impossible to say. Only a few snatches of the dialogue had percolated through. According to the girl's mother, Gordon seems to have been cryptic, if not precisely rude.
The upshot of it was that "this charming girl" (as old Keed described her) fell seriously ill, either from sorrow or from anger, and James Keed was furious.
"Gordon is a lunatic!" he declared to his wife.
"Ethel is a forward, impudent hussy, then!" retorted Mrs. Keed.
"You forget, my dear, that Ethel Hayward is not only bewilderingly pretty, but she is rich, rich enough for us, at all events."
"No matter, a girl should not fall head over heels in love with a young man like that, when she has not had a word from him to justify her! It is positively indecent!" said Mrs. Keed.
Later on, James Keed had an interview with his son.
"You know what you have done, I suppose?" he began, smiling with mock cheerfulness.
"No, I cannot say that I do," Gordon replied, examining his father haughtily with his strange eyes.
"You have only thrown four thousand a year out of the window, that is all! Only four thousand! You are now twenty-one and making two hundred and fifty a year. My business until I die will never be able to allow you more than fifteen hundred, and yet you negligently fling four thousand a year into the street. Do you really hope to find more?"
"I haven't thought about it."
"You might at least have given the matter sufficient thought to avoid mortifying the Haywards' feelings to the extent you did. You know that Hayward was one of my oldest business friends. It was ungracious of you, not to say tactless."
"Tact is scarcely the weapon to use against such importunate people," replied Gordon. "Tact is the very thing they rely upon. It would be positively
"What do you mean, then? Was not Miss Hayward clever enough, pretty enough, rich enough? For, remember, you are not too young to marry. I insist upon my sons marrying early. I hate late marriages. What was your objection to her?"
"Miss Hayward did her utmost to please me, Father, but her best was unfortunately her worst."
"What on earth does that mean?"
"It means that a girl who prolongs a smile, even by a second, beyond the proper time, or who can express her feelings about you with a word, shows a lack of culture if you like, a lack of art."
Mr. Keed shrugged his shoulders and looked vacant.
"It means, if you like, that no girl that I have ever yet seen has made a little pout of disgust when I have asked her either to dance, or to walk, or to talk with me."
"Disgust?" cried Mr. Keed in his shrillest tones.
"I don't mean real disgust, I mean assumed disgust. I mean something which I can't explain, but which I feel would be right."
"My dear boy," said Mr. Keed in his gentlest manner, "I can't complain of your work, it is excellent. But are you sure you are well? Are you sleeping well? Do you want any help? Have you any debts? Can I give you a cheque, about which we shall say nothing to anybody? Be quite open with me for once, do! Tell me your troubles."
Gordon bowed his head. "I have no troubles, Father. At least "
"At least what?"
"At least none that I can explain."
His father sighed. "Am I not your best friend?"
Gordon looked savagely at his nails. He could not endure his father in his "best friend" moods. "I know it, Father," he said. "Let us say no more."
As usual, Mr. Keed was the first to rise. He was
One day, a week or so after his twenty-second birthday, everybody at the office noticed that Gordon's eyes were unusually bright, and that his general manner betrayed mental agitation. For the first time in four years he seemed to be human, warm and impressionable to his communicative colleagues. They who habitually wore their hearts on their sleeves at last breathed freely in the presence of the man whose one great fault, in their opinion, was his unnatural reserve. But no one knew the cause of the fire in his eyes; no one so much as suspected it.
A certain Mr. Parker, the head of the export department, was perhaps the only member of the firm of Keed and Sons who had a remote inkling of the truth, but even he would have admitted that the matter was very far from clear. That morning his master's son Gordon had come to him and had asked him two questions: "Are you expecting Pu Tsung and his daughter to day?" and "Do you know whom my father has asked to escort them round London?"
To the first question he had replied in the affirmative. To the second he had answered, "Myself."
He had noticed nothing peculiar in his young master's expression when he had made his two replies, but within five minutes of the short interview he remarked that Master Gordon's eyes glowed with unusual ardour. Gordon's office was next door to his own. From time to time he would glance over his glasses, through the window in the partition that divided off the two rooms, and then for an instant he would observe young Keed, his head bowed intently over his desk, and his hand working feverishly at covering his large blotter with the cabalistic signs with which everyone in the firm was now familiar.
At twelve o'clock that day Mr. Parker's office was deserted, and as Gordon entered it he noticed that it was full of a subtle fragrance a blend of the famous Chinese goods and of a woman's scent bottle. He had not dared to look when he had heard the conversation in progress next door; he had simply waited breathless, and had written his cabalistic signs at the rate of thirty a minute. Suddenly the voices had died away, he had heard the portly Parker say, "Well, shall we be off?" and the sound of the closing door had reached his ears. Then he had entered Parker's office and had taken two or three deep breaths.
"Where is Mr. Parker?" he enquired of the office-boy after lunch, pretending not to know in order that he might get his worst fears confirmed.
"He's out, sir."
"Why, a-showing of that Chinese gentleman and his daughter round London, sir."
"Thank you," said Gordon, and his eyes burned afresh.
The following morning Gordon had not been a minute in his place at the office before the telephone bell rang.
"Hullo! What is it?"
"Is that you, Gordon?"
"Yes," said Gordon, recognising his father's voice.
"Come up to my office at once, then."
"Right you are!"
Bang! went the receiver, and an instant later Gordon stood before his sire. He noticed that Mr. Parker was standing in his father's room, and he could see at once that Mr. Keed was a little excited.
"On the peristyle of the British Museum, sir."
"On the peristyle of the British Museum," old Keed repeated. "And bear in mind that Mr. Pu Tsung, who is on his way from China to Trinidad, is not only one of our most important clients, but also one of our most important suppliers. You must put your own personality in your pocket for two or three days, and be as charming as possible to him."
Gordon did not resent these gibes from his father just then, for he was far too happy. Indeed, his heart leapt so high that he was afraid to speak. Never had any words that had fallen from his father's lips pleased him more, and it was difficult for him to suppress a smile of triumph as he thought how little the famous merchant before him understood the child of his blood.
"The only thing that astonishes me," continued Mr. Keed, somewhat abashed by his son's silence and interpreting it as a tacit objection to his proposal, "is that you had not the good sense, knowing how indispensable Mr. Parker is to us, to offer your services to me for Mr. Pu Tsung yesterday morning."
Gordon could not reply that he would have given his soul to do so, but that he had not dared, for fear of betraying an eagerness which would have seemed a
"You need have no fear of making an exhibition of yourself," continued old Keed, still somewhat mystified by Gordon's calmness; "Mr. Pu Tsung and his daughter are in European dress. Expenses, of course, you will recover from petty cash."
Gordon turned towards the door, unable any longer to repress the surging emotions in his breast. "Very well, Father," he gulped, "at ten in the British Museum. I shall be there." And he vanished.
"Do you think I was a little hard on him?" asked Mr. Keed, looking up to his right-hand man, as soon as Gordon had left.
"A little, perhaps," said Parker. "But I am only sorry to have been instrumental in making the lad do a thing which he seems to dislike. For on the whole we get on admirably together."
"It'll do him good, Parker. Believe me, it'll do him good."
Meanwhile in his office, Gordon, with his head in his arms, was weeping his heart out for real deep joy joy such as he had never yet experienced. He had not wept for eight years, and he had only ten minutes to do it in, for the clock had just struck half-past nine.
For the first time in his life, Gordon learnt what it was to stammer, to be confused, and to hold his hand out bashfully to a girl of his own generation.
He introduced himself to Pu Tsung not only as Mr. Parker's substitute, but also as the son of the great firm, and Pu Tsung showed becoming awe.
"This is my daughter Liu," said Pu Tsung in excellent English.
Gordon noticed that Liu, who seemed to him a rare Chinese beauty, did not burst into smiles, but that her
He soon learnt, too, that it was she who had left that delicious scent in Parker's office, and every time her little body brushed him as they strolled through the galleries of the British Museum, he felt strangely elated.
Did old Pu Tsung notice anything? He noticed this, that Gordon was a much better, a much more interesting and a much more sympathetic talker than Parker. He noticed that Liu did not seem bored as she had done the day before, and he also became aware that he was getting to like the son of the great firm. But there his observation ceased; for it must be remembered that he was looking over one of Britain's greatest museums, and his sharp eyes were busy with a hundred things.
In the Egyptian Gallery Gordon showed that he had thought deeply on his subject. Appreciating that he was not talking to Europeans whom it would have been necessary to convert to his view, he opened wide the flood gates of his heart.
"Oh, look at those lovely lips!" he exclaimed, indicating the head of an Egyptian noblewoman; "the wisdom, the warm humanity, and the humour besides! And observe the dreamy, indolent eyes! Pull up the European girl's eyelids and all you would find would be a little pink network composed of veins; pull up the lid of one of those eyes and I wager you would find a labyrinth of devilry! Besides, that girl never showed the whites of her eyes as we do. When she did show them it was in anger or in joy. We in Europe are always glaring, we are always grinning at nothing!"
Liu and her father began to look away from the statue at their cicerone. His enthusiasm was infec-
"Imagine, too, what that girl's skin must have been!" Gordon continued, "a lovely, olive-tinted casing of voluptuousness. There was nothing of the parchment-coloured English girl in her. For she was used to the sun and reared in its richness. With Europeans one has always the feeling that they have been confined for generations in cellars and so they have; for what is the earth but a huge cellar when the sky is always cloudy?"
Liu laughed outright, and Gordon realised what a soft voice she had.
"The Orient is very great!" cried the young man, clapping his hands to his breast. "I feel I have got it all here in me, and yet my language is double-Dutch to those who surround me, and I have never spoken to anyone like this before."
Pu Tsung's keen eyes became thoughtful, very thoughtful. Liu's eyes, on the other hand, did not leave Gordon's face.
They lunched and dined together that day, and in the evening, when old Keed met them at the Palace Theatre, Pu Tsung insisted on a moment's private conversation.
"He is wonderful, wonderful!" said Pu Tsung.
Old Keed pouted. "Clever, certainly clever odd, in fact."
"He is not a bit like the ordinary Western man of business," said Pu Tsung.
"No!" Keed replied emphatically. "That's quite true! I only wish he were."
"Don't wish any such thing," exclaimed Pu Tsung. "I am very fond of him."
Meanwhile Gordon, alone with Liu in the box, also seized the favourable opportunity.
Liu made a little grimace, as if she thought the question foolish.
"Shall I or shan't I?" said Gordon, not daring to put more than two fingers on her arm to make her turn to him.
Liu turned, threw up her chin, and her eyes became merely two dark mysterious lines. "I don't care!" she said with a jerk of her head.
Gordon smiled. It was gorgeous, dangerous, thrilling fun!
She also knew it was dangerous. Her beautiful little hands were cold with fear fear of life, fear of the burning reality of the joy of life, which for the first time had dared to penetrate into her cool, raw, maiden world.
Two weeks later, Pu Tsung and old Keed were closeted together in the latter's study, and the noise as of someone raving seemed to come through the ceiling from the floor above.
"What does the doctor say it is?" inquired Pu Tsung.
"Acute mania," replied Keed solemnly. "Whatever that may mean!" And his jaws seemed to tighten.
"When did you speak to Mr. Gordon?" asked Pu Tsung.
"Why only yesterday, here, in this very room. I told him what I told you, that I should never in any circumstances consent to his marrying your daughter. I told him the truth. I said he had plagued me all his life with his peculiarities, and that if he really did insist on this last one and married your daughter, I should positively die of sorrow. Not that I dislike your daughter, understand. Liu is a charming girl. But you know what I mean, in England, a question of race, etc., etc."
"I told Gordon," continued Mr. Keed, "that you also strongly objected, and that a Pu Tsung could never consent to his daughter marrying an Englishman; to which Gordon replied, much to my surprise: 'Quite right too. Bravo Pu Tsung! But I am not an Englishman!' Fortunately, as you had gone on my suggestion to Wales for five days, he really believed that you had taken Liu away because you were frightened. But I fear they must have written to each other every day."
"It is strange, very strange," said Pu Tsung. "And all you have shown me is very strange. If he had never been in China, why did he carve Wai Wu, which means 'What came from without', as his signature on all the things he made? How did he know that Wai Wu meant 'What came from without'? And where did he get the Chinese characters from? Now look at this blotter, Pu Tsung pursued, turning Gordon's office blotter round in his hands; for since Gordon had fallen ill Mr. Keed had collected all the material possible to lay before the psychiatrists; "you see here that we have Ki lo with Liu, which means literally 'Perfect enjoyment with Liu'. How did the young beggar get hold of the terms and understand them?"
Mr. Keed looked blankly at his Chinese visitor. "Do you suppose he understood what he was writing?" he asked. "Often my wife and I have asked him what these characters on his presents to us actually meant, and he really never gave a satisfactory answer."
"Do you mean to suggest," said Pu Tsung, "that all this was unconscious?"
"Possibly," said old Keed, looking the image of boredom and fatigue.
A sudden expression of keen intelligence illumined Pu Tsung's eyes as he began to examine a little ivory paper-knife that Gordon had carved for his mother.
Keed did not appear to be greatly impressed, and his expression seemed to betray the fact that he regarded the whole thing as utter nonsense.
"How is Liu taking it?" he asked.
Pu Tsung hid his eyes in his hands. "She is very, very quiet, and very, very sore. I hate the vague look in her eyes, and wish she would cry."
"Hm!" muttered Keed in his gruffest tones.
"Does the doctor really say that Mr. Gordon might be saved if Liu were given to him?" asked Pu Tsung.
"Yes, he says there is a possibility of it."
Four or five days later Pu Tsung and his daughter Liu were sitting on the deck of a West Indian liner bound for Port of Spain.
Liu had shed her first flood of tears early that morning, and she was sobbing still.
"Calm yourself, calm yourself, dear Liu," said old Pu Tsung; "the other passengers are looking and wondering what is the matter."
"I can't! I won't!" cried poor Liu, stamping her little foot on the white deck. "He is dead! They killed him! You and that ogre Mr. Keed killed him by keeping him from me."
"My darling, I could not quarrel with the head of the firm of Keed and Sons, it would have been impossible!"
"But even if I had quarrelled, it would have done no good, my darling Liu. Mr. Keed would never have understood."
"What would he never have understood?" asked Liu, looking up for an instant from her handkerchief, and pausing in her sobs because she was interested.
"Why," answered Pu Tsung, "the English people do not believe in such things. Nothing would have convinced old Keed that Gordon, as I firmly believe now, had the soul of our great artist Hsuma Keng. I made a point of asking when Gordon was born, and I found that it was twenty-four hours precisely after Hsuma Keng's death. And you remember my telling you that Hsuma Keng died while travelling?"
Here Pu Tsung paused to see whether Liu was listening, and he saw that she was, and that her tears had ceased to flow. He was pleased, for he was a man well versed in his country's literature, and he would have liked his children to be so, too. He had often told Liu that she must read the Confucian Analects, and she had promised to do so.
"Well," he continued, "in the Za Ki it is written that for all those who die travelling on the road a special ceremony must be performed. Their relatives must perform a special ceremony to call back the soul of the departed one to the home that he had left. Now, I know for certain that Hsuma Keng's relatives never performed that ceremony. Hence all this confusion. Hsuma Keng's soul simply strayed. The decline of ceremony and tradition in China is a bad thing, my dear Liu. It is bad for China and it is a great danger for the rest of the world."
"Poor, poor Gordon!" sobbed Liu; and her father despaired of comforting her.