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FRANCIS HENRY ATKINS
WRITING AS
FRANK AUBREY

THE THIRD FIGURE

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Published under syndication, e.g., in
The Week, Brisbane, Australia, 16 March 1900

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2018
Version Date: 2018-12-10
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"FROM life? N-no, scarcely that," said Morland, musingly. "Yet it represents a scene that actually occurred. It is very strange how I came to paint it; a strange business altogether, in fact."

"It is exquisitely, wonderfully fully drawn," I exclaimed, enthusiastically. "Never do I remember to have seen anything that conveys to the mind so striking a combination of the gruesomely pathetic and the vividly tragical—if I may make use of a somewhat mixed expression. This figure of the woman bending over the dead man is perfect in its suggestion of hopeless anguish and stony horror! Is it really your work, Morland? If so—"

"It is my work—at least, I believe so; yet I could not well swear to it, for—I did it in my sleep. A sort of sleep-walking feat, you see." Morland made this answer slowly, and, as it were, reluctantly; looking very puzzled and a little sheepish, I thought, the while.

"In your sleep!" I repeated, very much surprised. "Really? You say it seriously? If so, then all I can say is the sooner you go to sleep again and do something else like it—"

"Oh, stop that!" he snapped, irritably, "I might have known you wouldn't believe me and would only turn it into chaff. If you talk in that way I won't tell you the story."

At once I was all grave attention and sober earnestness. I was not going to miss a likely story for the sake of indulging in a little mild pleasantly. I humbly apologised, and after some trouble, managed in so far mollify my friend that he presently proceeded to tell me the strange and curious narrative I have here set down.


ARTHUR MORLAND, in whose studio in Chelsea the foregoing conversation took place, was a very old friend of mine, but I had not seen him for some years. He had been in Paris and Rome studying; and by the time he returned to England, I myself had gone, abroad. This, therefore, was our first meeting after a very long separation.

As to the sketch of which we had been speaking, it was painted in oil and in bold colouring upon a small canvas about twelve inches by eight. It showed a stair-landing upon which lay the figure of a man in evening dress and apparently dead. Over him bent, in a kneeling position, the figure of a beautiful woman, gazing down at the prostrate man with such a terrible expression of horrified agony apparent, not in her face merely, but in the pose of the whole figure, as I scarcely believed could have been conveyed by the cleverest artist alive. Standing back from these two was a third figure—the murderer as I guessed—holding in his hand a poniard. This figure was shown as though standing with his back to a light; the outline was clear and sharp enough, but all the rest was vague and shadowy and unfinished, and contrasted strangely, in its uncertain touch, with the drawing of the remainder of the picture, the details of which were portrayed with masterly firmness and decision.

All I could make out of this dim form was that it seemed to be that of a man in the dress of a Venetian or Florentine noble of three or four hundred years back. He was masked, and the cloak was open; beyond that one could make out little except the dagger which, held in the extended right hand, cut sharp lines against the background.

"Why," I asked of Morland, as I continued to regard the sketch, quite fascinated by its weird, strange intensity, "why is this figure at the back so vague and unfinished where all else is so vividly detailed?"

"Ah! thereby hangs the tale," he replied. "To explain that I must tell you the whole story." And he thus began:

"The murdered man—he was not dead then, but died a few days afterwards—was named Ernest Milner. He was one of the few English friends I made while living in Paris. He was a cashier in the Paris branch of a well-known English banking house; and he was one of the nicest, and, at the last, one of the most unfortunate men I ever knew.

"Yet when I first became acquainted with him he was as happy and contented a being as you need wish to meet with. He married a charming and beautiful girl of English parentage—a Miss Edith Belton—who had been educated and had lived most of her life in France. I knew her before she married Milner; she was then living with her widowed mother a little way out of Paris.

"Another English clerk in the same bank was one Dorian Norman, a very old and intimate friend, as I understood, of Milner's, and he also fell desperately in love with Edith Belton; but she, in the end, chose Milner, and, as I have intimated, married him. Thus did the latter gain all that he then most desired in life; while Norman, though he continued to be on good terms with his old chum, had to bear, as he best could, what was to him, as I could see, a very bitter disappointment.

"Suddenly, one day, the news was brought to me by a fellow student, that Milner had lost his post—had been suddenly discharged, in fact; and not only that, but under such circumstances that he might think himself lucky in not being prosecuted for theft and forgery.

"The facts, as I afterwards ascertained them, were these. Milner one day had gone out to his lunch in the middle of the day as usual, and when he came back declared some one had stolen a bank draft for a large amount out of his desk while he had been absent. The manager at once went across to the bank on which the draft was drawn, to stop payment, when he was met with the statement that he was too late; the draft had already been presented and paid, within the last hour or two. The thief had forged the necessary endorsement, drawn the money, and disappeared.

"But later on, when the cashier who paid the amount saw Milner, he recognised him as the person who had presented the cheque and received the proceeds; and he swore to this so positively that there seemed to be no room for reasonable doubt. Moreover, Milner was unable to account for his time while out in the middle of the day. He had not lunched at his usual restaurant; had not, indeed, lunched anywhere; according to his own account he had felt unwell and had gone for a sharp walk instead; but he could not produce anyone who had seen him out. In the end he was discharged, but was told that he must not leave the country; he was given a sort of time of grace to see if he could clear himself, the decision as to whether he would be prosecuted or not being, it was understood, held over mean- while.

"Thereafter our little circle in Paris was broken up into two camps—those who believed in Milner's innocence and those who thought him guilty. Amongst those who stood by him and unceasingly declared his unshaken belief in his old friend was Dorian Norman; and the two were much together, devising plans, as we heard, to trace and bring to punishment the real culprit. For myself, I fully sympathised with them, and, so far as I could, tried to aid them; for I never for a moment believed the accusation.

"Thus matters stood when, one morning, we—all Paris indeed—were startled with the news that poor Milner had been struck down and mortally wounded by an unknown hand, just outside his own apartments in the Rue Meuberge, where he now lay dying. It seems that he had gone in plain evening dress to the bal masque (it was the Miscarême ball) at the Opéra, having been invited thereto by an English friend who was over from London for a day or two and had secured a private box. Returning, alone, he had reached his home and ascended the stairs to his flat, when he was set upon and stabbed by some one who had evidently been waiting for him.

"His wife, who was sitting up for him, hearing a cry and the sound of a fall, ran out and found her husband lying unconscious, and beside him a masked figure, of whom she caught but a hurried glimpse, and who at once hurried off down the stairs. The assassin got clear away before any outcry could be raised, and with little fear of subsequent recognition by the concierge or anyone else; for, as I suppose you know, on such a night people in fancy dress are so common in the streets that they attract scarcely any particular notice.

"The police failed to trace the murderer; and after poor Milner's death, which occurred within two days, the matter remained an unexplained mystery, and gradually faded from the public mind. Just about that time I went on to Rome, where I stayed a year, and then returned to London and settled down where you now see me.

"I had not been here long when Dorian Norman somehow found me out. He had been transferred, it appeared, from the Paris to the London branch of his bank, and was now permanently residing in town. He was terribly altered; so much so that I hardly knew him. He was thin, haggard, and careworn, and seemed like a man haunted by some secret, overmastering trouble. After a while he took me somewhat into his confidence and proceeded to tell me what had passed between poor Milner and himself before the former died.

"'He left me,' he said, 'two legacies.'

"Norman spoke thus in a broken voice, and then paused. To encourage him to go on I asked what they were.

"'Ah! You could never guess, I think,' was the reply. 'First, he left me his wife.'

"'His wife!' I repeated the words in some astonishment.

"'Yes, my friend, his wife. He said, "Dorian, I know you always loved Edith, and next to me I know there is no one she likes and respects more than yourself. I leave her to you—to your care. I leave you in her the most precious treasure this world contains, and in so doing I give you the most solemn proof of my affection for you and unabated trust and confidence. I need not say be ever kind to her, for that I know you will always be. And if she knows and understands that it is my wish that—after a while—she should become your wife, I do not think she will refuse. But it must be so only on the condition of the other legacy or trust I bequeath to you—it is that you first clear my good name. You cannot, Dorian, marry the widow of a disgraced man; remove that foul stain from my memory, and I and God shall bless you, and she will prove to you the greatest comfort, the greatest blessing, that ever one friend left to another."'

"'And Mrs. Milner?' I asked, curiously.

"'She keeps to that' he returned, sorrowfully. 'She is living with her mother in Paris; we correspond and are very good friends. But she insists upon my remaining no more than a friend until that other condition is fulfilled. But how can I fulfill it?' he went on, gloomily. 'Time is going on, and it becomes less and less likely every day that the mystery will ever be cleared up.'

"I felt genuinely sorry for him. I saw that his old love was asserting itself more than ever, and, in the circumstances in which he was now placed, had become a canker that was eating into his very heart.

"After that he often came to pass a quiet evening with me, and one afternoon brought with him two ladies—Mrs. Milner and her mother, Mrs. Belton. They had come over to London for a few days.

"I had not seen Mrs. Milner since just before the attack upon her husband, for while he lay dying none but very intimate friends had been admitted. I saw that suffering had left its marks upon her, too; but it could not destroy her natural grace of manner nor steal from her the sweet smile that had so charmed all those who had once been admitted to her friendship.

"Naturally, we spoke after a while of her husband's sad death, and I then heard, for the first time, from her own lips, exactly her own part in the tragedy; and she told it with such a depth of agonized feeling as made a deep and lasting impression on me. Long after the three had left me, I sat thinking over all she had told me, half-wondering, while I did so, at the strength of the emotion she had called up in my mind.

"When they had come in I had been about to start a sketch on that same canvas you hold in your hand. The blank canvas stood on the easel, and I had put out on my palette a selection of colours I intended to use, and had picked out a few clean brushes and so on, when I had to put them hastily down on a side-table, as my visitors were announced. Now, instead of going on with my work, I sat staring idly at the fire—it was in March, and the east winds were cold and biting—going over and over again in my thoughts all that Mrs. Milner had told me with so much vivid description and in such glowing words.

"I lighted the lamp, and still sat thinking, making up the fire now and again in a listless sort of way, till at last I dozed off to sleep upon the couch; and then I had a strange dream.

"The door opened and some one entered very quietly—so quietly that I heard no footfall. A figure advanced into the middle of the studio, and then, as the light of the lamp fell on the face, I saw it was Ernest Milner. Strange to say, at that I felt no sort of surprise; it seemed to me the most natural thing in the world—just as though I had been expecting him.

"He was in evening dress, and I seemed to feel, or expect, that it was Miscarême, and that he was going to the bal masque at the Grand Opera House. Instead, however, he beckoned to me to get up, and pointed to the easel, and in a mechanical fashion, I rose, went to the easel, sat down in front of it, and took up the palette and brushes I had laid down in the afternoon. Milner seated himself in a chair at a little distance, and, extending one hand, appeared to breathe the word 'Paint!'

"Then the room seemed to become lighter—with a strange brightness—so that I could see all the colours as by daylight; and I worked and painted rapidly like one under some strange spell. I put in, quickly, a bare staircase-landing; the panellings, the balusters, the boards, all were there, but the place was empty. And when I had done that, and not till then, I looked up at Milner, and——"


HERE Morland paused and visibly shivered.

"And what?" I asked, in a low tone. His manner had gradually worked up my interest until I had become almost as much excited as I could see he now was.

"I can scarcely tell yon," he answered, looking at me with what seemed a half-frightened expression. "You will never believe it! When I had turned my eyes away before, he had been the old Ernest Milner that I had known, always grave but kindly-looking; now, when I glanced at him again be was—"

Once more Morland hesitated and seemed to gasp. I remained silent.

"His face was like that of a corpse," he presently got out, "and from his breast was flowing a thin stream of blood. He had his hand pressed to the wound, but the blood ran out between the fingers, and down over his shirt front and white waistcoat. Then, with a smothered cry that sounded like 'My Edith, oh, my poor Edith!' he sank down and lay full length upon the floor!"

"What did you do?" I asked, breathlessly, so carried away by his realistic manner that I quite forgot he was not describing an actual scene.

"I—I—went on painting," he returned, solemnly; "I had to; I was impelled to do so by some power that seemed to dominate and control every nerve of my body. Snatching up a piece of rag, I wiped out, in the wet paint, his outline as I saw it before me or the floor, and then rapidly put in the details, looking ever and anon at the figure before me; the while, as it seemed to me, the stream of blood trickled down and ran out along the floor, just as you see it depicted there."

I looked at the canvas and shuddered. A strange feeling of repulsion seized we, and I threw it from me.

"You could go on painting!" I cried, "whilst—"

Morland turned to me with a half-smile.

"You forget," he said, quietly, "that it was only a dream; and in a dream one has to do what the dream makes one do. You have—"

"Yes, yes; of course," I interrupted, feeling somewhat foolish. "I forgot you were only relating a dream. Go on."

"When I had finished the figure of Milner," Morland continued, picking up the canvas, which had fallen near him, "I thought I heard another cry, and turning I saw Mrs. Milner kneeling beside him. She was quite still; neither moved nor spoke, only gazed down with a dreadful, fixed, stony stare. Then I seized the rag again, and wiped out another outline, and very soon had painted in the details of her figure, too."

"Ah!"

"When I had finished it and looked again she had gone; but now I saw a third figure standing over the one on the floor. It was clear enough for an instant—just for one moment, and no more. For that brief space I saw it clearly, distinctly—the colour of the dress, the mock jewels upon it, the shape of the mouth and the chin, and the gleaming savage eyes that looked out through the mask. Then it faded into deep shadow, as though a strong light had been first thrown on it in front, and then suddenly moved behind it. But against this light it was clearly silhouetted; and again I caught up the piece of rag and wiped out the outline.

"Then I peered into the shadow and tried to make out all that I had so clearly seen just before; but strange to say I could see nothing but shadow; and stranger still I could not recollect what I had seen. A voice seemed to say to me in a lone of indescribable agonised entreaty, 'Try—try—oh, try to remember! Paint it—paint it—paint it!' But try as I would I could not recall it."

"What did you do then?" I asked as he paused, as though lost in thought.

"I could do nothing; but sat and stared, first at the canvas with its empty space and then at the shadowed figure. But at last"—here Morland shivered again and spoke hesitatingly—"at last the figure on the floor—Milner—rose slowly and stood, swaying backward and forward as if in deadly pain, between us, pointing at me with one hand and at the shadow with the other. It seemed to me as though he exercised some great effort of will or other force to compel the shadow to disclose itself; for gradually I began to see the figure become less dim, and I could vaguely make out a few particulars, and these I had, perforce, to paint in as vaguely as I saw them. And just as I got one part thus done, the shadow would grow dense again; but once more Milner seemed, as by a great effort, to compel it, as at first.

"This happened several times, but each time the details were fainter; and then, glancing at Milner, I saw that he, too, seemed to be growing shadowy. But each time I looked at him he gazed back with an awful expression, such as I can scarcely convey the meaning of. It seemed to say with agony. 'Do not look at me, but paint—paint—paint! Do you not see the time is growing short?'

"Finally he—the whole scene—faded slowly from my sight; and never shall I forget the last expression I saw on his face. Utter despair at having failed to convey to me what he wished was the language of the last look I had from that ghastly phantom; and it will haunt me to the day of my death." And Morland wiped his face with his handkerchief as though in a violent sweat.

"Was that the end of it?" I asked him.

"Yes; except that, as these figures faded, I was seized with a great, a terrible, an overwhelming feeling of horror. I tumbled off the stool I was on with a loud cry—as they tell me, for Norman came back just then—and fell to the floor. I was ill, delirious more or less, for more than a week."

I took the canvas again, and began to examine it with a new interest.

"Its a strange story," I presently said. "I hope that's not the end of it. Is there no sequel?"

"Why, yes, there was; but not for some little time. Mrs. Milner stayed in town till I was better and able to talk to her. Very astonished she was at the painting, tearfully declaring that it truthfully depicted the actual scene. Therefore we hoped it might lead at once to some solution of the mystery; but time passed on, and nothing came of it.

"At Norman's request I made him an exact copy of the sketch on a bit of millboard; and he carried it about with him, and would sit gazing at it by the hour together, trying to read the message that, as we believed, must underlie the picture. But still nothing came of it.

"One evening he came to me even more upset than usual. He told me that Mrs. Milner was bent upon retiring into a convent—they were Roman Catholics—and would certainly do so if he failed within a short time to achieve the task that had been bequeathed to him. 'And if she does that,' said Norman, distractedly, 'I shall—well, you know—go under.'

"His morbid, despairing words and manner very much upset me; I thought of them all night, and when, next day, I started off to go down to Richmond, I found myself in very gloomy—not to say grumpy—mood. I do a little in scene painting at times, you must know, and I was going down to Richmond to see some scenery I had painted, and to touch it up in a few places on the spot. It was at the old theatre, not the present one; a great barn of a place that stood in one corner of the old Green.

"It was, I remember, a cold, dull, depressing November day; one that did not at all assist to raise my spirits; and when I got to the theatre there was no one there, and I had to go hunting for the doorkeeper—which did not improve my temper. I found him, got the key from him, and went to the theatre alone; the man saying he would be round shortly, and that I was to leave the door unlocked for him. I lighted the burners of the gaslight used for rehearsals—it had been left ready—and having found my pots and brushes and a stool sat down to work on one of the corners.

"I had not been long thus engaged when some one came upon the stage and stood watching me. Thinking it was Davis, the doorkeeper, I at first took no notice, but went on with my work. Presently, however, I looked round and then, seeing the new-comer was not Davis, I went on again with my painting; but it seemed that he had recognised me.

"'Why,' said he, 'it's Arthur Morland!'

"Upon that I turned again and regarded him more carefully. Still I could not recall him, though something about him seemed familiar.

"'Don't you remember me,' he went on, 'my name is Farley—Stephen Farley. Used to know you in Paris, you know. You remember now?'

"Yes, I did remember now; but it did not make me any the more pleased to see him, especially just then. He had been, I recollected, a fellow clerk or cashier of Milner's in Paris, but he had been one of a fast set. I had never liked him, and was not at all anxious to renew the acquaintance. So I merely said:

"'Ah, yes; I remember now. And what brings you here?' And I went stolidly on with my task, to avoid getting up and shaking hands with him.

"'Why, I've left the banking business, and turned actor, some time since,' said he. 'Don't you remember I used to be mad on private theatricals?'

"I grunted that I did recollect something of the kind.

"'I'm here now,' he went on, 'to attend rehearsal. I am playing in a company here next week. We play Romeo and Juliet, and I take Romeo. The company will be here in half- an-hour or so for a dress rehearsal.'

"At that I turned and faced him. I said I had come down specially to do a day's work, having been told I could have the theatre all to myself; and now, if there was going to be a rehearsal, I should have had my journey for nothing. I might just as well go back to town. But he went away, saying something about its being no business of his, and I once more settled down to work.

"Presently, he came back again—this time, as I could see out of the comer of my eye, dressed as Romeo, with a cloak, he held his part in his hand, and read aloud from it, strutting up and down the stage as he did so. Gradually, his voice rose and his steps became heavier; he shouted, raved, and ranted, stamped his feet, and altogether made such a noise that I turned round to see what on earth was going on, and how many there were in it; for I thought surely others must have come and joined in.

"He was, however, still alone, and at the moment I turned had temporarily ceased his antics and struck an attitude. He was standing with his back to the flaring gas jets, to get the light on the part he was reading from, and holding in his right hand a naked dagger, which I saw clearly against the light. As I looked I started, threw down what I had in my hands, and rose and stood staring at him; for in that moment a terrible thought darted into my mind. I strode up to him, and catching him by the shoulder I, with no very tender grasp, pulled him round to face the light.

"'Let me have a good look at you, my friend.' I exclaimed, and as he complied wonderingly I looked him up and down from head to foot. And then it all came back to me in a flash! Yes! There it was, the same dress I had seen for one brief moment in that terrible dream, and which had ever since eluded my memory! But I remembered it now clearly enough! Everything was there—the same colours, the same tawdry mock-jewels—everything except the mask!

"'You villain!' I cried, shaking him, 'I know you now; for you are the Third Figure!'

"'The what?' he demanded, but turning pale.

"'Where is your mask?' I almost shouted.

"'Mask? What mask?'

"'The mask you wore when you murdered Ernest Milner!' I said, sternly.

"He started and stepped back.

"'I—that is—how could you know?—you were not there,' he stammered.

"'Ha, ha, you've admitted it—confessed!' I cried, seizing him again. 'Come with me. I mean to—'

"Then he tried to get away; and, finding he could not do that, raised his hand with a vicious oath, and would have stabbed me with the naked dagger he still held. For it was a real dagger; no toy stage weapon. But I caught his wrist, and then we closed, and it became a wrestling match.

"We grappled and swayed, backwards and forwards, then caught our feet in something and fell on the stage together. And there we fought and rolled over and over; one time crashing into the footlights and smashing a lot of the glasses, at another rolling against one of the 'wings,' and bringing it down amid clouds of dust. Then we knocked over some of my paint pots and tolled in the mess. Still I would not let go. But he had the devil's own strength, in his fear, and made the most frantic efforts either to get away or to stab me. And at last I really thought it was all up with me, for he had managed to get his wrist loose at the very moment when he was on top as we rolled about. He raised the dagger, I saw it flash in the air, I heard the hissing oath of fierce exultation that already rose to his lips, when there came a loud shout close at hand. My antagonist paused an instant to glance in the direction of the sound, and in that instant I seized his wrist again and forced it down to his side, at the same moment, by a great effort, turning him off me. In another second we rolled over, I being uppermost this time; but his grasp relaxed and he gave a half-sobbing, half-choking cry, and then lay still.

"I sprang to my feet to find several people looking on in amazement. They were members of the company who had come to rehearsal, and at first they had stood watching us under the impression, I believe, that it was only a very clever and lifelike bit of stage-play. However, they were soon undeceived as I got up and we all saw a dark stream of blood flowing from under the motionless form on the floor. In rolling over, the dagger had been pressed against his own side, and our united weights had forced it well home!

"A few minutes later he was carried in a dying state to the Richmond Infirmary."

"Farley lived long enough and revived sufficiently," Morland continued, after a pause, "to make a full confession. He admitted that it was he who stole the draft which poor Milner had lost. And the way he managed to cash it so as to throw suspicion on the latter was by going home and putting on a wig and 'making up' his face to resemble Milner's. He had practised all this at private theatricals, and had had his plans laid in readiness for the first opportunity chance might throw in his way. Then he went boldly and cashed the cheque at the bank, rushed back home, and shortly after coolly returned to his duties as though he had merely been out to lunch.

"As to the murder, it seems he became alarmed on hearing that Milner had boasted that he was on the track of the real thief, and would shortly catch him. As we know, this was but an idle, or too sanguine, declaration on Milner's part. But it frightened Farley, and when he saw him with a stranger at the bal masque, the alarmed villain thought the stranger was an English detective, and that the two had come there to look for or watch him. In his fear and anger he madly resolved to kill Milner before matters became more threatening; so he went away before Milner did, managed to pass the concierge at his place unseen, slipped up the stairs, and there lay in wait.

"Dorian Norman and Mrs. Milner are married, and living very happily together, and I shall be pleased to take you round one evening to see them.

"And that, old friend," Morland concluded, "is all I can tell you about the mystery of that sketch and its dimly-painted Third Figure."


THE END