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The Master of Silence: A Romance, a novel by Irving Bacheller

Chapter 1

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Near the end of my fourteenth year I was apprenticed to Valentine, King & Co., cotton importers, Liverpool, as a "pair of legs." My father had died suddenly, leaving me and his property in the possession of my stepmother and my guardian. It was in deference to their urgent advice that I left my home in London (with little reluctance, since my life there had never been happy) to study the art of money-making. On arriving at the scene of my expected triumphs I was assigned to the somewhat humble position of errand boy. In common with other boys who performed a like service for the firm I was known as "a pair of legs." Lodgings of a rather modest character had been secured for me in the western outskirts of the city near the banks of the Mersey. I was slow to make friends, and my evenings were spent in the perusal of some story books, which I had brought with me from London. One night, not long after the beginning of my new life in Liverpool, I was lying in bed listening to the wind and rain beating over the housetops and driving against the windows, when suddenly there came a loud rap at my door.

"Who's there?" I demanded, starting out of bed.

As I heard no answer, I repeated my inquiry and stood a moment listening. I could hear nothing, however, but the wind and rain. Lighting a candle and dressing myself with all haste, I opened the door. I could just discern the figure of a bent old man standing in the hallway, when a gust of wind suddenly put out the candle. The door leading to the street was open, and the old man was probably a straggler come to importune me for shelter or for something to eat. As I relit the candle, he entered my room and stood facing me, but he did not speak. His clothes were dripping and he was blinking at me with strange, gleaming eyes. His hair was snow-white, and as I looked into his face the deathly pallor of it frightened me. His general appearance was more than startling; it was uncanny.

"What can I do for you?" I asked.

Greatly to my surprise he made no reply, but with a look of pain and great anxiety sank into a chair. Then he withdrew from his pocket a letter which he extended to me. The envelope was wet and dirty. It was directed to Kendric Lane, Esq., No. Old Broad street, London, England. The address was crossed and "22 Kirkland street, Liverpool," written under it in the familiar hand of my guardian. A strange proceeding! thought I. Was the letter intended for my father, who was long dead, and who had removed from that address more than ten years ago? The old man began to grin and nod as I examined the superscription. I broke the seal on the envelope and found the following letter, undated, and with no indication of the place from which it was sent:

"Dear Brother--I need your help. Come to me at once if you can. Consequences of vast importance to me and to mankind depend upon your prompt compliance. I cannot tell you where I am. The bearer will bring you to me. Follow him and ask no questions. Moreover, be silent, like him, regarding the subject of this letter. If you can come, procure passage in the first steamer for New York. My messenger is provided with funds. Your loving brother,

"Revis Lane."

I had often heard my father speak of my uncle Revis, who went to America almost twenty years before I was born. Now he was my nearest living relative. No news of him had reached us for many years before my father died. I was familiar with his handwriting and the specimen before me was either genuine, or remarkably like it. If genuine he had evidently not heard of my father's death.

Extraordinary as the message was, the messenger was more so. He sat peering at me with a strange, half-crazed expression on his face.

"When did you leave my uncle?" I asked.

He sat as if unconscious that I had spoken.

I drew my chair to his side and repeated the words in a loud voice, but he did not seem to hear me. Evidently the old man could neither hear nor speak. In a moment he began groping in his pockets, and presently handed me a card which contained the following words:

"If you can come, tear this card in halves and return the right half to him."

I examined the card carefully. The words were undoubtedly in my uncle's handwriting. The back of the card was covered with strange characters in red ink. I tore the card as directed and handed him the right half.

He held it up to the light and examined it carefully, then put it away in a pocket of his waistcoat. The look of pain returned to his face, and he coughed feebly as if suffering from a severe cold. The hour being late I intimated by pantomime that I desired him to occupy my bed. He understood me readily enough and began feebly to remove his clothing, while I prepared a sofa for myself. He was soon sound asleep, but I lay awake long after the light was extinguished. He was evidently quite ill, and I determined to go for a physician at the first appearance of daylight. As soon as possible I would go with him to my uncle. There were no ties to detain me, and it was clearly my duty to do so. Perhaps my uncle was in some great peril. If so, I might be of service to him.

When I arose in the morning my strange lodger seemed to be sleeping quietly. His face looked pale and ghastly in the light of day. I stepped close to his bed and, laying my hand upon his brow, was horrified to discover that he was dead. What was I to do? I sat down to think, trembling with fright. I must call in a policeman and tell him all I knew about my strange visitor. No, not all; I must not tell him about the letter, thought I. My uncle might not wish it to be published to the world. I ran out upon the street and told the first officer I met how the old man had rapped at my door during the storm; how I had given him my bed out of pity, and how I had discovered on awaking in the morning that he was dead.

That day the body was taken to the morgue. The sum of L100 were found in his pockets, a part of which gave him a decent burial. But while he had gone to his long rest, he had sown in my mind the seed of unrest. I went about my work clinging to the thread of a mystery half told. Whither would it lead me?

Strange as that messenger had seemed, he was certainly a good man to carry secrets. _

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