THE MAN WHO LOST HIMSELF (17)
June 19, 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.
Only three of the electric lights were on in the music-room. In the rosy light and half shadows the room looked larger than when seen in daylight, and different.
She had wandered from the Mazurka into Paderewski’s “Mélodie Op. 8. No. 3,” a lonesome sort of tune it seemed to him, as he dropped into a chair, crossed his legs and listened.
Then as he listened he began to think. Up to this his thoughts had been in confusion, chasing one another or pursued by the monstrosity of the situation. Now he was thinking clearly.
She was his, that girl sitting there at the piano with the light upon her hair, the light upon her bare shoulders and the sheeny fabric of her dress. He had only to stretch out his hand and take her. Absolutely his, and he had only met her twice. She was the most beautiful woman in London, she had a mind that would have made a plain woman attractive, and a manner delightful, full of surprises and contrarieties and tendernesses — and she loved him.
The Arabian Nights contained nothing like this, nor had the brain that conceived Tantalus risen to the heights achieved by accident and coincidence.
She finished the piece, rose, turned over some sheets of music and then came across the room — floated across the room, and took her perch on the arm of the great chair in which he was sitting. Then he felt her fingers on his hair.
“I want to feel your bumps to see if you have improved — Ju-ju, your head isn’t so flat as it used to be on top. It seems a different shape somehow, nicer. Blunders is as flat as a pancake on top of his head. Flatness runs in families I suppose. Look at Venetia’s feet! Ju-ju, have you ever seen her in felt bath slippers?”
“I have — and a long yellow dressing gown, and her hair on her shoulders all wet, in rat tails. I’m not a cat, but she makes me feel like one and talk like one. I want to forget her. Do you remember our honeymoon?”
She had taken his hand and was holding it.
“We were happy then. Let’s begin again and let this be our second honeymoon, and we won’t quarrel once — will we?”
“No, we won’t,” said Jones.
She slipped down into the chair beside him, pulled his arm around her and held up her lips.
“Now you’re kissing me really,” she murmured; “you seemed half frightened before — Ju-ju, I want to make a confession.”
“Well — somebody pretended to care for me very much a little while ago.”
“Who was that?”
“Never mind. I went last night to a dance at the Crawleys’ and he was there.”
“Yes — is that all you have to say? You don’t seem to be very much interested.”
“I am though.”
“I don’t want you to be too much interested, and go making scenes and all that — though you couldn’t for you don’t know his name. Suffice to tell you — as the books say — he is a very handsome man, much, much handsomer than you, Ju — Well, listen to me. He asked me to run off with him.”
“Run off with him?”
“Yes — to Spain. We were to go to Paris first and then to Spain — Spain, at this time of year!”
“What did you say?”
“I said: ‘Please don’t be stupid.’ I’d been reading a novel where a girl said that to a man who wanted to run off with her — she died at the end — but that’s what she said at first — Fortunate I remembered it.”
“Because — because — for a moment I felt inclined to say ‘yes.’ I know it was dreadful, but think of my position, you going on like that, and me all alone with no one to care for me — It’s like a crave for drink. I must have someone to care for me and I thought you didn’t — so I nearly said ‘yes.’ Once I had said what I did I felt stronger.”
“What did he say?”
“He pleaded passionately — like the man in the book, and talked of roses and blue seas — he’s not English — I sat thinking of Venetia in her felt bath room slippers and yellow wrapper. You know she reads St. Thomas à Kempis and opens bazaars. She opened one the other day, and came back with her nose quite red and in a horrid temper — I wonder what was inside that bazaar? — Well, I knew if I did anything foolish Venetia would exult, and that held me firm. She’s not wicked. I believe she is really good as far as she knows how, and that’s the terrible thing about her. She goes to church twice on Sunday, she takes puddings and things to old women in the country, she opens bazaars and subscribes to ragged schools — yet with one word she sets everyone by the ears — Well, when I got home from the dance I began to think, and to-day, when they were all out, I had my boxes packed and came right back here. I’d have given anything to see their faces when they got home and found me gone.”
She sprang up suddenly. A knock had come to the door, it opened and a servant announced Miss Birdbrook.
Venetia had not changed that evening, she was still in her big hat. She ignored Jones, and, standing, spoke tersely to Teresa.
“So you have left us?”
“Yes,” replied the other. “I have come back here, d’you mind?”
“I?” said Venetia. “It’s not a question of my minding in the least, only it was sudden, and as you left no word as to where you were going we thought it best to make sure you were all right.”
She took her seat uncomfortably on a chair and the Countess of Rochester perched herself again by Jones.
“Yes, I am all right,” said she, with her hand resting on his shoulder.
“I am glad to know it,” she said. “We tried to make you comfortable — I cannot deny that mother feels slightly hurt at having no word from you before leaving, and one must admit that it cannot but seem strange to the servants your going like that — but of course that is entirely a question of taste.”
“You mean,” said Teresa, “that it was bad taste on my part — well, I apologise. I am sorry, but the sudden craving to get back here was more than I could resist. I would have written to-night.”
“Oh, it does not matter,” said Venetia, “the thing is done. Well, I must be going — but have you both thought over the future and all that it implies?”
“Have we, Ju-ju?” asked the girl, caressingly stroking Jones’ head.
“Yes,” said Jones.
“I’m sure,” went on Venetia with a sigh, “I have always done my best to keep things together. I failed. Was it my fault?”
“No,” said Teresa, aching for her to be gone. “I am sure it was not.”
“I am glad to hear you say that. I always tried to avoid interfering in your life. I never did — or only when ordinary prudence made me speak, as for instance, in that baccarat business.”
“Don’t rake up old things,” said Teresa suddenly.
“And the Williamson affair,” got in Venetia. “Oh, I am the very last to rake up things, as you call it. I, for one, will say no more of things that have happened, but I must speak of things that affect myself.”
“What is affecting you?”
“Just this. You know quite well the financial position. You know what the upkeep of this house means. You can’t do it. You plainly can’t do it. Your income is not sufficient.”
“But how does that affect you?”
“When tradespeople talk it affects me; it affects us all. Why not let this house and live quietly, somewhere in the country, ’til things blow over?”
“What do you mean by things blowing over?” asked Teresa. “One would think that you were talking of some disgrace that had happened.”
Venetia pulled up her long left hand glove and moved as though about to depart. She said nothing but looked at her glove.
During the whole of this time she had neither looked at nor spoken to Jones, nor included him by word in the conversation. Her influence had been working upon him ever since she entered the room. He began now more fully to understand the part she had played in the life of Rochester. He felt that he wanted to talk to Venetia as Rochester had, probably, never talked.
“A man once said to me that the greatest mistake a fellow can make is to have a sister to live with him after his marriage,” said Jones.
Venetia pulled up her right hand glove.
“A sister that has had to face mad intoxication and worse, can endorse that opinion,” said she.
“What do you mean by worse?” fired Teresa.
“I mean exactly what I say,” replied Venetia.
“That is no answer. Do you mean that Arthur has been unfaithful to me?”
“I did not say that.”
“Well, what can be worse than intoxication — that is the only thing worse that I know of — unless murder. Do you mean that he has murdered someone?”
“I will not let you drag me into a quarrel,” said Venetia; “you are putting things into my mouth. I think mad extravagance is worse than intoxication, inasmuch as it is committed by reasonable people uninfluenced by drugs or alcohol. I think insults levelled at inoffensive people are worse than the wildest deeds committed under the influence of that demon alcohol.”
“Who are the inoffensive people who have been insulted?”
“Good gracious — well, of course you don’t know — you have not had to interview people.”
“Sir Pleydell Harcourt for instance, who had sixteen pianos sent to him only last week, to say nothing of pantechnicon vans and half the contents of Harrods’ and Whiteleys’, so that Arlington Street was blocked, simply blocked, the whole of last Friday.”
“Did he say Arthur had sent them?”
“He had no direct proof — but he knew. There was no other man in London would have done such a thing.”
“Did you send them, Ju-ju?”
“No,” said Jones. “I did not.”
“You admitted to me, yourself, that you did,” said she.
“I was only joking,” he replied.
Teresa went to the bell and rang it.
“Good night,” said Venetia, “after that I have nothing more to say.”
“Thank goodness,” murmured Teresa when she was gone. “She made me shiver with her talk about extravagance. I’ve been horribly extravagant the last week — when a woman is distracted she runs to clothes for relief — anyhow I did. I’ve got three new evening frocks and I want to show you them. I’ve never known your taste wrong.”
“Good,” said Jones, “I’d like to see them.”
“Guess what they cost?”
“Two hundred and fifty — and they are a bargain. You’re not shocked, are you?”
“Not a bit.”
“Well, come and look at them — what’s the time? Half past ten.” She led the way upstairs.
On the first landing she turned to the left, opened a door and disclosed a bed-room where a maid was moving about arranging things and unpacking boxes.
A large cardboard box lay open on the floor, it was filled with snow white lingerie. The instinct to bolt came upon Jones so strongly that he might have obeyed it, only for the hand upon his arm pressing him down into a chair.
“Anne,” said the Countess of Rochester, “bring out my new evening gowns, I want to show them.”
Then she turned to the cardboard box. “Here’s some more of my extravagance. I couldn’t resist them, Venetia nearly had a fit when she saw the bill — Look!”
She exhibited frilled and snow white things, delicate and diaphanous and fit to be worn by angels. Then the dresses arrived, and were laid out on the bed and inspected. There was a black gown and a grey gown and a confection in pale blue. If Jones had been asked to price them he would have said a hundred dollars. Like most men he was absolutely unconscious of the worth of a woman’s dress. To a woman a Purdy and a ten guinea Birmingham gun are just the same, and to a man, a ten guinea Bayswater dress is little different, if worn by a pretty girl, from a seventy guinea Bond Street — is it Bond Street — rig out. Unless he is a man milliner.
Jones said “beautiful,” gave the palm to the blue, and watched them carried off again by the maid.
He had left his cigarettes down stairs; there were some in a box on a table, she made him take one and lit it for him, then she disappeared into a room adjoining, returning in a few minutes dressed in a kimono covered with golden swallows and followed by the maid. Then she took her seat before a great mirror and the maid began to take down her hair and brush it.
As the brushing went on she talked to the maid and to Jones upon all sorts of subjects. To the maid about the condition of her — Teresa’s — hair, and a new fashion in hair dressing, to Jones about the Opera, the stoutness of Caruso, and kindred matters.
The hair having been arranged in one great gorgeous plait, Jones suddenly breaking free from a weird sort of hypnotism that had held him since first entering the room, rose to his feet.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” said he.
He crossed the room, reached the door, opened it and passed out closing the door. In the corridor he stood for half a moment with his hand to his head.
Then he came down the stairs, crossed the hall, seized a hat and overcoat, put them on and opened the hall door.
All the way down the stairs and across the hall, he felt as though he were being driven along by some viewless force, and now, standing at the door, that same force pushed him out of the house and on to the steps.
He closed the door, came down the steps, and turned to the right.
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.
READ GORGEOUS PAPERBACKS: HiLoBooks has reissued the following 10 obscure but amazing Radium Age science fiction novels in beautiful print editions: 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, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.