The Fatal Letter by Stanley J. Weyman
I have friends who tell me that they seldom walk the streets of London
without wondering what is passing behind the house-fronts; without
picturing a comedy here, a love-scene there, and behind the dingy cane
blinds a something ill-defined, a something odd and bizarre. They
experience--if you believe them--a sense of loneliness out in the
street, an impatience of the sameness of all these many houses, their
dull bricks and discreet windows, and a longing that someone would
step out and ask them to enter and see the play.
Well, I have never felt any of these things; but as I was passing
through Fitzhardinge Square about half-past ten o'clock one evening in
last July, after dining, if I remember rightly, in Baker Street,
something happened to me which I fancy may be of interest to such
I was passing through the square from north to south, and to avoid a
small crowd, which some reception had drawn together, I left the
pavement and struck across the road to the path around the oval
garden; which, by the way, contains a few of the finest trees in
London. This part was in deep shadow, so that when I presently emerged
from it and recrossed the road to the pavement near the top of
Fitzhardinge Street, I had an advantage over any persons on the
pavement. They were under the lamps, while I, coming from beneath the
trees, was almost invisible.
The door of the house immediately in front of me as I crossed was
open, and an elderly man servant out of livery was standing at it,
looking up and down the pavement by turns. It was his air of furtive
anxiety that drew my attention to him. He was not like a man looking
for a cab, or waiting for his sweetheart; and I had my eye upon him as
I stepped upon the pavement before him. But my surprise was great when
he uttered a low exclamation of dismay at sight of me, and made as if
he would escape; while his face, in the full glare of the light, grew
so pale and terror-stricken that he might before have been completely
at his ease. I was astonished and instinctively stood still returning
his gaze; for perhaps twenty seconds we remained so, he speechless,
and his hands fallen by his side. Then, before I could move on, as I
was in the act of doing, he cried, "Oh, Mr. George! Oh! Mr. George!"
in a tone that rang out in the stillness rather as a wail than an
My name, my surname, I mean, is George. For a moment I took the
address to myself, forgetting that the man was a stranger, and my
heart began to beat more quickly with fear of what might have
happened. "What is it?" I exclaimed. "What is it?" and I shook back
from the lower part of my face the silk muffler I was wearing. The
evening was close, but I had been suffering from a sore throat.
He came nearer and peered more closely at me, and I dismissed my fear;
for I thought that I could see the discovery of his mistake dawning
upon him. His pallid face, on which the pallor was the more noticeable
as his plump features were those of a man with whom the world as a
rule went well, regained some of its lost color, and a sigh of relief
passed his lips. But this feeling was only momentary. The joy of
escape from whatever blow he had thought imminent gave place at once
to his previous state of miserable expectancy of something or other.
"You took me for another person," I said, preparing to pass on. At
that moment I could have sworn--I would have given one hundred to one
twice over--that he was going to say yes. To my intense astonishment,
he did not. With a very visible effort he said, "No."
"Eh! What?" I exclaimed. I had taken a step or two.
"Then what is it?" I said. "What do you want, my good fellow?"
Watching his shuffling, indeterminate manner, I wondered if he were
sane. His next answer reassured me on that point. There was an almost
desperate deliberation about its manner. "My master wishes to see you,
sir, if you will kindly walk in for five minutes," was what he said.
I should have replied, "Who is your master?" if I had been wise; or
cried, "Nonsense!" and gone my way. But the mind, when it is spurred
by a sudden emergency, often overruns the more obvious course to adopt
a worse. It was possible that one of my intimates had taken the house,
and said in his butler's presence that he wished to see me. Thinking
of that I answered, "Are you sure of this? Have you not made a
mistake, my man?"
With an obstinate sullenness that was new in him, he said, No he had
not. Would I please to walk in? He stepped briskly forward as he
spake, and induced me by a kind of gentle urgency to enter the house,
taking from me, with the ease of a trained servant, my hat, coat, and
muffler. Finding himself in the course of his duties he gained more
composure; while I, being thus treated, lost my sense of the
strangeness of the proceeding, and only awoke to a full consciousness
of my position when he had softly shut the door behind us and was in
the act of putting up the chain.
Then I confess I looked round, a little alarmed at my precipitancy.
But I found the hall spacious, lofty, and dark-paneled, the ordinary
hall of an old London house. The big fireplace was filled with plants
in flower. There were rugs on the floor and a number of chairs with
painted crests on the backs, and in a corner was an old sedan chair,
its poles upright against the wall.
No other servants were visible, it is true. But apart from this all
was in order, all was quiet, and any idea of violence was manifestly
At the same time the affair seemed of the strangest. Why should the
butler in charge of a well-arranged and handsome house--the house of
an ordinary wealthy gentleman--why should he loiter about the open
doorway as if anxious to feel the presence of his kind? Why should he
show such nervous excitement and terror as I had witnessed? Why should
he introduce a stranger?
I had reached this point when he led the way upstairs. The staircase
was wide, the steps were low and broad. On either side at the head of
the flight stood a beautiful Venus of white Parian marble. They were
not common reproductions, and I paused. I could see beyond them a
Hercules and a Meleager of bronze, and delicately tinted draperies and
ottomans that under the light of a silver hanging lamp--a gem from
Malta--changed a mere lobby to a fairies' nook. The sight filled me
with a certain suspicion; which was dispelled, however, when my hand
rested for an instant upon the reddish pedestal that supported one of
the statues. The cold touch of the marble was enough for me. The
pillars were not of composite; of which they certainly would have
consisted in a gaming house, or worse.
Three steps carried me across the lobby to a curtained doorway
by which the servant was waiting. I saw that the "shakes" were upon
him again. His impatience was so ill concealed that I was not
surprised--though I was taken aback--when he dropped the mask
altogether, and as I passed him--it being now too late for me to
retreat undiscovered, if the room were occupied--laid a trembling hand
upon my arm and thrust his face close to mine. "Ask how he is! Say
anything," he whispered, trembling, "no matter what, sir! Only, for
the love of Heaven, stay five minutes!"
He gave me a gentle push forward as he spoke--pleasant, all this!--and
announced in a loud, quavering voice, "Mr. George!" which was true
enough. I found myself walking round a screen at the same time that
something in the room, a long, dimly lighted room, fell with a brisk,
rattling sound, and there was the scuffling noise of a person, still
hidden from me by the screen, rising to his feet in haste.
Next moment I was face to face with two men. One, a handsome elderly
gentleman, who wore gray mustaches and would have seemed in place at a
service club, was still in his chair, regarding me with a perfectly
calm, unmoved face, as if my entrance at that hour were the commonest
incident of his life. The other had risen and stood looking at me
askance. He was five-and-twenty years younger than his companion and
as good-looking in a different way. But now his face was white and
drawn, distorted by the same expression of terror--ay, and a darker
and fiercer terror than that which I had already seen upon the
servant's features; it was the face of one in a desperate strait. He
looked as a man looks who has put all he has in the world upon an
outsider--and done it twice. In that quiet drawing room by the side of
his placid companion, with nothing whatever in their surroundings to
account for his emotion, his panic-stricken face shocked me
They were in evening dress; and between them was a chess table, its
men in disorder: almost touching this was another small table bearing
a tray of Apollinaris water and spirits. On this the young man was
resting one hand as if, but for its support, he would have fallen.
To add one more fact, I had never seen either of them in my life.
Or wait; could that be true? If so, it must indeed have been a
nightmare I was suffering. For the elder man broke the silence by
addressing me in a quiet, ordinary tone that exactly matched his face.
"Sit down, George," he said, "don't stand there. I did not expect you
this evening." He held out his hand, without rising from his chair,
and I advanced and shook it in silence. "I thought you were in
Liverpool. How are you?" he continued.
"Very well, I thank you," I muttered mechanically.
"Not very well, I should say," he retorted. "You are as hoarse as a
raven. You have a bad cold at best. It is nothing worse, my boy, is
it?" with anxiety.
"No, a throat cough; nothing else," I murmured, resigning myself to
this astonishing reception--this evident concern for my welfare on the
part of a man whom I had never seen in my life.
"That is well!" he answered cheerily. Not only did my presence cause
him no surprise. It gave him, without doubt, actual pleasure!
It was otherwise with his companion; grimly and painfully so indeed.
He had made no advances to me, spoken no word, scarcely altered
his position. His eyes he had never taken from me. Yet in him there
was a change. He had discovered, exactly as had the butler before
him, his mistake. The sickly terror was gone from his face, and a
half-frightened malevolence, not much more pleasant to witness, had
taken its place. Why this did not break out in any active form was
part of the general mystery given to me to solve. I could only surmise
from glances which he later cast from time to time toward the door,
and from the occasional faint creaking of a board in that direction,
that his self-restraint had to do with my friend the butler. The
inconsequences of dreamland ran through it all: why the elder man
remained in error; why the younger with that passion on his face was
tongue-tied; why the great house was so still; why the servant should
have mixed me up with this business at all--these were questions as
unanswerable, one as the other.
And the fog in my mind grew denser when the old gentleman turned from
me as if my presence were a usual thing, and rapped the table before
him impatiently. "Now, Gerald!" cried he, in sharp tones, "have you
put those pieces back? Good Heavens! I am glad that I have not nerves
like yours! Don't you remember the squares, boy? Here, give them to
me!" With a hasty gesture of his hand, something like a mesmeric pass
over the board, he set down the half dozen pieces with a rapid tap!
tap! tap! which made it abundantly clear that he, at any rate, had no
doubt of their former positions.
"You will not mind sitting by until we have finished the game?" he
continued, speaking to me, and in a voice I fancied more genial than
that which he had used to Gerald. "You are anxious to talk to me about
your letter, George?" he went on when I did not answer. "The fact is
that I have not read the inclosure. Barnes, as usual, read the outer
letter to me, in which you said the matter was private and of grave
importance; and I intended to go to Laura to-morrow, as you suggested,
and get her to read the news to me. Now you have returned so soon, I
am glad that I did not trouble her."
"Just so, sir," I said, listening with all my ears; and wondering.
"Well, I hope there is nothing very bad the matter, my boy?" he
replied. "However--Gerald! it is your move! ten minutes more of such
play as your brother's, and I shall be at your service."
Gerald made a hurried move. The piece rattled upon the board as if he
had been playing the castanets. His father made him take it back. I
sat watching the two in wonder and silence. What did it all mean? Why
should Barnes--doubtless behind the screen, listening--read the outer
letter? Why must Laura be employed to read the inner? Why could not
this cultivated and refined gentleman before me read his---- Ah! that
much was disclosed to me. A mere turn of the hand did it. He had made
another of those passes over the board, and I learned from it what an
ordinary examination would not have detected. He, the old soldier with
the placid face and light-blue eyes, was blind! Quite blind!
I began to see more clearly now, and from this moment I took up, at
any rate in my own mind, a different position. Possibly the servant
who had impelled me into the middle of this had had his own good
reasons for doing so, as I now began to discern. But with a clew to
the labyrinth in my hand, I could no longer move passively at any
other's impulse. I must act for myself. For a while I sat still and
made no sign. My suspicions were presently confirmed. The elder man
more than once scolded his opponent for playing slowly. In one of
these intervals he took from an inside pocket of his dress waistcoat a
"You had better take your letter, George," he said. "If there are, as
you mentioned, originals in it, they will be more safe with you than
with me. You can tell me all about it, viva voce, now you are here.
Gerald will leave us alone presently."
He held the papers toward me. To take them would be to take an active
part in the imposture, and I hesitated, my own hand half outstretched.
But my eyes fell at the critical instant upon Master Gerald's face,
and my scruples took themselves off. He was eying the packet with an
intense greed and a trembling longing--a very itching of the fingers
and toes to fall upon the prey--that put an end to my doubts. I rose
and took the papers. With a quiet, but I think significant look in his
direction, I placed them in the breast pocket of my evening coat. I
had no safer receptacle about me, or into that they would have gone.
"Very well, sir," I said, "there is no particular hurry. I think the
matter will keep, as things now are, until to-morrow."
"To be sure. You ought not to be out with such a cold at night, my
boy," he answered. "You will find a decanter of the Scotch whisky you
gave me last Christmas on the tray. Will you have some with hot water
and a lemon, George? The servants are all at the theater--Gerald
begged a holiday for them--but Barnes will get you the things in a
"Thank you; I won't trouble him. I will take some with cold water," I
replied, thinking I should gain in this way what I wanted--time to
think; five minutes to myself while they played.
But I was out of my reckoning. "I will have mine now, too," he said.
"Will you mix it, Gerald?"
Gerald jumped up to do it, with tolerable alacrity. I sat still,
preferring to help myself when he should have attended to his father,
if his father it was. I felt more easy now that I had those papers in
my pocket. The more I thought of it the more certain I became that
they were the object aimed at by whatever deviltry was on foot, and
that possession of them gave me the whip hand. My young gentleman
might snarl and show his teeth, but the prize had escaped him.
Perhaps I was a little too confident, a little too contemptuous of my
opponent; a little too proud of the firmness with which I had taken at
one and the same time the responsibility and the post of vantage. A
creak of the board behind the screen roused me from my thoughts. It
fell upon my ear trumpet-tongued, a sudden note of warning. I glanced
up with a start and a conviction that I was being caught napping, and
looked instinctively toward the young man. He was busy at the tray,
his back to me. Relieved of my fear of I did not know what,--perhaps a
desperate attack upon my pocket,--I was removing my eyes, when, in
doing so, I caught sight of his reflection in a small mirror beyond
What was he busy about? Nothing. Absolutely nothing, at the moment. He
was standing motionless,--I could fancy him breathless also,--a
strange, listening expression on his face, which seemed to me to have
faded to a grayish tinge. His left hand was clasping a half-filled
tumbler, the other was at his waistcoat pocket. So he stood during
perhaps a second or two, a small lamp upon the tray before him
illumining his handsome figure; and then his eyes, glancing up, met
the reflection of mine in the mirror. Swiftly as the thought itself
could pass from brain to limb, the hand which had been resting in the
pocket flashed with a clatter among the glasses; and, turning almost
as quickly, he brought one of the latter to the chess table, and set
it down unsteadily.
What had I seen? Nothing, actually nothing. Just what Gerald had been
doing. Yet my heart was going as many strokes to the minute as a
losing crew. I rose abruptly.
"Wait a moment, sir," I said, as the elder man laid his hand upon the
glass. "I don't think that Gerald has mixed this quite as you like
He had already lifted it to his lips. I looked from him to Gerald.
That young gentleman's color, though he faced me hardily, shifted more
than once, and he seemed to be swallowing a succession of oversized
fives balls; but his eyes met mine in a vicious kind of smile that was
not without its gleam of triumph. I was persuaded that all was right
even before his father said so.
"Perhaps you have mixed for me, Gerald?" I suggested pleasantly.
"No!" he answered in sullen defiance. He filled a glass with
something--perhaps it was water--and drank it, his back toward me. He
had not spoken so much as a single word to me before.
The blind man's ear recognized the tone now. "I wish you boys would
agree better," he said wearily. "Gerald, go to bed. I would as soon
play chess with an idiot from Earlswood. Generally you can play the
game, if you are good for nothing else; but since your brother came
in, you have not made a move which anyone not an imbecile would make.
Go to bed, boy! go to bed!"
I had stepped to the table while he was speaking. One of the glasses
was full. I lifted it, with seeming unconcern, to my nose. There was
whisky in it as well as water. Then had Gerald mixed for me? At any
rate, I put the tumbler aside, and helped myself afresh. When I set
the glass down empty, my mind was made up.
"Gerald does not seem inclined to move, sir, so I will," I said
quietly. "I will call in the morning and discuss that matter, if it
will suit you. But to-night I feel inclined to get to bed early."
"Quite right, my boy. I would ask you to take a bed here instead of
turning out, but I suppose that Laura will be expecting you. Come in
any time tomorrow morning. Shall Barnes call a cab for you?"
"I think I will walk," I answered, shaking the proffered hand. "By the
way, sir," I added, "have you heard who is the new Home Secretary?"
"Yes, Henry Matthews," he replied. "Gerald told me. He had heard it at
"It is to be hoped that he will have no womanish scruples about
capital punishment," I said, as if I were incidentally considering the
appointment. And with that last shot at Mr. Gerald--he turned green, I
thought, a color which does not go well with a black mustache--I
walked out of the room, so peaceful, so cozy, so softly lighted as it
looked, I remember, and downstairs. I hoped that I had paralyzed the
young fellow, and might leave the house without molestation.
But, as I gained the foot of the stairs, he tapped me on the shoulder.
I saw, then, looking at him, that I had mistaken my man. Every trace
of the sullen defiance which had marked his manner throughout the
interview upstairs was gone. His face was still pale, but it wore a
gentle smile as we confronted one another under the hall lamp. "I have
not the pleasure of knowing you, but let me thank you for your help,"
he said in a low voice, yet with a kind of frank spontaneity. "Barnes'
idea of bringing you in was a splendid one, and I am immensely obliged
"Don't mention it," I answered stiffly, proceeding with my
preparations for going out as if he had not been there, although I
must confess that this complete change in him exercised my mind no
"I feel so sure that we may rely upon your discretion," he went on,
ignoring my tone, "that I need say nothing about that. Of course, we
owe you an explanation, but as your cold is really yours and not my
brother's, you will not mind if I read you the riddle to-morrow
instead of keeping you from your bed to-night?"
"It will do equally well; indeed better," I said, putting on my
overcoat and buttoning it carefully across my chest, while I affected
to be looking with curiosity at the sedan chair.
He pointed lightly to the place where the packet lay. "You are
forgetting the papers," he reminded me. His tone almost compelled the
answer: "To be sure."
But I had pretty well made up my mind, and I answered instead: "Not at
all. They are quite safe, thank you."
"But you don't---- I beg your pardon," he said, opening his eyes very
wide, as if some new light were beginning to shine upon his mind and
he could scarcely believe its revelations. "You don't really mean that
you are going to take those papers away with you?"
"My dear sir!" he remonstrated earnestly. "This is preposterous. Pray
forgive me the reminder, but those papers, as my father gave you to
understand, are private papers, which he supposed himself to be
handing to my brother George."
"Just so," was all I said. And I took a step toward the door.
"You really mean to take them?" he asked seriously.
"I do; unless you can satisfactorily explain the part I have played
this evening, and also make it clear to me that you have a right to
the possession of the papers."
"Confound it! If I must do so tonight, I must!" he said reluctantly.
"I trust to your honor, sir, to keep the explanation secret." I bowed,
and he resumed: "My elder brother and I are in business together.
Lately we have had losses which have crippled us so severely that we
decided to disclose them to Sir Charles and ask his help. George did
so yesterday by letter, giving certain notes of our liabilities. You
ask why he did not make such a statement by word of mouth? Because he
had to go to Liverpool at a moment's notice to make a last effort to
arrange the matter. And as for me," with a curious grimace, "my father
would as soon discuss business with his dog! Sooner!"
"Well?" I said. He had paused, and was absently nicking the blossoms
off the geraniums in the fireplace with his pocket handkerchief,
looking moodily at his work the while. I cannot remember noticing the
handkerchief, yet I seem to be able to see it now. It had a red
border, and was heavily scented with white rose. "Well?"
"Well," he continued, with a visible effort, "my father has been
ailing lately, and this morning his usual doctor made him see
Bristowe. He is an authority on heart disease, as you doubtless know;
and his opinion is," he added, in a lower voice and with some emotion,
"that even a slight shock may prove fatal."
I began to feel hot and uncomfortable. What was I to think? The packet
was becoming as lead in my pocket.
"Of course," he resumed more briskly, "that threw our difficulties
into the shade at once; and my first impulse was to get these papers
from him. Don't you see that? All day I have been trying in vain to
effect it. I took Barnes, who is an old servant, partially into my
confidence, but we could think of no plan. My father, like many people
who have lost their sight, is jealous, and I was at my wits' end, when
Barnes brought you up. Your likeness," he added in a parenthesis,
looking at me reflectively, "to George put the idea into his head, I
fancy? Yes, it must have been so. When I heard you announced, for a
moment I thought that you were George."
"And you called up a look of the warmest welcome," I put in dryly.
He colored, but answered almost immediately, "I was afraid that he
would assume that the governor had read his letter, and blurt out
something about it. Good Lord! if you knew the funk in which I have
been all the evening lest my father should ask either of us to read
the letter!" and he gathered up his handkerchief with a sigh of
relief, and wiped his forehead.
"I could see it very plainly," I answered, going slowly in my mind
over what he had told me. If the truth must be confessed, I was in no
slight quandary what I should do, or what I should believe. Was this
really the key to it all? Dared I doubt it? or that that which I had
constructed was a mare's nest--the mere framework of a mare's nest.
For the life of me I could not tell!
"Well?" he said presently, looking up with an offended air. "Is there
anything else I can explain? or will you have the kindness to return
my property to me now?"
"There is one thing, about which I should like to ask a question," I
"Ask on!" he replied; and I wondered whether there was not a little
too much of bravado in the tone of sufferance he assumed.
"Why do you carry"--I went on, raising my eyes to his, and pausing on
the word an instant--"that little medicament--you know what I mean--in
your waistcoat pocket, my friend?"
He perceptibly flinched. "I don't quite--quite understand," he began
to stammer. Then he changed his tone and went on rapidly, "No! I will
be frank with you, Mr.--Mr.----"
"George," I said calmly.
"Ah, indeed?" a trifle surprised, "Mr. George! Well, it is something
Bristowe gave me this morning to be administered to my father--without
his knowledge, if possible--whenever he grows excited. I did not think
that you had seen it."
Nor had I. I had only inferred its presence. But having inferred
rightly once, I was inclined to trust my inference farther. Moreover,
while he gave this explanation, his breath came and went so quickly
that my former suspicions returned. I was ready for him when he said,
"Now I will trouble you, if you please, for those papers?" and held
out his hand.
"I cannot give them to you," I replied, point-blank.
"You cannot give them to me now?" he repeated.
"No. Moreover, the packet is sealed. I do not see, on second thoughts,
what harm I can do you--now that it is out of your father's hands--by
keeping it until to-morrow, when I will return it to your brother,
from whom it came."
"He will not be in London," he answered doggedly. He stepped between
me and the door with looks which I did not like. At the same time I
felt that some allowance must be made for a man treated in this way.
"I am sorry," I said, "but I cannot do what you ask. I will do this,
however. If you think the delay of importance, and will give me your
brother's address in Liverpool, I will undertake to post the letters
to him at once."
He considered the offer, eying me the while with the same disfavor
which he had exhibited in the drawing room. At last he said slowly,
"If you will do that?"
"I will," I repeated. "I will do it immediately."
He gave me the direction--"George Ritherdon, at the London and
Northwestern Hotel, Liverpool"--and in return I gave him my own name
and address. Then I parted from him, with a civil good-night on either
side--and little liking, I fancy--the clocks striking midnight, and
the servants coming in as I passed out into the cool darkness of the
Late as it was I went straight to my club, determined that, as I had
assumed the responsibility, there should be no laches on my part.
There I placed the packet, together with a short note explaining how
it came into my possession, in an outer envelope, and dropped the
whole, duly directed and stamped, into the nearest pillar box. I could
not register it at that hour, and rather than wait until next morning,
I omitted the precaution; merely requesting Mr. Ritherdon to
acknowledge its receipt.
Well, some days passed; during which it may be imagined that I thought
no little about my odd experience. It was the story of the Lady and
the Tiger over again. I had the choice of two alternatives at least. I
might either believe the young fellow's story, which certainly had the
merit of explaining in a fairly probable manner an occurrence of so
odd a character as not to lend itself freely to explanation. Or I
might disbelieve his story, plausible in its very strangeness as it
was, in favor of my own vague suspicions. Which was I to do?
Well, I set out by preferring the former alternative. This,
notwithstanding that I had to some extent committed myself against it
by withholding the papers. But with each day that passed without
bringing me an answer from Liverpool, I leaned more and more to the
other side. I began to pin my faith to the Tiger, adding each morning
a point to the odds in the animal's favor. So it went on until ten
days had passed.
Then a little out of curiosity, but more, I gravely declare, because I
thought it the right thing to do, I resolved to seek out George
Ritherdon. I had no difficulty in learning where he might be found.
I turned up the firm of Ritherdon Brothers (George and Gerald),
cotton-spinners and India merchants, in the first directory I
consulted. And about noon the next day I called at their place of
business, and sent in my card to the senior partner. I waited five
minutes--curiously scanned by the porter, who no doubt saw a likeness
between me and his employer--and then I was admitted to the latter's
He was a tall man with a fair beard, not one whit like Gerald, and yet
tolerably good looking; if I say more I shall seem to be describing
myself. I fancied him to be balder about the temples, however, and
grayer and more careworn than the man I am in the habit of seeing in
my shaving glass. His eyes, too, had a hard look, and he seemed in ill
health. All these things I took in later. At the time I only noticed
his clothes. "So the old gentleman is dead," I thought, "and the young
one's tale is true, after all?" George Ritherdon was in deep mourning.
"I wrote to you," I began, taking the seat to which he pointed, "about
a fortnight ago."
He looked at my card, which he held in his hand. "I think not," he
"Yes," I repeated. "You were then at the London and Northwestern
Hotel, at Liverpool."
He was stepping to his writing table, but he stopped abruptly. "I was
in Liverpool," he answered, in a different tone, "but I was not at
that hotel. You are thinking of my brother, are you not?"
"No," I said. "It was your brother who told me you were there."
"Perhaps you had better explain what was the subject of your letter,"
he suggested, speaking in the weary tone of one returning to a painful
matter. "I have been through a great trouble lately, and this may well
have been overlooked."
I said I would, and as briefly as possible I told the main facts of my
strange visit in Fitzhardinge Square. He was much moved, walking up
and down the room as he listened, and giving vent to exclamations from
time to time, until I came to the arrangement I had finally made with
his brother. Then he raised his hand as one might do in pain.
"Enough!" he said abruptly. "Barnes told me a rambling tale of some
stranger. I understand it all now."
"So do I, I think!" I replied dryly. "Your brother went to Liverpool,
and received the papers in your name?"
He murmured what I took for "Yes." But he did not utter a single word
of acknowledgment to me, or of reprobation of his brother's deceit. I
thought some such word should have been spoken; and I let my feelings
carry me away. "Let me tell you," I said warmly, "that your brother is
"Hush!" he said, holding up his hand again. "He is dead."
"Dead!" I repeated, shocked and amazed.
"Have you not read of it in the papers? It is in all the papers," he
said wearily. "He committed suicide--God forgive me for it!--at
Liverpool, at the hotel you have mentioned, and the day after you saw
And so it was. He had committed some serious forgery--he had always
been wild, though his father, slow to see it, had only lately closed
his purse to him--and the forged signatures had come into his
brother's power. He had cheated his brother before. There had long
been bad blood between them; the one being as cold, businesslike, and
masterful as the other was idle and jealous.
"I told him," the elder said to me, shading his eyes with his hand,
"that I should let him be prosecuted--that I would not protect or
shelter him. The threat nearly drove him mad; and while it was hanging
over him, I wrote to disclose the matter to Sir Charles. Gerald
thought his last chance lay in recovering this letter unread. The
proofs against him destroyed, he might laugh at me. His first attempts
failed; and then he planned, with Barnes' cognizance, to get
possession of the packet by drugging my father's whisky. Barnes'
courage deserted him; he called you in, and--and you know the rest."
"But," I said softly, "your brother did get the letter--at Liverpool."
George Ritherdon groaned. "Yes," he said, "he did. But the proofs were
not inclosed. After writing the outside letter I changed my mind, and
withheld them, explaining my reasons within. He found his plot laid in
vain; and it was under the shock of this disappointment--the packet
lay before him, resealed and directed to me--that he--that he did it.
"Poor Gerald!" I said. What else remained to be said?
It may be a survival of superstition, yet, when I dine in Baker Street
now, I take some care to go home by any other route than that through