Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Ch. 6: The Eccentric Seclusion of the Old Lady

The conversation of Rupert Grant had two great elements of
interest--first, the long fantasias of detective deduction in
which he was engaged, and, second, his genuine romantic interest
in the life of London. His brother Basil said of him: "His
reasoning is particularly cold and clear, and invariably leads
him wrong. But his poetry comes in abruptly and leads him right."
Whether this was true of Rupert as a whole, or no, it was
certainly curiously supported by one story about him which I
think worth telling.

We were walking along a lonely terrace in Brompton together. The
street was full of that bright blue twilight which comes about
half past eight in summer, and which seems for the moment to be
not so much a coming of darkness as the turning on of a new azure
illuminator, as if the earth were lit suddenly by a sapphire sun.
In the cool blue the lemon tint of the lamps had already begun to
flame, and as Rupert and I passed them, Rupert talking excitedly,
one after another the pale sparks sprang out of the dusk. Rupert
was talking excitedly because he was trying to prove to me the
nine hundred and ninety-ninth of his amateur detective theories.
He would go about London, with this mad logic in his brain, seeing
a conspiracy in a cab accident, and a special providence in a
falling fusee. His suspicions at the moment were fixed upon an
unhappy milkman who walked in front of us. So arresting were the
incidents which afterwards overtook us that I am really afraid
that I have forgotten what were the main outlines of the milkman's
crime. I think it had something to do with the fact that he had
only one small can of milk to carry, and that of that he had left
the lid loose and walked so quickly that he spilled milk on the
pavement. This showed that he was not thinking of his small
burden, and this again showed that he anticipated some other than
lacteal business at the end of his walk, and this (taken in
conjunction with something about muddy boots) showed something
else that I have entirely forgotten. I am afraid that I derided
this detailed revelation unmercifully; and I am afraid that Rupert
Grant, who, though the best of fellows, had a good deal of the
sensitiveness of the artistic temperament, slightly resented my
derision. He endeavoured to take a whiff of his cigar, with the
placidity which he associated with his profession, but the cigar,
I think, was nearly bitten through.

"My dear fellow," he said acidly, "I'll bet you half a crown that
wherever that milkman comes to a real stop I'll find out something

"My resources are equal to that risk," I said, laughing. "Done."

We walked on for about a quarter of an hour in silence in the
trail of the mysterious milkman. He walked quicker and quicker,
and we had some ado to keep up with him; and every now and then he
left a splash of milk, silver in the lamplight. Suddenly, almost
before we could note it, he disappeared down the area steps of a
house. I believe Rupert really believed that the milkman was a
fairy; for a second he seemed to accept him as having vanished.
Then calling something to me which somehow took no hold on my
mind, he darted after the mystic milkman, and disappeared himself
into the area.

I waited for at least five minutes, leaning against a lamp-post
in the lonely street. Then the milkman came swinging up the steps
without his can and hurried off clattering down the road. Two or
three minutes more elapsed, and then Rupert came bounding up
also, his face pale but yet laughing; a not uncommon
contradiction in him, denoting excitement.

"My friend," he said, rubbing his hands, "so much for all your
scepticism. So much for your philistine ignorance of the
possibilities of a romantic city. Two and sixpence, my boy, is
the form in which your prosaic good nature will have to express

"What?" I said incredulously, "do you mean to say that you really
did find anything the matter with the poor milkman?"

His face fell.

"Oh, the milkman," he said, with a miserable affectation at having
misunderstood me. "No, I--I--didn't exactly bring anything home to
the milkman himself, I--"

"What did the milkman say and do?" I said, with inexorable

"Well, to tell the truth," said Rupert, shifting restlessly from
one foot to another, "the milkman himself, as far as merely
physical appearances went, just said, `Milk, Miss,' and handed in
the can. That is not to say, of course, that he did not make some
secret sign or some--"

I broke into a violent laugh. "You idiot," I said, "why don't you
own yourself wrong and have done with it? Why should he have made
a secret sign any more than any one else? You own he said nothing
and did nothing worth mentioning. You own that, don't you?"

His face grew grave.

"Well, since you ask me, I must admit that I do. It is possible
that the milkman did not betray himself. It is even possible that
I was wrong about him."

"Then come along with you," I said, with a certain amicable anger,
"and remember that you owe me half a crown."

"As to that, I differ from you," said Rupert coolly. "The
milkman's remarks may have been quite innocent. Even the milkman
may have been. But I do not owe you half a crown. For the terms of
the bet were, I think, as follows, as I propounded them, that
wherever that milkman came to a real stop I should find out
something curious."

"Well?" I said.

"Well," he answered, "I jolly well have. You just come with me,"
and before I could speak he had turned tail once more and whisked
through the blue dark into the moat or basement of the house. I
followed almost before I made any decision.

When we got down into the area I felt indescribably foolish
literally, as the saying is, in a hole. There was nothing but a
closed door, shuttered windows, the steps down which we had come,
the ridiculous well in which I found myself, and the ridiculous
man who had brought me there, and who stood there with dancing
eyes. I was just about to turn back when Rupert caught me by the

"Just listen to that," he said, and keeping my coat gripped in his
right hand, he rapped with the knuckles of his left on the shutters
of the basement window. His air was so definite that I paused and
even inclined my head for a moment towards it. From inside was
coming the murmur of an unmistakable human voice.

"Have you been talking to somebody inside?" I asked suddenly,
turning to Rupert.

"No, I haven't," he replied, with a grim smile, "but I should very
much like to. Do you know what somebody is saying in there?"

"No, of course not," I replied.

"Then I recommend you to listen," said Rupert sharply.

In the dead silence of the aristocratic street at evening, I stood
a moment and listened. From behind the wooden partition, in which
there was a long lean crack, was coming a continuous and moaning
sound which took the form of the words: "When shall I get out? When
shall I get out? Will they ever let me out?" or words to that

"Do you know anything about this?" I said, turning upon Rupert very

"Perhaps you think I am the criminal," he said sardonically,
"instead of being in some small sense the detective. I came into
this area two or three minutes ago, having told you that I knew
there was something funny going on, and this woman behind the
shutters (for it evidently is a woman) was moaning like mad. No,
my dear friend, beyond that I do not know anything about her. She
is not, startling as it may seem, my disinherited daughter, or a
member of my secret seraglio. But when I hear a human being wailing
that she can't get out, and talking to herself like a mad woman and
beating on the shutters with her fists, as she was doing two or
three minutes ago, I think it worth mentioning, that is all."

"My dear fellow," I said, "I apologize; this is no time for
arguing. What is to be done?"

Rupert Grant had a long clasp-knife naked and brilliant in his hand.

"First of all," he said, "house-breaking." And he forced the blade
into the crevice of the wood and broke away a huge splinter,
leaving a gap and glimpse of the dark window-pane inside. The room
within was entirely unlighted, so that for the first few seconds
the window seemed a dead and opaque surface, as dark as a strip of
slate. Then came a realization which, though in a sense gradual,
made us step back and catch our breath. Two large dim human eyes
were so close to us that the window itself seemed suddenly to be a
mask. A pale human face was pressed against the glass within, and
with increased distinctness, with the increase of the opening came
the words:

"When shall I get out?"

"What can all this be?" I said.

Rupert made no answer, but lifting his walking-stick and pointing
the ferrule like a fencing sword at the glass, punched a hole in
it, smaller and more accurate than I should have supposed possible.
The moment he had done so the voice spouted out of the hole, so to
speak, piercing and querulous and clear, making the same demand for

"Can't you get out, madam?" I said, drawing near the hole in some

"Get out? Of course I can't," moaned the unknown female bitterly.
"They won't let me. I told them I would be let out. I told them
I'd call the police. But it's no good. Nobody knows, nobody comes.
They could keep me as long as they liked only--"

I was in the very act of breaking the window finally with my
stick, incensed with this very sinister mystery, when Rupert held
my arm hard, held it with a curious, still, and secret rigidity as
if he desired to stop me, but did not desire to be observed to do
so. I paused a moment, and in the act swung slightly round, so
that I was facing the supporting wall of the front door steps. The
act froze me into a sudden stillness like that of Rupert, for a
figure almost as motionless as the pillars of the portico, but
unmistakably human, had put his head out from between the
doorposts and was gazing down into the area. One of the lighted
lamps of the street was just behind his head, throwing it into
abrupt darkness. Consequently, nothing whatever could be seen of
his face beyond one fact, that he was unquestionably staring at
us. I must say I thought Rupert's calmness magnificent. He rang
the area bell quite idly, and went on talking to me with the easy
end of a conversation which had never had any beginning. The black
glaring figure in the portico did not stir. I almost thought it
was really a statue. In another moment the grey area was golden
with gaslight as the basement door was opened suddenly and a small
and decorous housemaid stood in it.

"Pray excuse me," said Rupert, in a voice which he contrived to
make somehow or other at once affable and underbred, "but we
thought perhaps that you might do something for the Waifs and
Strays. We don't expect--"

"Not here," said the small servant, with the incomparable severity
of the menial of the non-philanthropic, and slammed the door in
our faces.

"Very sad, very sad--the indifference of these people," said the
philanthropist with gravity, as we went together up the steps. As
we did so the motionless figure in the portico suddenly

"Well, what do you make of that?" asked Rupert, slapping his
gloves together when we got into the street.

I do not mind admitting that I was seriously upset. Under such
conditions I had but one thought.

"Don't you think," I said a trifle timidly, "that we had better
tell your brother?"

"Oh, if you like," said Rupert, in a lordly way. "He is quite
near, as I promised to meet him at Gloucester Road Station. Shall
we take a cab? Perhaps, as you say, it might amuse him."

Gloucester Road Station had, as if by accident, a somewhat
deserted look. After a little looking about we discovered Basil
Grant with his great head and his great white hat blocking the
ticket-office window. I thought at first that he was taking a
ticket for somewhere and being an astonishingly long time about
it. As a matter of fact, he was discussing religion with the
booking-office clerk, and had almost got his head through the hole
in his excitement. When we dragged him away it was some time
before he would talk of anything but the growth of an Oriental
fatalism in modern thought, which had been well typified by some
of the official's ingenious but perverse fallacies. At last we
managed to get him to understand that we had made an astounding
discovery. When he did listen, he listened attentively, walking
between us up and down the lamp-lit street, while we told him in a
rather feverish duet of the great house in South Kensington, of
the equivocal milkman, of the lady imprisoned in the basement, and
the man staring from the porch. At length he said:

"If you're thinking of going back to look the thing up, you must be
careful what you do. It's no good you two going there. To go twice
on the same pretext would look dubious. To go on a different
pretext would look worse. You may be quite certain that the
inquisitive gentleman who looked at you looked thoroughly, and will
wear, so to speak, your portraits next to his heart. If you want to
find out if there is anything in this without a police raid I fancy
you had better wait outside. I'll go in and see them."

His slow and reflective walk brought us at length within sight of
the house. It stood up ponderous and purple against the last pallor
of twilight. It looked like an ogre's castle. And so apparently it

"Do you think it's safe, Basil," said his brother, pausing, a
little pale, under the lamp, "to go into that place alone? Of
course we shall be near enough to hear if you yell, but these
devils might do something--something sudden--or odd. I can't feel
it's safe."

"I know of nothing that is safe," said Basil composedly, "except,
possibly--death," and he went up the steps and rang at the bell.
When the massive respectable door opened for an instant, cutting a
square of gaslight in the gathering dark, and then closed with a
bang, burying our friend inside, we could not repress a shudder.
It had been like the heavy gaping and closing of the dim lips of
some evil leviathan. A freshening night breeze began to blow up
the street, and we turned up the collars of our coats. At the end
of twenty minutes, in which we had scarcely moved or spoken, we
were as cold as icebergs, but more, I think, from apprehension
than the atmosphere. Suddenly Rupert made an abrupt movement
towards the house.

"I can't stand this," he began, but almost as he spoke sprang back
into the shadow, for the panel of gold was again cut out of the
black house front, and the burly figure of Basil was silhouetted
against it coming out. He was roaring with laughter and talking so
loudly that you could have heard every syllable across the street.
Another voice, or, possibly, two voices, were laughing and talking
back at him from within.

"No, no, no," Basil was calling out, with a sort of hilarious
hostility. "That's quite wrong. That's the most ghastly heresy of
all. It's the soul, my dear chap, the soul that's the arbiter of
cosmic forces. When you see a cosmic force you don't like, trick
it, my boy. But I must really be off."

"Come and pitch into us again," came the laughing voice from out
of the house. "We still have some bones unbroken."

"Thanks very much, I will--good night," shouted Grant, who had by
this time reached the street.

"Good night," came the friendly call in reply, before the door

"Basil," said Rupert Grant, in a hoarse whisper, "what are we to

The elder brother looked thoughtfully from one of us to the other.

"What is to be done, Basil?" I repeated in uncontrollable

"I'm not sure," said Basil doubtfully. "What do you say to getting
some dinner somewhere and going to the Court Theatre tonight? I
tried to get those fellows to come, but they couldn't."

We stared blankly.

"Go to the Court Theatre?" repeated Rupert. "What would be the good
of that?"

"Good? What do you mean?" answered Basil, staring also. "Have you
turned Puritan or Passive Resister, or something? For fun, of

"But, great God in Heaven! What are we going to do, I mean!" cried
Rupert. "What about the poor woman locked up in that house? Shall I
go for the police?"

Basil's face cleared with immediate comprehension, and he laughed.

"Oh, that," he said. "I'd forgotten that. That's all right. Some
mistake, possibly. Or some quite trifling private affair. But I'm
sorry those fellows couldn't come with us. Shall we take one of
these green omnibuses? There is a restaurant in Sloane Square."

"I sometimes think you play the fool to frighten us," I said
irritably. "How can we leave that woman locked up? How can it be a
mere private affair? How can crime and kidnapping and murder, for
all I know, be private affairs? If you found a corpse in a man's
drawing-room, would you think it bad taste to talk about it just
as if it was a confounded dado or an infernal etching?"

Basil laughed heartily.

"That's very forcible," he said. "As a matter of fact, though, I
know it's all right in this case. And there comes the green

"How do you know it's all right in this ease?" persisted his
brother angrily.

"My dear chap, the thing's obvious," answered Basil, holding a
return ticket between his teeth while he fumbled in his waistcoat
pocket. "Those two fellows never committed a crime in their lives.
They're not the kind. Have either of you chaps got a halfpenny? I
want to get a paper before the omnibus comes."

"Oh, curse the paper!" cried Rupert, in a fury. "Do you mean to
tell me, Basil Grant, that you are going to leave a fellow
creature in pitch darkness in a private dungeon, because you've
had ten minutes' talk with the keepers of it and thought them
rather good men?"

"Good men do commit crimes sometimes," said Basil, taking the
ticket out of his mouth. "But this kind of good man doesn't
commit that kind of crime. Well, shall we get on this omnibus?"

The great green vehicle was indeed plunging and lumbering along
the dim wide street towards us. Basil had stepped from the curb,
and for an instant it was touch and go whether we should all have
leaped on to it and been borne away to the restaurant and the

"Basil," I said, taking him firmly by the shoulder, "I simply
won't leave this street and this house."

"Nor will I," said Rupert, glaring at it and biting his fingers.
"There's some black work going on there. If I left it I should
never sleep again."

Basil Grant looked at us both seriously.

"Of course if you feel like that," he said, "we'll investigate
further. You'll find it's all right, though. They're only two
young Oxford fellows. Extremely nice, too, though rather infected
with this pseudo-Darwinian business. Ethics of evolution and all

"I think," said Rupert darkly, ringing the bell, "that we shall
enlighten you further about their ethics."

"And may I ask," said Basil gloomily, "what it is that you propose
to do?"

"I propose, first of all," said Rupert, "to get into this house;
secondly, to have a look at these nice young Oxford men; thirdly,
to knock them down, bind them, gag them, and search the house."

Basil stared indignantly for a few minutes. Then he was shaken for
an instant with one of his sudden laughs.

"Poor little boys," he said. "But it almost serves them right for
holding such silly views, after all," and he quaked again with
amusement "there's something confoundedly Darwinian about it."

"I suppose you mean to help us?" said Rupert.

"Oh, yes, I'll be in it," answered Basil, "if it's only to prevent
your doing the poor chaps any harm."

He was standing in the rear of our little procession, looking
indifferent and sometimes even sulky, but somehow the instant the
door opened he stepped first into the hall, glowing with urbanity.

"So sorry to haunt you like this," he said. "I met two friends
outside who very much want to know you. May I bring them in?"

"Delighted, of course," said a young voice, the unmistakable voice
of the Isis, and I realized that the door had been opened, not by
the decorous little servant girl, but by one of our hosts in
person. He was a short, but shapely young gentleman, with curly
dark hair and a square, snub-nosed face. He wore slippers and a
sort of blazer of some incredible college purple.

"This way," he said; "mind the steps by the staircase. This house
is more crooked and old-fashioned than you would think from its
snobbish exterior. There are quite a lot of odd corners in the
place really."

"That," said Rupert, with a savage smile, "I can quite believe."

We were by this time in the study or back parlour, used by the
young inhabitants as a sitting-room, an apartment littered with
magazines and books ranging from Dante to detective stories. The
other youth, who stood with his back to the fire smoking a corncob,
was big and burly, with dead brown hair brushed forward and a
Norfolk jacket. He was that particular type of man whose every
feature and action is heavy and clumsy, and yet who is, you would
say, rather exceptionally a gentleman.

"Any more arguments?" he said, when introductions had been
effected. "I must say, Mr Grant, you were rather severe upon
eminent men of science such as we. I've half a mind to chuck
my D.Sc. and turn minor poet."

"Bosh," answered Grant. "I never said a word against eminent men
of science. What I complain of is a vague popular philosophy which
supposes itself to be scientific when it is really nothing but a
sort of new religion and an uncommonly nasty one. When people
talked about the fall of man they knew they were talking about a
mystery, a thing they didn't understand. Now that they talk about
the survival of the fittest they think they do understand it,
whereas they have not merely no notion, they have an elaborately
false notion of what the words mean. The Darwinian movement has
made no difference to mankind, except that, instead of talking
unphilosophically about philosophy, they now talk unscientifically
about science."

"That is all very well," said the big young man, whose name
appeared to be Burrows. "Of course, in a sense, science, like
mathematics or the violin, can only be perfectly understood by
specialists. Still, the rudiments may be of public use. Greenwood
here," indicating the little man in the blazer, "doesn't know one
note of music from another. Still, he knows something. He knows
enough to take off his hat when they play `God save the King'. He
doesn't take it off by mistake when they play `Oh, dem Golden
Slippers'. Just in the same way science--"

Here Mr Burrows stopped abruptly. He was interrupted by an argument
uncommon in philosophical controversy and perhaps not wholly
legitimate. Rupert Grant had bounded on him from behind, flung an
arm round his throat, and bent the giant backwards.

"Knock the other fellow down, Swinburne," he called out, and before
I knew where I was I was locked in a grapple with the man in the
purple blazer. He was a wiry fighter, who bent and sprang like a
whalebone, but I was heavier and had taken him utterly by surprise.
I twitched one of his feet from under him; he swung for a moment on
the single foot, and then we fell with a crash amid the litter of
newspapers, myself on top.

My attention for a moment released by victory, I could hear Basil's
voice finishing some long sentence of which I had not heard the

". . . wholly, I must confess, unintelligible to me, my dear sir,
and I need not say unpleasant. Still one must side with one's old
friends against the most fascinating new ones. Permit me,
therefore, in tying you up in this antimacassar, to make it as
commodious as handcuffs can reasonably be while. . ."

I had staggered to my feet. The gigantic Burrows was toiling in the
garotte of Rupert, while Basil was striving to master his mighty
hands. Rupert and Basil were both particularly strong, but so was
Mr Burrows; how strong, we knew a second afterwards. His head was
held back by Rupert's arm, but a convulsive heave went over his
whole frame. An instant after his head plunged forward like a
bull's, and Rupert Grant was slung head over heels, a catherine
wheel of legs, on the floor in front of him. Simultaneously the
bull's head butted Basil in the chest, bringing him also to the
ground with a crash, and the monster, with a Berserker roar, leaped
at me and knocked me into the corner of the room, smashing the
waste-paper basket. The bewildered Greenwood sprang furiously to
his feet. Basil did the same. But they had the best of it now.

Greenwood dashed to the bell and pulled it violently, sending peals
through the great house. Before I could get panting to my feet, and
before Rupert, who had been literally stunned for a few moments,
could even lift his head from the floor, two footmen were in the
room. Defeated even when we were in a majority, we were now
outnumbered. Greenwood and one of the footmen flung themselves upon
me, crushing me back into the corner upon the wreck of the paper
basket. The other two flew at Basil, and pinned him against the
wall. Rupert lifted himself on his elbow, but he was still dazed.

In the strained silence of our helplessness I heard the voice of
Basil come with a loud incongruous cheerfulness.

"Now this," he said, "is what I call enjoying oneself."

I caught a glimpse of his face, flushed and forced against the
bookcase, from between the swaying limbs of my captors and his. To
my astonishment his eyes were really brilliant with pleasure, like
those of a child heated by a favourite game.

I made several apoplectic efforts to rise, but the servant was on
top of me so heavily that Greenwood could afford to leave me to
him. He turned quickly to come to reinforce the two who were
mastering Basil. The latter's head was already sinking lower and
lower, like a leaking ship, as his enemies pressed him down. He
flung up one hand just as I thought him falling and hung on to a
huge tome in the bookcase, a volume, I afterwards discovered, of
St Chrysostom's theology. Just as Greenwood bounded across the
room towards the group, Basil plucked the ponderous tome bodily
out of the shelf, swung it, and sent it spinning through the air,
so that it struck Greenwood flat in the face and knocked him over
like a rolling ninepin. At the same instant Basil's stiffness
broke, and he sank, his enemies closing over him.

Rupert's head was clear, but his body shaken; he was hanging as
best he could on to the half-prostrate Greenwood. They were rolling
over each other on the floor, both somewhat enfeebled by their
falls, but Rupert certainly the more so. I was still successfully
held down. The floor was a sea of torn and trampled papers and
magazines, like an immense waste-paper basket. Burrows and his
companion were almost up to the knees in them, as in a drift of
dead leaves. And Greenwood had his leg stuck right through a sheet
of the Pall Mall Gazette, which clung to it ludicrously, like some
fantastic trouser frill.

Basil, shut from me in a human prison, a prison of powerful bodies,
might be dead for all I knew. I fancied, however, that the broad
back of Mr Burrows, which was turned towards me, had a certain bend
of effort in it as if my friend still needed some holding down.
Suddenly that broad back swayed hither and thither. It was swaying
on one leg; Basil, somehow, had hold of the other. Burrows' huge
fists and those of the footman were battering Basil's sunken head
like an anvil, but nothing could get the giant's ankle out of his
sudden and savage grip. While his own head was forced slowly down
in darkness and great pain, the right leg of his captor was being
forced in the air. Burrows swung to and fro with a purple face.
Then suddenly the floor and the walls and the ceiling shook
together, as the colossus fell, all his length seeming to fill the
floor. Basil sprang up with dancing eyes, and with three blows like
battering-rams knocked the footman into a cocked hat. Then he
sprang on top of Burrows, with one antimacassar in his hand and
another in his teeth, and bound him hand and foot almost before he
knew clearly that his head had struck the floor. Then Basil sprang
at Greenwood, whom Rupert was struggling to hold down, and between
them they secured him easily. The man who had hold of me let go and
turned to his rescue, but I leaped up like a spring released, and,
to my infinite satisfaction, knocked the fellow down. The other
footman, bleeding at the mouth and quite demoralized, was stumbling
out of the room. My late captor, without a word, slunk after him,
seeing that the battle was won. Rupert was sitting astride the
pinioned Mr Greenwood, Basil astride the pinioned Mr Burrows.

To my surprise the latter gentleman, lying bound on his back, spoke
in a perfectly calm voice to the man who sat on top of him.

"And now, gentlemen," he said, "since you have got your own way,
perhaps you wouldn't mind telling us what the deuce all this is?"

"This," said Basil, with a radiant face, looking down at his
captive, "this is what we call the survival of the fittest."

Rupert, who had been steadily collecting himself throughout the
latter phases of the fight, was intellectually altogether himself
again at the end of it. Springing up from the prostrate Greenwood,
and knotting a handkerchief round his left hand, which was bleeding
from a blow, he sang out quite coolly:

"Basil, will you mount guard over the captive of your bow and spear
and antimacassar? Swinburne and I will clear out the prison

"All right," said Basil, rising also and seating himself in a
leisured way in an armchair. "Don't hurry for us," he said,
glancing round at the litter of the room, "we have all the
illustrated papers."

Rupert lurched thoughtfully out of the room, and I followed him
even more slowly; in fact, I lingered long enough to hear, as I
passed through the room, the passages and the kitchen stairs,
Basil's voice continuing conversationally:

"And now, Mr Burrows," he said, settling himself sociably in the
chair, "there's no reason why we shouldn't go on with that amusing
argument. I'm sorry that you have to express yourself lying on your
back on the floor, and, as I told you before, I've no more notion
why you are there than the man in the moon. A conversationalist
like yourself, however, can scarcely be seriously handicapped by
any bodily posture. You were saying, if I remember right, when this
incidental fracas occurred, that the rudiments of science might
with advantage be made public."

"Precisely," said the large man on the floor in an easy tone. "I
hold that nothing more than a rough sketch of the universe as seen
by science can be. . ."

And here the voices died away as we descended into the basement. I
noticed that Mr Greenwood did not join in the amicable controversy.
Strange as it may appear, I think he looked back upon our
proceedings with a slight degree of resentment. Mr Burrows,
however, was all philosophy and chattiness. We left them, as I say,
together, and sank deeper and deeper into the under-world of that
mysterious house, which, perhaps, appeared to us somewhat more
Tartarean than it really was, owing to our knowledge of its
semi-criminal mystery and of the human secret locked below.

The basement floor had several doors, as is usual in such a house;
doors that would naturally lead to the kitchen, the scullery, the
pantry, the servants' hall, and so on. Rupert flung open all the
doors with indescribable rapidity. Four out of the five opened on
entirely empty apartments. The fifth was locked. Rupert broke the
door in like a bandbox, and we fell into the sudden blackness of
the sealed, unlighted room.

Rupert stood on the threshold, and called out like a man calling
into an abyss:

"Whoever you are, come out. You are free. The people who held you
captive are captives themselves. We heard you crying and we came to
deliver you. We have bound your enemies upstairs hand and foot. You
are free."

For some seconds after he had spoken into the darkness there was
a dead silence in it. Then there came a kind of muttering and
moaning. We might easily have taken it for the wind or rats if we
had not happened to have heard it before. It was unmistakably the
voice of the imprisoned woman, drearily demanding liberty, just as
we had heard her demand it.

"Has anybody got a match?" said Rupert grimly. "I fancy we have
come pretty near the end of this business."

I struck a match and held it up. It revealed a large, bare,
yellow-papered apartment with a dark-clad figure at the other end
of it near the window. An instant after it burned my fingers and
dropped, leaving darkness. It had, however, revealed something
more practical--an iron gas bracket just above my head. I struck
another match and lit the gas. And we found ourselves suddenly and
seriously in the presence of the captive.

At a sort of workbox in the window of this subterranean
breakfast-room sat an elderly lady with a singularly high colour
and almost startling silver hair. She had, as if designedly to
relieve these effects, a pair of Mephistophelian black eyebrows
and a very neat black dress. The glare of the gas lit up her
piquant hair and face perfectly against the brown background of
the shutters. The background was blue and not brown in one place;
at the place where Rupert's knife had torn a great opening in the
wood about an hour before.

"Madam," said he, advancing with a gesture of the hat, "permit me
to have the pleasure of announcing to you that you are free. Your
complaints happened to strike our ears as we passed down the
street, and we have therefore ventured to come to your rescue."

The old lady with the red face and the black eyebrows looked at us
for a moment with something of the apoplectic stare of a parrot.
Then she said, with a sudden gust or breathing of relief:

"Rescue? Where is Mr Greenwood? Where is Mr Burrows? Did you say
you had rescued me?"

"Yes, madam," said Rupert, with a beaming condescension. "We have
very satisfactorily dealt with Mr Greenwood and Mr Burrows. We have
settled affairs with them very satisfactorily."

The old lady rose from her chair and came very quickly towards us.

"What did you say to them? How did you persuade them?" she cried.

"We persuaded them, my dear madam," said Rupert, laughing, "by
knocking them down and tying them up. But what is the matter?"

To the surprise of every one the old lady walked slowly back to
her seat by the window.

"Do I understand," she said, with the air of a person about to
begin knitting, "that you have knocked down Mr Burrows and tied
him up?"

"We have," said Rupert proudly; "we have resisted their oppression
and conquered it."

"Oh, thanks," answered the old lady, and sat down by the window.

A considerable pause followed.

"The road is quite clear for you, madam," said Rupert pleasantly.

The old lady rose, cocking her black eyebrows and her silver crest
at us for an instant.

"But what about Greenwood and Burrows?" she said. "What did I
understand you to say had become of them?"

"They are lying on the floor upstairs," said Rupert, chuckling.
"Tied hand and foot."

"Well, that settles it," said the old lady, coming with a kind of
bang into her seat again, "I must stop where I am."

Rupert looked bewildered.

"Stop where you are?" he said. "Why should you stop any longer
where you are? What power can force you now to stop in this
miserable cell?"

"The question rather is," said the old lady, with composure, "what
power can force me to go anywhere else?"

We both stared wildly at her and she stared tranquilly at us both.

At last I said, "Do you really mean to say that we are to leave
you here?"

"I suppose you don't intend to tie me up," she said, "and carry me
off? I certainly shall not go otherwise."

"But, my dear madam," cried out Rupert, in a radiant exasperation,
"we heard you with our own ears crying because you could not get

"Eavesdroppers often hear rather misleading things," replied the
captive grimly. "I suppose I did break down a bit and lose my
temper and talk to myself. But I have some sense of honour for all

"Some sense of honour?" repeated Rupert, and the last light of
intelligence died out of his face, leaving it the face of an idiot
with rolling eyes.

He moved vaguely towards the door and I followed. But I turned yet
once more in the toils of my conscience and curiosity. "Can we do
nothing for you, madam?" I said forlornly.

"Why," said the lady, "if you are particularly anxious to do me a
little favour you might untie the gentlemen upstairs."

Rupert plunged heavily up the kitchen staircase, shaking it with
his vague violence. With mouth open to speak he stumbled to the
door of the sitting-room and scene of battle.

"Theoretically speaking, that is no doubt true," Mr Burrows was
saying, lying on his back and arguing easily with Basil; "but we
must consider the matter as it appears to our sense. The origin
of morality. . ."

"Basil," cried Rupert, gasping, "she won't come out."

"Who won't come out?" asked Basil, a little cross at being
interrupted in an argument.

"The lady downstairs," replied Rupert. "The lady who was locked up.
She won't come out. And she says that all she wants is for us to
let these fellows loose."

"And a jolly sensible suggestion," cried Basil, and with a bound he
was on top of the prostrate Burrows once more and was unknotting
his bonds with hands and teeth.

"A brilliant idea. Swinburne, just undo Mr Greenwood."

In a dazed and automatic way I released the little gentleman in the
purple jacket, who did not seem to regard any of the proceedings as
particularly sensible or brilliant. The gigantic Burrows, on the
other hand, was heaving with herculean laughter.

"Well," said Basil, in his cheeriest way, "I think we must be
getting away. We've so much enjoyed our evening. Far too much
regard for you to stand on ceremony. If I may so express myself,
we've made ourselves at home. Good night. Thanks so much. Come
along, Rupert."

"Basil," said Rupert desperately, "for God's sake come and see what
you can make of the woman downstairs. I can't get the discomfort
out of my mind. I admit that things look as if we had made a
mistake. But these gentlemen won't mind perhaps. . ."

"No, no," cried Burrows, with a sort of Rabelaisian uproariousness.
"No, no, look in the pantry, gentlemen. Examine the coal-hole. Make
a tour of the chimneys. There are corpses all over the house, I
assure you."

This adventure of ours was destined to differ in one respect from
others which I have narrated. I had been through many wild days
with Basil Grant, days for the first half of which the sun and the
moon seemed to have gone mad. But it had almost invariably happened
that towards the end of the day and its adventure things had
cleared themselves like the sky after rain, and a luminous and
quiet meaning had gradually dawned upon me. But this day's work was
destined to end in confusion worse confounded. Before we left that
house, ten minutes afterwards, one half-witted touch was added
which rolled all our minds in cloud. If Rupert's head had suddenly
fallen off on the floor, if wings had begun to sprout out of
Greenwood's shoulders, we could scarcely have been more suddenly
stricken. And yet of this we had no explanation. We had to go to
bed that night with the prodigy and get up next morning with it and
let it stand in our memories for weeks and months. As will be seen,
it was not until months afterwards that by another accident and in
another way it was explained. For the present I only state what

When all five of us went down the kitchen stairs again, Rupert
leading, the two hosts bringing up the rear, we found the door of
the prison again closed. Throwing it open we found the place again
as black as pitch. The old lady, if she was still there, had turned
out the gas: she seemed to have a weird preference for sitting in
the dark.

Without another word Rupert lit the gas again. The little old lady
turned her bird-like head as we all stumbled forward in the strong
gaslight. Then, with a quickness that almost made me jump, she
sprang up and swept a sort of old-fashioned curtsey or reverence. I
looked quickly at Greenwood and Burrows, to whom it was natural to
suppose this subservience had been offered. I felt irritated at
what was implied in this subservience, and desired to see the faces
of the tyrants as they received it. To my surprise they did not
seem to have seen it at all: Burrows was paring his nails with a
small penknife. Greenwood was at the back of the group and had
hardly entered the room. And then an amazing fact became apparent.
It was Basil Grant who stood foremost of the group, the golden
gaslight lighting up his strong face and figure. His face wore an
expression indescribably conscious, with the suspicion of a very
grave smile. His head was slightly bent with a restrained bow. It
was he who had acknowledged the lady's obeisance. And it was he,
beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, to whom it had really been

"So I hear," he said, in a kindly yet somehow formal voice, "I
hear, madam, that my friends have been trying to rescue you. But
without success."

"No one, naturally, knows my faults better than you," answered the
lady with a high colour. "But you have not found me guilty of

"I willingly attest it, madam," replied Basil, in the same level
tones, "and the fact is that I am so much gratified with your
exhibition of loyalty that I permit myself the pleasure of
exercising some very large discretionary powers. You would not
leave this room at the request of these gentlemen. But you know
that you can safely leave it at mine."

The captive made another reverence. "I have never complained of
your injustice," she said. "I need scarcely say what I think of
your generosity."

And before our staring eyes could blink she had passed out of the
room, Basil holding the door open for her.

He turned to Greenwood with a relapse into joviality. "This will
be a relief to you," he said.

"Yes, it will," replied that immovable young gentleman with a face
like a sphinx.

We found ourselves outside in the dark blue night, shaken and dazed
as if we had fallen into it from some high tower.

"Basil," said Rupert at last, in a weak voice, "I always thought
you were my brother. But are you a man? I mean--are you only a

"At present," replied Basil, "my mere humanity is proved by one
of the most unmistakable symbols--hunger. We are too late for
the theatre in Sloane Square. But we are not too late for the
restaurant. Here comes the green omnibus!" and he had leaped on
it before we could speak.


As I said, it was months after that Rupert Grant suddenly entered
my room, swinging a satchel in his hand and with a general air of
having jumped over the garden wall, and implored me to go with him
upon the latest and wildest of his expeditions. He proposed to
himself no less a thing than the discovery of the actual origin,
whereabouts, and headquarters of the source of all our joys and
sorrows--the Club of Queer Trades. I should expand this story for
ever if I explained how ultimately we ran this strange entity to
its lair. The process meant a hundred interesting things. The
tracking of a member, the bribing of a cabman, the fighting of
roughs, the lifting of a paving stone, the finding of a cellar,
the finding of a cellar below the cellar, the finding of the
subterranean passage, the finding of the Club of Queer Trades.

I have had many strange experiences in my life, but never a
stranger one than that I felt when I came out of those rambling,
sightless, and seemingly hopeless passages into the sudden
splendour of a sumptuous and hospitable dining-room, surrounded
upon almost every side by faces that I knew. There was Mr
Montmorency, the Arboreal House-Agent, seated between the two brisk
young men who were occasionally vicars, and always Professional
Detainers. There was Mr P. G. Northover, founder of the Adventure
and Romance Agency. There was Professor Chadd, who invented the
dancing Language.

As we entered, all the members seemed to sink suddenly into their
chairs, and with the very action the vacancy of the presidential
seat gaped at us like a missing tooth.

"The president's not here," said Mr P. G. Northover, turning
suddenly to Professor Chadd.

"N--no," said the philosopher, with more than his ordinary
vagueness. "I can't imagine where he is."

"Good heavens," said Mr Montmorency, jumping up, "I really feel a
little nervous. I'll go and see." And he ran out of the room.

An instant after he ran back again, twittering with a timid

"He's there, gentlemen--he's there all right--he's coming in now,"
he cried, and sat down. Rupert and I could hardly help feeling the
beginnings of a sort of wonder as to who this person might be who
was the first member of this insane brotherhood. Who, we thought
indistinctly, could be maddest in this world of madmen: what
fantastic was it whose shadow filled all these fantastics with so
loyal an expectation?

Suddenly we were answered. The door flew open and the room was
filled and shaken with a shout, in the midst of which Basil Grant,
smiling and in evening dress, took his seat at the head of the

How we ate that dinner I have no idea. In the common way I am a
person particularly prone to enjoy the long luxuriance of the club
dinner. But on this occasion it seemed a hopeless and endless
string of courses. Hors-d'oeuvre sardines seemed as big as
herrings, soup seemed a sort of ocean, larks were ducks, ducks
were ostriches until that dinner was over. The cheese course was
maddening. I had often heard of the moon being made of green
cheese. That night I thought the green cheese was made of the
moon. And all the time Basil Grant went on laughing and eating and
drinking, and never threw one glance at us to tell us why he was
there, the king of these capering idiots.

At last came the moment which I knew must in some way enlighten us,
the time of the club speeches and the club toasts. Basil Grant rose
to his feet amid a surge of songs and cheers.

"Gentlemen," he said, "it is a custom in this society that the
president for the year opens the proceedings not by any general
toast of sentiment, but by calling upon each member to give a brief
account of his trade. We then drink to that calling and to all who
follow it. It is my business, as the senior member, to open by
stating my claim to membership of this club. Years ago, gentlemen,
I was a judge; I did my best in that capacity to do justice and to
administer the law. But it gradually dawned on me that in my work,
as it was, I was not touching even the fringe of justice. I was
seated in the seat of the mighty, I was robed in scarlet and
ermine; nevertheless, I held a small and lowly and futile post. I
had to go by a mean rule as much as a postman, and my red and gold
was worth no more than his. Daily there passed before me taut and
passionate problems, the stringency of which I had to pretend to
relieve by silly imprisonments or silly damages, while I knew all
the time, by the light of my living common sense, that they would
have been far better relieved by a kiss or a thrashing, or a few
words of explanation, or a duel, or a tour in the West Highlands.
Then, as this grew on me, there grew on me continuously the sense
of a mountainous frivolity. Every word said in the court, a whisper
or an oath, seemed more connected with life than the words I had to
say. Then came the time when I publicly blasphemed the whole bosh,
was classed as a madman and melted from public life."

Something in the atmosphere told me that it was not only Rupert and
I who were listening with intensity to this statement.

"Well, I discovered that I could be of no real use. I offered
myself privately as a purely moral judge to settle purely moral
differences. Before very long these unofficial courts of honour
(kept strictly secret) had spread over the whole of society. People
were tried before me not for the practical trifles for which nobody
cares, such as committing a murder, or keeping a dog without a
licence. My criminals were tried for the faults which really make
social life impossible. They were tried before me for selfishness,
or for an impossible vanity, or for scandalmongering, or for
stinginess to guests or dependents. Of course these courts had no
sort of real coercive powers. The fulfilment of their punishments
rested entirely on the honour of the ladies and gentlemen involved,
including the honour of the culprits. But you would be amazed to
know how completely our orders were always obeyed. Only lately I
had a most pleasing example. A maiden lady in South Kensington whom
I had condemned to solitary confinement for being the means of
breaking off an engagement through backbiting, absolutely refused
to leave her prison, although some well-meaning persons had been
inopportune enough to rescue her."

Rupert Grant was staring at his brother, his mouth fallen agape.
So, for the matter of that, I expect, was I. This, then, was the
explanation of the old lady's strange discontent and her still
stranger content with her lot. She was one of the culprits of his
Voluntary Criminal Court. She was one of the clients of his Queer

We were still dazed when we drank, amid a crash of glasses, the
health of Basil's new judiciary. We had only a confused sense of
everything having been put right, the sense men will have when
they come into the presence of God. We dimly heard Basil say:

"Mr P. G. Northover will now explain the Adventure and Romance

And we heard equally dimly Northover beginning the statement he
had made long ago to Major Brown. Thus our epic ended where it
had begun, like a true cycle.


Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Sorry, no summary available yet.