Read CHAPTER III. of The Collaborators 1896 , free online book, by Robert S. Hichens, on

It was some three weeks after this that one afternoon Trenchard laid down his pen at the conclusion of a chapter, and, getting up, thrust his hands into his pockets and walked to the window.

The look-out was rather dreary. A gray sky leaned over the great, barrack-like church that gives an ecclesiastical flavour to Smith’s Square. A few dirty sparrows fluttered above the gray pavement-feverish, unresting birds, Trenchard named them silently, as he watched their meaningless activity, their jerky, ostentatious deportment, with lacklustre, yet excited, eyes. How gray everything looked, tame, colourless, indifferent! The light was beginning to fade stealthily out of things. The gray church was gradually becoming shadowy. The flying forms of the hurrying sparrows disappeared in the weary abysses of the air and sky. The sitting-room in Smith’s Square was nearly dark now. Henley had gone out to a matinee at one of the theatres, so Trenchard was alone. He struck a match presently, lit a candle, carried it over to his writing-table, and began to examine the littered sheets he had just been writing. The book was nearing its end. The tragedy was narrowing to a point. Trenchard read the last paragraph which he had written:

“He hardly knew that he lived, except during those many hours when, plunged in dreams, he allowed, nay, forced, life to leave him for awhile. He had sunk to depths below even those which Olive had reached. And the thought that she was ever so little above him haunted him like a spectre impelling him to some mysterious deed. When he was not dreaming, he was dwelling upon this idea which had taken his soul captive. It seemed to be shaping itself towards an act. Thought was the ante-room through which he passed to the hall where Fate was sitting, ready to give him audience. He traversed this ante-room, which seemed lined with fantastic and terrible pictures, at first with lagging footfalls. But at length he laid his hand upon the door that divided him from Fate.”

And when he had read the final words he gathered the loose sheets together with his long, thin fingers, and placed them one on the top of the other in a neat pile. He put them into a drawer which contained other unfinished manuscripts, shut the drawer, locked it, and carried the key to Henley’s room. There he scribbled some words on a bit of notepaper, wrapped the key in it, and inclosed it in an envelope on which he wrote Henley’s name. Then he put on his overcoat, descended the narrow stairs, and opened the front-door. The landlady heard him, and screamed from the basement to know if he would be in to dinner.

“I shall not be in at all to-night,” he answered, in a hard, dry voice that travelled along the dingy passage with a penetrating distinctness. The landlady murmured to the slatternly maidservant an ejaculatory diatribe on the dissipatedness of young literary gentlemen as the door banged. Trenchard disappeared in the gathering darkness, and soon left Smith’s Square behind him.

It chanced that day that, in the theatre, Henley encountered some ladies who carried him home to tea after the performance. They lived in Chelsea, and in returning to Smith’s Square afterwards Henley took his way along the Chelsea Embankment. He always walked near to the dingy river when he could. The contrast of its life to the town’s life through which it flowed had a perpetual fascination for him. In the early evening, too, the river presents many Dore effects. It is dim, mysterious, sometimes meretricious, with its streaks of light close to the dense shadows that lie under the bridges, its wailful, small waves licking the wharves, and bearing up the inky barges that look like the ferry-boat of the Styx. Henley loved to feel vivaciously despairing, and he hugged himself in the belief that the Thames at nightfall tinged his soul with a luxurious melancholy, the capacity for which was not far from rendering him a poet. So he took his way by the river. As he neared Cheyne Row, he saw in front of him the figure of a man leaning over the low stone wall, with his face buried in his hands. On hearing his approaching footsteps the man lifted himself up, turned round, and preceded him along the pavement with a sort of listless stride which seemed to Henley strangely familiar. He hastened his steps, and on coming closer recognised that the man was Trenchard; but, just as he was about to hail him, Trenchard crossed the road to one of the houses opposite, inserted a key in the door, and disappeared within, shutting the door behind him.

Henley paused a moment opposite to the house. It was of a dull red colour, and had a few creepers straggling helplessly about it, looking like a torn veil that can only partially conceal a dull, heavy face.

“Andrew seems at home here,” he thought, gazing up at the blind, tall windows, which showed no ray of light. “I wonder -”

And then, still gazing at the windows, he recalled the description of the house where Olive Beauchamp lived in their book.

“He took it from this,” Henley said to himself. Yes, that was obvious. Trenchard had described the prison-house of despair, where the two victims of a strange, desolating habit shut themselves up to sink, with a curious minuteness. He had even devoted a paragraph to the tall iron gate, whose round handle he had written of as “bald, and exposed to the wind from the river, the paint having long since been worn off it.” In the twilight Henley bent down and examined the handle of the gate. The paint seemed to have been scraped from it.

“How curiously real that book has become to me!” he muttered. “I could almost believe that if I knocked upon that door, and was let in, I should find Olive Beauchamp stretched on a couch in the room that lies beyond those gaunt, shuttered windows.”

He gave a last glance at the house, and as he did so he fancied that he heard a slight cry come from it to him. He listened attentively and heard nothing more. Then he walked away toward home.

When he reached his room, he found upon his table the envelope which Trenchard had directed to him. He opened it, and unwrapped the key from the inclosed sheet of note-paper, on which were written these words:

“Dear Jack,

“I am off again. And this time I can’t say when I shall be back. In any case, I have completed my part of the book, and leave the finishing of it in your hands. This is the key of the drawer in which I have locked the manuscript. You have not seen most of the last volume. Read it, and judge for yourself whether the denouement can be anything but utterly tragic. I will not outline to you what I have thought of for it. If you have any difficulty about the finale, I shall be able to help you with it even if you do not see me again for some time. By the way, what nonsense that saying is, ‘Dead men tell no tales!’ Half the best tales in the world are told, or at least completed, by dead men.

“Yours ever,

“A. T.”

Henley laid this note down and turned cold all over. It was the concluding sentence which had struck a chill through his heart. He took the key in his hand, went down to Trenchard’s room, unlocked the drawer in his writing-table, and took out the manuscript. What did Andrew mean by that sinister sentence? A tale completed by a dead man! Henley sat down by the fire with the manuscript in his hands and began to read. He was called away to dinner; but immediately afterward he returned to his task, and till late into the night his glance travelled down the closely-written sheets one after the other, until the light from the candles grew blurred and indistinct, and his eyes ached. But still he read on. The power and gloom of Andrew’s narrative held him in a vice, and then he was searching for a clue in the labyrinth of words. At last he came to the final paragraph, and then to the final sentence:

“But at length he laid his hand upon the door that divided him from Fate.”

Henley put the sheet down carefully upon the table. It was three o’clock in the morning, and the room seemed full of a strange, breathless cold, the peculiar chilliness that precedes the dawn. The fire was burning brightly enough, yet the warmth it emitted scarcely seemed to combat the frosty air that penetrated from without, and Henley shivered as he rose from his seat. His brows were drawn together, and he was thinking deeply. A light seemed slowly struggling into his soul. That last sentence of Tren-chard’s connected itself with what he had seen in the afternoon on the Chelsea Embankment. “He laid his hand upon the door that divided him from Fate.”

A strange idea dawned in Henley’s mind, an idea which made many things clear to him. Yet he put it away, and sat down again to read the unfinished book once more. Andrew had carried on the story of the man’s growing hatred of the woman whom he had tried to rescue, until it had developed into a deadly fury, threatening immediate action. Then he had left the denouement in Henley’s hands. He had left it ostensibly in Henley’s hands, but the latter, reading the manuscript again with intense care, saw that matters had been so contrived that the knot of the novel could only be cut by murder. As it had been written, the man must inevitably murder the woman. And Andrew? All through the night Henley thought of him as he had last seen him, opening the door of the red house with the tattered creepers climbing over it.

At last, when it was dawn, he went up to bed tired out, after leaving a written direction to the servant not to call him in the morning. When he awoke and looked at his watch it was past two o’clock in the afternoon. He sprang out of bed, dressed, and after a hasty meal, half breakfast, half lunch, set out towards Chelsea. The day was bright and cold. The sun shone on the river and sparkled on the windows of the houses on the Embankment. Many people were about, and they looked cheerful. The weight of depression that had settled upon Henley was lifted. He thought of the strange, yet illuminating, idea that had occurred to him in the night, and now, in broad daylight, it seemed clothed in absurdity. He laughed at it. Yet he quickened his steps toward the red house with the tarnished iron gate and the tattered creepers.

But long before he reached it he met a boy sauntering along the thoroughfare and shouting newspapers. He sang out unflinchingly in the gay sunshine, “Murder! Murder!” and between his shouts he whistled a music-hall song gaily in snatches. Henley stopped him and bought a paper. He opened the paper in the wind, which seemed striving to prevent him, and cast his eyes over the middle pages. Then suddenly he dropped it to the ground with a white face, and falteringly signed to a cabman. The denouement was written. The previous night, in a house on the Chelsea Embankment, a woman had been done to death, and the murderer had crept out and thrown himself into the gray, hurrying river.

The woman’s name was Olive Beauchamp.