The Wrong Box

Page 32

'No,' he concluded finally, 'nothing without Mr Finsbury's advice.' And he arose and produced a shabby leathern desk. It opened without the formality of unlocking, and displayed the thick cream-coloured notepaper on which Mr Pitman was in the habit of communicating with the proprietors of schools and the parents of his pupils. He placed the desk on the table by the window, and taking a saucer of Indian ink from the chimney-piece, laboriously composed the following letter:

'My dear Mr Finsbury,' it ran, 'would it be presuming on your kindness if I asked you to pay me a visit here this evening? It is in no trifling matter that I invoke your valuable assistance, for need I say more than it concerns the welfare of Mr Semitopolis's statue of Hercules? I write you in great agitation of mind; for I have made all enquiries, and greatly fear that this work of ancient art has been mislaid. I labour besides under another perplexity, not unconnected with the first. Pray excuse the inelegance of this scrawl, and believe me yours in haste, William D. Pitman.'

Armed with this he set forth and rang the bell of No. 233 King's Road, the private residence of Michael Finsbury. He had met the lawyer at a time of great public excitement in Chelsea; Michael, who had a sense of humour and a great deal of careless kindness in his nature, followed the acquaintance up, and, having come to laugh, remained to drop into a contemptuous kind of friendship. By this time, which was four years after the first meeting, Pitman was the lawyer's dog.

'No,' said the elderly housekeeper, who opened the door in person, 'Mr Michael's not in yet. But ye're looking terribly poorly, Mr Pitman. Take a glass of sherry, sir, to cheer ye up.'

'No, I thank you, ma'am,' replied the artist. 'It is very good in you, but I scarcely feel in sufficient spirits for sherry. Just give Mr Finsbury this note, and ask him to look round--to the door in the lane, you will please tell him; I shall be in the studio all evening.'

And he turned again into the street and walked slowly homeward. A hairdresser's window caught his attention, and he stared long and earnestly at the proud, high--born, waxen lady in evening dress, who circulated in the centre of the show. The artist woke in him, in spite of his troubles.

'It is all very well to run down the men who make these things,' he cried, 'but there's a something--there's a haughty, indefinable something about that figure. It's what I tried for in my "Empress Eugenie",' he added, with a sigh.

And he went home reflecting on the quality. 'They don't teach you that direct appeal in Paris,' he thought. 'It's British. Come, I am going to sleep, I must wake up, I must aim higher--aim higher,' cried the little artist to himself. All through his tea and afterward, as he was giving his eldest boy a lesson on the fiddle, his mind dwelt no longer on his troubles, but he was rapt into the better land; and no sooner was he at liberty than he hastened with positive exhilaration to his studio.

Not even the sight of the barrel could entirely cast him down. He flung himself with rising zest into his work--a bust of Mr Gladstone from a photograph; turned (with extraordinary success) the difficulty of the back of the head, for which he had no documents beyond a hazy recollection of a public meeting; delighted himself by his treatment of the collar; and was only recalled to the cares of life by Michael Finsbury's rattle at the door.

'Well, what's wrong?' said Michael, advancing to the grate, where, knowing his friend's delight in a bright fire, Mr Pitman had not spared the fuel. 'I suppose you have come to grief somehow.'

'There is no expression strong enough,' said the artist. 'Mr Semitopolis's statue has not turned up, and I am afraid I shall be answerable for the money; but I think nothing of that--what I fear, my dear Mr Finsbury, what I fear--alas that I should have to say it! is exposure. The Hercules was to be smuggled out of Italy; a thing positively wrong, a thing of which a man of my principles and in my responsible position should have taken (as I now see too late) no part whatever.'

'This sounds like very serious work,' said the lawyer.

The Wrong Box Page 33

Robert Louis Stevenson

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Robert Louis Stevenson
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