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- Sir Dominick Ferrand - 5/12 -
way that relegated poor Peter to the general; but meeting the young man's eyes again he asked: "Are you--a--thinking of proposing an article upon him?"
"Not exactly proposing it--because I don't yet quite see my way; but the idea rather appeals to me."
Mr. Locket emitted the safe assertion that this eminent statesman had been a striking figure in his day; then he added: "Have you been studying him?"
"I've been dipping into him."
"I'm afraid he's scarcely a question of the hour," said Mr. Locket, shuffling papers together.
"I think I could make him one," Peter Baron declared.
Mr. Locket stared again; he was unable to repress an unattenuated "You?"
"I have some new material," said the young man, colouring a little. "That often freshens up an old story."
"It buries it sometimes. It's often only another tombstone."
"That depends upon what it is. However," Peter added, "the documents I speak of would be a crushing monument."
Mr. Locket, hesitating, shot another glance under his glasses. "Do you allude to--a--revelations?"
"Very curious ones."
Mr. Locket, still on his feet, had kept his body at the bowing angle; it was therefore easy for him after an instant to bend a little further and to sink into his chair with a movement of his hand toward the seat Baron had occupied. Baron resumed possession of this convenience, and the conversation took a fresh start on a basis which such an extension of privilege could render but little less humiliating to our young man. He had matured no plan of confiding his secret to Mr. Locket, and he had really come out to make him conscientiously that other announcement as to which it appeared that so much artistic agitation had been wasted. He had indeed during the past days--days of painful indecision--appealed in imagination to the editor of the Promiscuous, as he had appealed to other sources of comfort; but his scruples turned their face upon him from quarters high as well as low, and if on the one hand he had by no means made up his mind not to mention his strange knowledge, he had still more left to the determination of the moment the question of how he should introduce the subject. He was in fact too nervous to decide; he only felt that he needed for his peace of mind to communicate his discovery. He wanted an opinion, the impression of somebody else, and even in this intensely professional presence, five minutes after he had begun to tell his queer story, he felt relieved of half his burden. His story was very queer; he could take the measure of that himself as he spoke; but wouldn't this very circumstance qualify it for the Promiscuous?
"Of course the letters may be forgeries," said Mr. Locket at last.
"I've no doubt that's what many people will say."
"Have they been seen by any expert?"
"No indeed; they've been seen by nobody."
"Have you got any of them with you?"
"No; I felt nervous about bringing them out."
"That's a pity. I should have liked the testimony of my eyes."
"You may have it if you'll come to my rooms. If you don't care to do that without a further guarantee I'll copy you out some passages."
"Select a few of the worst!" Mr. Locket laughed. Over Baron's distressing information he had become quite human and genial. But he added in a moment more dryly: "You know they ought to be seen by an expert."
"That's exactly what I dread," said Peter.
"They'll be worth nothing to me if they're not."
Peter communed with his innermost spirit. "How much will they be worth to ME if they ARE?"
Mr. Locket turned in his study-chair. "I should require to look at them before answering that question."
"I've been to the British museum--there are many of his letters there. I've obtained permission to see them, and I've compared everything carefully. I repudiate the possibility of forgery. No sign of genuineness is wanting; there are details, down to the very postmarks, that no forger could have invented. Besides, whose interest could it conceivably have been? A labor of unspeakable difficulty, and all for what advantage? There are so many letters, too--twenty-seven in all."
"Lord, what an ass!" Mr. Locket exclaimed.
"It will be one of the strangest post-mortem revelations of which history preserves the record."
Mr. Locket, grave now, worried with a paper-knife the crevice of a drawer. "It's very odd. But to be worth anything such documents should be subjected to a searching criticism--I mean of the historical kind."
"Certainly; that would be the task of the writer introducing them to the public."
Again Mr. Locket considered; then with a smile he looked up. "You had better give up original composition and take to buying old furniture."
"Do you mean because it will pay better?"
"For you, I should think, original composition couldn't pay worse. The creative faculty's so rare."
"I do feel tempted to turn my attention to real heroes," Peter replied.
"I'm bound to declare that Sir Dominick Ferrand was never one of mine. Flashy, crafty, second-rate--that's how I've always read him. It was never a secret, moreover, that his private life had its weak spots. He was a mere flash in the pan."
"He speaks to the people of this country," said Baron.
"He did; but his voice--the voice, I mean, of his prestige--is scarcely audible now."
"They're still proud of some of the things he did at the Foreign Office--the famous 'exchange' with Spain, in the Mediterranean, which took Europe so by surprise and by which she felt injured, especially when it became apparent how much we had the best of the bargain. Then the sudden, unexpected show of force by which he imposed on the United States our interpretation of that tiresome treaty--I could never make out what it was about. These were both matters that no one really cared a straw about, but he made every one feel as if they cared; the nation rose to the way he played his trumps--it was uncommon. He was one of the few men we've had, in our period, who took Europe, or took America, by surprise, made them jump a bit; and the country liked his doing it--it was a pleasant change. The rest of the world considered that they knew in any case exactly what we would do, which was usually nothing at all. Say what you like, he's still a high name; partly also, no doubt, on account of other things his early success and early death, his political 'cheek' and wit; his very appearance--he certainly was handsome--and the possibilities (of future personal supremacy) which it was the fashion at the time, which it's the fashion still, to say had passed away with him. He had been twice at the Foreign Office; that alone was remarkable for a man dying at forty-four. What therefore will the country think when it learns he was venal?"
Peter Baron himself was not angry with Sir Dominick Ferrand, who had simply become to him (he had been "reading up" feverishly for a week) a very curious subject of psychological study; but he could easily put himself in the place of that portion of the public whose memory was long enough for their patriotism to receive a shock. It was some time fortunately since the conduct of public affairs had wanted for men of disinterested ability, but the extraordinary documents concealed (of all places in the world--it was as fantastic as a nightmare) in a "bargain" picked up at second-hand by an obscure scribbler, would be a calculable blow to the retrospective mind. Baron saw vividly that if these relics should be made public the scandal, the horror, the chatter would be immense. Immense would be also the contribution to truth, the rectification of history. He had felt for several days (and it was exactly what had made him so nervous) as if he held in his hand the key to public attention.
"There are too many things to explain," Mr. Locket went on, "and the singular provenance of your papers would count almost overwhelmingly against them even if the other objections were met. There would be a perfect and probably a very complicated pedigree to trace. How did they get into your davenport, as you call it, and how long had they been there? What hands secreted them? what hands had, so incredibly, clung to them and preserved them? Who are the persons mentioned in them? who are the correspondents, the parties to the nefarious transactions? You say the transactions appear to be of two distinct kinds--some of them connected with public business and others involving obscure personal relations."
"They all have this in common," said Peter Baron, "that they constitute evidence of uneasiness, in some instances of painful alarm, on the writer's part, in relation to exposure--the exposure in the one case, as I gather, of the fact that he had availed himself of official opportunities to promote enterprises (public works and that sort of thing) in which he had a pecuniary stake. The dread of the light in the other connection is evidently different, and these letters are the earliest in date. They are addressed to a woman, from whom he had evidently received money."
Mr. Locket wiped his glasses. "What woman?"
"I haven't the least idea. There are lots of questions I can't answer, of course; lots of identities I can't establish; lots of gaps
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