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Charles came out into Half Moon Street and the pale sunshine of the spring afternoon, in a sort of black exaltation of the spirit. For the time all thought of Joyce, of the magical, the golden possibilities that this detected slander opened in front of him, was utterly obscured by his immediate errand, that hung between him and it like some impenetrable cloud which must first find its due discharge in outpoured storm before the "clear shining" could dawn on him. He felt void of all pity, void even of regret that the man whom he had so completely trusted, for whom he had cherished so abounding a sense of gratitude, should have proved so sinister a rogue. What he should say, and on what lines this scorching interview would develop and fulfil itself, he had no sort of idea, nor to that did he give one moment's thought; he only looked forward with a savage glee to the fact that within a few minutes, if he was lucky enough to find Craddock in, he would be face to face with him. All his shrinking from the suspicions which he had so sincerely tried to keep at arm's length was gone, now that the suspicions had turned out to be true, and he only longed to fling the truth of them in the teeth of the man whose integrity, so short a while ago, he had rejoiced to champion. That integrity was blown into blackened fragments, and his belief in it seemed now as incredible to him as the happenings of some diseased dream, which to his awakened senses were a tissue of the wildest rubbish, a mere babble of unfounded incoherence. There could be no regret for the cessation of impressions so false and unreal…
He walked quickly along Piccadilly, with colour a little heightened, and a smile, vivid and genial, on his mouth. Every now and then his lips pursed themselves up for a bar or two of aimless whistling, and he swung a light-hearted stick as he went. The pavement was full of cheerful passengers, the roadway of briskly-moving vehicles, and all the stir of life seemed full of the promise of this exquisite springtime. Then in a flash all recognition of the lively world passed from his consciousness, and he saw only that black cloud of his own exalted indignation and blind anger, which so soon, so soon now was going to discharge itself in God knew what torrent and tempest. Or would it quietly dissolve and drain itself away? Would there be no explosion, no torrent of storm, only just little trickling sentences and denials no doubt, then more little trickling sentences until there was just silence and no denials at all? He did not know and certainly he did not care. The manner of the affair in no way occupied or interested him. And over his boiling indignation that he knew raged below, there stretched a crust, that just shook and trembled with the tumult within, but showed no sign of giving way. Every now and then he said softly to himself, "Something's got to happen: something's got to happen," as he whistled his tuneless phrase and swung his stick.
Frank, who occupied a flat immediately below Craddock's, was in, and Charles, brisk and gay of face, marched in upon him.
"I've seen Lady Crowborough," he said, "and now we will go to see Craddock.He's … he's amazing. The worst that I suspected, which I didn't tell you, is all soberly true. He has lied about me, he told the Wroughtons that I was a disreputable sort of affair. He has lied, lied, to get me out of the way. Now he has got to eat his lies. Come on, come on, what are you waiting for?"
Frank sprang up.
"Tell me about it first," he said.
"Oh, not now. I'll tell you about it upstairs. By the way, you had some little scheme to get yourself and me out of his hands. We'll take that first: we'll lead up to the grand crash. More artistic, eh? Or shall we begin with the grand crash? I don't know. I don't care. Let's go upstairs anyhow and see what happens. Let Nature take her course. Let's have a touch of Nature. What is it I have got to do according to your plan? Oh, yes, just say I'll draw a portrait of the Middleman. Frank, why the devil am I not blazing with indignation, and chucking things about. You're a psychologist, aren't you? Tell me that. You study people and make them have adventures. I'm all for adventures. Come on, and let's see what happens. We've such a fine day, too."
Frank licked his lips.
"Gosh, I'm on in this piece," he said. "Now wait a minute. We'll take my little farce first, just a curtain-raiser. He's got an agreement of yours, I suppose, just as he's got one of mine, that gives him his options. We must get those out of him first of all. Then … then we can proceed with unbiassed minds. Ha!"
Frank gave one mirthless crack of laughter.
"We'll get those first," he said, "and then start fair. Up we go."
Craddock was in, and the two were admitted. It appeared that he had been having a little nap, for even as they entered he struggled to a sitting position on his sofa.
"Sorry to disturb you," said Frank, "but I wanted to see you rather particularly. Charles also. So we came up together."
Frank took up his stand on the hearth rug, while Charles gracefully subsided into a long low arm-chair. Craddock looked from one to the other, not nervously, but with an air of slightly puzzled expectancy. There was something vaguely unusual about it all.
"I wanted to speak to you about a play," said Frank, "which, under certain circumstances, I shall assuredly write. Tranby would be sure to take it. I naturally want to know if it appeals to you."
Craddock stroked the right side of his face. It was smooth and plump.
"My dear fellow," he said, "I should be charmed to hear it, but as a matter of fact I have not very much time this afternoon. Perhaps if you left the scenario with me – "
"It's not written out," said Frank.
Craddock glanced at the clock.
"Ah, I see I have half an hour," he said.
"That ought to be sufficient. If not, perhaps you can postpone your next engagement. However, you will see, if you think it worth while. I propose to call my play 'The Middleman.'"
Craddock's hand, that was still up to his face, paused a moment. Then it began stroking again.
"Quite a good title," he said, with an absolutely impassive tone.
"I thought you would approve. Of course he is the hero – shall we say? – of the play. He's large and stout, I want you to picture him to yourself – and wealthy and cultivated, a great judge of pictures and the arts generally. He purchases options on the work of young and unknown men, that's how he gets his money, and makes devilish good bargains."
Craddock raised his eyebrows slightly, and turned to Charles.
"And what is your part in this conspiracy?" he said quietly. "It is a conspiracy, I suppose."
Charles crossed one leg over the other, and put his finger-tips together.
"Oh, yes, you may call it a conspiracy," he said. "We thought you would. You see, I'm going to paint a portrait of Frank's middleman. I know just what he looks like. I could draw him for you on a half-sheet, if you think it necessary. Then I shall send it to some gallery or other, – it will be very like – just about the time that Frank's play comes out. You might like to exercise your option over it. So I shall paint another one."
"Not in your present studio," said Craddock suddenly.
"Certainly not in my present studio. I shall never paint anything more in my present studio."
Craddock grasped the whole situation: indeed it did not require any very great acuteness to enable him to see exactly how he stood, and on the whole he felt up to dealing with it. For a moment there was dead silence, and Charles whistled a futile tuneless phrase.
"There are such things as libel actions," he said to Frank.
"For those who feel up to bringing them," said he.
Once again Craddock paused. He got up from his sofa, went to the window and came back again. He rather expected to surprise a consultation of eyes going on between the two young men. But there was nothing of the kind. Frank was regarding his own boots, Charles was staring vacantly and stupidly, smiling a little, straight in front of him. Craddock was by no means a coward, and he felt not the smallest fright or nervousness.
"If you think I should hesitate to bring a libel action against you," he said to Frank, "if you ever put on anything that could be construed as defamatory to my character, you are stupendously mistaken. I know quite well that you have always disliked me, me, who took you out of the gutter, and gave you a chance of making your talents known. But that is always the way. To befriend a certain type of man means to make an enemy. By all means proceed to write your play, and make it as scandalous and defamatory as you please. I shall make not the smallest protest against it, you can produce it as soon as you like. But mind you it will run for one night only, and you will then find yourself involved in a libel action that will beggar you. Incidentally, though I imagine that this will seem to you a comparatively light matter, you will find you have caused to be recorded against you the verdict not of a jury only but of every decent-minded man and woman in England."
Frank looked at him, and suppressed an obviously artificial yawn.
"Hear, hear!" he said.
"And about my portrait?" said Charles from the depth of his chair.
Craddock turned to him.
"All I have said to your friend regarding my line of conduct applies to you also," he said. "You may do any caricature of me you please, and the more you hold me up to ridicule, the sounder will my grounds for action be. But what applies to you only is this. I consider that your conduct is infinitely more treacherous than his. He at least has from the first almost been avowedly hostile to me. You have pretended that you were conscious of the gratitude you certainly owe me. You have made me think that I was befriending a young man who was fond of me, and appreciated my kindness to him. Armstrong at any rate has made no such nauseous pretence. How deeply I am hurt and wounded I do not care to tell you. But if it is, as I suppose it must be, a source of gratification to you to know that you have wounded me, you may rest thoroughly well satisfied with what you have done. I congratulate you on the result. I warned you months ago, about your choice of friends. The only possible excuse for you is that you have fallen under the influence of the man I cautioned you against."
Frank looked up from his boots to Charles.
"Did he caution you against me?" he asked. "You never told me that."
"No, Frank. I didn't want then to give you another cause for grievance. But he did warn me against you."
"You would have been wise to take my advice," said Craddock. "As it is, perhaps you will see the propriety of your vacating my studio as soon as is convenient to you. I should think that by to-morrow evening I might hope to find it at my disposal."
"Certainly," said Charles. "I daresay you will soon find some other promising student."
Craddock turned his back on Frank for a moment.
"I never should have thought this of you, Charles," he said. There was real sincerity in his reproach. Bitter as was the injury he had inflicted on the boy, he was very fond of him, and valued the return of his affection. It might be objected that a man does not wilfully and cruelly injure one whom he is fond of. Such an objection is mistaken and ignorant. For herein lie three quarters of the tragic dealings of the world, namely, that day by day and all day long men strike and betray their friends. They do not wrong those who are indifferent to them: for where should be the motive of that?
"I should never have thought it of myself," said Charles, and his voice faltered on the words.
Craddock turned to Frank again.
"You have told me about your proposed play," he said, "which I imagine was the object of your coming here, and Charles has come about his portrait. I do not know that anything further detains either of you."
Frank could have applauded the quiet dramatic development of the scene. If he had come across it in a play, he would have watched it with the tensest diligence. And here it was all unplanned: the situation seemed to develop itself without any exterior assistance. Craddock, for instance, was taking exactly the line that the drama demanded, and it was quite certain that he had not rehearsed his part. He felt certain also that Charles would prove equally discerning.
"There is just one more thing," he said. "I require you to destroy, in my presence, the contract I signed giving you an option to purchase three more plays of mine. You have a similar one with regard to pictures by Charles. That must be destroyed also."
Craddock stared at him in amazement.
"And is there anything else you would like me to do for you?" he asked.
"No, that is all."
Craddock gave his usual sign of merriment, the laugh that chuckled in his throat, but did not reach outwards as far as his lips, which remained without a smile. It was something of a relief to find that this was the object of their outrageous threats, for he again felt himself quite competent to deal with it. It was not that he had actually feared anything else, but in spite of that he was glad to have the object of their threats avowed.
"You are most original conspirators," he said. "You threaten me first, and when you see that your threats do not disturb me in the slightest degree, you produce, somewhat as an anti-climax surely, the object which you hope to gain by your futile menaces. Go away and practise: that is what I recommend you to do. Get some small handbook about conspiracy and black-mail. You are ignorant of the very rudiments of it. As you have seen I snap my fingers at your threats, indeed, I am not sure whether it would not amuse me if you put them into execution. But to make your demands upon the top of so pathetic a failure is surely what you, Armstrong, would call a 'weak curtain.'"
"Certainly that would be a very weak curtain," said Frank, looking at his boots again.
There was no need for him to look at Charles: it was as certain as if they had gone over the scene till they knew it by heart that Charles would pick up his cue. But when Charles spoke Frank looked up at Craddock again. He wanted to see how he would take it.
Charles neither shifted his position nor cleared his throat.
"How much did Ward give you for Philip Wroughton's Reynolds?" he asked.
Frank watching Craddock's face saw only the very slightest change pass over it. But for the moment his eyes looked inwards, squinting a little.
"That I suppose is your business?" he observed.
"Yes, in a moment I will tell you how it is," said Charles. "But first I may say what I am going to tell you."
Still Craddock's face did not change.
"Do you mean by that what you have just asked me?"
"It is the same thing. It was not in order to get free of your options that I tell you this. That is a very minor concern. What matters is that you have swindled Mr. Wroughton. And it is my business, because the cheque that was paid you for the Reynolds included a certain sum for my copy of the picture. Of that you only gave me fifty pounds."
Then the change came. Craddock's face grew a shade whiter and his upper lip and forehead glistened. But in a moment he pulled himself together.
"Ah, so this is the real threat," he said. "We are going to have a weaker curtain than ever. I entirely decline to discuss my private affairs with you. Go and tell whom you please that I have swindled, to use your own word, my very good friend Philip Wroughton. Go down to Thorley and see how he will receive you and your news. Do you suppose he would listen to you? And do you suppose that I will do so any longer? Tell this story and any other you may have been concocting to the whole world, and at the proper time I will very effectually stop you. You and your friend seem to have so much money that libel actions are the only way in which you can get rid of it. But first tell Wroughton, whom I have swindled. The – the monstrous suggestion!"
For one moment his indignation flared up. The next he had mastered it again. But inflamed by this, or by some underlying emotion, he made an error, and allowed himself to say more, when he had (so rightly) intimated that enough had been said.
"It is lucky for me," he said, "with such fellows round me, that I was business-like in the matter. The cheque Ward drew me for five thousand pounds I passed straight on to my friend when the purchase was concluded, and have his receipt for it. And as for your miserable fifty pounds, you agreed, as you very well know, to make the copy for that sum. You were glad enough to get it, and your gratitude was quite pretty. And that is all I think. I have no more to say to either of you."
He got up and indicated the door. Neither Charles nor Frank moved. And then a second sign escaped him. His indicating hand dropped, and the one word he uttered to Charles stuck in his throat.
"Well?" he said.
"You have forgotten," said Charles, "that Ward gave you a cheque for five thousand pounds in payment for some Dutch pictures. There was a Van der Weyde among them. It was from Thistleton's Gallery, I may remind you."
"You are very copiously informed."
"Yes. You see my brother was your clerk there. He well remembers the purchase and the drawing of the cheque. That was in June. The cheque was post-dated by a few days."
Without doubt Craddock was listening now, though he had said he would listen no more. Frank watched him with the same hard devouring interest with which he would have watched a man pinioned and led out to the execution shed. Charles went on in a voice that sounded a little bored. It was as if he repeated some well known tiresome task he had learned.
"It was in October," he said, "that another cheque was drawn to you by Mr. Ward, under the same circumstances. He wrote it, that is to say, at Thistleton's Gallery, at my brother's desk. This time the cheque was larger, for it was of ten thousand and one hundred pounds. Reggie told me of it at the time. I did not connect it then with the Reynolds picture."
"Lies, a pack of lies," said Craddock under his breath, but still listening.
"No, not a pack of lies," said Charles. "You should not say that sort of thing. This morning I asked Mr. Ward how much he paid for the Reynolds. He told me not to tell anyone, but it is no news to you, and so I repeat it. He paid you ten thousand pounds. Also he said to me – you heard that – that he didn't suppose I would do many more copies for one hundred pounds each. I drew an inference. And the whole cheque is accounted for."
Suddenly Frank looked away from Craddock, and glanced at Charles, nodding.
"He's done," he said, as if some contest of boxing was in progress.
Frank was right. During the fall of these quiet words, Craddock had collapsed; there was no more fight left in him. He sat hunched up in his chair, a mere inert mass, with his eyes glazed and meaningless fixed on Charles, his mouth a little open and drooping. The shame of what he had done had, all these months, left no trace on him, but the shame of his detection was a vastly different matter. But he made one more protest, as forceless and unavailing as the last roll of a fish being pulled to land, dead-beat.
"Lies," he said just once, and was silent.
Charles got quickly out of his chair and stood up pointing at him. As yet he felt no spark of pity for him, for there was nothing to pity in a man who with his last effort reiterates the denial of his shame. And the tale of his indictment was not done yet. He spoke with raised voice, and vivid scorn.
"You should know a lie when you hear it better than that," he said. "Do I sound as if I was lying? Did you lie like that when you lied about me to Philip Wroughton last autumn? Not you: you let your damned poison just dribble from you. You just hinted that I was a disreputable fellow, not fit to associate with him and his. You said it with regret – oh, I can hear you do it – you felt you ought to tell him. Wasn't it like that? Go on, tell me whether what I am saying now is lies, too! You can't! You're done, as Frank said. There's a limit even to your power of falsehood. Now sit there and just think over what's best to be done. That's all; you know it all now."
No word came from Craddock. He had sunk a little more into himself, and his plump white hands hung ludicrously in front of him like the paws of a begging dog. A wisp of his long black hair that crossed the crown of his head had fallen forward and lay stuck to the moisture on his forehead. The two young men stood together away from him on the hearth-rug, looking at him, and a couple of minutes passed in absolute silence.
Then an impulse, not yet compassionate for this collapsed rogue, compassionate only for the collapse, came to Charles.
"You had better have a drink," he said, "it will do you good. Shall I get it for you?"
He received no answer, and went into the dining room next door. The table was already laid for dinner, and on the side-board stood syphon and spirit decanter. He poured out a stiff mixture and brought it back to him. And then as he held it out to him, and saw him take it in both his hands, that even together were scarcely steady enough to carry it to his mouth, pity awoke.
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