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

Chapter 3

Ten days after Mrs. Ryves's visit he paid by appointment another call
on the editor of the Promiscuous. He found him in the little
wainscoted Chelsea house, which had to Peter's sense the smoky
brownness of an old pipebowl, surrounded with all the emblems of his
office--a litter of papers, a hedge of encyclopaedias, a photographic
gallery of popular contributors--and he promised at first to consume
very few of the moments for which so many claims competed. It was
Mr. Locket himself however who presently made the interview spacious,
gave it air after discovering that poor Baron had come to tell him
something more interesting than that he couldn't after all patch up
his tale. Peter had begun with this, had intimated respectfully that
it was a case in which both practice and principle rebelled, and
then, perceiving how little Mr. Locket was affected by his audacity,
had felt weak and slightly silly, left with his heroism on his hands.
He had armed himself for a struggle, but the Promiscuous didn't even
protest, and there would have been nothing for him but to go away
with the prospect of never coming again had he not chanced to say
abruptly, irrelevantly, as he got up from his chair:

"Do you happen to be at all interested in Sir Dominick Ferrand?"

Mr. Locket, who had also got up, looked over his glasses. "The late
Sir Dominick?"

"The only one; you know the family's extinct."

Mr. Locket shot his young friend another sharp glance, a silent
retort to the glibness of this information. "Very extinct indeed.
I'm afraid the subject today would scarcely be regarded as
attractive."

"Are you very sure?" Baron asked.

Mr. Locket leaned forward a little, with his fingertips on his table,
in the attitude of giving permission to retire. "I might consider
the question in a special connection." He was silent a minute, in a
way that relegated poor Peter to the general; but meeting the young
man's eyes again he asked: "Are you--a--thinking of proposing an
article upon him?"

"Not exactly proposing it--because I don't yet quite see my way; but
the idea rather appeals to me."

Mr. Locket emitted the safe assertion that this eminent statesman had
been a striking figure in his day; then he added: "Have you been
studying him?"

"I've been dipping into him."

"I'm afraid he's scarcely a question of the hour," said Mr. Locket,
shuffling papers together.

"I think I could make him one," Peter Baron declared.

Mr. Locket stared again; he was unable to repress an unattenuated
"You?"

"I have some new material," said the young man, colouring a little.
"That often freshens up an old story."

"It buries it sometimes. It's often only another tombstone."

"That depends upon what it is. However," Peter added, "the documents
I speak of would be a crushing monument."

Mr. Locket, hesitating, shot another glance under his glasses. "Do
you allude to--a--revelations?"

"Very curious ones."

Mr. Locket, still on his feet, had kept his body at the bowing angle;
it was therefore easy for him after an instant to bend a little
further and to sink into his chair with a movement of his hand toward
the seat Baron had occupied. Baron resumed possession of this
convenience, and the conversation took a fresh start on a basis which
such an extension of privilege could render but little less
humiliating to our young man. He had matured no plan of confiding
his secret to Mr. Locket, and he had really come out to make him
conscientiously that other announcement as to which it appeared that
so much artistic agitation had been wasted. He had indeed during the
past days--days of painful indecision--appealed in imagination to the
editor of the Promiscuous, as he had appealed to other sources of
comfort; but his scruples turned their face upon him from quarters
high as well as low, and if on the one hand he had by no means made
up his mind not to mention his strange knowledge, he had still more
left to the determination of the moment the question of how he should
introduce the subject. He was in fact too nervous to decide; he only
felt that he needed for his peace of mind to communicate his
discovery. He wanted an opinion, the impression of somebody else,
and even in this intensely professional presence, five minutes after
he had begun to tell his queer story, he felt relieved of half his
burden. His story was very queer; he could take the measure of that
himself as he spoke; but wouldn't this very circumstance qualify it
for the Promiscuous?

"Of course the letters may be forgeries," said Mr. Locket at last.

"I've no doubt that's what many people will say."

"Have they been seen by any expert?"

"No indeed; they've been seen by nobody."

"Have you got any of them with you?"

"No; I felt nervous about bringing them out."

"That's a pity. I should have liked the testimony of my eyes."

"You may have it if you'll come to my rooms. If you don't care to do
that without a further guarantee I'll copy you out some passages."

"Select a few of the worst!" Mr. Locket laughed. Over Baron's
distressing information he had become quite human and genial. But he
added in a moment more dryly: "You know they ought to be seen by an
expert."

"That's exactly what I dread," said Peter.

"They'll be worth nothing to me if they're not."

Peter communed with his innermost spirit. "How much will they be
worth to ME if they ARE?"

Mr. Locket turned in his study-chair. "I should require to look at
them before answering that question."

"I've been to the British museum--there are many of his letters
there. I've obtained permission to see them, and I've compared
everything carefully. I repudiate the possibility of forgery. No
sign of genuineness is wanting; there are details, down to the very
postmarks, that no forger could have invented. Besides, whose
interest could it conceivably have been? A labor of unspeakable
difficulty, and all for what advantage? There are so many letters,
too--twenty-seven in all."

"Lord, what an ass!" Mr. Locket exclaimed.

"It will be one of the strangest post-mortem revelations of which
history preserves the record."

Mr. Locket, grave now, worried with a paper-knife the crevice of a
drawer. "It's very odd. But to be worth anything such documents
should be subjected to a searching criticism--I mean of the
historical kind."

"Certainly; that would be the task of the writer introducing them to
the public."

Again Mr. Locket considered; then with a smile he looked up. "You
had better give up original composition and take to buying old
furniture."

"Do you mean because it will pay better?"

"For you, I should think, original composition couldn't pay worse.
The creative faculty's so rare."

"I do feel tempted to turn my attention to real heroes," Peter
replied.

"I'm bound to declare that Sir Dominick Ferrand was never one of
mine. Flashy, crafty, second-rate--that's how I've always read him.
It was never a secret, moreover, that his private life had its weak
spots. He was a mere flash in the pan."

"He speaks to the people of this country," said Baron.

"He did; but his voice--the voice, I mean, of his prestige--is
scarcely audible now."

"They're still proud of some of the things he did at the Foreign
Office--the famous 'exchange' with Spain, in the Mediterranean, which
took Europe so by surprise and by which she felt injured, especially
when it became apparent how much we had the best of the bargain.
Then the sudden, unexpected show of force by which he imposed on the
United States our interpretation of that tiresome treaty--I could
never make out what it was about. These were both matters that no
one really cared a straw about, but he made every one feel as if they
cared; the nation rose to the way he played his trumps--it was
uncommon. He was one of the few men we've had, in our period, who
took Europe, or took America, by surprise, made them jump a bit; and
the country liked his doing it--it was a pleasant change. The rest
of the world considered that they knew in any case exactly what we
would do, which was usually nothing at all. Say what you like, he's
still a high name; partly also, no doubt, on account of other things
his early success and early death, his political 'cheek' and wit; his
very appearance--he certainly was handsome--and the possibilities (of
future personal supremacy) which it was the fashion at the time,
which it's the fashion still, to say had passed away with him. He
had been twice at the Foreign Office; that alone was remarkable for a
man dying at forty-four. What therefore will the country think when
it learns he was venal?"

Peter Baron himself was not angry with Sir Dominick Ferrand, who had
simply become to him (he had been "reading up" feverishly for a week)
a very curious subject of psychological study; but he could easily
put himself in the place of that portion of the public whose memory
was long enough for their patriotism to receive a shock. It was some
time fortunately since the conduct of public affairs had wanted for
men of disinterested ability, but the extraordinary documents
concealed (of all places in the world--it was as fantastic as a
nightmare) in a "bargain" picked up at second-hand by an obscure
scribbler, would be a calculable blow to the retrospective mind.
Baron saw vividly that if these relics should be made public the
scandal, the horror, the chatter would be immense. Immense would be
also the contribution to truth, the rectification of history. He had
felt for several days (and it was exactly what had made him so
nervous) as if he held in his hand the key to public attention.

"There are too many things to explain," Mr. Locket went on, "and the
singular provenance of your papers would count almost overwhelmingly
against them even if the other objections were met. There would be a
perfect and probably a very complicated pedigree to trace. How did
they get into your davenport, as you call it, and how long had they
been there? What hands secreted them? what hands had, so incredibly,
clung to them and preserved them? Who are the persons mentioned in
them? who are the correspondents, the parties to the nefarious
transactions? You say the transactions appear to be of two distinct
kinds--some of them connected with public business and others
involving obscure personal relations."

"They all have this in common," said Peter Baron, "that they
constitute evidence of uneasiness, in some instances of painful
alarm, on the writer's part, in relation to exposure--the exposure in
the one case, as I gather, of the fact that he had availed himself of
official opportunities to promote enterprises (public works and that
sort of thing) in which he had a pecuniary stake. The dread of the
light in the other connection is evidently different, and these
letters are the earliest in date. They are addressed to a woman,
from whom he had evidently received money."

Mr. Locket wiped his glasses. "What woman?"

"I haven't the least idea. There are lots of questions I can't
answer, of course; lots of identities I can't establish; lots of gaps
I can't fill. But as to two points I'm clear, and they are the
essential ones. In the first place the papers in my possession are
genuine; in the second place they're compromising."

With this Peter Baron rose again, rather vexed with himself for
having been led on to advertise his treasure (it was his
interlocutor's perfectly natural scepticism that produced this
effect), for he felt that he was putting himself in a false position.
He detected in Mr. Locket's studied detachment the fermentation of
impulses from which, unsuccessful as he was, he himself prayed to be
delivered.

Mr. Locket remained seated; he watched Baron go across the room for
his hat and umbrella. "Of course, the question would come up of
whose property today such documents would legally he. There are
heirs, descendants, executors to consider."

"In some degree perhaps; hut I've gone into that a little. Sir
Dominick Ferrand had no children, and he left no brothers and no
sisters. His wife survived him, but she died ten years ago. He can
have had no heirs and no executors to speak of, for he left no
property."

''That's to his honour and against your theory,'' said Mr. Locket.

"I HAVE no theory. He left a largeish mass of debt," Peter Baron
added. At this Mr. Locket got up, while his visitor pursued: "So
far as I can ascertain, though of course my inquiries have had to be
very rapid and superficial, there is no one now living, directly or
indirectly related to the personage in question, who would be likely
to suffer from any steps in the direction of publicity. It happens
to be a rare instance of a life that had, as it were, no loose ends.
At least there are none perceptible at present."

"I see, I see," said Mr. Locket. "But I don't think I should care
much for your article."

"What article?"

"The one you seem to wish to write, embodying this new matter."

"Oh, I don't wish to write it!" Peter exclaimed. And then he bade
his host good-by.

"Good-by," said Mr. Locket. "Mind you, I don't say that I think
there's nothing in it."

"You would think there was something in it if you were to see my
documents."

"I should like to see the secret compartment,"

the caustic editor rejoined. "Copy me out some extracts."

"To what end, if there's no question of their being of use to you?"

"I don't say that--I might like the letters themselves."

"Themselves?"

"Not as the basis of a paper, but just to publish--for a sensation."

"They'd sell your number!" Baron laughed.

"I daresay I should like to look at them," Mr. Locket conceded after
a moment. "When should I find you at home?"

"Don't come," said the young man. "I make you no offer."

"I might make YOU one," the editor hinted. "Don't trouble yourself;
I shall probably destroy them." With this Peter Baron took his
departure, waiting however just afterwards, in the street near the
house, as if he had been looking out for a stray hansom, to which he
would not have signalled had it appeared. He thought Mr. Locket
might hurry after him, but Mr. Locket seemed to have other things to
do, and Peter Baron returned on foot to Jersey Villas.

Henry James

Sorry, no summary available yet.