Gilbert K. Chesterton: The Club of Queer Trades (1905)
The Eccentric Seclusion of the Old Lady
The conversation of Rupert Grant had two great elements of
interest---first, the long fantasias of detective deduction in
which he was engaged, and, second, his genuine romantic
interest in the life of London. His brother Basil said of him:
`His reasoning is particularly cold and clear, and invariably
leads him wrong. But his poetry comes in abruptly and leads him
right.' Whether this was true of Rupert as a whole, or no, it
was certainly curiously supported by one story about him which
I think worth telling.
We were walking along a lonely terrace in Brompton together.
The street was full of that bright blue twilight which comes
about half past eight in summer, and which seems for the moment
to be not so much a coming of darkness as the turning on of a
new azure illuminator, as if the earth were lit suddenly by a
sapphire sun. In the cool blue the lemon tint of the lamps had
already begun to flame, and as Rupert and I passed them, Rupert
talking excitedly, one after another the pale sparks sprang out
of the dusk. Rupert was talking excitedly because he was trying
to prove to me the nine hundred and ninety-ninth of his amateur
detective theories. He would go about London, with this mad
logic in his brain, seeing a conspiracy in a cab accident, and
a special providence in a falling fusee. His suspicions at the
moment were fixed upon an unhappy milkman who walked in front
of us. So arresting were the incidents which afterwards
overtook us that I am really afraid that I have forgotten what
were the main outlines of the milkman's crime. I think it had
something to do with the fact that he had only one small can of
milk to carry, and that of that he had left the lid loose and
walked so quickly that he spilled milk on the pavement. This
showed that he was not thinking of his small burden, and this
again showed that he anticipated some other than lacteal
business at the end of his walk, and this (taken in conjunction
with something about muddy boots) showed something else that I
have entirely forgotten. I am afraid that I derided this
detailed revelation unmercifully; and I am afraid that Rupert
Grant, who, though the best of fellows, had a good deal of the
sensitiveness of the artistic temperament, slightly resented my
derision. He endeavoured to take a whiff of his cigar, with the
placidity which he associated with his profession, but the
cigar, I think, was nearly bitten through.
`My dear fellow,' he said acidly, `I'll bet you half a crown
that wherever that milkman comes to a real stop I'll find out
`My resources are equal to that risk,' I said, laughing.
We walked on for about a quarter of an hour in silence in
the trail of the mysterious milkman. He walked quicker and
quicker, and we had some ado to keep up with him; and every now
and then he left a splash of milk, silver in the lamplight.
Suddenly, almost before we could note it, he disappeared down
the area steps of a house. I believe Rupert really believed
that the milkman was a fairy; for a second he seemed to accept
him as having vanished. Then calling something to me which
somehow took no hold on my mind, he darted after the mystic
milkman, and disappeared himself into the area.
I waited for at least five minutes, leaning against a
lamp-post in the lonely street. Then the milkman came swinging
up the steps without his can and hurried off clattering down
the road. Two or three minutes more elapsed, and then Rupert
came bounding up also, his face pale but yet laughing; a not
uncommon contradiction in him, denoting excitement.
`My friend,' he said, rubbing his hands, `so much for all
your scepticism. So much for your philistine ignorance of the
possibilities of a romantic city. Two and sixpence, my boy, is
the form in which your prosaic good nature will have to express
`What?' I said incredulously, `do you mean to say that you
really did find anything the matter with the poor milkman?'
His face fell.
`Oh, the milkman,' he said, with a miserable affectation at
having misunderstood me. `No, I---I---didn't exactly bring
anything home to the milkman himself, I---'
`What did the milkman say and do?' I said, with inexorable
`Well, to tell the truth,' said Rupert, shifting restlessly
from one foot to another, `the milkman himself, as far as
merely physical appearances went, just said, ``Milk, Miss,''
and handed in the can. That is not to say, of course, that he
did not make some secret sign or some---'
I broke into a violent laugh. `You idiot,' I said, `why
don't you own yourself wrong and have done with it? Why should
he have made a secret sign any more than any one else? You own
he said nothing and did nothing worth mentioning. You own that,
His face grew grave.
`Well, since you ask me, I must admit that I do. It is
possible that the milkman did not betray himself. It is even
possible that I was wrong about him.'
`Then come along with you,' I said, with a certain amicable
anger, `and remember that you owe me half a crown.'
`As to that, I differ from you,' said Rupert coolly. `The
milkman's remarks may have been quite innocent. Even the
milkman may have been. But I do not owe you half a crown. For
the terms of the bet were, I think, as follows, as I propounded
them, that wherever that milkman came to a real stop I should
find out something curious.'
`Well?' I said.
`Well,' he answered, `I jolly well have. You just come with
me,' and before I could speak he had turned tail once more and
whisked through the blue dark into the moat or basement of the
house. I followed almost before I made any decision.
When we got down into the area I felt indescribably foolish
literally, as the saying is, in a hole. There was nothing but a
closed door, shuttered windows, the steps down which we had
come, the ridiculous well in which I found myself, and the
ridiculous man who had brought me there, and who stood there
with dancing eyes. I was just about to turn back when Rupert
caught me by the elbow.
`Just listen to that,' he said, and keeping my coat gripped
in his right hand, he rapped with the knuckles of his left on
the shutters of the basement window. His air was so definite
that I paused and even inclined my head for a moment towards
it. From inside was coming the murmur of an unmistakable human
`Have you been talking to somebody inside?' I asked
suddenly, turning to Rupert.
`No, I haven't,' he replied, with a grim smile, `but I
should very much like to. Do you know what somebody is saying
`No, of course not,' I replied.
`Then I recommend you to listen,' said Rupert sharply.
In the dead silence of the aristocratic street at evening, I
stood a moment and listened. From behind the wooden partition,
in which there was a long lean crack, was coming a continuous
and moaning sound which took the form of the words: `When shall
I get out? When shall I get out? Will they ever let me out?' or
words to that effect.
`Do you know anything about this?' I said, turning upon
Rupert very abruptly.
`Perhaps you think I am the criminal,' he said sardonically,
`instead of being in some small sense the detective. I came
into this area two or three minutes ago, having told you that I
knew there was something funny going on, and this woman behind
the shutters (for it evidently is a woman) was moaning like
mad. No, my dear friend, beyond that I do not know anything
about her. She is not, startling as it may seem, my
disinherited daughter, or a member of my secret seraglio. But
when I hear a human being wailing that she can't get out, and
talking to herself like a mad woman and beating on the shutters
with her fists, as she was doing two or three minutes ago, I
think it worth mentioning, that is all.'
`My dear fellow,' I said, `I apologize; this is no time for
arguing. What is to be done?'
Rupert Grant had a long clasp-knife naked and brilliant in
`First of all,' he said, `house-breaking.' And he forced the
blade into the crevice of the wood and broke away a huge
splinter, leaving a gap and glimpse of the dark window-pane
inside. The room within was entirely unlighted, so that for the
first few seconds the window seemed a dead and opaque surface,
as dark as a strip of slate. Then came a realization which,
though in a sense gradual, made us step back and catch our
breath. Two large dim human eyes were so close to us that the
window itself seemed suddenly to be a mask. A pale human face
was pressed against the glass within, and with increased
distinctness, with the increase of the opening came the words:
`When shall I get out?'
`What can all this be?' I said.
Rupert made no answer, but lifting his walking-stick and
pointing the ferrule like a fencing sword at the glass, punched
a hole in it, smaller and more accurate than I should have
supposed possible. The moment he had done so the voice spouted
out of the hole, so to speak, piercing and querulous and clear,
making the same demand for liberty.
`Can't you get out, madam?' I said, drawing near the hole in
`Get out? Of course I can't,' moaned the unknown female
bitterly. `They won't let me. I told them I would be let out. I
told them I'd call the police. But it's no good. Nobody knows,
nobody comes. They could keep me as long as they liked only---'
I was in the very act of breaking the window finally with my
stick, incensed with this very sinister mystery, when Rupert
held my arm hard, held it with a curious, still, and secret
rigidity as if he desired to stop me, but did not desire to be
observed to do so. I paused a moment, and in the act swung
slightly round, so that I was facing the supporting wall of the
front door steps. The act froze me into a sudden stillness like
that of Rupert, for a figure almost as motionless as the
pillars of the portico, but unmistakably human, had put his
head out from between the doorposts and was gazing down into
the area. One of the lighted lamps of the street was just
behind his head, throwing it into abrupt darkness.
Consequently, nothing whatever could be seen of his face beyond
one fact, that he was unquestionably staring at us. I must say
I thought Rupert's calmness magnificent. He rang the area bell
quite idly, and went on talking to me with the easy end of a
conversation which had never had any beginning. The black
glaring figure in the portico did not stir. I almost thought it
was really a statue. In another moment the grey area was golden
with gaslight as the basement door was opened suddenly and a
small and decorous housemaid stood in it.
`Pray excuse me,' said Rupert, in a voice which he contrived
to make somehow or other at once affable and underbred, `but we
thought perhaps that you might do something for the Waifs and
Strays. We don't expect---'
`Not here,' said the small servant, with the incomparable
severity of the menial of the non-philanthropic, and slammed
the door in our faces.
`Very sad, very sad---the indifference of these people,'
said the philanthropist with gravity, as we went together up
the steps. As we did so the motionless figure in the portico
`Well, what do you make of that?' asked Rupert, slapping his
gloves together when we got into the street.
I do not mind admitting that I was seriously upset. Under
such conditions I had but one thought.
`Don't you think,' I said a trifle timidly, `that we had
better tell your brother?'
`Oh, if you like,' said Rupert, in a lordly way. `He is
quite near, as I promised to meet him at Gloucester Road
Station. Shall we take a cab? Perhaps, as you say, it might
Gloucester Road Station had, as if by accident, a somewhat
deserted look. After a little looking about we discovered Basil
Grant with his great head and his great white hat blocking the
ticket-office window. I thought at first that he was taking a
ticket for somewhere and being an astonishingly long time about
it. As a matter of fact, he was discussing religion with the
booking-office clerk, and had almost got his head through the
hole in his excitement. When we dragged him away it was some
time before he would talk of anything but the growth of an
Oriental fatalism in modern thought, which had been well
typified by some of the official's ingenious but perverse
fallacies. At last we managed to get him to understand that we
had made an astounding discovery. When he did listen, he
listened attentively, walking between us up and down the
lamp-lit street, while we told him in a rather feverish duet of
the great house in South Kensington, of the equivocal milkman,
of the lady imprisoned in the basement, and the man staring
from the porch. At length he said:
`If you're thinking of going back to look the thing up, you
must be careful what you do. It's no good you two going there.
To go twice on the same pretext would look dubious. To go on a
different pretext would look worse. You may be quite certain
that the inquisitive gentleman who looked at you looked
thoroughly, and will wear, so to speak, your portraits next to
his heart. If you want to find out if there is anything in this
without a police raid I fancy you had better wait outside. I'll
go in and see them.'
His slow and reflective walk brought us at length within
sight of the house. It stood up ponderous and purple against
the last pallor of twilight. It looked like an ogre's castle.
And so apparently it was.
`Do you think it's safe, Basil,' said his brother, pausing,
a little pale, under the lamp, `to go into that place alone? Of
course we shall be near enough to hear if you yell, but these
devils might do something---something sudden---or odd. I can't
feel it's safe.'
`I know of nothing that is safe,' said Basil composedly,
`except, possibly---death,' and he went up the steps and rang
at the bell. When the massive respectable door opened for an
instant, cutting a square of gaslight in the gathering dark,
and then closed with a bang, burying our friend inside, we
could not repress a shudder. It had been like the heavy gaping
and closing of the dim lips of some evil leviathan. A
freshening night breeze began to blow up the street, and we
turned up the collars of our coats. At the end of twenty
minutes, in which we had scarcely moved or spoken, we were as
cold as icebergs, but more, I think, from apprehension than the
atmosphere. Suddenly Rupert made an abrupt movement towards the
`I can't stand this,' he began, but almost as he spoke
sprang back into the shadow, for the panel of gold was again
cut out of the black house front, and the burly figure of Basil
was silhouetted against it coming out. He was roaring with
laughter and talking so loudly that you could have heard every
syllable across the street. Another voice, or, possibly, two
voices, were laughing and talking back at him from within.
`No, no, no,' Basil was calling out, with a sort of
hilarious hostility. `That's quite wrong. That's the most
ghastly heresy of all. It's the soul, my dear chap, the soul
that's the arbiter of cosmic forces. When you see a cosmic
force you don't like, trick it, my boy. But I must really be
`Come and pitch into us again,' came the laughing voice from
out of the house. `We still have some bones unbroken.'
`Thanks very much, I will---good night,' shouted Grant, who
had by this time reached the street.
`Good night,' came the friendly call in reply, before the
`Basil,' said Rupert Grant, in a hoarse whisper, `what are
we to do?'
The elder brother looked thoughtfully from one of us to the
`What is to be done, Basil?' I repeated in uncontrollable
`I'm not sure,' said Basil doubtfully. `What do you say to
getting some dinner somewhere and going to the Court Theatre
tonight? I tried to get those fellows to come, but they
We stared blankly.
`Go to the Court Theatre?' repeated Rupert. `What would be
the good of that?'
`Good? What do you mean?' answered Basil, staring also.
`Have you turned Puritan or Passive Resister, or something? For
fun, of course.'
`But, great God in Heaven! What are we going to do, I mean!'
cried Rupert. `What about the poor woman locked up in that
house? Shall I go for the police?'
Basil's face cleared with immediate comprehension, and he
`Oh, that,' he said. `I'd forgotten that. That's all right.
Some mistake, possibly. Or some quite trifling private affair.
But I'm sorry those fellows couldn't come with us. Shall we
take one of these green omnibuses? There is a restaurant in
`I sometimes think you play the fool to frighten us,' I said
irritably. `How can we leave that woman locked up? How can it
be a mere private affair? How can crime and kidnapping and
murder, for all I know, be private affairs? If you found a
corpse in a man's drawing-room, would you think it bad taste to
talk about it just as if it was a confounded dado or an
Basil laughed heartily.
`That's very forcible,' he said. `As a matter of fact,
though, I know it's all right in this case. And there comes the
`How do you know it's all right in this ease?' persisted his
`My dear chap, the thing's obvious,' answered Basil, holding
a return ticket between his teeth while he fumbled in his
waistcoat pocket. `Those two fellows never committed a crime in
their lives. They're not the kind. Have either of you chaps got
a halfpenny? I want to get a paper before the omnibus comes.'
`Oh, curse the paper!' cried Rupert, in a fury. `Do you mean
to tell me, Basil Grant, that you are going to leave a fellow
creature in pitch darkness in a private dungeon, because you've
had ten minutes' talk with the keepers of it and thought them
rather good men?'
`Good men do commit crimes sometimes,' said Basil, taking
the ticket out of his mouth. `But this kind of good man doesn't
commit that kind of crime. Well, shall we get on this omnibus?'
The great green vehicle was indeed plunging and lumbering
along the dim wide street towards us. Basil had stepped from
the curb, and for an instant it was touch and go whether we
should all have leaped on to it and been borne away to the
restaurant and the theatre.
`Basil,' I said, taking him firmly by the shoulder, `I
simply won't leave this street and this house.'
`Nor will I,' said Rupert, glaring at it and biting his
fingers. `There's some black work going on there. If I left it
I should never sleep again.'
Basil Grant looked at us both seriously.
`Of course if you feel like that,' he said, `we'll
investigate further. You'll find it's all right, though.
They're only two young Oxford fellows. Extremely nice, too,
though rather infected with this pseudo-Darwinian business.
Ethics of evolution and all that.'
`I think,' said Rupert darkly, ringing the bell, `that we
shall enlighten you further about their ethics.'
`And may I ask,' said Basil gloomily, `what it is that you
propose to do?'
`I propose, first of all,' said Rupert, `to get into this
house; secondly, to have a look at these nice young Oxford men;
thirdly, to knock them down, bind them, gag them, and search
Basil stared indignantly for a few minutes. Then he was
shaken for an instant with one of his sudden laughs.
`Poor little boys,' he said. `But it almost serves them
right for holding such silly views, after all,' and he quaked
again with amusement `there's something confoundedly Darwinian
`I suppose you mean to help us?' said Rupert.
`Oh, yes, I'll be in it,' answered Basil, `if it's only to
prevent your doing the poor chaps any harm.'
He was standing in the rear of our little procession,
looking indifferent and sometimes even sulky, but somehow the
instant the door opened he stepped first into the hall, glowing
`So sorry to haunt you like this,' he said. `I met two
friends outside who very much want to know you. May I bring
`Delighted, of course,' said a young voice, the unmistakable
voice of the Isis, and I realized that the door had been
opened, not by the decorous little servant girl, but by one of
our hosts in person. He was a short, but shapely young
gentleman, with curly dark hair and a square, snub-nosed face.
He wore slippers and a sort of blazer of some incredible
`This way,' he said; `mind the steps by the staircase. This
house is more crooked and old-fashioned than you would think
from its snobbish exterior. There are quite a lot of odd
corners in the place really.'
`That,' said Rupert, with a savage smile, `I can quite
We were by this time in the study or back parlour, used by
the young inhabitants as a sitting-room, an apartment littered
with magazines and books ranging from Dante to detective
stories. The other youth, who stood with his back to the fire
smoking a corncob, was big and burly, with dead brown hair
brushed forward and a Norfolk jacket. He was that particular
type of man whose every feature and action is heavy and clumsy,
and yet who is, you would say, rather exceptionally a
`Any more arguments?' he said, when introductions had been
effected. `I must say, Mr Grant, you were rather severe upon
eminent men of science such as we. I've half a mind to chuck my
D.Sc. and turn minor poet.'
`Bosh,' answered Grant. `I never said a word against eminent
men of science. What I complain of is a vague popular
philosophy which supposes itself to be scientific when it is
really nothing but a sort of new religion and an uncommonly
nasty one. When people talked about the fall of man they knew
they were talking about a mystery, a thing they didn't
understand. Now that they talk about the survival of the
fittest they think they do understand it, whereas they have not
merely no notion, they have an elaborately false notion of what
the words mean. The Darwinian movement has made no difference
to mankind, except that, instead of talking unphilosophically
about philosophy, they now talk unscientifically about
`That is all very well,' said the big young man, whose name
appeared to be Burrows. `Of course, in a sense, science, like
mathematics or the violin, can only be perfectly understood by
specialists. Still, the rudiments may be of public use.
Greenwood here,' indicating the little man in the blazer,
`doesn't know one note of music from another. Still, he knows
something. He knows enough to take off his hat when they play
``God save the King''. He doesn't take it off by mistake when
they play ``Oh, dem Golden Slippers''. Just in the same way
Here Mr Burrows stopped abruptly. He was interrupted by an
argument uncommon in philosophical controversy and perhaps not
wholly legitimate. Rupert Grant had bounded on him from behind,
flung an arm round his throat, and bent the giant backwards.
`Knock the other fellow down, Swinburne,' he called out, and
before I knew where I was I was locked in a grapple with the
man in the purple blazer. He was a wiry fighter, who bent and
sprang like a whalebone, but I was heavier and had taken him
utterly by surprise. I twitched one of his feet from under him;
he swung for a moment on the single foot, and then we fell with
a crash amid the litter of newspapers, myself on top.
My attention for a moment released by victory, I could hear
Basil's voice finishing some long sentence of which I had not
heard the beginning.
`... wholly, I must confess, unintelligible to me, my dear
sir, and I need not say unpleasant. Still one must side with
one's old friends against the most fascinating new ones. Permit
me, therefore, in tying you up in this antimacassar, to make it
as commodious as handcuffs can reasonably be while...'
I had staggered to my feet. The gigantic Burrows was toiling
in the garotte of Rupert, while Basil was striving to master
his mighty hands. Rupert and Basil were both particularly
strong, but so was Mr Burrows; how strong, we knew a second
afterwards. His head was held back by Rupert's arm, but a
convulsive heave went over his whole frame. An instant after
his head plunged forward like a bull's, and Rupert Grant was
slung head over heels, a catherine wheel of legs, on the floor
in front of him. Simultaneously the bull's head butted Basil in
the chest, bringing him also to the ground with a crash, and
the monster, with a Berserker roar, leaped at me and knocked me
into the corner of the room, smashing the waste-paper basket.
The bewildered Greenwood sprang furiously to his feet. Basil
did the same. But they had the best of it now.
Greenwood dashed to the bell and pulled it violently,
sending peals through the great house. Before I could get
panting to my feet, and before Rupert, who had been literally
stunned for a few moments, could even lift his head from the
floor, two footmen were in the room. Defeated even when we were
in a majority, we were now outnumbered. Greenwood and one of
the footmen flung themselves upon me, crushing me back into the
corner upon the wreck of the paper basket. The other two flew
at Basil, and pinned him against the wall. Rupert lifted
himself on his elbow, but he was still dazed.
In the strained silence of our helplessness I heard the
voice of Basil come with a loud incongruous cheerfulness.
`Now this,' he said, `is what I call enjoying oneself.'
I caught a glimpse of his face, flushed and forced against
the bookcase, from between the swaying limbs of my captors and
his. To my astonishment his eyes were really brilliant with
pleasure, like those of a child heated by a favourite game.
I made several apoplectic efforts to rise, but the servant
was on top of me so heavily that Greenwood could afford to
leave me to him. He turned quickly to come to reinforce the two
who were mastering Basil. The latter's head was already sinking
lower and lower, like a leaking ship, as his enemies pressed
him down. He flung up one hand just as I thought him falling
and hung on to a huge tome in the bookcase, a volume, I
afterwards discovered, of St Chrysostom's theology. Just as
Greenwood bounded across the room towards the group, Basil
plucked the ponderous tome bodily out of the shelf, swung it,
and sent it spinning through the air, so that it struck
Greenwood flat in the face and knocked him over like a rolling
ninepin. At the same instant Basil's stiffness broke, and he
sank, his enemies closing over him.
Rupert's head was clear, but his body shaken; he was hanging
as best he could on to the half-prostrate Greenwood. They were
rolling over each other on the floor, both somewhat enfeebled
by their falls, but Rupert certainly the more so. I was still
successfully held down. The floor was a sea of torn and
trampled papers and magazines, like an immense waste-paper
basket. Burrows and his companion were almost up to the knees
in them, as in a drift of dead leaves. And Greenwood had his
leg stuck right through a sheet of the Pall Mall
Gazette, which clung to it ludicrously, like some fantastic
Basil, shut from me in a human prison, a prison of powerful
bodies, might be dead for all I knew. I fancied, however, that
the broad back of Mr Burrows, which was turned towards me, had
a certain bend of effort in it as if my friend still needed
some holding down. Suddenly that broad back swayed hither and
thither. It was swaying on one leg; Basil, somehow, had hold of
the other. Burrows' huge fists and those of the footman were
battering Basil's sunken head like an anvil, but nothing could
get the giant's ankle out of his sudden and savage grip. While
his own head was forced slowly down in darkness and great pain,
the right leg of his captor was being forced in the air.
Burrows swung to and fro with a purple face. Then suddenly the
floor and the walls and the ceiling shook together, as the
colossus fell, all his length seeming to fill the floor. Basil
sprang up with dancing eyes, and with three blows like
battering-rams knocked the footman into a cocked hat. Then he
sprang on top of Burrows, with one antimacassar in his hand and
another in his teeth, and bound him hand and foot almost before
he knew clearly that his head had struck the floor. Then Basil
sprang at Greenwood, whom Rupert was struggling to hold down,
and between them they secured him easily. The man who had hold
of me let go and turned to his rescue, but I leaped up like a
spring released, and, to my infinite satisfaction, knocked the
fellow down. The other footman, bleeding at the mouth and quite
demoralized, was stumbling out of the room. My late captor,
without a word, slunk after him, seeing that the battle was
won. Rupert was sitting astride the pinioned Mr Greenwood,
Basil astride the pinioned Mr Burrows.
To my surprise the latter gentleman, lying bound on his
back, spoke in a perfectly calm voice to the man who sat on top
`And now, gentlemen,' he said, `since you have got your own
way, perhaps you wouldn't mind telling us what the deuce all
`This,' said Basil, with a radiant face, looking down at his
captive, `this is what we call the survival of the fittest.'
Rupert, who had been steadily collecting himself throughout
the latter phases of the fight, was intellectually altogether
himself again at the end of it. Springing up from the prostrate
Greenwood, and knotting a handkerchief round his left hand,
which was bleeding from a blow, he sang out quite coolly:
`Basil, will you mount guard over the captive of your bow
and spear and antimacassar? Swinburne and I will clear out the
`All right,' said Basil, rising also and seating himself in
a leisured way in an armchair. `Don't hurry for us,' he said,
glancing round at the litter of the room, `we have all the
Rupert lurched thoughtfully out of the room, and I followed
him even more slowly; in fact, I lingered long enough to hear,
as I passed through the room, the passages and the kitchen
stairs, Basil's voice continuing conversationally:
`And now, Mr Burrows,' he said, settling himself sociably in
the chair, `there's no reason why we shouldn't go on with that
amusing argument. I'm sorry that you have to express yourself
lying on your back on the floor, and, as I told you before,
I've no more notion why you are there than the man in the moon.
A conversationalist like yourself, however, can scarcely be
seriously handicapped by any bodily posture. You were saying,
if I remember right, when this incidental fracas occurred, that
the rudiments of science might with advantage be made public.'
`Precisely,' said the large man on the floor in an easy
tone. `I hold that nothing more than a rough sketch of the
universe as seen by science can be...'
And here the voices died away as we descended into the
basement. I noticed that Mr Greenwood did not join in the
amicable controversy. Strange as it may appear, I think he
looked back upon our proceedings with a slight degree of
resentment. Mr Burrows, however, was all philosophy and
chattiness. We left them, as I say, together, and sank deeper
and deeper into the under-world of that mysterious house,
which, perhaps, appeared to us somewhat more Tartarean than it
really was, owing to our knowledge of its semi-criminal mystery
and of the human secret locked below.
The basement floor had several doors, as is usual in such a
house; doors that would naturally lead to the kitchen, the
scullery, the pantry, the servants' hall, and so on. Rupert
flung open all the doors with indescribable rapidity. Four out
of the five opened on entirely empty apartments. The fifth was
locked. Rupert broke the door in like a bandbox, and we fell
into the sudden blackness of the sealed, unlighted room.
Rupert stood on the threshold, and called out like a man
calling into an abyss:
`Whoever you are, come out. You are free. The people who
held you captive are captives themselves. We heard you crying
and we came to deliver you. We have bound your enemies upstairs
hand and foot. You are free.'
For some seconds after he had spoken into the darkness there
was a dead silence in it. Then there came a kind of muttering
and moaning. We might easily have taken it for the wind or rats
if we had not happened to have heard it before. It was
unmistakably the voice of the imprisoned woman, drearily
demanding liberty, just as we had heard her demand it.
`Has anybody got a match?' said Rupert grimly. `I fancy we
have come pretty near the end of this business.'
I struck a match and held it up. It revealed a large, bare,
yellow-papered apartment with a dark-clad figure at the other
end of it near the window. An instant after it burned my
fingers and dropped, leaving darkness. It had, however,
revealed something more practical---an iron gas bracket just
above my head. I struck another match and lit the gas. And we
found ourselves suddenly and seriously in the presence of the
At a sort of workbox in the window of this subterranean
breakfast-room sat an elderly lady with a singularly high
colour and almost startling silver hair. She had, as if
designedly to relieve these effects, a pair of Mephistophelian
black eyebrows and a very neat black dress. The glare of the
gas lit up her piquant hair and face perfectly against the
brown background of the shutters. The background was blue and
not brown in one place; at the place where Rupert's knife had
torn a great opening in the wood about an hour before.
`Madam,' said he, advancing with a gesture of the hat,
`permit me to have the pleasure of announcing to you that you
are free. Your complaints happened to strike our ears as we
passed down the street, and we have therefore ventured to come
to your rescue.'
The old lady with the red face and the black eyebrows looked
at us for a moment with something of the apoplectic stare of a
parrot. Then she said, with a sudden gust or breathing of
`Rescue? Where is Mr Greenwood? Where is Mr Burrows? Did you
say you had rescued me?'
`Yes, madam,' said Rupert, with a beaming condescension. `We
have very satisfactorily dealt with Mr Greenwood and Mr
Burrows. We have settled affairs with them very
The old lady rose from her chair and came very quickly
`What did you say to them? How did you persuade them?' she
`We persuaded them, my dear madam,' said Rupert, laughing,
`by knocking them down and tying them up. But what is the
To the surprise of every one the old lady walked slowly back
to her seat by the window.
`Do I understand,' she said, with the air of a person about
to begin knitting, `that you have knocked down Mr Burrows and
tied him up?'
`We have,' said Rupert proudly; `we have resisted their
oppression and conquered it.'
`Oh, thanks,' answered the old lady, and sat down by the
A considerable pause followed.
`The road is quite clear for you, madam,' said Rupert
The old lady rose, cocking her black eyebrows and her silver
crest at us for an instant.
`But what about Greenwood and Burrows?' she said. `What did
I understand you to say had become of them?'
`They are lying on the floor upstairs,' said Rupert,
chuckling. `Tied hand and foot.'
`Well, that settles it,' said the old lady, coming with a
kind of bang into her seat again, `I must stop where I am.'
Rupert looked bewildered.
`Stop where you are?' he said. `Why should you stop any
longer where you are? What power can force you now to stop in
this miserable cell?'
`The question rather is,' said the old lady, with composure,
`what power can force me to go anywhere else?'
We both stared wildly at her and she stared tranquilly at us
At last I said, `Do you really mean to say that we are to
leave you here?'
`I suppose you don't intend to tie me up,' she said, `and
carry me off? I certainly shall not go otherwise.'
`But, my dear madam,' cried out Rupert, in a radiant
exasperation, `we heard you with our own ears crying because
you could not get out.'
`Eavesdroppers often hear rather misleading things,' replied
the captive grimly. `I suppose I did break down a bit and lose
my temper and talk to myself. But I have some sense of honour
for all that.'
`Some sense of honour?' repeated Rupert, and the last light
of intelligence died out of his face, leaving it the face of an
idiot with rolling eyes.
He moved vaguely towards the door and I followed. But I
turned yet once more in the toils of my conscience and
curiosity. `Can we do nothing for you, madam?' I said
`Why,' said the lady, `if you are particularly anxious to do
me a little favour you might untie the gentlemen upstairs.'
Rupert plunged heavily up the kitchen staircase, shaking it
with his vague violence. With mouth open to speak he stumbled
to the door of the sitting-room and scene of battle.
`Theoretically speaking, that is no doubt true,' Mr Burrows
was saying, lying on his back and arguing easily with Basil;
`but we must consider the matter as it appears to our sense.
The origin of morality...'
`Basil,' cried Rupert, gasping, `she won't come out.'
`Who won't come out?' asked Basil, a little cross at being
interrupted in an argument.
`The lady downstairs,' replied Rupert. `The lady who was
locked up. She won't come out. And she says that all she wants
is for us to let these fellows loose.'
`And a jolly sensible suggestion,' cried Basil, and with a
bound he was on top of the prostrate Burrows once more and was
unknotting his bonds with hands and teeth.
`A brilliant idea. Swinburne, just undo Mr Greenwood.'
In a dazed and automatic way I released the little gentleman
in the purple jacket, who did not seem to regard any of the
proceedings as particularly sensible or brilliant. The gigantic
Burrows, on the other hand, was heaving with herculean
`Well,' said Basil, in his cheeriest way, `I think we must
be getting away. We've so much enjoyed our evening. Far too
much regard for you to stand on ceremony. If I may so express
myself, we've made ourselves at home. Good night. Thanks so
much. Come along, Rupert.'
`Basil,' said Rupert desperately, `for God's sake come and
see what you can make of the woman downstairs. I can't get the
discomfort out of my mind. I admit that things look as if we
had made a mistake. But these gentlemen won't mind perhaps...'
`No, no,' cried Burrows, with a sort of Rabelaisian
uproariousness. `No, no, look in the pantry, gentlemen. Examine
the coal-hole. Make a tour of the chimneys. There are corpses
all over the house, I assure you.'
This adventure of ours was destined to differ in one respect
from others which I have narrated. I had been through many wild
days with Basil Grant, days for the first half of which the sun
and the moon seemed to have gone mad. But it had almost
invariably happened that towards the end of the day and its
adventure things had cleared themselves like the sky after
rain, and a luminous and quiet meaning had gradually dawned
upon me. But this day's work was destined to end in confusion
worse confounded. Before we left that house, ten minutes
afterwards, one half-witted touch was added which rolled all
our minds in cloud. If Rupert's head had suddenly fallen off on
the floor, if wings had begun to sprout out of Greenwood's
shoulders, we could scarcely have been more suddenly stricken.
And yet of this we had no explanation. We had to go to bed that
night with the prodigy and get up next morning with it and let
it stand in our memories for weeks and months. As will be seen,
it was not until months afterwards that by another accident and
in another way it was explained. For the present I only state
When all five of us went down the kitchen stairs again,
Rupert leading, the two hosts bringing up the rear, we found
the door of the prison again closed. Throwing it open we found
the place again as black as pitch. The old lady, if she was
still there, had turned out the gas: she seemed to have a weird
preference for sitting in the dark.
Without another word Rupert lit the gas again. The little
old lady turned her bird-like head as we all stumbled forward
in the strong gaslight. Then, with a quickness that almost made
me jump, she sprang up and swept a sort of old-fashioned
curtsey or reverence. I looked quickly at Greenwood and
Burrows, to whom it was natural to suppose this subservience
had been offered. I felt irritated at what was implied in this
subservience, and desired to see the faces of the tyrants as
they received it. To my surprise they did not seem to have seen
it at all: Burrows was paring his nails with a small penknife.
Greenwood was at the back of the group and had hardly entered
the room. And then an amazing fact became apparent. It was
Basil Grant who stood foremost of the group, the golden
gaslight lighting up his strong face and figure. His face wore
an expression indescribably conscious, with the suspicion of a
very grave smile. His head was slightly bent with a restrained
bow. It was he who had acknowledged the lady's obeisance. And
it was he, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, to whom it
had really been directed.
`So I hear,' he said, in a kindly yet somehow formal voice,
`I hear, madam, that my friends have been trying to rescue you.
But without success.'
`No one, naturally, knows my faults better than you,'
answered the lady with a high colour. `But you have not found
me guilty of treachery.'
`I willingly attest it, madam,' replied Basil, in the same
level tones, `and the fact is that I am so much gratified with
your exhibition of loyalty that I permit myself the pleasure of
exercising some very large discretionary powers. You would not
leave this room at the request of these gentlemen. But you know
that you can safely leave it at mine.'
The captive made another reverence. `I have never complained
of your injustice,' she said. `I need scarcely say what I think
of your generosity.'
And before our staring eyes could blink she had passed out
of the room, Basil holding the door open for her.
He turned to Greenwood with a relapse into joviality. `This
will be a relief to you,' he said.
`Yes, it will,' replied that immovable young gentleman with
a face like a sphinx.
We found ourselves outside in the dark blue night, shaken
and dazed as if we had fallen into it from some high tower.
`Basil,' said Rupert at last, in a weak voice, `I always
thought you were my brother. But are you a man? I mean---are
you only a man?'
`At present,' replied Basil, `my mere humanity is proved by
one of the most unmistakable symbols---hunger. We are too late
for the theatre in Sloane Square. But we are not too late for
the restaurant. Here comes the green omnibus!' and he had
leaped on it before we could speak.
As I said, it was months after that Rupert Grant suddenly
entered my room, swinging a satchel in his hand and with a
general air of having jumped over the garden wall, and implored
me to go with him upon the latest and wildest of his
expeditions. He proposed to himself no less a thing than the
discovery of the actual origin, whereabouts, and headquarters
of the source of all our joys and sorrows---the Club of Queer
Trades. I should expand this story for ever if I explained how
ultimately we ran this strange entity to its lair. The process
meant a hundred interesting things. The tracking of a member,
the bribing of a cabman, the fighting of roughs, the lifting of
a paving stone, the finding of a cellar, the finding of a
cellar below the cellar, the finding of the subterranean
passage, the finding of the Club of Queer Trades.
I have had many strange experiences in my life, but never a
stranger one than that I felt when I came out of those
rambling, sightless, and seemingly hopeless passages into the
sudden splendour of a sumptuous and hospitable dining-room,
surrounded upon almost every side by faces that I knew. There
was Mr Montmorency, the Arboreal House-Agent, seated between
the two brisk young men who were occasionally vicars, and
always Professional Detainers. There was Mr P. G. Northover,
founder of the Adventure and Romance Agency. There was
Professor Chadd, who invented the dancing Language.
As we entered, all the members seemed to sink suddenly into
their chairs, and with the very action the vacancy of the
presidential seat gaped at us like a missing tooth.
`The president's not here,' said Mr P. G. Northover, turning
suddenly to Professor Chadd.
`N---no,' said the philosopher, with more than his ordinary
vagueness. `I can't imagine where he is.'
`Good heavens,' said Mr Montmorency, jumping up, `I really
feel a little nervous. I'll go and see.' And he ran out of the
An instant after he ran back again, twittering with a timid
`He's there, gentlemen---he's there all right---he's coming
in now,' he cried, and sat down. Rupert and I could hardly help
feeling the beginnings of a sort of wonder as to who this
person might be who was the first member of this insane
brotherhood. Who, we thought indistinctly, could be maddest in
this world of madmen: what fantastic was it whose shadow filled
all these fantastics with so loyal an expectation?
Suddenly we were answered. The door flew open and the room
was filled and shaken with a shout, in the midst of which Basil
Grant, smiling and in evening dress, took his seat at the head
of the table.
How we ate that dinner I have no idea. In the common way I
am a person particularly prone to enjoy the long luxuriance of
the club dinner. But on this occasion it seemed a hopeless and
endless string of courses. Hors-d'oeuvre sardines seemed
as big as herrings, soup seemed a sort of ocean, larks were
ducks, ducks were ostriches until that dinner was over. The
cheese course was maddening. I had often heard of the moon
being made of green cheese. That night I thought the green
cheese was made of the moon. And all the time Basil Grant went
on laughing and eating and drinking, and never threw one glance
at us to tell us why he was there, the king of these capering
At last came the moment which I knew must in some way
enlighten us, the time of the club speeches and the club
toasts. Basil Grant rose to his feet amid a surge of songs and
`Gentlemen,' he said, `it is a custom in this society that
the president for the year opens the proceedings not by any
general toast of sentiment, but by calling upon each member to
give a brief account of his trade. We then drink to that
calling and to all who follow it. It is my business, as the
senior member, to open by stating my claim to membership of
this club. Years ago, gentlemen, I was a judge; I did my best
in that capacity to do justice and to administer the law. But
it gradually dawned on me that in my work, as it was, I was not
touching even the fringe of justice. I was seated in the seat
of the mighty, I was robed in scarlet and ermine; nevertheless,
I held a small and lowly and futile post. I had to go by a mean
rule as much as a postman, and my red and gold was worth no
more than his. Daily there passed before me taut and passionate
problems, the stringency of which I had to pretend to relieve
by silly imprisonments or silly damages, while I knew all the
time, by the light of my living common sense, that they would
have been far better relieved by a kiss or a thrashing, or a
few words of explanation, or a duel, or a tour in the West
Highlands. Then, as this grew on me, there grew on me
continuously the sense of a mountainous frivolity. Every word
said in the court, a whisper or an oath, seemed more connected
with life than the words I had to say. Then came the time when
I publicly blasphemed the whole bosh, was classed as a madman
and melted from public life.'
Something in the atmosphere told me that it was not only
Rupert and I who were listening with intensity to this
`Well, I discovered that I could be of no real use. I
offered myself privately as a purely moral judge to settle
purely moral differences. Before very long these unofficial
courts of honour (kept strictly secret) had spread over the
whole of society. People were tried before me not for the
practical trifles for which nobody cares, such as committing a
murder, or keeping a dog without a licence. My criminals were
tried for the faults which really make social life impossible.
They were tried before me for selfishness, or for an impossible
vanity, or for scandalmongering, or for stinginess to guests or
dependents. Of course these courts had no sort of real coercive
powers. The fulfilment of their punishments rested entirely on
the honour of the ladies and gentlemen involved, including the
honour of the culprits. But you would be amazed to know how
completely our orders were always obeyed. Only lately I had a
most pleasing example. A maiden lady in South Kensington whom I
had condemned to solitary confinement for being the means of
breaking off an engagement through backbiting, absolutely
refused to leave her prison, although some well-meaning persons
had been inopportune enough to rescue her.'
Rupert Grant was staring at his brother, his mouth fallen
agape. So, for the matter of that, I expect, was I. This, then,
was the explanation of the old lady's strange discontent and
her still stranger content with her lot. She was one of the
culprits of his Voluntary Criminal Court. She was one of the
clients of his Queer Trade.
We were still dazed when we drank, amid a crash of glasses,
the health of Basil's new judiciary. We had only a confused
sense of everything having been put right, the sense men will
have when they come into the presence of God. We dimly heard
`Mr P. G. Northover will now explain the Adventure and
And we heard equally dimly Northover beginning the statement
he had made long ago to Major Brown. Thus our epic ended where
it had begun, like a true cycle.