The Beckoning Hand, and Other Stories
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It was just a fortnight later that I received quite unexpectedly a telegram from Rome directed to me at my London lodgings. I tore it open hastily; it was signed by Emily, and contained only these few words: "We have found the Museum Wulfric. The superintendent is coming over to identify and reclaim it. Can you manage to run across immediately with him?"
For a moment I was lost in astonishment, delight, and fear. How and why had Emily gone over to Rome? Who could she have with her to take care of her and assist her? How on earth had she tracked the missing coin to its distant hiding-place? It was all a profound mystery to me; and after my first outburst of joy and gratitude, I began to be afraid that Emily might have been misled by her eagerness and anxiety into following up the traces of the wrong coin.
However, I had no choice but to go to Rome and see the matter ended; and I went alone, wearing out my soul through that long journey with suspense and fear; for I had not managed to hit upon the superintendent, who, through his telegram being delivered a little the sooner, had caught a train six hours earlier than the one I went by.
As I arrived at the Central Station at Rome, I was met, to my surprise, by a perfect crowd of familiar faces. First, Emily herself rushed to me, kissed me, and assured me a hundred times over that it was all right, and that the missing coin was undoubtedly recovered. Then, the superintendent, more shamefaced than ever, and very grave, but with a certain moisture in his eyes, confirmed her statement by saying that he had got the real Museum Wulfric undoubtedly in his pocket. Then Sir Theophilus, who had actually come across with Lady Wraxton on purpose to take care of Emily, added his assurances and congratulations. Last of all, Woollacott, the warder, stepped up to me and said simply, "I'm glad, sir, that it was through me as it all came out so right and even."
"Tell me how it all happened," I cried, almost faint with joy, and still wondering whether my innocence had really been proved beyond all fear of cavil.
Then Woollacott began, and told me briefly the whole story. He had consulted with the superintendent and Sir Theophilus, without saying a word to me about it, and had kept a close watch upon all the letters that came for Mactavish. A rare Anglo-Saxon coin is not a chattel that one can easily get rid of every day; and Woollacott shrewdly gathered from what Sir Theophilus had told him that Mactavish (or whoever else had stolen the coin) would be likely to try to dispose of it as far away from England as possible, especially after all the comments that had been made on this particular Wulfric in the English newspapers. So he took every opportunity of intercepting the postman at the front door, and looking out for envelopes with foreign postage stamps. At last one day a letter arrived for Mactavish with an Italian stamp and a cardinal's red hat stamped like a crest on the flap of the envelope.Woollacott was certain that things of that sort didn't come to Mactavish every day about his ordinary business. Braving the penalties for appropriating a letter, he took the liberty to open this suspicious communication, and found it was a note from Cardinal Trevelyan, the Pope's Chamberlain, and a well-known collector of antiquities referring to early Church history in England, and that it was in reply to an offer of Mactavish's to send the Cardinal for inspection a rare gold coin not otherwise specified. The Cardinal expressed his readiness to see the coin, and to pay a hundred and fifty pounds for it, if it proved to be rare and genuine as described. Woollacott felt certain that this communication must refer to the gold Wulfric. He therefore handed the letter to Mrs. Mactavish when the postman next came his rounds, and waited to see whether Mactavish any day afterwards went to the post to register a small box or packet. Meanwhile he communicated with Emily and the superintendent, being unwilling to buoy me up with a doubtful hope until he was quite sure that their plan had succeeded. The superintendent wrote immediately to the Cardinal, mentioning his suspicions, and received a reply to the effect that he expected a coin of Wulfric to be sent him shortly. Sir Theophilus, who had been greatly interested in the question of the coin, kindly offered to take Emily over to Rome, in order to get the criminating piece, as soon as it arrived, from Cardinal Trevelyan. That was, in turn, the story that they all told me, piece by piece, in the Central Station at Rome that eventful morning.
"And Mactavish?" I asked of the superintendent eagerly.
"Is in custody in London already," he answered somewhat sternly. "I had a warrant out against him before I left town on this journey."
At the trial the whole case was very clearly proved against him, and my innocence was fully established before the face of all my fellow-countrymen. A fortnight later my wife and I were among the rocks and woods at Ambleside; and when I returned to London, it was to take a place in the department of coins at the British Museum, which the superintendent begged of me to accept as some further proof in the eyes of everybody that the suspicion he had formed in the matter of the Wulfric was a most unfounded and wholly erroneous one. The coin itself I kept as a memento of a terrible experience; but I have given up collecting on my own account entirely, and am quite content nowadays to bear my share in guarding the national collection from other depredators of the class of Mactavish.
MY UNCLE'S WILL
"My dear Mr. Payne," said my deceased uncle's lawyer with an emphatic wag of his forefinger, "I assure you there's no help for it. The language of the will is perfectly simple and explicit. Either you must do as your late uncle desired, or you must let the property go to the representative of his deceased wife's family."
"But surely, Blenkinsopp," I said deprecatingly, "we might get the Court of Chancery to set it aside, as being contrary to public policy, or something of that sort. I know you can get the Court of Chancery to affirm almost anything you ask them, especially if it's something a little abstruse and out of the common; it gratifies the Court's opinion of its own acumen. Now, clearly, it's contrary to public policy that a man should go and make his own nephew ridiculous by his last will and testament, isn't it?"
Mr. Blenkinsopp shook his head vigorously. "Bless my soul, Mr. Payne," he answered, helping himself to a comprehensive pinch from his snuff-box (an odious habit, confined, I believe, at the present day to family solicitors), "bless my soul, my dear sir, the thing's simply impossible. Here's your uncle, the late Anthony Aikin, Esquire, deceased, a person of sound mind and an adult male above the age of twenty-one years – to be quite accurate, ?tatis su?, seventy-eight – makes his will, and duly attests the same in the presence of two witnesses; everything quite in order: not a single point open to exception in any way. Well, he gives and bequeaths to his nephew, Theodore Payne, gentleman – that's you – after a few unimportant legacies, the bulk of his real and personal estate, provided only that you adopt the surname of Aikin, prefixed before and in addition to your own surname of Payne. But, – and this is very important, – if you don't choose to adopt and use the said surname of Aikin, in the manner hereinbefore recited, then and in that case, my dear sir – why, then and in that case, as clear as currant jelly, the whole said residue of his real and personal estate is to go to the heir or heirs-at-law of the late Amelia Maria Susannah Aikin, wife of the said Anthony Aikin, Esquire, deceased. Nothing could be simpler or plainer in any way, and there's really nothing on earth for you to do except to choose between the two alternatives so clearly set before you by your deceased uncle."
"But look here, you know, Blenkinsopp," I said appealingly, "no fellow can really be expected to go and call himself Aikin-Payne, now can he? It's positively too ridiculous. Mightn't I stick the Payne before the Aikin, and call myself Payne-Aikin, eh? That wouldn't be quite so absurdly suggestive of a perpetual toothache. But Aikin-Payne! Why, the comic papers would take it up immediately. Every footman in London would grin audibly when he announced me. I fancy I hear the fellows this very moment: flinging open the door with a violent attempt at seriousness, and shouting out, 'Mr. Haching-Pain, ha, ha, ha!' with a loud guffaw behind the lintel. It would be simply unendurable!"
"My dear sir," answered the unsympathetic Blenkinsopp (most unsympathetic profession, an attorney's, really), "the law doesn't take into consideration the question of the probable conduct of footmen. It must be Aikin-Payne or nothing. I admit the collocation does sound a little ridiculous, to be sure; but your uncle's will is perfectly unequivocal upon the subject – in fact, ahem! I drew it up myself, to say the truth; and unless you call yourself Aikin-Payne, 'in the manner hereinbefore recited,' then and in that case, observe (there's no deception), then and in that case the heir or heirs-at-law of the late Amelia Maria Susannah aforesaid will be entitled to benefit under the will as fully in every respect as if the property was bequeathed directly to him, her, or them, by name, and to no other person."
"And who the dickens are these heirs-at-law, Blenkinsopp?" I ventured to ask after a moment's pause, during which the lawyer had refreshed himself with another prodigious sniff from his snuff-box.
"Who the dickens are they, Mr. Payne? I should say Mr. Aikin-Payne, ahem – why, how the dickens should I know, sir? You don't suppose I keep a genealogical table and full pedigree of all the second cousins of all my clients hung up conspicuously in some spare corner of my brain, do you, eh? Upon my soul I really haven't the slightest notion. All I know about them is that the late Mrs. Amelia Maria Susannah Aikin, deceased, had one sister, who married somebody or other somewhere, against Mr. Anthony Aikin's wishes, and that he never had anything further to say to her at any time. 'But where she's gone and how she fares, nobody knows and nobody cares,' sir, as the poet justly remarks."
I was not previously acquainted with the poet's striking observation on this matter, but I didn't stop to ask Mr. Blenkinsopp in what author's work these stirring lines had originally appeared. I was too much occupied with other thoughts at that moment to pursue my investigations into their authorship and authenticity. "Upon my word, Blenkinsopp," I said, "I've really half a mind to shy the thing up and go on with my schoolmastering."
Mr. Blenkinsopp shrugged his shoulders. "Believe me, my dear young friend," he said sententiously, "twelve hundred a year is not to be sneezed at. Without inquiring too precisely into the exact state of your existing finances, I should be inclined to say your present engagement can't be worth to you more than three hundred a year."
I nodded acquiescence. "The exact figure," I murmured.
"And your private means are?"
"Non-existent," I answered frankly.
"Then, my dear sir, excuse such plainness of speech in a man of my profession; but if you throw it up you will be a perfect fool, sir; a perfect fool, I assure you."
"But perhaps, Blenkinsopp, the next-of-kin won't step in to claim it!"
"Doesn't matter a bit, my dear fellow. Executors are bound to satisfy themselves before paying you over your legacy that you have assumed and will use the name of Aikin before and in addition to your own name of Payne, in the manner hereinbefore recited. There's no getting over that in any way."
I sighed aloud. "Twelve hundred a year is certainly very comfortable," I said. "But it's a confounded bore that one should have a condition tacked on to it which will make one a laughing-stock for life to all the buffoons and idiots of one's acquaintance."
Blenkinsopp nodded in modified assent. "After all," he answered, "I wouldn't mind taking it on the same terms myself."
"Well," said I, "che sara sara. If it must be, it must be; and you may put an advertisement into the Times accordingly. Tell the executors that I accept the condition."
"I won't stop in town," said I to myself, "to be chaffed by all the fellows at the club and in the master's room at St. Martin's. I'll run over on the Continent until the wags (confound them) have forgotten all about it. I'm a sensitive man, and if there's anything on earth I hate it's cheap and easy joking and punning on a name or a personal peculiarity which lays itself open obviously to stupid buffoonery. Of course I shall chuck up the schoolmastering now; – it's an odious trade at any time – and I may as well take a pleasant holiday while I'm about it. Let me see – Nice or Cannes or Florence would be the best thing at this time of year. Escape the November fogs and January frosts. Let's make it Cannes, then, and try the first effect of my new name upon the corpus vile of the Cannois."
So I packed up my portmanteau hurriedly, took the 7.45 to Paris, and that same evening found myself comfortably ensconced in a wagon lit, making my way as fast as the Lyons line would carry me en route for the blue Mediterranean.
The H?tel du Paradis at Cannes is a very pleasant and well managed place, where I succeeded in making myself perfectly at home. I gave my full name to the concierge boldly. "Thank Heaven," I thought, "Aikin-Payne will sound to her just as good a label to one's back as Howard or Cholmondely. She won't see the absurdity of the combination." She was a fat Vaudoise Swiss by origin, and she took it without moving a muscle. But she answered me in very tolerable English – me, who thought my Parisian accent unimpeachable! "Vary well, sirr, your lettares shall be sent to your apartments." I saw there was the faintest twinkle of a smile about the corner of her mouth, and I felt that even she, a mere foreigner, a Swiss concierge, perceived at once the incongruity of the two surnames. Incongruity! that's the worst of it! Would that they were incongruous! But it's their fatal and obvious congruity with one another that makes their juxtaposition so ridiculous. Call a man Payne, and I venture to say, though I was to the manner born, and it's me that says it as oughtn't to say it, you couldn't find a neater or more respectable surname in all England: call him plain Aikin, and though that perhaps is less aristocratic, it's redeemed by all the associations of childhood with the earliest literature we imbibed through the innocuous pages of "Evenings at Home: " but join the two together, in the order of alphabetical precedence, and you get an Aikin-Payne, which is a thing to make a sensitive man, compelled to bear it for a lifetime, turn permanently red like a boiled lobster. My uncle must have done it on purpose, in order to inflict a deadly blow on what he would doubtless have called my confounded self-conceit!
However, I changed my tourist suit for a black cutaway, and made my way down to the salle-?-manger. The dinner was good in itself, and was enlivened for me by the presence of an extremely pretty girl of, say nineteen, who sat just opposite, and whose natural protector I soon managed to draw casually into a general conversation. I say her natural protector, because, though I took him at the time for her father, I discovered afterwards that he was really her uncle. Experience has taught me that when you sit opposite a pretty girl at an hotel, you ought not to open fire by directing your observations to herself in person; you should begin diplomatically by gaining the confidence of her male relations through the wisdom or the orthodoxy of your political and social opinions. Mr. Shackleford – that, I found afterwards, was the uncle's name – happened to be a fiery Tory, while I have the personal misfortune to be an equally rabid Radical: but on this occasion I successfully dissembled, acquiescing with vague generality in his denunciation of my dearest private convictions; and by the end of dinner we had struck up quite an acquaintance with one another.
"Ruby," said the aunt to the pretty girl, as soon as dinner was over, "shall we take a stroll out in the gardens?"
Ruby! what a charming name really. I wonder, now, what is her surname? And what a beautiful graceful figure, as she rises from the table, and throws her little pale blue Indian silk scarf around her pretty shoulders! Clearly, Ruby is a person whose acquaintance I ought to cultivate.
"Uncle won't come, of course," said Ruby, with a pleasant smile (what teeth!). "The evening air would be too much for him. You know," she added, looking across to me, "almost everybody at Cannes is in the invalid line, and mustn't stir out after sunset. Aunt and I are unfashionable enough to be quite strong, and to go in for a stroll by moonlight."
"I happen to be equally out of the Cannes fashion," I said, directing my observation, with great strategic skill, rather to the aunt than to Miss Ruby in person; "and if you will allow me I should be very glad to accompany you."
So we turned out on the terrace of the Paradis, and walked among the date-palms and prickly pears that fill the pretty tropical garden. It was a lovely moonlight evening in October; and October is still almost a summer month in the Riviera. The feathery branches of the palms stood out in clear-cut outline against the pale moonlit sky; the white houses of Cannes gleamed with that peculiarly soft greenish Mediterranean tint in the middle distance; and the sea reflected the tremulous shimmer in the background, between the jagged sierra of the craggy Esterel and the long low outline of the Ile Ste. Marguerite. Altogether, it was an ideal poet's evening, the very evening to stroll for the first time with a beautiful girl through the charmed alleys of a Proven?al garden!
Ruby Estcourt – she gave me her name before long – was quite as pleasant to talk to as she was beautiful and graceful to behold. Fortunately, her aunt was not one of the race of talkative old ladies, and she left the mass of the conversation entirely to Ruby and myself. In the course of half an hour or so spent in pacing up and down that lovely terrace, I had picked out, bit by bit, all that I most wanted to know about Ruby Estcourt. She was an orphan, without brothers or sisters, and evidently without any large share of this world's goods; and she lived with her aunt and uncle, who were childless people, and who usually spent the summer in Switzerland, retiring to the Riviera every winter for the benefit of Mr. Shackleford's remaining lung. Quite simple and unaffected Ruby seemed, though she had passed most of her lifetime in the too-knowing atmosphere of Continental hotels, among that cosmopolitan public which is so very sharp-sighted that it fancies it can see entirely through such arrant humbug as honour in men and maidenly reserve in women. Still, from that world Ruby Estcourt had somehow managed to keep herself quite unspotted; and a simpler, prettier, more natural little fairy you wouldn't find anywhere in the English villages of half a dozen counties.
It was all so fresh and delightful to me – the palms, the Mediterranean, the balmy evening air, the gleaming white town, and pretty Ruby Estcourt – that I walked up and down on the terrace as long as they would let me; and I was really sorry when good Mrs. Shackleford at last suggested that it was surely getting time for uncle's game of cribbage. As they turned to go, Ruby said good evening, and then, hesitating for a moment as to my name, said quite simply and naturally, "Why, you haven't yet told us who you are, have you?"
I coloured a little – happily invisible by moonlight – as I answered, "That was an omission on my part, certainly. When you told me you were Miss Estcourt, I ought to have mentioned in return that my own name was Aikin-Payne, Theodore Aikin-Payne, if you please: may I give you a card?"
"Aching Pain!" Ruby said, with a smile. "Did I hear you right? Aching Pain, is it? Oh, what a very funny name!"
I drew myself up as stiffly as I was able. "Not Aching Pain," I said, with a doleful misgiving in my heart – it was clear everybody would put that odd misinterpretation upon it for the rest of my days. "Not Aching Pain, but Aikin-Payne, Miss Estcourt. A-i-k-i-n, Aikin, the Aikins of Staffordshire; P-a-y-n-e, Payne, the Paynes of Surrey. My original surname was Payne, a surname that I venture to say I'm a little proud of; but my uncle, Mr. Aikin, from whom I inherit property," I thought that was rather a good way of putting it, "wished me to adopt his family name in addition to my own – in fact, made it a condition, sine qu? non, of my receiving the property."
"Payne – Aikin," Ruby said, turning the names over to herself slowly. "Ah, yes, I see. Excuse my misapprehension, Mr. – Mr. Aikin-Payne. It was very foolish of me; but really, you know, it does sound so very ludicrous, doesn't it now?"
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