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Chapter 5

It tormented him so the next morning that after threshing it out a
little further he felt he had something of a grievance. Mrs. Ryves's
intervention had made him acutely uncomfortable, for she had taken
the attitude of exerting pressure without, it appeared, recognising
on his part an equal right. She had imposed herself as an influence,
yet she held herself aloof as a participant; there were things she
looked to him to do for her, yet she could tell him of no good that
would come to him from the doing. She should either have had less to
say or have been willing to say more, and he asked himself why he
should be the sport of her moods and her mysteries. He perceived her
knack of punctual interference to be striking, but it was just this
apparent infallibility that he resented. Why didn't she set up at
once as a professional clairvoyant and eke out her little income more
successfully? In purely private life such a gift was disconcerting;
her divinations, her evasions disturbed at any rate his own
tranquillity.

What disturbed it still further was that he received early in the day
a visit from Mr. Locket, who, leaving him under no illusion as to the
grounds of such an honour, remarked as soon as he had got into the
room or rather while he still panted on the second flight and the
smudged little slavey held open Baron's door, that he had taken up
his young friend's invitation to look at Sir Dominick Ferrand's
letters for himself. Peter drew them forth with a promptitude
intended to show that he recognised the commercial character of the
call and without attenuating the inconsequence of this departure from
the last determination he had expressed to Mr. Locket. He showed his
visitor the davenport and the hidden recess, and he smoked a
cigarette, humming softly, with a sense of unwonted advantage and
triumph, while the cautious editor sat silent and handled the papers.
For all his caution Mr. Locket was unable to keep a warmer light out
of his judicial eye as he said to Baron at last with sociable
brevity--a tone that took many things for granted: "I'll take them
home with me--they require much attention."

The young man looked at him a moment. "Do you think they're
genuine?" He didn't mean to be mocking, he meant not to be; but the
words sounded so to his own ear, and he could see that they produced
that effect on Mr. Locket.

"I can't in the least determine. I shall have to go into them at my
leisure, and that's why I ask you to lend them to me."

He had shuffled the papers together with a movement charged, while he
spoke, with the air of being preliminary to that of thrusting them
into a little black bag which he had brought with him and which,
resting on the shelf of the davenport, struck Peter, who viewed it
askance, as an object darkly editorial. It made our young man,
somehow, suddenly apprehensive; the advantage of which he had just
been conscious was about to be transferred by a quiet process of
legerdemain to a person who already had advantages enough. Baron, in
short, felt a deep pang of anxiety; he couldn't have said why. Mr.
Locket took decidedly too many things for granted, and the explorer
of Sir Dominick Ferrand's irregularities remembered afresh how clear
he had been after all about his indisposition to traffic in them. He
asked his visitor to what end he wished to remove the letters, since
on the one hand there was no question now of the article in the
Promiscuous which was to reveal their existence, and on the other he
himself, as their owner, had a thousand insurmountable scruples about
putting them into circulation.

Mr. Locket looked over his spectacles as over the battlements of a
fortress. "I'm not thinking of the end--I'm thinking of the
beginning. A few glances have assured me that such documents ought
to be submitted to some competent eye."

"Oh, you mustn't show them to anyone!" Baron exclaimed.

"You may think me presumptuous, but the eye that I venture to allude
to in those terms--"

"Is the eye now fixed so terribly on ME?" Peter laughingly
interrupted. "Oh, it would be interesting, I confess, to know how
they strike a man of your acuteness!" It had occurred to him that by
such a concession he might endear himself to a literary umpire
hitherto implacable. There would be no question of his publishing
Sir Dominick Ferrand, but he might, in due acknowledgment of services
rendered, form the habit of publishing Peter Baron. "How long would
it be your idea to retain them?" he inquired, in a manner which, he
immediately became aware, was what incited Mr. Locket to begin
stuffing the papers into his bag. With this perception he came
quickly closer and, laying his hand on the gaping receptacle, lightly
drew its two lips together. In this way the two men stood for a few
seconds, touching, almost in the attitude of combat, looking hard
into each other's eyes.

The tension was quickly relieved however by the surprised flush which
mantled on Mr. Locket's brow. He fell back a few steps with an
injured dignity that might have been a protest against physical
violence. "Really, my dear young sir, your attitude is tantamount to
an accusation of intended bad faith. Do you think I want to steal
the confounded things?" In reply to such a challenge Peter could
only hastily declare that he was guilty of no discourteous suspicion-
-he only wanted a limit named, a pledge of every precaution against
accident. Mr. Locket admitted the justice of the demand, assured him
he would restore the property within three days, and completed, with
Peter's assistance, his little arrangements for removing it
discreetly. When he was ready, his treacherous reticule distended
with its treasures, he gave a lingering look at the inscrutable
davenport. "It's how they ever got into that thing that puzzles
one's brain!"

"There was some concatenation of circumstances that would doubtless
seem natural enough if it were explained, but that one would have to
remount the stream of time to ascertain. To one course I have
definitely made up my mind: not to make any statement or any inquiry
at the shop. I simply accept the mystery," said Peter, rather
grandly.

"That would be thought a cheap escape if you were to put it into a
story," Mr. Locket smiled.

"Yes, I shouldn't offer the story to YOU. I shall be impatient till
I see my papers again," the young man called out, as his visitor
hurried downstairs.

That evening, by the last delivery, he received, under the Dover
postmark, a letter that was not from Miss Teagle. It was a slightly
confused but altogether friendly note, written that morning after
breakfast, the ostensible purpose of which was to thank him for the
amiability of his visit, to express regret at any appearance the
writer might have had of meddling with what didn't concern her, and
to let him know that the evening before, after he had left her, she
had in a moment of inspiration got hold of the tail of a really
musical idea--a perfect accompaniment for the song he had so kindly
given her. She had scrawled, as a specimen, a few bars at the end of
her note, mystic, mocking musical signs which had no sense for her
correspondent. The whole letter testified to a restless but rather
pointless desire to remain in communication with him. In answering
her, however, which he did that night before going to bed, it was on
this bright possibility of their collaboration, its advantages for
the future of each of them, that Baron principally expatiated. He
spoke of this future with an eloquence of which he would have
defended the sincerity, and drew of it a picture extravagantly rich.
The next morning, as he was about to settle himself to tasks for some
time terribly neglected, with a sense that after all it was rather a
relief not to be sitting so close to Sir Dominick Ferrand, who had
become dreadfully distracting; at the very moment at which he
habitually addressed his preliminary invocation to the muse, he was
agitated by the arrival of a telegram which proved to be an urgent
request from Mr. Locket that he would immediately come down and see
him. This represented, for poor Baron, whose funds were very low,
another morning sacrificed, but somehow it didn't even occur to him
that he might impose his own time upon the editor of the Promiscuous,
the keeper of the keys of renown. He had some of the plasticity of
the raw contributor. He gave the muse another holiday, feeling she
was really ashamed to take it, and in course of time found himself in
Mr. Locket's own chair at Mr. Locket's own table--so much nobler an
expanse than the slippery slope of the davenport--considering with
quick intensity, in the white flash of certain words just brought out
by his host, the quantity of happiness, of emancipation that might
reside in a hundred pounds.

Yes, that was what it meant: Mr. Locket, in the twenty-four hours,
had discovered so much in Sir Dominick's literary remains that his
visitor found him primed with an offer. A hundred pounds would be
paid him that day, that minute, and no questions would be either
asked or answered. "I take all the risks, I take all the risks," the
editor of the Promiscuous repeated. The letters were out on the
table, Mr. Locket was on the hearthrug, like an orator on a platform,
and Peter, under the influence of his sudden ultimatum, had dropped,
rather weakly, into the seat which happened to be nearest and which,
as he became conscious it moved on a pivot, he whirled round so as to
enable himself to look at his tempter with an eye intended to be
cold. What surprised him most was to find Mr. Locket taking exactly
the line about the expediency of publication which he would have
expected Mr. Locket not to take. "Hush it all up; a barren scandal,
an offence that can't be remedied, is the thing in the world that
least justifies an airing--" some such line as that was the line he
would have thought natural to a man whose life was spent in weighing
questions of propriety and who had only the other day objected, in
the light of this virtue, to a work of the most disinterested art.
But the author of that incorruptible masterpiece had put his finger
on the place in saying to his interlocutor on the occasion of his
last visit that, if given to the world in the pages of the
Promiscuous, Sir Dominick's aberrations would sell the edition. It
was not necessary for Mr. Locket to reiterate to his young friend his
phrase about their making a sensation. If he wished to purchase the
"rights," as theatrical people said, it was not to protect a
celebrated name or to lock them up in a cupboard. That formula of
Baron's covered all the ground, and one edition was a low estimate of
the probable performance of the magazine.

Peter left the letters behind him and, on withdrawing from the
editorial presence, took a long walk on the Embankment. His
impressions were at war with each other--he was flurried by
possibilities of which he yet denied the existence. He had consented
to trust Mr. Locket with the papers a day or two longer, till he
should have thought out the terms on which he might--in the event of
certain occurrences--be induced to dispose of them. A hundred pounds
were not this gentleman's last word, nor perhaps was mere unreasoning
intractability Peter's own. He sighed as he took no note of the
pictures made by barges--sighed because it all might mean money. He
needed money bitterly; he owed it in disquieting quarters. Mr.
Locket had put it before him that he had a high responsibility--that
he might vindicate the disfigured truth, contribute a chapter to the
history of England. "You haven't a right to suppress such momentous
facts," the hungry little editor had declared, thinking how the
series (he would spread it into three numbers) would be the talk of
the town. If Peter had money he might treat himself to ardour, to
bliss. Mr. Locket had said, no doubt justly enough, that there were
ever so many questions one would have to meet should one venture to
play so daring a game. These questions, embarrassments, dangers--the
danger, for instance, of the cropping-up of some lurking litigious
relative--he would take over unreservedly and bear the brunt of
dealing with. It was to be remembered that the papers were
discredited, vitiated by their childish pedigree; such a preposterous
origin, suggesting, as he had hinted before, the feeble ingenuity of
a third-rate novelist, was a thing he should have to place himself at
the positive disadvantage of being silent about. He would rather
give no account of the matter at all than expose himself to the
ridicule that such a story would infallibly excite. Couldn't one see
them in advance, the clever, taunting things the daily and weekly
papers would say? Peter Baron had his guileless side, but he felt,
as he worried with a stick that betrayed him the granite parapets of
the Thames, that he was not such a fool as not to know how Mr. Locket
would "work" the mystery of his marvellous find. Nothing could help
it on better with the public than the impenetrability of the secret
attached to it. If Mr. Locket should only be able to kick up dust
enough over the circumstances that had guided his hand his fortune
would literally be made. Peter thought a hundred pounds a low bid,
yet he wondered how the Promiscuous could bring itself to offer such
a sum--so large it loomed in the light of literary remuneration as
hitherto revealed to our young man. The explanation of this anomaly
was of course that the editor shrewdly saw a dozen ways of getting
his money back. There would be in the "sensation," at a later stage,
the making of a book in large type--the book of the hour; and the
profits of this scandalous volume or, if one preferred the name, this
reconstruction, before an impartial posterity, of a great historical
humbug, the sum "down," in other words, that any lively publisher
would give for it, figured vividly in Mr. Locket's calculations. It
was therefore altogether an opportunity of dealing at first hand with
the lively publisher that Peter was invited to forego. Peter gave a
masterful laugh, rejoicing in his heart that, on the spot, in the
repaire he had lately quitted, he had not been tempted by a figure
that would have approximately represented the value of his property.
It was a good job, he mentally added as he turned his face homeward,
that there was so little likelihood of his having to struggle with
that particular pressure.

Henry James

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