The Truants

Chapter XX

Mr. Chase Does Not Answer

A.E.W. Mason

BOTH Pamela and Millie Stretton walked with Warrisden through the hall to the front door. Upon the hall-table letters were lying. Pamela glanced at them as she passed, and caught one up rather suddenly. Then she looked at Warrisden, and there was something of appeal in her look. It was as though she turned to a confederate on whom she could surely rely. But she said nothing, since Millie Stretton was at her side. For the letter was in the handwriting of Mr. Mudge, who wrote but rarely, and never without a reason. She read the letter in the garden as soon as Warrisden had ridden off, and the news which it contained was bad news. Callon had lived frugally in South America—by Christmas he would have discharged his debts; and he had announced to Mudge that he intended at that date to resign his appointment. There were still four months, Pamela reflected—nay, counting the journey home, five months; and within that time Tony Stretton might reappear. If he did not, why, she could summon Warrisden to her aid. She looked at Millie, who was reading a book in a garden-chair close by. Did she know, Pamela wondered? But Millie gave no sign.

Meanwhile, Warrisden travelled to London upon that particular business which made a visit there in August so imperative. It had come upon him while he had been talking with Pamela that it would be as well for him to know the whereabouts of Tony Stretton at once; so that if the need came he should be ready to set out upon the instant. On the following evening, accordingly, he drove down to Stepney. It was very likely that Chase would be away upon a holiday. But there was a chance that he might find him clinging to his work through this hot August, a chance worth the trouble of his journey. He drove to the house where Chase lodged, thinking to catch him before he set out for his evening’s work at the mission. The door of the house stood open to the street. Warrisden dismissed his cab, and walked up the steps into the narrow hall. A door upon his right hand was opened, and a young man politely asked Warrisden to step in. He was a fair-haired youth, with glasses upon his nose, and he carried a napkin in his hand. He had evidently been interrupted at his dinner by Warrisden’s arrival. He was not dining alone, for a youth of the same standing, but of a more athletic mould, sat at the table. There was a third place laid, but not occupied.

Warrisden looked at the third chair.

“I came to see Mr. Chase,” he said. “I suppose that he has gone early to the mission?”

“No,” said the youth who had opened the door. “He has not been well of late. The hot weather in these close streets is trying. But he certainly should have something to eat by now, even if he does not intend to get up.”

He spoke in a pedantic, self-satisfied voice, and introduced himself as Mr. Raphael Princkley, and his companion as Mr. Jonas Stiles, both undergraduates of Queen’s College, Oxford.

“We are helping Chase in his work,” continued Mr. Princkley. “It is little we can do, but you are no doubt acquainted with the poetry of Robert Browning: ‘The little more, and how much it is’? In that line we find our justification.”

The fair-haired youth rang the bell for the housekeeper. She was an old woman, fat and slow, and she took her time in answering the summons.

“Mrs. Wither, have you called Mr. Chase?” he asked when the old lady appeared at the door.

“No, Mr. Princkley, sir,” she replied. “You told me yesterday evening not to disturb him on any account until he rang.”

Mr. Princkley turned to Warrisden.

“Mr. Chase was unwell all yesterday,” he said, “and at dinner-time he told us that he felt unequal to his duties. He was sitting in that empty place, and we both advised him not to overtax his strength.”

He appealed with a look to Mr. Stiles for corroboration.

“Yes; we both advised him,” said Stiles, between two mouthfuls; “and, very wisely, he took our advice.”

“He rose from his chair,” continued Princkley. “There was some fruit upon the table. He took an apple from the dish. I think, Stiles, that it was an apple which he took?”

Mr. Stiles agreed, and went on with his dinner.

“It was certainly an apple which he took. He took it in his hand.”

“You hardly expected him to take it with his foot!” rejoined Warrisden, politely. Warrisden was growing a little restive under this detailed account of Chase’s indisposition.

“No,” replied Princkley, with gravity. “He took it in quite a natural way, and went upstairs to his sitting-room. I gave orders to Mrs. Wither that he must not be disturbed until he rang. That is so, Mrs. Wither, is it not? Yes. I thank you.”

“That was yesterday evening!” cried Warrisden.

“Yesterday evening,” replied Mr. Princkley.

“And no one has been near him since?”

Then Mrs. Wither intervened.

“Oh yes. I went into Mr. Chase’s room an hour afterwards. He was sitting in his armchair before the grate——“

“Holding the apple in his hand. I think. Mrs. Wither, you said?” continued Stiles.

“Yes, sir,” said Mrs. Wither. “He had his arm out resting on the arm of the chair, and the apple was in his hand.”

“Well, well!” exclaimed Warrisden.

“I told him that I would not call him in the morning until he rang, as he wanted a good rest.”

“What did he say?” asked Warrisden.

“Nothing, sir. As often as not he does not answer when he is spoken to.”

A sudden fear seized upon Warrisden. He ran out of the room and up the stairs to Chase’s sitting-room. He knocked on the door; there was no answer. He turned the handle and entered. Chase had not gone to bed last night. He was still sitting in his armchair before the grate. One arm was extended along the arm of the chair, with the palm turned upwards, and in the palm lay an apple. Chase was sitting huddled up, with his head fallen forward upon his breast like a man asleep. Warrisden crossed the room and touched the hand which held the apple. It was quite cold. The apple rolled on to the floor. Warrisden turned to the housekeeper. She was standing in the doorway, and staring over her shoulder were the two undergraduates.

“He was dead,” said Warrisden, “when you looked into the room an hour afterwards!”

The three people in the doorway stood stupidly aghast. Warrisden pushed them out, locked the door on the outside, and removed the key.

“Mr. Princkley, will you run for a doctor?” he asked.

Princkley nodded his head, and went off upon his errand.

Warrisden and Stiles descended the stairs into the dining-room.

“I think you had better take the news to the mission,” said Warrisden; and Stiles in his turn went off without a word. Mrs. Wither for her part had run out of the house as quickly as she could. She hardly knew what she was doing. She had served as housekeeper to Mr. Chase ever since he had come to Stepney, and she was dazed by the sudden calamity. She was aware of a need to talk, to find the neighbours and talk.

Warrisden was thus left alone in the house. It had come about without any premeditation upon his part. He was the oldest man of the three who had been present, and the only one who had kept his wits clear. Both Princkley and Stiles had looked to him to decide what must be done. They regarded him as Chase’s friend, whereas they were mere acquaintances. It did not even occur to Warrisden at first that he was alone in the house, that he held in his hand the key to Chase’s room. He was thinking of the strange perplexing life which had now so strangely ended. He thought of his first meeting with Chase in the mission, and of the distaste which he had felt; he remembered the array of liqueur bottles on the table, and the half-hour during which Chase had talked. A man of morbid pleasures, that had been Warrisden’s impression. Yet there were the years of work, here, amongst these squalid streets. Even August had seen him clinging to—nay, dying at—his work. As Warrisden looked out of the window he saw a group of men and women and children gather outside the house. There was not a face but wore a look of consternation. If they spoke, they spoke in whispers, like people overawed. A very strange life! Warrisden knew many—as who does not?—who saw the high-road distinctly, and could not for the life of them but walk upon the low one. But to use both deliberately, as it seemed Chase had done; to dip from the high-road on to the low, and then painfully to scramble up again, and again willingly to drop, as though the air of those stern heights were too rigorous for continuous walking; to live the double life because he could not entirely live the one, and would not entirely live the other. Thus Warrisden solved the problem of the dilettante curate and his devotion to his work, and his solution was correct.

But he held the key of Chase’s room in his hand; and there was no one but himself in the house. His thoughts came back to Pamela and the object of his journey up to town. He was sorely tempted to use the key, since now the means by which he had hoped to discover in what quarter of the world Stretton wandered and was hid were tragically closed to him. Chase could no longer speak, even if he would. Very likely there were letters upstairs lying on the table. There might be one from Tony Stretton. Warrisden did not want to read it—a mere glance at the postmark, and at the foreign stamp upon the envelope. Was that so great a crime? Warrisden was sorely tempted. If only he could be sure that Chase would a second time have revealed what he was bidden to keep hid, why, then, would it not be just the same thing as if Chase were actually speaking with his lips? Warrisden played with the key. He went to the door and listened. There was not a sound in the house except the ticking of a clock. The front door still stood open. He must be quick if he meant to act. Warrisden turned to the stairs. The thought of the dead man huddled in the chair, a silent guardian of the secret, weighted his steps. Slowly he mounted. Such serious issues hung upon his gaining this one piece of knowledge. The fortunes of four people—Pamela and himself, Tony Stretton and his wife—might all be straightened out if he only did this one thing, which he had no right to do. He would not pry amongst Chase’s papers; he would merely glance at the table, that was all. He heard voices in the hall while he was still upon the stairs. He turned back with a feeling of relief.

At the foot of the stairs stood Mr. Princkley and the doctor. Warrisden handed the key of the room to the latter, and the three men went up. The doctor opened the door and crossed to the armchair. Then he looked about the room.

“Nothing has been touched, of course?”

“Nothing,” replied Warrisden.

The doctor looked again at the dead man. Then he turned to Warrisden, mistaking him, as the others had done, for some relation or near friend.

“I can give no certificate,” said he.

“There must be an inquest?”


Then the doctor moved suddenly to the table, which stood a few feet from the armchair. There was a decanter upon it half filled with a liquid like brown sherry, only a little darker. The doctor removed the stopper and raised the decanter to his nose.

“Ah!” said he, in a voice of comprehension. He turned again to Warrisden.

“Did you know?” he asked.


The doctor held the decanter towards Warrisden. Warrisden took it, moistened the tip of a finger with the liquid, and tasted it. It had a bitter flavour.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Laudanum,” said the doctor. “An overdose of it.”

“Where is the glass, then, in which it was taken?”

A tumbler stood upon the table close to the decanter-stopper. The doctor took it up.

“Yes, I noticed that,” said Warrisden; “I noticed that it is clean.”

The doctor took the glass to the window, turned it upside down, and held it to the light. It was quite dry, quite clean.

“Surely it’s evident what happened,” said Warrisden. “Chase came into the room, opened that cupboard door in the corner there. His keys are still dangling in the lock, he took the decanter and the tumbler out, placed them on the table at his side, sat down in his chair with the apple in his hand, leaned back and quietly died.”

“Yes, no doubt,” said the doctor. “But I think here will be found the reason why he leaned back and quietly died,” and he touched the decanter. “Opium poisoning. It may not have been an overdose, but a regular practice.” He went to the door and called for Mrs. Wither. Mrs. Wither had now returned to the house. When she came upstairs into the room, he pointed to the decanter.

“Did you ever see this before?”

“No, sir,” she answered.

“Or that cupboard open?”

“No, it was always locked.”

“Quite so,” said the doctor. “You had better get some women to help you here,” he went on; and, with Warrisden’s assistance, he lifted Chase from the chair and carried him into his bedroom.

“I must give notice to the police,” he went on, and again he appealed to Warrisden. “Do you mind staying in the house till I come back?”

“Not at all.”

The doctor locked the door of the room and took the key away with him. Warrisden waited with Princkley in the dining-room. The doctor had taken away the key. It seemed that his chance of discovering the secret which was of so much importance to Pamela and Millie Stretton and himself had vanished. If only he had come yesterday, or the day before! He sat down by the window and gazed out upon the street. A group of men and women were gathered in the roadway, looking up at the windows and talking quietly together. Then Princkley from behind said—

“Some letters came for Chase this morning. They were not taken up to his room. You had better look at them.”

Every one took him for a close friend. Princkley brought him the letters, and he glanced at the superscriptions lest any one should wear a look of immediate importance. He held the letters in his hand and turned them over one by one, and half-way through the file he stopped. He had come to a letter written upon thin paper, in a man’s handwriting, with a foreign stamp upon the envelope. The stamp was a French one, and there was printed upon it: “Poste d’Algérie.”

Warrisden examined the post-mark. The letter came from Ain-Sefra. Warrisden went on with his examination without a word. But his heart quickened. He wondered whether he had found the clue. Ain-Sefra in Algeria. Warrisden had never heard of the place before. It might be a health resort, a wintering place. But this was the month of August. There would be no visitors at this time to a health resort in Algeria. He handed the letters back to Princkley.

“I cannot tell whether they are important or not,” he said. “I knew Chase very slightly. His relations must be informed. I suppose Mrs. Wither knows where they live.”

He took his departure as soon as the doctor had returned with the police, and drove back to his rooms. A search through the Encyclopædia told him nothing of Ain-Sefra; but, on the other hand, he could not look at the article on Algeria without the Foreign Legion leaping to his eyes at once—so great and magnificent a part it played in the modern history of that colony. The Foreign Legion! Warrisden jumped to the conviction that there was the secret of Tony Stretton’s disappearance. Every reason he could imagine came to his aid. Let a man wish to disappear, as, from whatsoever reason, Tony Stretton did, where else could he so completely bury himself and yet live? Hardships? Dangers? Yes. But Tony Stretton had braved hardships and dangers in the North Sea, and had made light of them. A detachment of the Foreign Legion might well be stationed at this oasis of Ain-Sefra, of which his Encyclopædia knew nothing. He had no doubt there was a trooper there, serving under some false name, who would start if the name of “Stretton” were suddenly shouted to him behind his back.

Warrisden wrote no word of his conjecture to Pamela; he wished to raise no hopes which he could not fulfil. Convinced as he was, he wished for certain proof. But in fulfilment of his promise he wrote to Pamela that night. Just a few lines—nothing more, as she had asked. But in those few lines he wrote that he would like her to procure for him a scrap of Tony Stretton’s handwriting. Could she do it? In a week the scrap of handwriting arrived. Warrisden, looking at it, knew that the same hand had addressed the envelope at Ain-Sefra to Mr. Chase.

Warrisden was ready now, if the summons to service should come once more from Pamela.

The Truants - Contents    |     Chapter XXI

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