When It Was Dark/Chapter 5

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



IN his great room at the British Museum, great, that is, for the private room of an official, Robert Llwellyn sat at his writing-desk finishing the last few lines of his article on the Hebrew inscription in mosaic, which had been discovered at Kefr Kenna.

It was about four in the afternoon, growing dark with the peculiarly sordid and hopeless twilight of a winter's afternoon in central London. A reading lamp upon the desk threw a bright circle of light on the sheet of white unlined paper covered with minute writing, which lay before the keeper of Biblical antiquities in the British Museum.

The view from the tall windows was hideous and almost sinister in its ugliness. Nothing met the eye but the gloomy backs of some of the great dingy lodging-houses which surround the Museum, bedroom windows, back bedrooms with dingy curtains, vulgarly unlovely.

The room itself was official looking, but far from uncomfortable. There were many book-shelves lining the walls. Over them hung large-framed photographs and drawings of inscriptions. On a stand by itself, covered with a glass shade, was a duplicate of Dr. Schick's model of the Haram Area during the Christian occupation of Jerusalem.

A dull fire glowed in the large open fireplace.

Llwellyn wrote a final line with a sigh of relief and then leaned far back in his swivel chair. His face was gloomy, and his eyes were dull with some inward communing, apparently of a disturbing and unpleasant kind.

The door opened noiselessly (all the dwellers in the mysterious private parts of the Museum walk without noise, and seem to have caught in their voices something of that almost religious reverence emanating from surroundings out of the immemorial past), and Lambert, the assistant keeper and secretary, entered.

He drew up a chair to the writing-desk.

"The firman has been granted!" he said.

A quick interest shone on Professor Llwellyn's face.

"Ah!" he said, "it has come at last, then, after all these months of waiting. I began to despair of the Turkish Government. I never thought it would be granted. Then the Society will really begin to excavate at last in the prohibited spots! Really that is splendid news, Lambert. We shall have some startling results. Results, mind you, which will be historical, historical! I doubt but that the whole theory of the Gospel narrative will have to be reconstructed during the next few years!"

"It is quite possible," said Lambert. "But, on the other hand, it may happen that nothing whatever is found."

Llwellyn nodded. Then a sudden thought seemed to strike him. "But how do you know of this, Lambert?" he said, "and how has it happened?"

Lambert was a pleasant, open-faced fellow, young, and with a certain air of distinction. He laughed gaily, and returned his chiefs look of interest with an affectionate expression in his eyes.

"Ah!" he said, "I have heard a great deal, sir, and I have some thing to tell you which I am very happy about. It is gratifying to bring you the first news. Last night I was dining with my uncle, Sir Michael Manichoe, you know. The Home Secretary was there, a great friend of my uncle's. You know the great interest he takes in the work of the Exploration Society, and his general interest in the Holy Land?"

"Oh, of course," said Llwellyn. "He's the leader of the uncompromising Protestant party in the House; owes his position to it, in fact. He breakfasts with the Septuagint, lunches off the Gospels, and sups with Revelations. Well?"

"It is owing to his personal interest in the work," continued Lambert, "that the Sultan has granted the firman. After dinner he took me aside, and we had a longish talk. He was very gracious, and most eager to hear of all our recent work here, and additions to the collections in our department. I was extremely pleased, as you may imagine. He spoke of you, sir, as the greatest living authority—wouldn't hear of Conrad Schick or Clermont-Ganneau in the same breath with you. He went on to say in confidence, and he hinted to me that I had his permission to tell you, though he didn't say as much in so many words, that they are going to offer you knight-hood in a few days!"

A sudden flush suffused the face of the elder man. Then he laughed a little.

"Your news is certainly unexpected, my dear boy," he said, "and, for my part, knighthood is no very welcome thing personally. But it would be idle to deny that I'm pleased. It means recognition of my work, you see. In that way only, it is good news that you have brought."

"That's just it, Professor," the young man answered enthusiastically. "That's exactly it. Sir Robert Llwellyn, or Mr. Llwellyn, of course, cannot matter to you personally. But it is a fitting and graceful recognition of the work. It is a proper thing that the greatest living authority on the antiquities and history of Asia Minor should be officially recognised. It encourages all of us, you see, Professor."

The young man's generous excitement pleased Llwellyn. He placed his hand upon his shoulder with a kindly, affectionate gesture.

At that moment a messenger knocked and entered with a bundle of letters, which had just arrived by the half-past-four post, and, with a congratulatory shake of the hand, Lambert left his chief to his correspondence.

The great specialist, when he had left the room, rose from his chair, went towards the door with swift, cat-like steps, and locked it. Then he returned to the desk, opened a deep drawer with a key which he drew from his watch-pocket, and took a silver-mounted flask of brandy from the receptacle. He poured a small dose of brandy into the metal cup and drank it hurriedly.

Then he leaned back once more in his chair.

Professor Llwellyn's face was familiar to all readers of the illustrated press. He was one of the few famous savants whose name was a household word not only to his colleagues and the learned generally, but also to the great mass of the general public.

In every department of effort and work there are one or two men whose personality seems to catch the popular eye.

His large, clean-shaven face might have belonged to a popular comedian; his portly figure had still nothing of old age about it. He was sprightly and youthful in manner despite his fat. The small, merry, green eyes—eyes which had yet something furtive and "alarmed" in them at times—stood for a concrete personification of good humour. His somewhat sensual lips were always smiling and jolly on public occasions. His enormous erudition and acknowledged place among the learned of Europe went so strangely with his appearance that the world was pleased and tickled by the paradox.

It was a fine thing to think that the spectacled Dry-as-dust was gone. That era of animated mummy was over, and when The World read of Professor Llwellyn at a first night of the Lyceum, or the guest of honour at the Savage Club, it forget to jeer at his abstruse erudition.

Scholars admitted his scholarship, and ordinary men and women welcomed him as homme du monde.

The Professor replaced the flask in the drawer and locked it. His hand trembled as he did so. The light which shone on the white face showed it eloquent with dread and despair. Here, in the privacy of the huge, comfortable room, was a soul in an anguish that no mortal eyes could see.

The Professor had locked the door.

The letters which the messenger had brought were many in number and various in shape and style.

Five or six of them, which bore foreign stamps and indications that they came from the Continental antiquarian societies, he put on one side to be opened and replied to on the morrow.

Then he took up an envelope addressed to him in firm black writing and turned it over. On the flap was the white, embossed oval and crown, which showed that it came from the House of Commons. His florid face became paler than before, the flesh of it turned grey, an unpleasant sight in so large and ample a countenance, as he tore it open. The letter ran as follows:

"House of Commons.

"Dear Llwellyn,—I am writing to you now to say that I am quite determined that the present situation shall not continue. You must understand, finally, that my patience is exhausted, and that, unless the large sum you owe me is repaid within the next week, my solicitors have my instructions, which are quite unalterable, to proceed in bankruptcy against you without further delay.

"The principal and interest now total to the sum of fourteen thousand pounds. Your promises to repay, and your innumerable requests for more time in which to do so, now extend over a period of three years. I have preserved all your letters on the subject at issue between us, and I find that, so far from decreasing your indebtedness when your promises became due, you have almost invariably asked me for further sums, which, in foolish confidence, as I feel now, I have advanced to you.

"It would be superfluous to point out to you what bankruptcy would mean to you in your position. Ruin would be the only word. And it would be no ordinary bankruptcy. I have a by no means uncertain idea where these large sums have gone, and my knowledge can hardly fail to be shared by others in London society.

"I have still a chance to offer you, however, and, perhaps, you will find me by no means the tyrant you think.

"There are certain services which you can do me, and which, if you fall in with my views, will not only wipe off the few thousands of your indebtedness, but provide you with a capital sum which will place you above the necessity for any such financial manoeuvres in the future as your—shall I say infatuation?—has led you to resort to in the past.

"If you care to lunch with me at my rooms in the Hotel Cecil, at two o'clock, the day after to-morrow—Friday—we may discuss your affairs quietly. If not, then I must refer you to my solicitors entirely.

"Yours sincerely,
"Constantine Schuabe"

The big man gave a horrid groan—half snarl, half groan—the sound which comes from a strong animal desperate and at bay.

He crossed over to the fireplace and pushed the letter down into a glowing cavern among the coals, holding it there with the poker until it was utterly consumed and fluttered up the chimney from his sight in a sheet of ash—the very colour of his relaxed and pendulous cheeks. He opened another letter, a small, fragile thing written on mauve paper, in a large, irregular hand—a woman's hand:—

"15 Bloomsbury Court Mansions.

"Dear Bob,—I shall expect you at the flat to-night at eleven, without fail. You'd better come, or things which you won't like will happen.

"You've just got to come.—Yours, Gertrude."

He put this letter into his pocket and began to walk the room in long, silent strides.

A little after five he put on a heavy fur coat and left the now silent and gloomy halls of the Museum.

The lamps of Holborn were lit and a blaze of light came from Oxford Circus, where the winking electric advertisements had just begun their work on the tops of the houses.

A policeman saluted the Professor as he passed, and was rewarded by a genial smile and jolly word of greeting, which sent a glow of pleasure through his six feet.

Llwellyn walked steadily on towards the Marble Arch and Edgeware Road. The continual roar of the traffic helped his brain. It became active and able to think, to plan once more. The steady exercise warmed his blood and exhilarated him.

There began to be almost a horrid pleasure in the stress of his position. The danger was so immediate and fell; the blow would be so utterly irreparable, that he was near to enjoying his walk while he could still consider the thing from a detached point of view.

Throughout life that had always been his power. A strange resilience had animated him in all chances and changes of fortune.

He was that almost inhuman phenomenon, a sensualist with a soul.

For many years, while his name became great in Europe and the solid brilliancy of his work grew in lustre as he in age, he had lived two lives, finding an engrossing joy in each.

The lofty scientific world of which he was an ornament had no points of contact with that other and unspeakable half-life. Rumours had been bruited, things said in secret by envious and less distinguished men, but they had never harmed him. His colleagues hardly understood them and cared nothing. His work was all-sufficient; what did it matter if smaller people with forked tongues hissed horrors of his private life?

The other circles—the lost slaves of pleasure—knew him well and were content. He came into the night-world a welcome guest. They knew nothing of his work or fame beyond dim hintings of things too uninteresting for them to bother about.

He turned down the Edgeware Road and then into quiet Upper Berkeley Street, a big, florid, prosperous-looking man, looking as though the world used him well and he was content with all it had to offer.

His house was but a few doors down the street and he went up-stairs to dress at once. He intended to dine at home that night.

His dressing-room, out of which a small bedroom opened, was large and luxurious. A clear fire glowed upon the hearth; the carpet was soft and thick. The great dressing-table with its three-sided mirror was covered with brushes and ivory jars, gleaming brightly in the rays of the little electric lights which framed the mirror. A huge wardrobe, full of clothes neatly folded and put away, suggested a man about town, a dandy with many sartorial interests. An arm-chair of soft green leather, stamped with red-gold pomegranates, stood by a small black table stencilled with orange-coloured bees. On the table stood a cigarette-box of finely plaited cream-coloured straw, woven over silver and cedar-wood, and with Llwellyn's initials in turquoise on one lid.

He threw off his coat and sank into the chair with a sigh of pleasure at the embracing comfort of it. Then his fingers plunged into the tea which filled the box on the table and drew out a tiny yellow cigarette.

He smoked in luxurious silence.

He had already half forgotten the menacing letter from Constantine Schuabe, the imperative summons to the flat in Bloomsbury Court Mansions. This was a moment of intense physical ease. The flavour of his saffron Salonika cigarrette, a tiny glass of garnet-coloured cassis which he had poured out, were alike excellent. All day long he had been at work on a brilliant monograph dealing with the new Hebrew mosaics. Only two other living men could have written it. But his work also had fallen out of his brain. At that moment he was no more than a great animal, soulless, with the lusts of the flesh pouring round him, whispering evil and stinging his blood.

A timid knock fell upon the door outside. It opened and Mrs. Llwellyn came slowly in.

The Professor's wife was a tall, thin woman. Her untidy clothes hung round her body in unlovely folds. Her complexion was muddy and unwholesome; but the unsmiling, withered lips revealed a row of fair, white, even teeth. It was in her eyes that one read the secret of this lady. They were large and blue, once beautiful, so one might have fancied. Now the light had faded from them and they were blurred and full of pain.

She came slowly up to her husband's chair, placing one hand timidly upon it.

"Oh, is that you?" he said, not brutally, but with a complete and utter indifference. "I shall want some dinner at home to-night. I shall be going out about ten to a supper engagement. See about it now, something light. And tell one of the maids to bring up some hot water."

"Yes, Robert," she said, and went out with no further word, but sighing a little as she closed the door quietly.

They had been married fifteen years. For fourteen of them he had hardly ever spoken to her except in anger at some household accident. On her own private income of six hundred a year she had to do what she could to keep the house going. Llwellyn never gave her anything of the thousand a year which was his salary at the Museum, and the greater sums he earned by his work outside it. She knew no one, the Professor went into none but official society, and indeed but few of his colleagues knew that he was a married man. He treated the house as a hotel, sleeping there occasionally, break-fasting, and dressing. His private rooms were the only habitable parts of the house. All the rest was old, faded, and without comfort. Mrs. Llwellyn spent most of her life with the two servants in the kitchen.

She always swept and tidied her husband's rooms herself. That afternoon she had built and coaxed the fire with her own hands.

She slept in a small room at the top of the house, next to the maids, for company.

This was her life.

Over the head of the little iron bedstead of her room hung a great crucifix.

That was her hope.

When Llwellyn was rioting in nameless places she prayed for him during the night. She prayed for him, for herself, and for the two servant girls, very simply—that Heaven might receive them all some day.

The maid brought up some dinner for the Professor—a little soup, a sole, and some camembert.

He ate slowly, and smoked a short light-brown cigar with his coffee. Then he bathed, put on evening clothes, dressing himself with care and circumspection, and left the house.

In the Edgeware Road he got into a hansom and told the man to drive him to Bloomsbury Court Mansions.