Wilton Barnstable was the inventor of a new school of detection of crime. The system came in with him, and it may go out with him for lack of a man of his genius to perpetuate it. He insisted that there was nothing spectacular or romantic in the pursuit of the criminal, or, at least, that there should be nothing of the sort. And he was especially disgusted when anyone referred to him as "a second Sherlock Holmes."
"I am only a plain business man," he would insist, urbanely, with a wave of his hand. "I have merely brought order, method, system, business principles, logic, to the detection of crime. I know nothing of romance. Romance is usually all nonsense in my estimation. The real detective, who gets results in real life, is NOT a Sherlock Holmes."
The enemies of Wilton Barnstable sometimes said of him that he was jealous of Sherlock Holmes. When this was reported to Barnstable he invariably remarked: "How preposterous! The idea of a man being envious of a literary creation!"
Perhaps his denial of the existence of romance was merely one of those poses which geniuses so often permit themselves. Perhaps he saw it and was thrilled with it even while he denied it. At any rate, he lived in the midst of it. The realism which was his metier was that sort of realism into which are woven facts and incidents of the most bizarre and startling nature.
And, certainly, behind the light blue eyes that could look with such apparent ingenuousness out of his plump, bland face there was the subtle mind of a psychologist. Barnstable, true to his attitude of the plain business man, would have been the first to ridicule the idea publicly if anyone had dubbed him "the psychological detective." That, to his mind, would have savored of charlatanism. He would have said: "I am nothing so strange and mystifying as that--I am a plain business man." But in reality there was no new discovery of the investigating psychologists of which he did not avail himself at once. His ability to clothe himself with the thoughts of the criminal as an actor clothes himself with a role, was marvelous; he knew the criminal soul. That is to say, he knew the human soul. He refused to see anything extraordinary in this. "It is only my business to know such things," he would say. "We know many things. It is our business to know them. There is no miracle about it." This was the public character he had created for himself, and emphasized--that of the plain business man. This was his mask. He was so subtle that he hid the vast range of his powers behind an appearance of commonplaceness.
Wilton Barnstable never disguised himself, in the ordinary sense of the term. That is, he never resorted to false whiskers or wigs or obvious tricks of that sort.
But if Wilton Barnstable were to walk into a convention of blacksmiths, let us say, he would quite escape attention. For before he had been ten minutes in that gathering he would become, to all appearances, the typical blacksmith. If he were to enter a gathering of bankers, or barbers, or bakers, or organ grinders, or stockbrokers, or school-teachers, a similar thing would happen. He could make himself the composite photograph of all the individuals of any group. He disguised himself from the inside out.
This art of becoming inconspicuous was one of his greatest assets as a detective. Newspaper and magazine writers would have liked to dwell upon it. But he requested them not to emphasize it. As he modestly narrated his triumphs to the young journalists, who hung breathless upon his words, he was careful not to stress his talent for becoming just like anybody and everybody else--his peculiar genius for being the average man.
The front which he presented to the world was, in reality, his cleverest creation. The magazine and newspaper articles which were written about him, the many pictures which were printed every month, presented the mental and physical portrait of a knowing, bustling, extraordinarily candid personality. A personality with a touch of smugness in it. This was very generally thought to be the real Wilton Barnstable. It was a fiction which he had succeeded in establishing. When he addressed meetings, talked with reporters, wrote articles about himself, or came into touch with the public in any manner, he assumed this personality. When he did not wish to be known he laid it aside. When he desired to pass incognito, therefore, it was not necessary for him to assume a disguise. He simply dropped one.
The two men with him, Barton Ward and Watson Bard, were his cleverest agents. They were learning from the master detective the art of looking like other people, and were at present practicing by looking like the popular conception of Wilton Barnstable. They were clever men. But Barton Ward and Watson Bard were, as Cleggett had felt at once, only men of extraordinary talent, while Wilton Barnstable was a genius.
As Cleggett talked he was given a rather startling proof of Wilton Barnstable's gift. He was astonished to find a change stealing over Wilton Barnstable's features. Subtly the detective began to look like someone else. The expression of the face, the turn of the eyes, the lines about the mouth, began to suggest someone whom Cleggett knew. It was rather a suggestion, an impression, than a likeness; it was rather the spirit of a personality than a definite resemblance. It was a psychic thing. Barnstable was disguising himself from the inside out; he had assumed the mental and spiritual clothing of someone else.
Cleggett could not think at first who it was that Wilton Barnstable suggested. But presently he saw that it was himself. He glanced at Barton Ward and Watson Bard; they still resembled the popular conception of Wilton Barnstable.
Gradually the look of Cleggett faded from Wilton Barnstable's face. It changed, it shifted, that look did; Cleggett almost cried out as he saw the face of Wilton Barnstable become an impressionistic portrait of the soul of Logan Black. He looked at Barton Ward. Barton Ward was now looking like Wilton Barnstable's conception of Cleggett. But Watson Bard, less facile and less creative, still clung stolidly to the popular conception of Wilton Barnstable.
But, even as Cleggett looked, this remarkable exhibition ceased; the Wilton Barnstable look dominated the faces again. Plump, yet dignified, smiling easily and kindly, three plain business men looked at him; respectable citizens, commonplace citizens, a little smug; faces that spoke of comfort, method, regularity; eyes that seemed to wink with the pressure of platitudes in the minds behind them; platitudes that desired to force their way to the lips and out into the world.
Yes, such was the genius of Wilton Barnstable that he could at will impose himself upon people as the apotheosis of the commonplace. He did it often. It was almost second nature to him now. His urbane smile was the only visible sign of his own enjoyment of this habitual feat. He knew his own genius, and smiled to think how easy it was to pass for an average man!