By Anthony Hope
"WHAT did he get?" I asked. I had been working in my own room all the morning and had not seen the papers—they arrived from London about half-past eleven.
"Seven years' penal servitude," said our host the Major with grim satisfaction.
"Stiff!" I commented.
"Not a bit too much," asserted the Major, helping himself to game pie again—he is a good luncher. "He's a thoroughly bad lot—a professional thief, and a deuced clever one. It's his first conviction, but it ought to have been his tenth, I should say."
"He was certainly in that big American bond robbery," said Crookes, "though he got off that time. Oxford man, wasn't he?"
"Yes. In fact I believe I was up one term with him," said Millington. "I must have seen him, I think, but I can't remember him."
"Dear, dear!" our hostess observed, shocked apparently at this close proximity to the criminal classes.
"Rather good what the chap said when he'd been sentenced," drawled Charlie Pryce. "See it? Well, he bowed to the judge, and then he bowed to the jury, and smiled, and shrugged his shoulders, and said: 'The risks of the profession, gentlemen! Au revoir!' Jolly good cheek!" Charlie's round red face—he is very well-nourished, as they say at inquests—beamed almost sympathetically.
"I suppose he owes his nickname to his professional dexterity?" said I.
"Suppose so," agreed Charlie.
"No," said Mrs. Pryce, who was at the other end of the table. "His name is James——"
"Yes, James Painter Walsh," interposed the Major, accurate always.
"But he was called 'Slim-Fingered' because he had beautiful hands with very slender tapering fingers."
"Hallo, Minnie!" cried Pryce, "how do you know that?"
"He told me himself," she answered, with a smile and the hint of a blush. "I crossed from America with him the time he was arrested at Queenstown for the bond robbery, and—well, we got acquainted. Of course nobody knew who he was."
A torrent of questions overwhelmed Mrs. Pryce. She had achieved fame—she had known the hero of the last famous jewel robbery. She spoke of him from first-hand knowledge. The unrivalled attraction of crime—crime in the grand manner—fascinates us all. But she wouldn't say much.
"He was just an acquaintance for the voyage," she told us; "though, of course, it was rather a shock when he was arrested at Queenstown."
"Oh, what a surprise!" exclaimed Charlie Pryce jovially.
"A surprise?" She seemed to me to start ever so little. "Oh, yes, of course—terrible!" she went on the next instant.
"Was he nice?" asked our hostess.
"Yes, he was very—very attractive," she answered. And somehow I fancy her glance rested for a moment on her husband—indeed on a particular portion of him. Charlie was just lighting the after-lunch cigarette. Charlie's hands—he is a very good fellow and well-off—are decidedly red and particularly pudgy.
I liked Mrs. Pryce very much. She was pretty, dainty, bright, and—well, bachelors are so apt to think that pretty married women have a dull time at home that I will lay no stress on my own private opinion as to her domestic lot. Enough that I was always glad to talk with her, and that it was pleasant to walk with her in the Major's quiet old garden on a fine night when the wind stirred the boughs and the moon shone. Inside they had taken to pool—and whisky-and-soda. I play the former badly, and take the latter when the evening is more advanced.
"Beautiful moon!" I observed, enjoying Nature, my company, and my cigar.
She was silent a moment. Then she said: "It shone just like that the third night out from New York."
"Your last trip?" She crosses pretty often, as Charlie has business connections on the other side.
"No. The one when—the one we were talking about at lunch."
"Ah! When our friend of the slim fingers——?"
"Let's sit down," I suggested. We were just passing a garden-seat.
She smiled at me half sadly, half mockingly. She saw through me; she knew I wanted to hear more about it. By some sort of sympathy I knew that she wanted to talk about it. It was queer, too, to consider through what window that moon was shining on Slim-Fingered Jim. Did it—and his other surroundings—remind him of the broad Atlantic? "The risks of the profession, gentlemen!"
"Yes, he had beautiful hands," she murmured.
"What'll they look like when——?"
She caught my hand sharply in hers. "Hush, hush!" she whispered. I felt ashamed of myself, but of course I couldn't have known that—well, that she'd feel it like that.
"I was quite a girl," she went on presently. "Yes, it's six years ago—and the first two days of that voyage were like days in heaven. You know what it can be when it's fine? You seem never to have known what space was before—and bigness—and blueness. Do you know what I mean?"
"It's very exhilarating."
"Oh, don't be silly! Of course nobody was ill—anyhow only the people who meant to be before they started—and we had an awfully jolly table."
"Mr. Walsh one of your party?"
"Yes, he was at our table. I—sat next to him."
I turned half round and looked at her. The moon was strong, I could see her eyes.
"Look here, do you want to go on with this story?" I asked.
"Yes, I think so—I've never told it before. But perhaps I'll skip a little of it."
"At the beginning?"
"Yes. Will you imagine the sun shining by day and the moon by night?"
"Yes. And a sparkling sea? And nothing to do?"
"Yes. And a young girl—quite a young girl."
"Yes. And beautiful hands—and the rest to match?"
"Yes—including a voice."
"Yes. Let's skip to the second evening, shall we, Mrs. Pryce?"
"Will you be a little more imaginative and skip to the third afternoon?"
"The third afternoon be it. What's happening when we begin to tell the story again?"
"I'm in my mother's state-room, getting a tremendous lecture. I'm not sure you ought to hear it."
"Oh, I know all about it. You meant no harm, probably, but really it was time you learnt to be more careful. Attractive girls couldn't be too careful. Men were so ready to think this and that—and say this and that—and then go and boast about it in the smoking-room. And what did you or your mother know about him? Nothing! Absolutely nothing! No doubt he was a gentleman, and very pleasant and amusing—but really you knew nothing. He was probably an adventurer. And anyhow—well, really it wasn't quite—not quite—ladylike to—to——"
"Yes, that's not a bad imagination," interrupted Mrs. Pryce. "Add mamma's pince-nez, and it's quite lifelike."
"And the result?"
"Great constraint in my manner towards Mr. Walsh at dinner that evening."
"And—further result—a melancholy walk by you on the deck after dinner—a walk at first solitary—subsequently shared by a puzzled and humble Mr. Walsh?"
"I begin to think you have more experience than you always admit," said Mrs. Pryce. "But I think you'll go wrong if you try to guess any more."
"Then I won't guess any more. Take up the thread. It's now the third night out, and the moon is shining like that." I pointed to the orb which was illuminating the Major's garden—among other places where sundry of that liner's former passengers might chance to be.
"I'll go on," she said; "and don't interrupt me for a little while. There was a very light wind—you hardly felt it aft—and I was standing looking over the sea. He came up to me and began to talk about some trifle—I don't forget what it was, but it doesn't matter. But I was afraid mamma would come up and look for me, so I said I was going down to read. But I waited for just a minute more—I suppose I expected him to ask me not to go. He said nothing, but took one big big pull at his cigar, gave one big big puff of smoke out of his mouth and nose, and then threw the cigar overboard. 'Good night, Mr. Walsh,' I said. He looked at me—it was as light as it is now—and said: 'Will you give me one minute, Miss Cochrane?' 'Well, only a minute,' I said, smiling. I was really afraid about mamma. 'I want to tell you something,' he said. I wonder if I blushed—and whether he could see if I did. I expect I did, and that he saw, because he went on very quickly: 'Something that doesn't matter much to you, but matters a bit to me.' 'Go on,' I said. I was quite calm again now, because—well, because I saw he was going to say something serious—I mean, not of the sort I—I had thought he might be going to say before."
"You saw he wasn't making love to you, you mean?"
"I told you not to interrupt—but I dare say that's putting it as nearly right as you can understand."
I murmured thanks for this rather contemptuous forgiveness.
"Then he told me," Mrs. Pryce went on, "just simply told me—and said he was going to make some excuse for asking the purser to put him at another table."
"But you can't leave it like that!" I expostulated. "You're throwing away all your dramatic effect. What did he say? His words, his words, Mrs. Pryce?"
"He didn't use any—not in the sense you mean. He just told me. He didn't even put me on my honour not to tell anybody else. He said he didn't care a hang about anybody else on board, but that he wanted to spare me any possible shock, and that he'd been concerned in the bond robbery and would probably be arrested at Queenstown, but that he expected to get off this time. I think I repeated 'This time!' because I remember he said then that he was a thief by profession, and couldn't expect good luck every time. That was like what he said yesterday, wasn't it?"
"And what did you say? It must have been a bad quarter of an hour for you. Because you'd liked him a good deal, hadn't you?"
"Yes, a lot. But"—she turned to me smiling now—"it wasn't bad at all, really."
She gave a little laugh—a laugh with pleasant reminiscence in it.
"You were a cool hand for your age," I ventured to observe.
"It was the way he did it," she said. "Somehow I felt he was paying me a very high compliment."
"Oh, I agree!" I laughed.
"And one I was glad to have. It must have been the way he did it. There are some people who abolish one's moral scruples, aren't there? He was very quiet generally, but he had a way of just moving those hands of his with a little waving gesture. And when he said that of course it wasn't right——"
"Oh, he admitted that?"
"Yes, but that little wave of those hands seemed to wave right and wrong right out of the way."
"Absolutely overboard. Then he looked at me a moment and said: 'That's all I had to say. Thanks for listening to me, Miss Cochrane. Good night."
"And what did you say?"
She rested her chin in her hand, looking sideways at me.
"I said: 'Good night, Mr. Walsh. We meet at breakfast to-morrow as usual?’"
"The deuce you did!"
"‘At our table?' he asked. And I said 'Yes.' He gave a little laugh, and so did I, and I held out my hand. He shook hands and left me, and I went down and read with mamma."
"Nothing else said?"
"He said nothing else. I believe I whispered: 'It'll be rather fun—because you will get off!' But I know I didn't say anything more than that."
There was a pause. I lit another cigarette, snatching a mean advantage by stealing a look at my friend in the light of the match. She was not looking at me, but straight ahead of her: there was a pensive smile on her lips.
"And what happened afterwards?" I asked.
"I suppose you'll be shocked?"
"Being shocked is an emotion hostile to art—I never have it."
"Well, then, I never had such fun. Of course we were careful, because of mamma (mamma's idea became funny, too!), and because we knew what was going to happen. But we managed to get no end of talks in quiet places—the library's very good in fine weather—and he told me all sorts of wonderful things. It was like reading the very best detective stories, only ever so much better—so much more vivid, you know."
"More personal interest?"
"A thousand times. And it was fun, too, at meals, and when there was a concert, and so on. I used to find him looking at me, with his eyes all full of laughter; and I looked back at him, enjoying the secret and the way he was making fools of all the rest. We were just like two children with some game that the grown-up people know nothing about."
"He had waved your morality overboard with a vengeance," said I.
"It was the jolliest time I ever had in my life," said Mrs. Pryce. "He recited beautifully at the concert—'The Ballad of Beau Brocade.’"
"Well done him!" I said approvingly. I began rather to like the fellow myself.
"And at the end he made a little speech, thanking the captain, and saying how sorry we should all be when the voyage ended. 'And nobody sorrier than myself,' he said, with one of his looks at me—such a twinkling look—and a tiny wave of those hands."
"He must have been the most popular man on board?"
"Well, the men thought him rather stand-offish; he snubbed some of them, I think. Well, you do meet some queer men on a liner, don't you? And Mr. Walsh said that out of business hours he claimed to choose his acquaintance. But the women all worshipped him—not that he ran after them, but his manner was always just right to them."
"It's really a pity his manner of life was so—well, so unconventional."
"Yes, wasn't it?" she said, welcoming my sympathy. "Because, of course, it meant that our acquaintance had to end with the voyage."
I had, perhaps, been thinking of somewhat broader considerations, but I refrained from advancing them. In fact we had somehow got away from ordinary standards and restraints; the memory of Slim-Fingered Jim had waved them away. We fell into silence for a moment or two, until I asked—
"And the manner of the end? Tell me that."
"I didn't believe in the end. I had got not to believe in it at all. I thought we might go on sailing for ever over that beautiful sea and having the most splendid fun. He could make you feel that everything was just splendid fun—that there was nothing else in the world. He made me feel that—I suppose he knew he could, or he'd never have told me his secret at all. But, of course, the end had to come." She sighed and gave a little shiver—not that it was cold in the Major's garden. Then she turned to me again. "I've told you a good deal," she said, "and you're not a chicken, are you?"
I ruefully admitted that I was no chicken.
"Then I needn't say anything more about myself," said she.
"And what about him?"
"I think he liked me tremendously; but he wasn't in love."
"Not at all?"
"I don't think so. He was just the most perfect of good comrades to me—and in that way the finest gentleman I've ever met. Because, you know, I can see now that I gave him opportunities of being something else. Well, I was only nineteen, and——"
"Quite so. The hands, of course!"
"It seems possible to be good and bad in—in compartments, doesn't it? That's rather curious!"
"Oh, you know it's true!"
"Perhaps I do; but I never contradict the preacher."
She laughed again, but now a trifle fretfully.
"In his own business I believe he's thoroughly bad."
"Not even the chivalrous highwayman?"
"No. Just bad—bad—bad."
"Ah, well, business is one thing and charity another, as somebody once observed. And now for the end, please—because ends do come, even though we don't believe in them."
"Yes, they do; and this one came," she said. But for an instant or two she did not begin to tell me about it; and in the silence I heard Charlie Pryce assert loudly that he had made a good shot.
"At lunch on Friday," Mrs. Pryce resumed. "the steward told us that we were expected to reach Queenstown about one o'clock in the morning, and we all began discussing whether we should sit up. The old travellers scoffed at the idea, and mamma, though she wasn't an old traveller, said she would never think of being so silly. But I and the two other girls at the table—they were Americans on their first trip over—said that we certainly should, and one of them asked Mr. Walsh if he meant to. 'I must,' he said, smiling. 'In fact I expect to land there—that is, if I get the telegram I expect to get.' Of course he glanced at me as he spoke, so that I knew what he meant, though the others hadn't the least idea. What would they have said?"
"I suppose they did say they were very sorry he wasn't going on to Liverpool?"
"Yes, and even mamma said how sorry we were to part from him. Fancy mamma saying that! It was fun! Only after lunch she was terribly aggravating; she kept me down in the writing-room all the afternoon, writing letters for her to all sorts of stupid people in America and at home, saying we had arrived safely. Of course we'd arrived safely! But if mamma so much as crosses the Channel without sinking, she writes to all her friends as if she'd come back from the North Pole. Some people are like that, aren't they?"
"Yes, and they're generally considered attentive. You may get a great reputation for good manners by writing unnecessary letters."
"Yes. So I didn't see him again till dinner. Nothing much happened then—at least, I don't remember much. The end had begun, I think, and I wasn't feeling so jolly as I had been all the way across. But everybody else was in high spirits, and he was the gayest of all of us. I expect he saw that I was rather blue, and he followed me on deck soon after dinner, and there we had our last little talk. He told me that he thought everything would be done quite quietly; he meant to tell the purser where to find him in case of inquiry, and to be ready to go ashore at once. He was sure they'd take him ashore; but if by chance they didn't, he would stay in his cabin, so that, anyhow, this was 'Good-bye.' So I said 'Good-bye' and wished him good luck. 'Are you going to sit up?' he said. I looked at him for a moment and then said 'No.' He smiled in an apologetic sort of way and gave that little wave of his hands. 'It's foolish of me to care, I suppose, but—thank you for that.' I was a little surprised, because I really hadn't thought he would mind me seeing; but I was pleased too. He held out both his hands, and I took them and pressed them. Then I opened my hands and looked at his as they lay there. He was smiling at me with his lips and his eyes. 'Slim-Fingered Jim!' he whispered. 'Don't quite forget him, little friend.' 'I suppose I shall never see you again?' I said, 'Better not,' he told me. 'But let's remember this voyage. We'll put a little fence round it, won't we? and keep all the rest of life out, and just let this stand by itself—on its own merits. Shall we, dear little friend?’"
Mrs. Pryce stayed her narrative for a moment. But my curiosity was merciless.
"What did you say?" I asked.
"I don't know. I think I murmured something like 'Oh, my dear, my dear!' and then I let go of his hands and turned away to the sea; and when I looked round again, he was gone."
"And that was the end?"
"No. The end was lying in the berth above mamma, who was sound asleep, and—well, snoring rather—lying there and feeling the ship slowing down and then stopping, and hearing the mail-boat come alongside, and all the noise and the shouting and the bustle. I knew I could hear nothing—there would be nothing to hear—but I couldn't help listening. I listened very hard all the time, but of course I heard nothing; and at last—after hours and hours, as it seemed—we began to move again. That was the real end. I knew it had happened then; and so it had. He wasn't at breakfast; but luckily nobody on the ship—none of the passengers, I mean—found out about it till we got to Liverpool; and as mamma and I weren't going on to London, it didn't matter."
"And he got off?"
"Yes, he got off—that time."
"I'm afraid this great man had one foible," I observed. "He was proud of those hands! Well, Cæsar didn't like getting bald, so I learnt at school."
"I always remember them as they lay in mine," she said. "His hands and his eyes—that's what I remember."
"Ever seen him again?"
"Of course not." She sat where she was for a moment longer, then rose. "Shall we go in?"
"I think we may as well," said I.
So we went into the billiard-room. They were still playing pool. I made for the whisky-and-soda and mixed myself a tumbler and drank thereof. When I set the tumbler down and turned round to the table, Charlie Pryce was engaged in making a shot of critical importance. Everybody was looking at him. His wife was standing at the end of the table and looking at him too. She seemed as much interested in the shot as any of them. But was she? For before he played, she raised her eyes and looked across at me with a queer little smile. I couldn't help returning it. I knew what she was thinking. The billiard-table is a high trial.
When Charlie had brought off his shot—which he did triumphantly—his wife came and kissed him. This pleased him very much. He did not recognise the Kiss Penitential, which is, however, a well-ascertained variety.
I'm afraid that the magnetic current of immorality which seemed to emanate from Mr. James Painter Walsh passed through the sympathetic medium of Mrs. Pryce's memory and infected, in some small degree, my more hardened intellect; for even now I can't help hoping that Slim-Fingered Jim is being put to some light form of labour. But it's a difficult business! Even the laundry—a most coveted department, as I am given to understand—would spoil them hopelessly.
Copyright, 1904, by Anthony Hope Hawkins, in the United States of America. All rights reserved.