"'That's all right,' said he, coming back. 'I know the clerks
sometimes curious as to their master's affairs. Now we can talk
in safety.' He drew up his chair very close to mine and began
stare at me again with the same questioning and thoughtful look.
"A feeling of repulsion, and of something akin to fear had
to rise within me at the strange antics of this fleshless man.
Even my dread of losing a client could not restrain me from
showing my impatience.
"'I beg that you will state your business, sir,' said I;
is of value.' Heaven forgive me for that last sentence, but the
words came to my lips.
"'How would fifty guineas for a night's work suit you?'
"'I say a night's work, but an hour's would be nearer the
simply want your opinion about a hydraulic stamping machine which
has got out of gear. If you show us what is wrong we shall soon
set it right ourselves. What do you think of such a commission
"'The work appears to be light and the pay munificent.'
"'Precisely so. We shall want you to come to-night by the
"'To Eyford, in Berkshire. It is a little place near the
of Oxfordshire, and within seven miles of Reading. There is a
train from Paddington which would bring you there at about
"'I shall come down in a carriage to meet you.'
"'There is a drive, then?'
"'Yes, our little place is quite out in the country. It
is a good
seven miles from Eyford Station.'
"'Then we can hardly get there before midnight. I suppose
would be no chance of a train back. I should be compelled to stop
"'Yes, we could easily give you a shake-down.'
"'That is very awkward. Could I not come at some more convenient
"'We have judged it best that you should come late. It is
recompense you for any inconvenience that we are paying to you,
young and unknown man, a fee which would buy an opinion from the
very heads of your profession. Still, of course, if you would
like to draw out of the business, there is plenty of time to do
"I thought of the fifty guineas, and of how very useful
would be to me. 'Not at all,' said I, 'I shall be very happy to
accommodate myself to your wishes. I should like, however, to
understand a little more clearly what it is that you wish me to
"'Quite so. It is very natural that the pledge of secrecy
we have exacted from you should have aroused your curiosity. I
have no wish to commit you to anything without your having it
laid before you. I suppose that we are absolutely safe from
"'Then the matter stands thus. You are probably aware that
fuller's-earth is a valuable product, and that it is only found
in one or two places in England?'
"'I have heard so.'
"'Some little time ago I bought a small place--a very small
place--within ten miles of Reading. I was fortunate enough to
discover that there was a deposit of fuller's-earth in one of
fields. On examining it, however, I found that this deposit was
comparatively small one, and that it formed a link between two
very much larger ones upon the right and left--both of them,
however, in the grounds of my neighbors. These good people were
absolutely ignorant that their land contained that which was
quite as valuable as a gold-mine. Naturally, it was to my
interest to buy their land before they discovered its true value,
but unfortunately I had no capital by which I could do this. I
took a few of my friends into the secret, however, and they
suggested that we should quietly and secretly work our own little
deposit and that in this way we should earn the money which would
enable us to buy the neighboring fields. This we have now been
doing for some time, and in order to help us in our operations
erected a hydraulic press. This press, as I have already
explained, has got out of order, and we wish your advice upon
subject. We guard our secret very jealously, however, and if it
once became known that we had hydraulic engineers coming to our
little house, it would soon rouse inquiry, and then, if the facts
came out, it would be good-bye to any chance of getting these
fields and carrying out our plans. That is why I have made you
promise me that you will not tell a human being that you are
going to Eyford to-night. I hope that I make it all plain?'
"'I quite follow you,' said I. 'The only point which I could
quite understand was what use you could make of a hydraulic press
in excavating fuller's-earth, which, as I understand, is dug out
like gravel from a pit.'
"'Ah!' said he carelessly, 'we have our own process. We
the earth into bricks, so as to remove them without revealing
what they are. But that is a mere detail. I have taken you fully
into my confidence now, Mr. Hatherley, and I have shown you how
trust you.' He rose as he spoke. 'I shall expect you, then, at
Eyford at 11:15.'
"'I shall certainly be there.'
"'And not a word to a soul.' He looked at me with a last
questioning gaze, and then, pressing my hand in a cold, dank
grasp, he hurried from the room.