THE MAN WHO LOST HIMSELF (8)

By: H. De Vere Stacpoole
April 6, 2018

This year marks the 100th anniversary of a forgotten Avenger/Artful Dodger-type adventure novel, The Man Who Lost Himself. A man down on his luck wakes up after a drunken night in London only to discover… that he has somehow slipped into the identity of a wealthy aristocrat! HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize this funny, thrilling yarn by H. De Vere Stacpoole — best known as author of The Blue Lagoon — here at HILOBROW.

ALL INSTALLMENTS SO FAR

***

MR. VOLES

The flunkey who admitted him, having taken his hat, stick and gloves, presented him with a letter that had arrived by the midday post, also with a piece of information.

“Mr. Voles called to see you, my Lord, shortly after twelve. He stated that he had an appointment with you. He is to call again at quarter past seven.”

Jones took the letter and went with it to the room where he had sat that morning. Upon the table lay all the letters that he had not opened that morning. He had forgotten these. Here was a mistake. If he wished to hold to his position for even a few days, it would be necessary to guard against mistakes like this.

He hurriedly opened them, merely glancing at the contents, which for the most part were unintelligible to him.

There was a dinner invitation from Lady Snorries — whoever she might be — and a letter beginning “Dear old Boy” from a female who signed herself “Julie,” an appeal from a begging letter writer, and a letter beginning “Dear Rochester” from a gentleman who signed himself simply “Childersley.”

The last letter he opened was the one he had just received from the servant.

It was written on poor paper, and it ran:

Stick to it — if you can. You’ll see why I couldn’t. There’s a fiver under the papers of the top right hand drawer of bureau in smoke room.

Rochester.

Jones knew that this letter, though addressed to the Earl of Rochester, was meant for him, and was written by Rochester, written probably on some bar counter, and posted at the nearest pillar box just before he had committed the act.

He went to the drawer in the bureau indicated, raised the papers in it and found a five pound note.

Having glanced at it he closed the drawer, placed the note in his waistcoat pocket and sat down again at the table.

“Stick to it — if you can.” The words rang in his ears just as though he had heard them spoken.

Those words, backed by the five pound note, wrought a great change in the mind of Jones. He had Rochester’s permission to act as he was acting, and a little money to help him in his actions.

The fact of his penury had been like a wet blanket upon him all day. He felt that power had come to him with permission. He could think clearly now. He rose and paced the floor.

“Stick to it — if you can.”

Why not — why not — why not? He found himself laughing out loud, a great gush of energy had come to him. Jones was a man of that sort, a new and great idea always came to him on the crest of a wave of energy; the British Government Contract idea had come to him like that, and the wave had carried him to England.

Why not be the Earl of Rochester, make good his position finally, stand on the pinnacle where Fate had placed him, and carry this thing through to its ultimate issue?

It would not be all jam. Rochester must have been very much pressed by circumstances; that did not frighten Jones, to him the game was everything, and the battle.

He would make good where Rochester had failed, meet the difficulties that had destroyed the other, face them, overcome them.

His position was unassailable.

Coming over from New York he had read Nelson’s shilling edition of the Life of Sir Henry Hawkins. He had read with amazement the story of British credulity expressed in the Tichborne Case. How Arthur Orton, a butcher, scarcely able to write, had imposed himself on the Public as Roger Tichborne, a young aristocrat of good education.

He contrasted his own position with Orton’s.

He was absolutely unassailable.

He went to the cigar box, chose a cigar and lit it.

There was the question of hand writing! That suddenly occurred to him, confronting his newly formed plans. He would have to sign cheques, write letters. A typewriter could settle the latter question, and as for the signature, he possessed a sample of Rochester’s, and would have to imitate it. At the worst he could pretend he had injured his thumb — that excuse would last for some time. “There’s one big thing about the whole business,” said he to himself, “and that is the chap’s eccentricity. Why, if I’m shoved too hard, I can pretend to have lost my memory or my wits — there’s not a blessed card I haven’t either in my hand or up my sleeve, and if worst comes to worst, I can always prove my identity and tell my story.” He was engaged with thoughts like these when the door opened and the servant, bearing a card on a salver, announced that Mr. Voles, the gentleman who had called earlier in the day, had arrived.

“Bring him in,” said Victor. The servant retired and returned immediately ushering in Voles, who entered carrying his hat before him. The stranger was a man of fifty, a tubby man, dressed in a black frock coat, covered, despite the summer weather, by a thin black overcoat with silk facings. His face was evil, thick skinned, yellow, heavy nosed, the hair of the animal was jet black, thin, and presented to the eyes of the gazer a small Disraeli curl upon the forehead of the owner. *

The card announced:

Mr. A. S. Voles
12B. Jermyn Street

Voles himself, and unknown to himself, announced a lot of other things.

Victor Jones had a sharp instinct for men, well whetted by experience.

He nodded to the newcomer, curtly, and without rising from his chair; the servant shut the door and the two men were alone.

Just as a dog’s whole nature livens at the smell of a pole cat, so did Jones’ nature at the sight of Voles. He felt this man to be an enemy.

Voles came to the table and placed his hat upon it. Then he turned, went to the door and opened it to see if the servant was listening.

He shut the door.

“Well,” said he, “have you got the money for me?”

Another man in Jones’ position might have asked, and with reason. “What money?”

Jones simply said “No.”

This simple answer had a wonderful effect. Voles, about to take a seat, remained standing, clasping the back of the chair he had chosen. Then he burst out.

“You fooled me yesterday, and gave me an appointment for to-day. I called, you were out.”

“Was I?”

“Were you? You said the money would be here waiting for me — well, here I am now, I’ve got a cab outside ready to take it.”

“And suppose I don’t give it to you?” asked Jones.

“We won’t suppose any nonsense like that!” replied Voles taking his seat, “not so long as there are policemen to be called at a minute’s notice.”

“That’s true,” said the other, “we don’t want the police.”

“You don’t,” replied Voles. He was staring at Jones. The Earl of Rochester’s voice struck him as not quite the same as usual, more spring in it and vitality — altered in fact. But he suspected nothing of the truth. Passed as good coin by Voles, Jones had nothing to fear from any man or woman in London, for the eye of Voles was unerring, the ear of Voles ditto, the mind of Voles balanced like a jeweller’s scales.

“True,” said Jones. “I don’t — well, let’s talk about this money. Couldn’t you take half to-night, and half in a week’s time?”

“Not me,” replied the other. “I must have the two thousand to-night, same as usual.”

Jones had the whole case in his hands now, and he began preparing the toast on which to put this most evident blackmailer when cooked.

His quick mind had settled everything. Here was the first obstacle in his path, it would have to be destroyed, not surmounted. He determined to destroy it. If the worst came to the worst, if whatever crime Rochester had committed were to be pressed home on him by Voles, he would declare everything, prove his identity by sending for witnesses from the States, and show Rochester’s letter. The blackmailing would account for Rochester’s suicide.

But Jones knew blackmailers, and he knew that Voles would never prosecute. Rochester must indeed have been a weak fool not to have grasped this nettle and torn it up by the roots. He forgot that Rochester was probably guilty — that makes all the difference in the world.

“You shall have the money,” said he, “but see here, let’s make an end of this. Now let’s see. How much have you had already?”

“Only eight,” said Voles. “You know that well enough, why ask?”

“Eight thousand,” murmured the other, “you have had eight thousand pounds out of me, and the two to-night will make ten. Seems a good price for a few papers.” He made the shot on spec. It was a bull’s eye.

“Oh, those papers are worth a good deal more than that,” said Voles, “a good deal more than that.”

So it was documents not actions that the blackmailer held in suspense over the head of Rochester. It really did not matter a button to Jones, he stood ready to face murder itself, armed as he was with Rochester’s letter in his pocket, and the surety of being able to identity himself.

“Well,” said he, “let’s finish this business. Have you a cheque book on you?”

“I have a cheque book right enough — what’s your game now?”

“Just an idea of mine before I pay you — bring out your cheque book, you’ll see what I mean in a minute.”

Voles hesitated, then, with a laugh, he took the cheque book from the breast pocket of his overcoat.

“Now tear out a cheque.”

“Tear out a cheque,” cried the other. “What on earth are you getting at — one of my cheques — this is good.”

“Tear out a cheque,” insisted the other, “it will only cost you a penny, and you will see my meaning in a moment.”

The animal, before the insistent direction of the other, hesitated, then with a laugh he tore out a cheque.

“Now place it on the table.”

Voles placed it on the table.

Jones going to the bureau fetched a pen and ink. He pushed a chair to the table, and made the other sit down.

“Now,” said Jones, “write me out a cheque for eight thousand pounds.”

Voles threw the pen down with a laugh — it was his last in that room.

“You won’t?” said Jones.

“Oh, quit this fooling,” replied the other. “I’ve no time for such stuff — what are you doing now?”

“Ringing the bell,” said Jones.

Voles, just about to pick up the cheque, paused. He seemed to find himself at fault for a moment. The jungle beast, that hears the twig crack beneath the foot of the man with the express rifle, pauses like that over his bloody meal on the carcass of the decoy goat.

The door opened and a servant appeared, it was the miracle with calves.

“Send out at once, and bring in an officer — a policeman,” said Jones.

“Yes, my Lord.”

The door shut.

Voles jumped up, and seized his hat. Jones walked to the door and locked it, placing the key in his pocket.

“I’ve got you,” said he, “and I’m going to squeeze you, and I’m going to make you squeal.”

“You’re going to — you’re going to — you’re going to —” said Voles. He was the colour of old ivory.

“I’m going to make you go through this —”

“Here, d—n this nonsense — stop it — you fool, I’ll smash you,” said Voles. “Here, open that door and stop this business.”

“I told you I was going to make you squeal,” said Jones, “but that’s nothing to what’s coming.”

Voles came to the table and put down his hat. Then, facing Jones, he rapped with the knuckles of his right hand on the table.

“You’ve done it now,” said he, “you’ve laid yourself open to a nice charge, false imprisonment, that’s what you’ve done. A nice thing in the papers to-morrow morning, and intimidation on top of that. Over and above those there’s the papers. I’ll have no mercy — those papers go to Lord Plinlimon to-morrow morning, you’ll be in the divorce court this day month, and so will she. Reputation! she won’t have a rag to cover herself with.”

“Oh, won’t she?” said Jones. “This is most interesting.” He felt a great uplift of the heart. So this blackmail business had to do with a woman. The idea that Rochester was some horrible form of criminal had weighed upon him. It had seemed to him that no man would pay such a huge sum as eight thousand pounds in the way of blackmail unless his crime were in proportion. Rochester had evidently paid it to shield not only his own name, but the name of a woman.

“Most interesting,” said Voles. “I’m glad you think so —” Then in a burst, “Come, open that door and stop this nonsense — take that key out of your pocket and open the door. You always were a fool, but this is beyond folly — the pair of you are in the hollow of my hand, you know it — I can crush you like that — like that — like that!”

He opened and shut his right hand. A cruel hand it was, hairy as to the back, huge as to the thumb.

Jones looked at him.

“You are wasting a lot of muscular energy,” said he. “My determination is made, and it holds. You are going to prison, Mr. Filthy Beast, Voles. I’m up against you, that’s the plain truth. I’m going to cut you open, and show your inside to the British Public. They’ll be so lost in admiration at the sight, they won’t bother about the woman or me. They’ll call us public benefactors, I reckon. You know men, and you know when a man is determined. Look at me, look at me in the face, you sumph —”

A knock came to the door.

Jones took the key from his pocket and opened the door.

“The constable is here, my Lord,” said the servant.

“Tell him to come in,” said Jones.

Voles had taken up his hat again, and he stood now by the table, hat in hand, looking exactly what he was, a criminal on his defence.

The constable was a fresh-looking and upstanding young man; he had removed his helmet and was carrying it by the chin strap. He had no bludgeon, no revolver, yet he impressed Jones almost as much as he impressed the other.

“Officer,” said Jones. “I have called you in for the purpose of giving this man in charge for attempting —”

“Stop,” cried Voles.

Then something Oriental in his nature took charge of him. He rushed forward with arms out, as though to embrace the policeman.

“It is all a mistake,” cried he, “constable, one moment, go outside one moment, leave me with his lordship. I will explain. There is nothing wrong, it is all a big mistake.”

The constable held him off, glancing for orders at Jones.

Jones felt no vindictiveness towards Voles now; disgust, such as he might have felt towards a vulture or a cormorant, but no vindictiveness.

He wanted that eight thousand pounds.

He had determined to make good in his new position, to fight the world that Rochester had failed to fight, and overcome the difficulties sure to be ahead of him. Voles was the first great difficulty, and lo, it seemed, that he was about not only to destroy it, but turn it to a profit. He did not want the eight thousand for himself, he wanted it for the game; and the fascination of that great game he was only just beginning to understand.

“Go outside, officer,” said he to the constable.

He shut the door. “Sit down and write,” said he. Voles said not a word.

He went to the table, sat down and picked up the pen. The cheque was still lying there. He drew it towards him. Then he flung the pen down. Then he picked it up, but he did not write. He waved it between finger and thumb, as though he were beating time to a miniature orchestra staged on the table before him. Then he began to write.

He was making out a cheque to the Earl of Rochester for the sum of eight thousand pounds, no shillings, no pence.

He signed it A. S. Voles.

He was about to cross it, but Jones stopped him. “Leave it open,” said he, “and now one thing more, I must have those papers to-morrow morning without fail. And to make certain of them you must do this.”

He went to the bureau and took a sheet of note paper, which he laid before the other.

“Write,” said he. “I will dictate. Begin June 2nd.”

Voles put the date.

“‘My Lord,’” went on the dictator. “‘This is to promise you that to-morrow morning I will hand to the messenger you send to me all the papers of yours in my possession. I confess to having held those papers over you for the purpose of blackmail, and of having obtained from you the sum of eight thousand pounds, and I promise to amend my ways, and to endeavour to lead an honest life.

Signed. A. S. Voles.’“

To The Earl of Rochester.

That was the letter.

Three times the rogue at the table refused to go on writing, and three times his master went to the door, the rattle of the door handle always inspiring the scribe to renewed energy.

When the thing was finished Jones read it over, blotted it, and put it in his pocket with the cheque.

“Now you can go,” said he. “I will send a man to-morrow morning at eight o’clock to your home for the papers. I will not use this letter against you, unless you give trouble — Well, what do you want?”

“Brandy,” gasped Voles. “For God’s sake some brandy.”

NEXT INSTALLMENT | ALL INSTALLMENTS SO FAR

* HiLoBooks regrets this anti-Semitic caricature.

***

SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable | Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire”.

RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HILOBROW’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.

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