Chapter IX: The Man in Spectacles
“BURGUNDY is a jolly thing,” said the Professor sadly, as he set his glass down.
“You don’t look as if it were,” said Syme; “you drink it as if it were medicine.”
“You must excuse my manner,” said the Professor dismally, “my position is rather a curious one. Inside I am really bursting with boyish merriment; but I acted the paralytic Professor so well, that now I can’t leave off. So that when I am among friends, and have no need at all to disguise myself, I still can’t help speaking slow and wrinkling my forehead—just as if it were my forehead. I can be quite happy, you understand, but only in a paralytic sort of way. The most buoyant exclamations leap up in my heart, but they come out of my mouth quite different. You should hear me say, ‘Buck up, old cock!’ It would bring tears to your eyes.”
“It does,” said Syme; “but I cannot help thinking that apart from all that you are really a bit worried.”
The Professor started a little and looked at him steadily.
“You are a very clever fellow,” he said, “it is a pleasure to work with you. Yes, I have rather a heavy cloud in my head. There is a great problem to face,” and he sank his bald brow in his two hands.
Then he said in a low voice—
“Can you play the piano?”
“Yes,” said Syme in simple wonder, “I’m supposed to have a good touch.”
Then, as the other did not speak, he added—
“I trust the great cloud is lifted.”
After a long silence, the Professor said out of the cavernous shadow of his hands—
“It would have done just as well if you could work a typewriter.”
“Thank you,” said Syme, “you flatter me.”
“Listen to me,” said the other, “and remember whom we have to see tomorrow. You and I are going tomorrow to attempt something which is very much more dangerous than trying to steal the Crown Jewels out of the Tower. We are trying to steal a secret from a very sharp, very strong, and very wicked man. I believe there is no man, except the President, of course, who is so seriously startling and formidable as that little grinning fellow in goggles. He has not perhaps the white-hot enthusiasm unto death, the mad martyrdom for anarchy, which marks the Secretary. But then that very fanaticism in the Secretary has a human pathos, and is almost a redeeming trait. But the little Doctor has a brutal sanity that is more shocking than the Secretary’s disease. Don’t you notice his detestable virility and vitality. He bounces like an india-rubber ball. Depend on it, Sunday was not asleep (I wonder if he ever sleeps?) when he locked up all the plans of this outrage in the round, black head of Dr. Bull.”
“And you think,” said Syme, “that this unique monster will be soothed if I play the piano to him?”
“Don’t be an ass,” said his mentor. “I mentioned the piano because it gives one quick and independent fingers. Syme, if we are to go through this interview and come out sane or alive, we must have some code of signals between us that this brute will not see. I have made a rough alphabetical cypher corresponding to the five fingers—like this, see,” and he rippled with his fingers on the wooden table—“B A D, bad, a word we may frequently require.”
Syme poured himself out another glass of wine, and began to study the scheme. He was abnormally quick with his brains at puzzles, and with his hands at conjuring, and it did not take him long to learn how he might convey simple messages by what would seem to be idle taps upon a table or knee. But wine and companionship had always the effect of inspiring him to a farcical ingenuity, and the Professor soon found himself struggling with the too vast energy of the new language, as it passed through the heated brain of Syme.
“We must have several word-signs,” said Syme seriously—“words that we are likely to want, fine shades of meaning. My favourite word is ‘coeval’. What’s yours?”
“Do stop playing the goat,” said the Professor plaintively. “You don’t know how serious this is.”
“‘Lush’ too,” said Syme, shaking his head sagaciously, “we must have ‘lush’—word applied to grass, don’t you know?”
“Do you imagine,” asked the Professor furiously, “that we are going to talk to Dr. Bull about grass?”
“There are several ways in which the subject could be approached,” said Syme reflectively, “and the word introduced without appearing forced. We might say, ‘Dr. Bull, as a revolutionist, you remember that a tyrant once advised us to eat grass; and indeed many of us, looking on the fresh lush grass of summer...’”
“Do you understand,” said the other, “that this is a tragedy?”
“Perfectly,” replied Syme; “always be comic in a tragedy. What the deuce else can you do? I wish this language of yours had a wider scope. I suppose we could not extend it from the fingers to the toes? That would involve pulling off our boots and socks during the conversation, which however unobtrusively performed—”
“Syme,” said his friend with a stern simplicity, “go to bed!”
Syme, however, sat up in bed for a considerable time mastering the new code. He was awakened next morning while the east was still sealed with darkness, and found his grey-bearded ally standing like a ghost beside his bed.
Syme sat up in bed blinking; then slowly collected his thoughts, threw off the bed-clothes, and stood up. It seemed to him in some curious way that all the safety and sociability of the night before fell with the bedclothes off him, and he stood up in an air of cold danger. He still felt an entire trust and loyalty towards his companion; but it was the trust between two men going to the scaffold.
“Well,” said Syme with a forced cheerfulness as he pulled on his trousers, “I dreamt of that alphabet of yours. Did it take you long to make it up?”
The Professor made no answer, but gazed in front of him with eyes the colour of a wintry sea; so Syme repeated his question.
“I say, did it take you long to invent all this? I’m considered good at these things, and it was a good hour’s grind. Did you learn it all on the spot?”
The Professor was silent; his eyes were wide open, and he wore a fixed but very small smile.
“How long did it take you?”
The Professor did not move.
“Confound you, can’t you answer?” called out Syme, in a sudden anger that had something like fear underneath. Whether or no the Professor could answer, he did not.
Syme stood staring back at the stiff face like parchment and the blank, blue eyes. His first thought was that the Professor had gone mad, but his second thought was more frightful. After all, what did he know about this queer creature whom he had heedlessly accepted as a friend? What did he know, except that the man had been at the anarchist breakfast and had told him a ridiculous tale? How improbable it was that there should be another friend there beside Gogol! Was this man’s silence a sensational way of declaring war? Was this adamantine stare after all only the awful sneer of some threefold traitor, who had turned for the last time? He stood and strained his ears in this heartless silence. He almost fancied he could hear dynamiters come to capture him shifting softly in the corridor outside.
Then his eye strayed downwards, and he burst out laughing. Though the Professor himself stood there as voiceless as a statue, his five dumb fingers were dancing alive upon the dead table. Syme watched the twinkling movements of the talking hand, and read clearly the message—
“I will only talk like this. We must get used to it.”
He rapped out the answer with the impatience of relief—
“All right. Let’s get out to breakfast.”
They took their hats and sticks in silence; but as Syme took his sword-stick, he held it hard.
They paused for a few minutes only to stuff down coffee and coarse thick sandwiches at a coffee stall, and then made their way across the river, which under the grey and growing light looked as desolate as Acheron. They reached the bottom of the huge block of buildings which they had seen from across the river, and began in silence to mount the naked and numberless stone steps, only pausing now and then to make short remarks on the rail of the banisters. At about every other flight they passed a window; each window showed them a pale and tragic dawn lifting itself laboriously over London. From each the innumerable roofs of slate looked like the leaden surges of a grey, troubled sea after rain. Syme was increasingly conscious that his new adventure had somehow a quality of cold sanity worse than the wild adventures of the past. Last night, for instance, the tall tenements had seemed to him like a tower in a dream. As he now went up the weary and perpetual steps, he was daunted and bewildered by their almost infinite series. But it was not the hot horror of a dream or of anything that might be exaggeration or delusion. Their infinity was more like the empty infinity of arithmetic, something unthinkable, yet necessary to thought. Or it was like the stunning statements of astronomy about the distance of the fixed stars. He was ascending the house of reason, a thing more hideous than unreason itself.
By the time they reached Dr. Bull’s landing, a last window showed them a harsh, white dawn edged with banks of a kind of coarse red, more like red clay than red cloud. And when they entered Dr. Bull’s bare garret it was full of light.
Syme had been haunted by a half historic memory in connection with these empty rooms and that austere daybreak. The moment he saw the garret and Dr. Bull sitting writing at a table, he remembered what the memory was—the French Revolution. There should have been the black outline of a guillotine against that heavy red and white of the morning. Dr. Bull was in his white shirt and black breeches only; his cropped, dark head might well have just come out of its wig; he might have been Marat or a more slipshod Robespierre.
Yet when he was seen properly, the French fancy fell away. The Jacobins were idealists; there was about this man a murderous materialism. His position gave him a somewhat new appearance. The strong, white light of morning coming from one side creating sharp shadows, made him seem both more pale and more angular than he had looked at the breakfast on the balcony. Thus the two black glasses that encased his eyes might really have been black cavities in his skull, making him look like a death’s-head. And, indeed, if ever Death himself sat writing at a wooden table, it might have been he.
He looked up and smiled brightly enough as the men came in, and rose with the resilient rapidity of which the Professor had spoken. He set chairs for both of them, and going to a peg behind the door, proceeded to put on a coat and waistcoat of rough, dark tweed; he buttoned it up neatly, and came back to sit down at his table.
The quiet good humour of his manner left his two opponents helpless. It was with some momentary difficulty that the Professor broke silence and began, “I’m sorry to disturb you so early, comrade,” said he, with a careful resumption of the slow de Worms manner. “You have no doubt made all the arrangements for the Paris affair?” Then he added with infinite slowness, “We have information which renders intolerable anything in the nature of a moment’s delay.”
Dr. Bull smiled again, but continued to gaze on them without speaking. The Professor resumed, a pause before each weary word—
“Please do not think me excessively abrupt; but I advise you to alter those plans, or if it is too late for that, to follow your agent with all the support you can get for him. Comrade Syme and I have had an experience which it would take more time to recount than we can afford, if we are to act on it. I will, however, relate the occurrence in detail, even at the risk of losing time, if you really feel that it is essential to the understanding of the problem we have to discuss.”
He was spinning out his sentences, making them intolerably long and lingering, in the hope of maddening the practical little Doctor into an explosion of impatience which might show his hand. But the little Doctor continued only to stare and smile, and the monologue was uphill work. Syme began to feel a new sickness and despair. The Doctor’s smile and silence were not at all like the cataleptic stare and horrible silence which he had confronted in the Professor half an hour before. About the Professor’s makeup and all his antics there was always something merely grotesque, like a gollywog. Syme remembered those wild woes of yesterday as one remembers being afraid of Bogy in childhood. But here was daylight; here was a healthy, square-shouldered man in tweeds, not odd save for the accident of his ugly spectacles, not glaring or grinning at all, but smiling steadily and not saying a word. The whole had a sense of unbearable reality. Under the increasing sunlight the colours of the Doctor’s complexion, the pattern of his tweeds, grew and expanded outrageously, as such things grow too important in a realistic novel. But his smile was quite slight, the pose of his head polite; the only uncanny thing was his silence.
“As I say,” resumed the Professor, like a man toiling through heavy sand, “the incident that has occurred to us and has led us to ask for information about the Marquis, is one which you may think it better to have narrated; but as it came in the way of Comrade Syme rather than me—”
His words he seemed to be dragging out like words in an anthem; but Syme, who was watching, saw his long fingers rattle quickly on the edge of the crazy table. He read the message, “You must go on. This devil has sucked me dry!”
Syme plunged into the breach with that bravado of improvisation which always came to him when he was alarmed.
“Yes, the thing really happened to me,” he said hastily. “I had the good fortune to fall into conversation with a detective who took me, thanks to my hat, for a respectable person. Wishing to clinch my reputation for respectability, I took him and made him very drunk at the Savoy. Under this influence he became friendly, and told me in so many words that within a day or two they hope to arrest the Marquis in France.
“So unless you or I can get on his track—”
The Doctor was still smiling in the most friendly way, and his protected eyes were still impenetrable. The Professor signalled to Syme that he would resume his explanation, and he began again with the same elaborate calm.
“Syme immediately brought this information to me, and we came here together to see what use you would be inclined to make of it. It seems to me unquestionably urgent that—”
All this time Syme had been staring at the Doctor almost as steadily as the Doctor stared at the Professor, but quite without the smile. The nerves of both comrades-in-arms were near snapping under that strain of motionless amiability, when Syme suddenly leant forward and idly tapped the edge of the table. His message to his ally ran, “I have an intuition.”
The Professor, with scarcely a pause in his monologue, signalled back, “Then sit on it.”
Syme telegraphed, “It is quite extraordinary.”
The other answered, “Extraordinary rot!”
Syme said, “I am a poet.”
The other retorted, “You are a dead man.”
Syme had gone quite red up to his yellow hair, and his eyes were burning feverishly. As he said he had an intuition, and it had risen to a sort of lightheaded certainty. Resuming his symbolic taps, he signalled to his friend, “You scarcely realise how poetic my intuition is. It has that sudden quality we sometimes feel in the coming of spring.”
He then studied the answer on his friend’s fingers. The answer was, “Go to hell!”
The Professor then resumed his merely verbal monologue addressed to the Doctor.
“Perhaps I should rather say,” said Syme on his fingers, “that it resembles that sudden smell of the sea which may be found in the heart of lush woods.”
His companion disdained to reply.
“Or yet again,” tapped Syme, “it is positive, as is the passionate red hair of a beautiful woman.”
The Professor was continuing his speech, but in the middle of it Syme decided to act. He leant across the table, and said in a voice that could not be neglected—
The Doctor’s sleek and smiling head did not move, but they could have sworn that under his dark glasses his eyes darted towards Syme.
“Dr. Bull,” said Syme, in a voice peculiarly precise and courteous, “would you do me a small favour? Would you be so kind as to take off your spectacles?”
The Professor swung round on his seat, and stared at Syme with a sort of frozen fury of astonishment. Syme, like a man who has thrown his life and fortune on the table, leaned forward with a fiery face. The Doctor did not move.
For a few seconds there was a silence in which one could hear a pin drop, split once by the single hoot of a distant steamer on the Thames. Then Dr. Bull rose slowly, still smiling, and took off his spectacles.
Syme sprang to his feet, stepping backwards a little, like a chemical lecturer from a successful explosion. His eyes were like stars, and for an instant he could only point without speaking.
The Professor had also started to his feet, forgetful of his supposed paralysis. He leant on the back of the chair and stared doubtfully at Dr. Bull, as if the Doctor had been turned into a toad before his eyes. And indeed it was almost as great a transformation scene.
The two detectives saw sitting in the chair before them a very boyish-looking young man, with very frank and happy hazel eyes, an open expression, cockney clothes like those of a city clerk, and an unquestionable breath about him of being very good and rather commonplace. The smile was still there, but it might have been the first smile of a baby.
“I knew I was a poet,” cried Syme in a sort of ecstasy. “I knew my intuition was as infallible as the Pope. It was the spectacles that did it! It was all the spectacles. Given those beastly black eyes, and all the rest of him his health and his jolly looks, made him a live devil among dead ones.”
“It certainly does make a queer difference,” said the Professor shakily. “But as regards the project of Dr. Bull—”
“Project be damned!” roared Syme, beside himself. “Look at him! Look at his face, look at his collar, look at his blessed boots! You don’t suppose, do you, that that thing’s an anarchist?”
“Syme!” cried the other in an apprehensive agony.
“Why, by God,” said Syme, “I’ll take the risk of that myself! Dr. Bull, I am a police officer. There’s my card,” and he flung down the blue card upon the table.
The Professor still feared that all was lost; but he was loyal. He pulled out his own official card and put it beside his friend’s. Then the third man burst out laughing, and for the first time that morning they heard his voice.
“I’m awfully glad you chaps have come so early,” he said, with a sort of schoolboy flippancy, “for we can all start for France together. Yes, I’m in the force right enough,” and he flicked a blue card towards them lightly as a matter of form.
Clapping a brisk bowler on his head and resuming his goblin glasses, the Doctor moved so quickly towards the door, that the others instinctively followed him. Syme seemed a little distrait, and as he passed under the doorway he suddenly struck his stick on the stone passage so that it rang.
“But Lord God Almighty,” he cried out, “if this is all right, there were more damned detectives than there were damned dynamiters at the damned Council!”
“We might have fought easily,” said Bull; “we were four against three.”
The Professor was descending the stairs, but his voice came up from below.
“No,” said the voice, “we were not four against three—we were not so lucky. We were four against One.”
The others went down the stairs in silence.
The young man called Bull, with an innocent courtesy characteristic of him, insisted on going last until they reached the street; but there his own robust rapidity asserted itself unconsciously, and he walked quickly on ahead towards a railway inquiry office, talking to the others over his shoulder.
“It is jolly to get some pals,” he said. “I’ve been half dead with the jumps, being quite alone. I nearly flung my arms round Gogol and embraced him, which would have been imprudent. I hope you won’t despise me for having been in a blue funk.”
“All the blue devils in blue hell,” said Syme, “contributed to my blue funk! But the worst devil was you and your infernal goggles.”
The young man laughed delightedly.
“Wasn’t it a rag?” he said. “Such a simple idea—not my own. I haven’t got the brains. You see, I wanted to go into the detective service, especially the anti-dynamite business. But for that purpose they wanted someone to dress up as a dynamiter; and they all swore by blazes that I could never look like a dynamiter. They said my very walk was respectable, and that seen from behind I looked like the British Constitution. They said I looked too healthy and too optimistic, and too reliable and benevolent; they called me all sorts of names at Scotland Yard. They said that if I had been a criminal, I might have made my fortune by looking so like an honest man; but as I had the misfortune to be an honest man, there was not even the remotest chance of my assisting them by ever looking like a criminal. But at last I was brought before some old josser who was high up in the force, and who seemed to have no end of a head on his shoulders. And there the others all talked hopelessly. One asked whether a bushy beard would hide my nice smile; another said that if they blacked my face I might look like a negro anarchist; but this old chap chipped in with a most extraordinary remark. ‘A pair of smoked spectacles will do it,’ he said positively. ‘Look at him now; he looks like an angelic office boy. Put him on a pair of smoked spectacles, and children will scream at the sight of him.’ And so it was, by George! When once my eyes were covered, all the rest, smile and big shoulders and short hair, made me look a perfect little devil. As I say, it was simple enough when it was done, like miracles; but that wasn’t the really miraculous part of it. There was one really staggering thing about the business, and my head still turns at it.”
“What was that?” asked Syme.
“I’ll tell you,” answered the man in spectacles. “This big pot in the police who sized me up so that he knew how the goggles would go with my hair and socks—by God, he never saw me at all!”
Syme’s eyes suddenly flashed on him.
“How was that?” he asked. “I thought you talked to him.”
“So I did,” said Bull brightly; “but we talked in a pitch-dark room like a coalcellar. There, you would never have guessed that.”
“I could not have conceived it,” said Syme gravely.
“It is indeed a new idea,” said the Professor.
Their new ally was in practical matters a whirlwind. At the inquiry office he asked with businesslike brevity about the trains for Dover. Having got his information, he bundled the company into a cab, and put them and himself inside a railway carriage before they had properly realised the breathless process. They were already on the Calais boat before conversation flowed freely.
“I had already arranged,” he explained, “to go to France for my lunch; but I am delighted to have someone to lunch with me. You see, I had to send that beast, the Marquis, over with his bomb, because the President had his eye on me, though God knows how. I’ll tell you the story some day. It was perfectly choking. Whenever I tried to slip out of it I saw the President somewhere, smiling out of the bow-window of a club, or taking off his hat to me from the top of an omnibus. I tell you, you can say what you like, that fellow sold himself to the devil; he can be in six places at once.”
“So you sent the Marquis off, I understand,” asked the Professor. “Was it long ago? Shall we be in time to catch him?”
“Yes,” answered the new guide, “I’ve timed it all. He’ll still be at Calais when we arrive.”
“But when we do catch him at Calais,” said the Professor, “what are we going to do?”
At this question the countenance of Dr. Bull fell for the first time. He reflected a little, and then said—
“Theoretically, I suppose, we ought to call the police.”
“Not I,” said Syme. “Theoretically I ought to drown myself first. I promised a poor fellow, who was a real modern pessimist, on my word of honour not to tell the police. I’m no hand at casuistry, but I can’t break my word to a modern pessimist. It’s like breaking one’s word to a child.”
“I’m in the same boat,” said the Professor. “I tried to tell the police and I couldn’t, because of some silly oath I took. You see, when I was an actor I was a sort of all-round beast. Perjury or treason is the only crime I haven’t committed. If I did that I shouldn’t know the difference between right and wrong.”
“I’ve been through all that,” said Dr. Bull, “and I’ve made up my mind. I gave my promise to the Secretary—you know him, man who smiles upside down. My friends, that man is the most utterly unhappy man that was ever human. It may be his digestion, or his conscience, or his nerves, or his philosophy of the universe, but he’s damned, he’s in hell! Well, I can’t turn on a man like that, and hunt him down. It’s like whipping a leper. I may be mad, but that’s how I feel; and there’s jolly well the end of it.”
“I don’t think you’re mad,” said Syme. “I knew you would decide like that when first you—”
“Eh?” said Dr. Bull.
“When first you took off your spectacles.”
Dr. Bull smiled a little, and strolled across the deck to look at the sunlit sea. Then he strolled back again, kicking his heels carelessly, and a companionable silence fell between the three men.
“Well,” said Syme, “it seems that we have all the same kind of morality or immorality, so we had better face the fact that comes of it.”
“Yes,” assented the Professor, “you’re quite right; and we must hurry up, for I can see the Grey Nose standing out from France.”
“The fact that comes of it,” said Syme seriously, “is this, that we three are alone on this planet. Gogol has gone, God knows where; perhaps the President has smashed him like a fly. On the Council we are three men against three, like the Romans who held the bridge. But we are worse off than that, first because they can appeal to their organization and we cannot appeal to ours, and second because—”
“Because one of those other three men,” said the Professor, “is not a man.”
Syme nodded and was silent for a second or two, then he said—
“My idea is this. We must do something to keep the Marquis in Calais till tomorrow midday. I have turned over twenty schemes in my head. We cannot denounce him as a dynamiter; that is agreed. We cannot get him detained on some trivial charge, for we should have to appear; he knows us, and he would smell a rat. We cannot pretend to keep him on anarchist business; he might swallow much in that way, but not the notion of stopping in Calais while the Czar went safely through Paris. We might try to kidnap him, and lock him up ourselves; but he is a well-known man here. He has a whole bodyguard of friends; he is very strong and brave, and the event is doubtful. The only thing I can see to do is actually to take advantage of the very things that are in the Marquis’s favour. I am going to profit by the fact that he is a highly respected nobleman. I am going to profit by the fact that he has many friends and moves in the best society.”
“What the devil are you talking about?” asked the Professor.
“The Symes are first mentioned in the fourteenth century,” said Syme; “but there is a tradition that one of them rode behind Bruce at Bannockburn. Since 1350 the tree is quite clear.”
“He’s gone off his head,” said the little Doctor, staring.
“Our bearings,” continued Syme calmly, “are ‘argent a chevron gules charged with three cross crosslets of the field.’ The motto varies.”
The Professor seized Syme roughly by the waistcoat.
“We are just inshore,” he said. “Are you seasick or joking in the wrong place?”
“My remarks are almost painfully practical,” answered Syme, in an unhurried manner. “The house of St. Eustache also is very ancient. The Marquis cannot deny that he is a gentleman. He cannot deny that I am a gentleman. And in order to put the matter of my social position quite beyond a doubt, I propose at the earliest opportunity to knock his hat off. But here we are in the harbour.”
They went on shore under the strong sun in a sort of daze. Syme, who had now taken the lead as Bull had taken it in London, led them along a kind of marine parade until he came to some cafes, embowered in a bulk of greenery and overlooking the sea. As he went before them his step was slightly swaggering, and he swung his stick like a sword. He was making apparently for the extreme end of the line of cafes, but he stopped abruptly. With a sharp gesture he motioned them to silence, but he pointed with one gloved finger to a cafe table under a bank of flowering foliage at which sat the Marquis de St. Eustache, his teeth shining in his thick, black beard, and his bold, brown face shadowed by a light yellow straw hat and outlined against the violet sea.