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Chapter 2

"I daresay it will be all right; he seems quiet now," said the poor
lady of the "parlours" a few days later, in reference to their
litigious neighbour and the precarious piano. The two lodgers had
grown regularly acquainted, and the piano had had much to do with it.
Just as this instrument served, with the gentleman at No. 4, as a
theme for discussion, so between Peter Baron and the lady of the
parlours it had become a basis of peculiar agreement, a topic, at any
rate, of conversation frequently renewed. Mrs. Ryves was so
prepossessing that Peter was sure that even if they had not had the
piano he would have found something else to thresh out with her.
Fortunately however they did have it, and he, at least, made the most
of it, knowing more now about his new friend, who when, widowed and
fatigued, she held her beautiful child in her arms, looked dimly like
a modern Madonna. Mrs. Bundy, as a letter of furnished lodgings, was
characterised in general by a familiar domestic severity in respect
to picturesque young women, but she had the highest confidence in
Mrs. Ryves. She was luminous about her being a lady, and a lady who
could bring Mrs. Bundy back to a gratified recognition of one of
those manifestations of mind for which she had an independent esteem.
She was professional, but Jersey Villas could be proud of a
profession that didn't happen to be the wrong one--they had seen
something of that. Mrs. Ryves had a hundred a year (Baron wondered
how Mrs. Bundy knew this; he thought it unlikely Mrs. Ryves had told
her), and for the rest she depended on her lovely music. Baron
judged that her music, even though lovely, was a frail dependence; it
would hardly help to fill a concert-room, and he asked himself at
first whether she played country-dances at children's parties or gave
lessons to young ladies who studied above their station.

Very soon, indeed, he was sufficiently enlightened; it all went fast,
for the little boy had been almost as great a help as the piano.
Sidney haunted the doorstep of No. 3 he was eminently sociable, and
had established independent relations with Peter, a frequent feature
of which was an adventurous visit, upstairs, to picture books
criticised for not being ALL geegees and walking sticks happily more
conformable. The young man's window, too, looked out on their
acquaintance; through a starched muslin curtain it kept his neighbour
before him, made him almost more aware of her comings and goings than
he felt he had a right to be. He was capable of a shyness of
curiosity about her and of dumb little delicacies of consideration.
She did give a few lessons; they were essentially local, and he ended
by knowing more or less what she went out for and what she came in
from. She had almost no visitors, only a decent old lady or two,
and, every day, poor dingy Miss Teagle, who was also ancient and who
came humbly enough to governess the infant of the parlours. Peter
Baron's window had always, to his sense, looked out on a good deal of
life, and one of the things it had most shown him was that there is
nobody so bereft of joy as not to be able to command for twopence the
services of somebody less joyous. Mrs. Ryves was a struggler (Baron
scarcely liked to think of it), but she occupied a pinnacle for Miss
Teagle, who had lived on--and from a noble nursery--into a period of
diplomas and humiliation.

Mrs. Ryves sometimes went out, like Baron himself, with manuscripts
under her arm, and, still more like Baron, she almost always came
back with them. Her vain approaches were to the music-sellers; she
tried to compose--to produce songs that would make a hit. A
successful song was an income, she confided to Peter one of the first
times he took Sidney, blase and drowsy, back to his mother. It was
not on one of these occasions, but once when he had come in on no
better pretext than that of simply wanting to (she had after all
virtually invited him), that she mentioned how only one song in a
thousand was successful and that the terrible difficulty was in
getting the right words. This rightness was just a vulgar "fluke"--
there were lots of words really clever that were of no use at all.
Peter said, laughing, that he supposed any words he should try to
produce would be sure to be too clever; yet only three weeks after
his first encounter with Mrs. Ryves he sat at his delightful
davenport (well aware that he had duties more pressing), trying to
string together rhymes idiotic enough to make his neighbour's
fortune. He was satisfied of the fineness of her musical gift--it
had the touching note. The touching note was in her person as well.

The davenport was delightful, after six months of its tottering
predecessor, and such a re-enforcement to the young man's style was
not impaired by his sense of something lawless in the way it had been
gained. He had made the purchase in anticipation of the money he
expected from Mr. Locket, but Mr. Locket's liberality was to depend
on the ingenuity of his contributor, who now found himself confronted
with the consequence of a frivolous optimism. The fruit of his
labour presented, as he stared at it with his elbows on his desk, an
aspect uncompromising and incorruptible. It seemed to look up at him
reproachfully and to say, with its essential finish: "How could you
promise anything so base; how could you pass your word to mutilate
and dishonour me?" The alterations demanded by Mr. Locket were
impossible; the concessions to the platitude of his conception of the
public mind were degrading. The public mind!--as if the public HAD a
mind, or any principle of perception more discoverable than the stare
of huddled sheep! Peter Baron felt that it concerned him to
determine if he were only not clever enough or if he were simply not
abject enough to rewrite his story. He might in truth have had less
pride if he had had more skill, and more discretion if he had had
more practice. Humility, in the profession of letters, was half of
practice, and resignation was half of success. Poor Peter actually
flushed with pain as he recognised that this was not success, the
production of gelid prose which his editor could do nothing with on
the one side and he himself could do nothing with on the other. The
truth about his luckless tale was now the more bitter from his having
managed, for some days, to taste it as sweet.

As he sat there, baffled and sombre, biting his pen and wondering
what was meant by the "rewards" of literature, he generally ended by
tossing away the composition deflowered by Mr. Locket and trying his
hand at the sort of twaddle that Mrs. Ryves might be able to set to
music. Success in these experiments wouldn't be a reward of
literature, but it might very well become a labour of love. The
experiments would be pleasant enough for him if they were pleasant
for his inscrutable neighbour. That was the way he thought of her
now, for he had learned enough about her, little by little, to guess
how much there was still to learn. To spend his mornings over cheap
rhymes for her was certainly to shirk the immediate question; but
there were hours when he judged this question to be altogether too
arduous, reflecting that he might quite as well perish by the sword
as by famine. Besides, he did meet it obliquely when he considered
that he shouldn't be an utter failure if he were to produce some
songs to which Mrs. Ryves's accompaniments would give a circulation.
He had not ventured to show her anything yet, but one morning, at a
moment when her little boy was in his room, it seemed to him that, by
an inspiration, he had arrived at the happy middle course (it was an
art by itself), between sound and sense. If the sense was not
confused it was because the sound was so familiar.

He had said to the child, to whom he had sacrificed barley-sugar (it
had no attraction for his own lips, yet in these days there was
always some of it about), he had confided to the small Sidney that if
he would wait a little he should be intrusted with something nice to
take down to his parent. Sidney had absorbing occupation and, while
Peter copied off the song in a pretty hand, roamed, gurgling and
sticky, about the room. In this manner he lurched like a little
toper into the rear of the davenport, which stood a few steps out
from the recess of the window, and, as he was fond of beating time to
his intensest joys, began to bang on the surface of it with a paper-
knife which at that spot had chanced to fall upon the floor. At the
moment Sidney committed this violence his kind friend had happened to
raise the lid of the desk and, with his head beneath it, was
rummaging among a mass of papers for a proper envelope. "I say, I
say, my boy!" he exclaimed, solicitous for the ancient glaze of his
most cherished possession. Sidney paused an instant; then, while
Peter still hunted for the envelope, he administered another, and
this time a distinctly disobedient, rap. Peter heard it from within
and was struck with its oddity of sound--so much so that, leaving the
child for a moment under a demoralising impression of impunity, he
waited with quick curiosity for a repetition of the stroke. It came
of course immediately, and then the young man, who had at the same
instant found his envelope and ejaculated "Hallo, this thing has a
false back!" jumped up and secured his visitor, whom with his left
arm he held in durance on his knee while with his free hand he
addressed the missive to Mrs. Ryves.

As Sidney was fond of errands he was easily got rid of, and after he
had gone Baron stood a moment at the window chinking pennies and keys
in pockets and wondering if the charming composer would think his
song as good, or in other words as bad, as he thought it. His eyes
as he turned away fell on the wooden back of the davenport, where, to
his regret, the traces of Sidney's assault were visible in three or
four ugly scratches. "Confound the little brute!" he exclaimed,
feeling as if an altar had been desecrated. He was reminded,
however, of the observation this outrage had led him to make, and,
for further assurance, he knocked on the wood with his knuckle. It
sounded from that position commonplace enough, but his suspicion was
strongly confirmed when, again standing beside the desk, he put his
head beneath the lifted lid and gave ear while with an extended arm
he tapped sharply in the same place. The back was distinctly hollow;
there was a space between the inner and the outer pieces (he could
measure it), so wide that he was a fool not to have noticed it
before. The depth of the receptacle from front to rear was so great
that it could sacrifice a certain quantity of room without detection.
The sacrifice could of course only be for a purpose, and the purpose
could only be the creation of a secret compartment. Peter Baron was
still boy enough to be thrilled by the idea of such a feature, the
more so as every indication of it had been cleverly concealed. The
people at the shop had never noticed it, else they would have called
his attention to it as an enhancement of value. His legendary lore
instructed him that where there was a hiding-place there was always a
hidden spring, and he pried and pressed and fumbled in an eager
search for the sensitive spot. The article was really a wonder of
neat construction; everything fitted with a closeness that completely
saved appearances.

It took Baron some minutes to pursue his inquiry, during which he
reflected that the people of the shop were not such fools after all.
They had admitted moreover that they had accidentally neglected this
relic of gentility--it had been overlooked in the multiplicity of
their treasures. He now recalled that the man had wanted to polish
it up before sending it home, and that, satisfied for his own part
with its honourable appearance and averse in general to shiny
furniture, he had in his impatience declined to wait for such an
operation, so that the object had left the place for Jersey Villas,
carrying presumably its secret with it, two or three hours after his
visit. This secret it seemed indeed capable of keeping; there was an
absurdity in being baffled, but Peter couldn't find the spring. He
thumped and sounded, he listened and measured again; he inspected
every joint and crevice, with the effect of becoming surer still of
the existence of a chamber and of making up his mind that his
davenport was a rarity. Not only was there a compartment between the
two backs, but there was distinctly something IN the compartment!
Perhaps it was a lost manuscript--a nice, safe, old-fashioned story
that Mr. Locket wouldn't object to. Peter returned to the charge,
for it had occurred to him that he had perhaps not sufficiently
visited the small drawers, of which, in two vertical rows, there were
six in number, of different sizes, inserted sideways into that
portion of the structure which formed part of the support of the
desk. He took them out again and examined more minutely the
condition of their sockets, with the happy result of discovering at
last, in the place into which the third on the left-hand row was
fitted, a small sliding panel. Behind the panel was a spring, like a
flat button, which yielded with a click when he pressed it and which
instantly produced a loosening of one of the pieces of the shelf
forming the highest part of the davenport--pieces adjusted to each
other with the most deceptive closeness.

This particular piece proved to be, in its turn, a sliding panel,
which, when pushed, revealed the existence of a smaller receptacle, a
narrow, oblong box, in the false back. Its capacity was limited, but
if it couldn't hold many things it might hold precious ones. Baron,
in presence of the ingenuity with which it had been dissimulated,
immediately felt that, but for the odd chance of little Sidney
Ryves's having hammered on the outside at the moment he himself
happened to have his head in the desk, he might have remained for
years without suspicion of it. This apparently would have been a
loss, for he had been right in guessing that the chamber was not
empty. It contained objects which, whether precious or not, had at
any rate been worth somebody's hiding. These objects were a
collection of small fiat parcels, of the shape of packets of letters,
wrapped in white paper and neatly sealed. The seals, mechanically
figured, bore the impress neither of arms nor of initials; the paper
looked old--it had turned faintly sallow; the packets might have been
there for ages. Baron counted them--there were nine in all, of
different sizes; he turned them over and over, felt them curiously
and snuffed in their vague, musty smell, which affected him with the
melancholy of some smothered human accent. The little bundles were
neither named nor numbered--there was not a word of writing on any of
the covers; but they plainly contained old letters, sorted and
matched according to dates or to authorship. They told some old,
dead story--they were the ashes of fires burned out.

As Peter Baron held his discoveries successively in his hands he
became conscious of a queer emotion which was not altogether elation
and yet was still less pure pain. He had made a find, but it somehow
added to his responsibility; he was in the presence of something
interesting, but (in a manner he couldn't have defined) this
circumstance suddenly constituted a danger. It was the perception of
the danger, for instance, which caused to remain in abeyance any
impulse he might have felt to break one of the seals. He looked at
them all narrowly, but he was careful not to loosen them, and he
wondered uncomfortably whether the contents of the secret compartment
would be held in equity to be the property of the people in the
King's Road. He had given money for the davenport, but had he given
money for these buried papers? He paid by a growing consciousness
that a nameless chill had stolen into the air the penalty, which he
had many a time paid before, of being made of sensitive stuff. It
was as if an occasion had insidiously arisen for a sacrifice--a
sacrifice for the sake of a fine superstition, something like honour
or kindness or justice, something indeed perhaps even finer still--a
difficult deciphering of duty, an impossible tantalising wisdom.
Standing there before his ambiguous treasure and losing himself for
the moment in the sense of a dawning complication, he was startled by
a light, quick tap at the door of his sitting-room. Instinctively,
before answering, he listened an instant--he was in the attitude of a
miser surprised while counting his hoard. Then he answered "One
moment, please!" and slipped the little heap of packets into the
biggest of the drawers of the davenport, which happened to be open.
The aperture of the false back was still gaping, and he had not time
to work back the spring. He hastily laid a big book over the place
and then went and opened his door.

It offered him a sight none the less agreeable for being unexpected--
the graceful and agitated figure of Mrs. Ryves. Her agitation was so
visible that he thought at first that something dreadful had happened
to her child--that she had rushed up to ask for help, to beg him to
go for the doctor. Then he perceived that it was probably connected
with the desperate verses he had transmitted to her a quarter of an
hour before; for she had his open manuscript in one hand and was
nervously pulling it about with the other. She looked frightened and
pretty, and if, in invading the privacy of a fellow-lodger, she had
been guilty of a departure from rigid custom, she was at least
conscious of the enormity of the step and incapable of treating it
with levity. The levity was for Peter Baron, who endeavoured,
however, to clothe his familiarity with respect, pushing forward the
seat of honour and repeating that he rejoiced in such a visit. The
visitor came in, leaving the door ajar, and after a minute during
which, to help her, he charged her with the purpose of telling him
that he ought to be ashamed to send her down such rubbish, she
recovered herself sufficiently to stammer out that his song was
exactly what she had been looking for and that after reading it she
had been seized with an extraordinary, irresistible impulse--that of
thanking him for it in person and without delay.

"It was the impulse of a kind nature," he said, "and I can't tell you
what pleasure you give me."

She declined to sit down, and evidently wished to appear to have come
but for a few seconds. She looked confusedly at the place in which
she found herself, and when her eyes met his own they struck him as
anxious and appealing. She was evidently not thinking of his song,
though she said three or four times over that it was beautiful.
"Well, I only wanted you to know, and now I must go," she added; but
on his hearthrug she lingered with such an odd helplessness that he
felt almost sorry for her.

"Perhaps I can improve it if you find it doesn't go," said Baron.
"I'm so delighted to do anything for you I can."

"There may be a word or two that might be changed," she answered,
rather absently. "I shall have to think it over, to live with it a
little. But I like it, and that's all I wanted to say."

"Charming of you. I'm not a bit busy," said Baron.

Again she looked at him with a troubled intensity, then suddenly she
demanded: "Is there anything the matter with you?"

"The matter with me?"

"I mean like being ill or worried. I wondered if there might be; I
had a sudden fancy; and that, I think, is really why I came up."

"There isn't, indeed; I'm all right. But your sudden fancies are

"It's absurd. You must excuse me. Good-by!" said Mrs. Ryves.

"What are the words you want changed?" Baron asked.

"I don't want any--if you're all right. Good-by," his visitor
repeated, fixing her eyes an instant on an object on his desk that
had caught them. His own glanced in the same direction and he saw
that in his hurry to shuffle away the packets found in the davenport
he had overlooked one of them, which lay with its seals exposed. For
an instant he felt found out, as if he had been concerned in
something to be ashamed of, and it was only his quick second thought
that told him how little the incident of which the packet was a
sequel was an affair of Mrs. Ryves's. Her conscious eyes came back
to his as if they were sounding them, and suddenly this instinct of
keeping his discovery to himself was succeeded by a really startled
inference that, with the rarest alertness, she had guessed something
and that her guess (it seemed almost supernatural), had been her real
motive. Some secret sympathy had made her vibrate--had touched her
with the knowledge that he had brought something to light. After an
instant he saw that she also divined the very reflection he was then
making, and this gave him a lively desire, a grateful, happy desire,
to appear to have nothing to conceal. For herself, it determined her
still more to put an end to her momentary visit. But before she had
passed to the door he exclaimed: "All right? How can a fellow be
anything else who has just had such a find?"

She paused at this, still looking earnest and asking: "What have you

"Some ancient family papers, in a secret compartment of my writing-
table." And he took up the packet he had left out, holding it before
her eyes. "A lot of other things like that."

"What are they?" murmured Mrs. Ryves.

"I haven't the least idea. They're sealed."

"You haven't broken the seals?" She had come further back.

"I haven't had time; it only happened ten minutes ago."

"I knew it," said Mrs. Ryves, more gaily now.

"What did you know?"

"That you were in some predicament."

"You're extraordinary. I never heard of anything so miraculous; down
two flights of stairs."

"ARE you in a quandary?" the visitor asked.

"Yes, about giving them back." Peter Baron stood smiling at her and
rapping his packet on the palm of his hand. "What do you advise?"

She herself smiled now, with her eyes on the sealed parcel. "Back to

"The man of whom I bought the table."

"Ah then, they're not from YOUR family?"

"No indeed, the piece of furniture in which they were hidden is not
an ancestral possession. I bought it at second hand--you see it's
old--the other day in the King's Road. Obviously the man who sold it
to me sold me more than he meant; he had no idea (from his own point
of view it was stupid of him), that there was a hidden chamber or
that mysterious documents were buried there. Ought I to go and tell
him? It's rather a nice question."

"Are the papers of value?" Mrs. Ryves inquired.

"I haven't the least idea. But I can ascertain by breaking a seal."

"Don't!" said Mrs. Ryves, with much expression. She looked grave

"It's rather tantalising--it's a bit of a problem," Baron went on,
turning his packet over.

Mrs. Ryves hesitated. "Will you show me what you have in your hand?"

He gave her the packet, and she looked at it and held it for an
instant to her nose. "It has a queer, charming old fragrance," he

"Charming? It's horrid." She handed him back the packet, saying
again more emphatically "Don't!"

"Don't break a seal?"

"Don't give back the papers."

"Is it honest to keep them?"

"Certainly. They're yours as much as the people's of the shop. They
were in the hidden chamber when the table came to the shop, and the
people had every opportunity to find them out. They didn't--
therefore let them take the consequences."

Peter Baron reflected, diverted by her intensity. She was pale, with
eyes almost ardent. "The table had been in the place for years."

"That proves the things haven't been missed."

"Let me show you how they were concealed," he rejoined; and he
exhibited the ingenious recess and the working of the curious spring.
She was greatly interested, she grew excited and became familiar; she
appealed to him again not to do anything so foolish as to give up the
papers, the rest of which, in their little blank, impenetrable
covers, he placed in a row before her. "They might be traced--their
history, their ownership," he argued; to which she replied that this
was exactly why he ought to be quiet. He declared that women had not
the smallest sense of honour, and she retorted that at any rate they
have other perceptions more delicate than those of men. He admitted
that the papers might be rubbish, and she conceded that nothing was
more probable; yet when he offered to settle the point off-hand she
caught him by the wrist, acknowledging that, absurd as it was, she
was nervous. Finally she put the whole thing on the ground of his

just doing her a favour. She asked him to retain the papers, to be
silent about them, simply because it would please her. That would be
reason enough. Baron's acquaintance, his agreeable relations with
her, advanced many steps in the treatment of this question; an
element of friendly candour made its way into their discussion of it.

"I can't make out why it matters to you, one way or the other, nor
why you should think it worth talking about," the young man reasoned.

"Neither can I. It's just a whim."

"Certainly, if it will give you any pleasure, I'll say nothing at the

"That's charming of you, and I'm very grateful. I see now that this
was why the spirit moved me to come up--to save them," Mrs. Ryves
went on. She added, moving away, that now she had saved them she
must really go.

"To save them for what, if I mayn't break the seals?" Baron asked.

"I don't know--for a generous sacrifice."

"Why should it be generous? What's at stake?" Peter demanded,
leaning against the doorpost as she stood on the landing.

"I don't know what, but I feel as if something or other were in
peril. Burn them up!" she exclaimed with shining eyes.

"Ah, you ask too much--I'm so curious about them!"

"Well, I won't ask more than I ought, and I'm much obliged to you for
your promise to be quiet. I trust to your discretion. Good-by."

"You ought to REWARD my discretion," said Baron, coming out to the

She had partly descended the staircase and she stopped, leaning
against the baluster and smiling up at him. "Surely you've had your
reward in the honour of my visit."

"That's delightful as far as it goes. But what will you do for me if
I burn the papers?"

Mrs. Ryves considered a moment. "Burn them first and you'll see!"

On this she went rapidly downstairs, and Baron, to whom the answer
appeared inadequate and the proposition indeed in that form grossly
unfair, returned to his room. The vivacity of her interest in a
question in which she had discoverably nothing at stake mystified,
amused and, in addition, irresistibly charmed him. She was delicate,
imaginative, inflammable, quick to feel, quick to act. He didn't
complain of it, it was the way he liked women to be;, but he was not
impelled for the hour to commit the sealed packets to the flames. He
dropped them again into their secret well, and after that he went
out. He felt restless and excited; another day was lost for work--
the dreadful job to be performed for Mr. Locket was still further

Henry James

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