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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBuried Alive: A Tale Of These Days - Chapter 12. Alice's Performances
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Buried Alive: A Tale Of These Days - Chapter 12. Alice's Performances Post by :UltraSuccess Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :1994

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Buried Alive: A Tale Of These Days - Chapter 12. Alice's Performances

CHAPTER XII. Alice's Performances

When Alice was called, and when she stood up in the box, and, smiling indulgently at the doddering usher, kissed the book as if it had been a chubby nephew, a change came over the emotional atmosphere of the court, which felt a natural need to smile. Alice was in all her best clothes, but it cannot be said that she looked the wife of a super-eminent painter. In answer to a question she stated that before marrying Priam she was the widow of a builder in a small way of business, well known in Putney and also in Wandsworth. This was obviously true. She could have been nothing but the widow of a builder in a small way of business well known in Putney and also in Wandsworth. She was every inch that.

"How did you first meet your present husband, Mrs. Leek?" asked Mr. Crepitude.

"Mrs. Farll, if you please," she cheerfully corrected him.

"Well, Mrs. Farll, then."

"I must say," she remarked conversationally, "it seems queer you should be calling me Mrs. Leek, when they're paying you to prove that I'm Mrs. Farll, Mr.----, excuse me, I forget your name."

This nettled Crepitude, K.C. It nettled him, too, merely to see a witness standing in the box just as if she were standing in her kitchen talking to a tradesman at the door. He was not accustomed to such a spectacle. And though Alice was his own witness he was angry with her because he was angry with her husband. He blushed. Juniors behind him could watch the blush creeping like a tide round the back of his neck over his exceedingly white collar.

"If you'll be good enough to reply----" said he.

"I met my husband outside St. George's Hall, by appointment," said she.

"But before that. How did you make his acquaintance?"

"Through a matrimonial agency," said she.

"Oh!" observed Crepitude, and decided that he would not pursue that avenue. The fact was Alice had put him into the wrong humour for making the best of her. She was, moreover, in a very difficult position, for Priam had positively forbidden her to have any speech with solicitors' clerks or with solicitors, and thus Crepitude knew not what pitfalls for him her evidence might contain. He drew from her an expression of opinion that her husband was the real Priam Farll, but she could give no reasons in support--did not seem to conceive that reasons in support were necessary.

"Has your husband any moles?" asked Crepitude suddenly.

"Any what?" demanded Alice, leaning forward.

Vodrey, K.C., sprang up.

"I submit to your lordship that my learned friend is putting a leading question," said Vodrey, K.C.

"Mr. Crepitude," said the judge, "can you not phrase your questions differently?"

"Has your husband any birthmarks--er--on his body?" Crepitude tried again.

"Oh! _Moles_, you said? You needn't be afraid. Yes, he's got two moles, close together on his neck, here." And she pointed amid silence to the exact spot. Then, noticing the silence, she added, "That's all that I _know of."

Crepitude resolved to end his examination upon this impressive note, and he sat down. And Alice had Vodrey, K.C., to face.

"You met your husband through a matrimonial agency?" he asked.

"Yes."

"Who first had recourse to the agency?"

"I did."

"And what was your object?"

"I wanted to find a husband, of course," she smiled. "What _do people go to matrimonial agencies for?"

"You aren't here to put questions to me," said Vodrey severely.

"Well," she said, "I should have thought you would have known what people went to matrimonial agencies for. Still, you live and learn." She sighed cheerfully.

"Do you think a matrimonial agency is quite the nicest way of----"

"It depends what you mean by 'nice,'" said Alice.

"Womanly."

"Yes," said Alice shortly, "I do. If you're going to stand there and tell me I'm unwomanly, all I have to say is that you're unmanly."

"You say you first met your husband outside St George's Hall?"

"Yes."

"Never seen him before?"

"No."

"How did you recognize him?"

"By his photograph."

"Oh, he'd sent you his photograph?"

"Yes."

"With a letter?"

"Yes."

"In what name was the letter signed?"

"Henry Leek."

"Was that before or after the death of the man who was buried in Westminster Abbey?"

"A day or two before." (Sensation in court.)

"So that your present husband was calling himself Henry Leek before the death?"

"No, he wasn't. That letter was written by the man that died. My husband found my reply to it, and my photograph, in the man's bag afterwards; and happening to be strolling past St. George's Hall just at the moment like--"

"Well, happening to be strolling past St. George's Hall just at the moment like--" (Titters.)

"I caught sight of him and spoke to him. You see, I thought then that he was the man who wrote the letter."

"What made you think so?"

"I had the photograph."

"So that the man who wrote the letter and died didn't send his own photograph. He sent another photograph--the photograph of your husband?"

"Yes, didn't you know that? I should have thought you'd have known that."

"Do you really expect the jury to believe that tale?"

Alice turned smiling to the jury. "No," she said, "I'm not sure as I do. I didn't believe it myself for a long time. But it's true."

"Then at first you didn't believe your husband was the real Priam Farll?"

"No. You see, he didn't exactly tell me like. He only sort of hinted."

"But you didn't believe?"

"No."

"You thought he was lying?"

"No, I thought it was just a kind of an idea he had. You know my husband isn't like other gentlemen."

"I imagine not," said Vodrey. "Now, when did you come to be perfectly sure that, your husband was the real Priam Farll?"

"It was the night of that day when Mr. Oxford came down to see him. He told me all about it then."

"Oh! That day when Mr. Oxford paid him five hundred pounds?"

"Yes."

"Immediately Mr. Oxford paid him five hundred pounds you were ready to believe that your husband was the real Priam Farll. Doesn't that strike you as excessively curious?"

"It's just how it happened," said Alice blandly.

"Now about these moles. You pointed to the right side of your neck. Are you sure they aren't on the left side?"

"Let me think now," said Alice, frowning. "When he's shaving in a morning--he get up earlier now than he used to--I can see his face in the looking-glass, and in the looking-glass the moles are on the left side. So on _him they must be on the right side. Yes, the right side. That's it."

"Have you never seen them except in a mirror, my good woman?" interpolated the judge.

For some reason Alice flushed. "I suppose you think that's funny," she snapped, slightly tossing her head.

The audience expected the roof to fall. But the roof withstood the strain, thanks to a sagacious deafness on the part of the judge. If, indeed, he had not been visited by a sudden deafness, it is difficult to see how he would have handled the situation.

"Have you any idea," Vodrey inquired, "why your husband refuses to submit his neck to the inspection of the court?"

"I didn't know he had refused."

"But he has."

"Well," said Alice, "if you hadn't turned me out of the court while he was being examined, perhaps I could have told you. But I can't as it is. So it serves you right."

Thus ended Alice's performances.

 

The Public Captious

The court rose, and another six or seven hundred pounds was gone into the pockets of the celebrated artistes engaged. It became at once obvious, from the tone of the evening placards and the contents of evening papers, and the remarks in crowded suburban trains, that for the public the trial had resolved itself into an affair of moles. Nothing else now interested the great and intelligent public. If Priam had those moles on his neck, then he was the real Priam. If he had not, then he was a common cheat. The public had taken the matter into its own hands. The sturdy common sense of the public was being applied to the affair. On the whole it may be said that the sturdy common sense of the public was against Priam. For the majority, the entire story was fishily preposterous. It must surely be clear to the feeblest brain that if Priam possessed moles he would expose them. The minority, who talked of psychology and the artistic temperament, were regarded as the cousins of Little Englanders and the direct descendants of pro-Boers.

Still, the thing ought to be proved or disproved.

Why didn't the judge commit him for contempt of court? He would then be sent to Holloway and be compelled to strip--and there you were!

Or why didn't Oxford hire some one to pick a quarrel with him in the street and carry the quarrel to blows, with a view to raiment-tearing?

A nice thing, English justice--if it had no machinery to force a man to show his neck to a jury! But then English justice _was notoriously comic.

And whole trainfuls of people sneered at their country's institution in a manner which, had it been adopted by a foreigner, would have plunged Europe into war and finally tested the blue-water theory. Undoubtedly the immemorial traditions of English justice came in for very severe handling, simply because Priam would not take his collar off.

And he would not.

The next morning there were consultations in counsel's rooms, and the common law of the realm was ransacked to find a legal method of inspecting Priam's moles, without success. Priam arrived safely at the courts with his usual high collar, and was photographed thirty times between the kerb and the entrance hall.

"He's slept in it!" cried wags.

"Bet yer two ter one it's a clean 'un!" cried other wags. "His missus gets his linen up."

It was subject to such indignities that the man who had defied the Supreme Court of Judicature reached his seat in the theatre. When solicitors and counsel attempted to reason with him, he answered with silence. The rumour ran that in his hip pocket he was carrying a revolver wherewith to protect the modesty of his neck.

The celebrated artistes, having perceived the folly of losing six or seven hundred pounds a day because Priam happened to be an obstinate idiot, continued with the case. For Mr. Oxford and another army of experts of European reputation were waiting to prove that the pictures admittedly painted after the burial in the National Valhalla, were painted by Priam Farll, and could have been painted by no other. They demonstrated this by internal evidence. In other words, they proved by deductions from squares of canvas that Priam had moles on his neck. It was a phenomenon eminently legal. And Priam, in his stiff collar, sat and listened. The experts, however, achieved two feats, both unintentionally. They sent the judge soundly to sleep, and they wearied the public, which considered that the trial was falling short of its early promise. This _expertise went on to the extent of two whole days and appreciably more than another thousand pounds. And on the third day Priam, somewhat hardened to renown, reappeared with his mysterious neck, and more determined than ever. He had seen in a paper, which was otherwise chiefly occupied with moles and experts, a cautious statement that the police had collected the necessary _prima facie evidence of bigamy, and that his arrest was imminent. However, something stranger than arrest for bigamy happened to him.

 

New Evidence

The principal King's Bench corridor in the Law Courts, like the other main corridors, is a place of strange meetings and interviews. A man may receive there a bit of news that will change the whole of the rest of his life, or he may receive only an invitation to a mediocre lunch in the restaurant underneath; he never knows beforehand. Priam assuredly did not receive an invitation to lunch. He was traversing the crowded thoroughfares--for with the exception of match and toothpick sellers the corridor has the characteristics of a Strand pavement in the forenoon-- when he caught sight of Mr. Oxford talking to a woman. Now, he had exchanged no word with Mr. Oxford since the historic scene in the club, and he was determined to exchange no word; however, they had not gone through the formality of an open breach. The most prudent thing to do, therefore, was to turn and take another corridor. And Priam would have fled, being capable of astonishing prudence when prudence meant the avoidance of unpleasant encounters; but, just as he was turning, the woman in conversation with Mr. Oxford saw him, and stepped towards him with the rapidity of thought, holding forth her hand. She was tall, thin, and stiffly distinguished in the brusque, Dutch-doll motions of her limbs. Her coat and skirt were quite presentable; but her feet were large (not her fault, of course, though one is apt to treat large feet as a crime), and her feathered hat was even larger. She hid her age behind a veil.

"How do you do, Mr. Farll?" she addressed him firmly, in a voice which nevertheless throbbed.

It was Lady Sophia Entwistle.

"How do you do?" he said, taking her offered hand.

There was nothing else to do, and nothing else to say.

Then Mr. Oxford put out his hand.

"How do you do, Mr. Farll?"

And, taking Mr. Oxford's hated hand, Priam said again, "How do you do?"

It was all just as if there had been no past; the past seemed to have been swallowed up in the ordinariness of the crowded corridor. By all the rules for the guidance of human conduct, Lady Sophia ought to have denounced Priam with outstretched dramatic finger to the contempt of the world as a philanderer with the hearts of trusting women; and he ought to have kicked Mr. Oxford along the corridor for a scheming Hebrew. But they merely shook hands and asked each other how they did, not even expecting an answer. This shows to what extent the ancient qualities of the race have deteriorated.

Then a silence.

"I suppose you know, Mr. Farll," said Lady Sophia, rather suddenly, "that I have got to give evidence in this case."

"No," he said, "I didn't."

"Yes, it seems they have scoured all over the Continent in vain to find people who knew you under your proper name, and who could identify you with certainty, and they couldn't find one--doubtless owing to your peculiar habits of travel."

"Really," said Priam.

He had made love to this woman. He had kissed her. They had promised to marry each other. It was a piece of wild folly on his part; but, in the eyes of an impartial person, folly could not excuse his desertion of her, his flight from her intellectual charms. His gaze pierced her veil. No, she was not quite so old as Alice. She was not more plain than Alice. She certainly knew more than Alice. She could talk about pictures without sticking a knife into his soul and turning it in the wound. She was better dressed than Alice. And her behaviour on the present occasion, candid, kind, correct, could not have been surpassed by Alice. And yet... Her demeanour was without question prodigiously splendid in its ignoring of all that she had gone through. And yet... Even in that moment of complicated misery he had enough strength to hate her because he had been fool enough to make love to her. No excuse whatever for him, of course!

"I was in India when I first heard of this case," Lady Sophia continued. "At first I thought it must be a sort of Tichborne business over again. Then, knowing you as I did, I thought perhaps it wasn't."

"And as Lady Sophia happens to be in London now," put in Mr. Oxford, "she is good enough to give her invaluable evidence on my behalf."

"That is scarcely the way to describe it," said Lady Sophia coldly. "I am only here because you compel me to be here by subpoena. It is all due to your acquaintanceship with my aunt."

"Quite so, quite so!" Mr. Oxford agreed. "It naturally can't be very agreeable to you to have to go into the witness-box and submit to cross-examination. Certainly not. And I am the more obliged to you for your kindness, Lady Sophia."

Priam comprehended the situation. Lady Sophia, after his supposed death, had imparted to relatives the fact of his engagement, and the unscrupulous scoundrel, Mr. Oxford, had got hold of her and was forcing her to give evidence for him. And after the evidence, the joke of every man in the street would be to the effect that Priam Farll, rather than marry the skinny spinster, had pretended to be dead.

"You see," Mr. Oxford added to him, "the important point about Lady Sophia's evidence is that in Paris she saw both you and your valet--the valet obviously a servant, and you obviously his master. There can, therefore, be no question of her having been deceived by the valet posing as the master. It is a most fortunate thing that by a mere accident I got on the tracks of Lady Sophia in time. In the nick of time. Only yesterday afternoon!"

No reference by Mr. Oxford to Priam's obstinacy in the matter of collars. He appeared to regard Priam's collar as a phenomenon of nature, such as the weather, or a rock in the sea, as something to be accepted with resignation! No sign of annoyance with Priam! He was the prince of diplomatists, was Mr. Oxford.

"Can I speak to you a minute?" said Lady Sophia to Priam.

Mr. Oxford stepped away with a bow.

And Lady Sophia looked steadily at Priam. He had to admit again that she was stupendous. She was his capital mistake; but she was stupendous.

At their last interview he had embraced her. She had attended his funeral in Westminster Abbey. And she could suppress all that from her eyes! She could stand there calm and urbane in her acceptance of the terrific past. Apparently she forgave.

Said Lady Sophia simply, "Now, Mr. Farll, shall I have to give evidence or not? You know it depends on you?"

The casualness of her tone was sublime; it was heroic; it made her feet small.

He had sworn to himself that he would be cut in pieces before he would aid the unscrupulous Mr. Oxford by removing his collar in presence of those dramatic artistes. He had been grossly insulted, disturbed, maltreated, and exploited. The entire world had meddled with his private business, and he would be cut in pieces before he would display those moles which would decide the issue in an instant.

Well, she had cut him in pieces.

"Please don't worry," said he in reply. "I will attend to things."

At that moment Alice, who had followed him by a later train, appeared.

"Good-morning, Lady Sophia," he said, raising his hat, and left her.

 

Thoughts on Justice

"Farll takes his collar off." "Witt _v_. Parfitts. Result." These and similar placards flew in the Strand breezes. Never in the history of empires had the removal of a starched linen collar (size 16-1/2) created one-thousandth part of the sensation caused by the removal of this collar. It was an epoch-making act. It finished the drama of Witt _v_. Parfitts. The renowned artistes engaged did not, of course, permit the case to collapse at once. No, it had to be concluded slowly and majestically, with due forms and expenses. New witnesses (such as doctors) had to be called, and old ones recalled. Duncan Farll, for instance, had to be recalled, and if the situation was ignominious for Priam it was also ignominious for Duncan. Duncan's sole advantage in his defeat was that the judge did not skin him alive in the summing up, nor the jury in their verdict. England breathed more freely when the affair was finally over and the renowned artistes engaged had withdrawn enveloped in glory. The truth was that England, so proud of her systems, had had a fright. Her judicial methods had very nearly failed to make a man take his collar off in public. They had really failed, but it had all come right in the end, and so England pretended that they had only just missed failing. A grave injustice would have been perpetrated had Priam chosen not to take off his collar. People said, naturally, that imprisonment for bigamy would have included the taking-off of collars; but then it was rumoured that prosecution for bigamy had not by any means been a certainty, as since leaving the box Mrs. Henry Leek had wavered in her identification. However, the justice of England had emerged safely. And it was all very astounding and shocking and improper. And everybody was exceedingly wise after the event. And with one voice the press cried that something painful ought to occur at once to Priam Farll, no matter how great an artist he was.

The question was: How could Priam be trapped in the net of the law? He had not committed bigamy. He had done nothing. He had only behaved in a negative manner. He had not even given false information to the registrar. And Dr. Cashmore could throw no light on the episode, for he was dead. His wife and daughters had at last succeeded in killing him. The judge had intimated that the ecclesiastical wrath of the Dean and Chapter might speedily and terribly overtake Priam Farll; but that sounded vague and unsatisfactory to the lay ear.

In short, the matter was the most curious that ever was. And for the sake of the national peace of mind, the national dignity, and the national conceit, it was allowed to drop into forgetfulness after a few days. And when the papers announced that, by Priam's wish, the Farll museum was to be carried to completion and formally conveyed to the nation, despite all, the nation decided to accept that honourable amend, and went off to the seaside for its annual holiday.

 

The Will to Live

Alice insisted on it, and so, immediately before their final departure from England, they went. Priam pretended that the visit was undertaken solely to please her; but the fact is that his own morbid curiosity moved in the same direction. They travelled by an omnibus past the Putney Empire and the Walham Green Empire as far as Walham Green, and there changed into another one which carried them past the Chelsea Empire, the Army and Navy Stores, and the Hotel Windsor to the doors of Westminster Abbey. And they vanished out of the October sunshine into the beam-shot gloom of Valhalla. It was Alice's first view of Valhalla, though of course she had heard of it. In old times she had visited Madame Tussaud's and the Tower, but she had not had leisure to get round as far as Valhalla. It impressed her deeply. A verger pointed them to the nave; but they dared not demand more minute instructions. They had not the courage to ask for _It_. Priam could not speak. There were moments with him when he could not speak lest his soul should come out of his mouth and flit irrecoverably away. And he could not find the tomb. Save for the outrageous tomb of mighty Newton, the nave seemed to be as naked as when it came into the world. Yet he was sure he was buried in the nave--and only three years ago, too! Astounding, was it not, what could happen in three years? He knew that the tomb had not been removed, for there had been an article in the _Daily Record on the previous day asking in the name of a scandalized public whether the Dean and Chapter did not consider that three months was more than long enough for the correction of a fundamental error in the burial department. He was gloomy; he had in truth been somewhat gloomy ever since the trial. Perhaps it was the shadow of the wrath of the Dean and Chapter on him. He had ceased to procure joy in the daily manifestations of life in the streets of the town. And this failure to discover the tomb intensified the calm, amiable sadness which distinguished him.

Alice, gazing around, chiefly with her mouth, inquired suddenly--

"What's that printing there?"

She had detected a legend incised on one of the small stone flags which form the vast floor of the nave. They stooped over it. "PRIAM FARLL," it said simply, in fine Roman letters and then his dates. That was all. Near by, on other flags, they deciphered other names of honour. This austere method of marking the repose of the dead commended itself to him, caused him to feel proud of himself and of the ridiculous England that somehow keeps our great love. His gloom faded. And do you know what idea rushed from his heart to his brain? "By Jove! I will paint finer pictures than any I've done yet!" And the impulse to recommence the work of creation surged over him. The tears started to his eyes.

"I like that!" murmured Alice, gazing at the stone. "I do think that's nice."

And _he said, because he truly felt it, because the will to live raged through him again, tingling and smarting:

"I'm glad I'm not there."

They smiled at each other, and their instinctive hands fumblingly met.

A few days later, the Dean and Chapter, stung into action by the majestic rebuke of the _Daily Record_, amended the floor of Valhalla and caused the mortal residuum of the immortal organism known as Henry Leek to be nocturnally transported to a different bed.

 

On Board

A few days later, also, a North German Lloyd steamer quitted Southampton for Algiers, bearing among its passengers Priam and Alice. It was a rough starlit night, and from the stern of the vessel the tumbled white water made a pathway straight to receding England. Priam had come to love the slopes of Putney with the broad river at the foot; but he showed what I think was a nice feeling in leaving England. His sojourn in our land had not crowned him with brilliance. He was not a being created for society, nor for cutting a figure, nor for exhibiting tact and prudence in the crises of existence. He could neither talk well nor read well, nor express himself in exactly suitable actions. He could only express himself at the end of a brush. He could only paint extremely beautiful pictures. That was the major part of his vitality. In minor ways he may have been, upon occasions, a fool. But he was never a fool on canvas. He said everything there, and said it to perfection, for those who could read, for those who can read, and for those who will be able to read five hundred years hence. Why expect more from him? Why be disappointed in him? One does not expect a wire-walker to play fine billiards. You yourself, mirror of prudence that you are, would have certainly avoided all Priam's manifold errors in the conduct of his social career; but, you see, he was divine in another way.

As the steamer sped along the lengthening pathway from England, one question kept hopping in and out of his mind:

"_I wonder what they'll do with me next time_?"

Do not imagine that he and Alice were staring over the stern at the singular isle. No! There were imperative reasons, which affected both of them, against that. It was only in the moments of the comparative calm which always follows insurrections, that Priam had leisure to wonder, and to see his own limitations, and joyfully to meditate upon the prospect of age devoted to the sole doing of that which he could so supremely, in a sweet exile with the enchantress, Alice.


(THE END)
Arnold Bennett's Novel: Buried Alive: A Tale of These Days

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